Usually, commencement comes and goes without much attention.
Papers note speakers at their local schools; a few speeches that break the mold get national attention. Of course, the lack of controversy is because the vast majority of commencement speeches follow a certain easily recognizable template. The appeal is usually in hearing from a certain speaker, rather than in the speech itself. The college community comes together to welcome a prominent individual and invite him or her to celebrate its special day with its members.
This year, that seemed to change. Students all over the country, from east coast to west coast, launched protests against speakers. Many of these protests were simply because the student body — or at least, a vocal segment of it — opposed the policies of the individual speaker. After students protested, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from speaking at the Rutgers graduation ceremony. At Smith College, protests led to Christine Lagarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund, to cancel her speech. Though they were unsuccessful, Laney College students attempted to do the same to former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with protesting. We all have a right to do so and should feel free to exercise that right. However, in this context, it’s a shame that protests have led to speakers canceling.
College is supposed to be a time when students expand their views, and hearing from those with whom you disagree ought to be a part of that. Rather than shutting down alternate views at a university, they should be celebrated and analyzed critically. A speaker whom you disagree with coming to campus should be seen as a chance for an exchange of views, not a threat.
Moreover, it’s simply rude — and a poor representation of a university — to shut down a speaker because of his or her views. Future potential speakers take note when this happens, and it makes it less likely that the next graduating class will be able to hear from an interesting speaker. Even when it is only a vocal minority of students, it reflects poorly on the entire university and academia in general.
In his commencement address to Harvard University, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg took note of all this, and called out liberal academia for it. It was a courageous moment for the man who’s been a Democrat, Republican and independent over his political career. He compare the trend to McCarthyism — perhaps a rhetorical exaggeration, but not entirely unwarranted. Indeed, his speech was evocative of Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience speech.
“Tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values at great universities,” he said. “Joined together, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society. But that trust is perpetually vulnerable to the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs, and majorities. And lately, we have seen those tendencies manifest themselves too often, both on college campuses and in our society.”
Smith, too, warned against against close-mindedness, saying:
“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism –
The right to criticize;
The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
The right to protest;
The right of independent thought.”
As we all move throughout our lives, we should keep in mind the words of Bloomberg and Smith, and not try to shut down differing opinions. Whether you agree with someone or not, that person’s opinions hold validity, too, and deserve your respect. They may be wrong, but that doesn’t make them bad people. Rather than attacking those who disagree with us, we should seek them out, have a discussion, and listen for a moment.
You might find you learn something, about them and about yourselves.