At least in my window of social media, there remain a lot of people who seem to be very confused about the protests of commencement speeches. In the pundit class, Matt Bai is the latest to fail to understand the basic issues:
That followed the public floggings of several commencement speakers whose invitations had to be rescinded, including such evildoers as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.
First of all, this is just factually inaccurate. None of these people had their invitations “rescinded”; they chose to bow out rather than speak to their insufficiently deferential captive audience. (The facts, alas, don’t fit in quite as well with the narrative that we’re dealing with free speech martyrs.) Calling disagreement “flogging” is hard to square with a commitment to free speech. It’s also worth noting the students who protested have a much more sophisticated grasp on the issues than the pundits condescending towards them:
Michael Rushmore, who helped lead the student protests at Haverford College and was singled out for condemnation by Bowen, said he was frustrated by misconceptions about opposition to a scheduled speech by former University of California (Berkeley) Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
For starters, Rushmore argues, commencement speeches are not like other campus speeches. There’s no dialogue, no policy debate, no question-and-answer session. Speakers come—nominally, at least—to honor the students, who have little choice but to attend. Often, as in Brigeneau’s case, speakers are offered an honorary degree.
Many critics have compared Rushmore and his fellow commencement dissenters’ actions to the time New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was shouted down by protesters at Brown University, but Rushmore condemns Kelly’s treatment.
“Our plans were never to shout him down while speaking,” he explained. “The plan was to wear a bunch of buttons that said, ‘Ask me about Robert Birgeneau.’ Hopefully they would become a topic of conversation.”
Precisely correct. To reiterate, commencement speeches are not about debate or the free exchange of ideas. They’re not like bringing a speaker onto campus; if the Model UN or College Republicans want to bring Rice in to deliver a talk that’s an entirely different issue. Commencement speeches are about honoring the speaker, often with the tuition money of students. The idea that students and faculty should shut their yaps and not give their opinion about who is worthy of such honors stands the idea of free speech on its head. We’re not talking about who has the right to speak; we’re talking about who should be honored by the university. These are very different questions.
I also wonder if the people who think that commencement speeches are about presenting controversial ideas in the context of open debate have ever attended a commencement ceremony. The typical commencement speech not only doesn’t have challenging ideas; for all intents and purposes it has no ideas at all. I happen to have a Condi Rice commencement speech right here. Here are some of the challenging, unsettling Profound Insights Rutgers students were cruelly deprived of:
I do not, however, remember a single word that the Commencement speaker said. And you won’t, either. [In fairness, this is unusual candor.]
You see, education is transformative. It literally changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated.
This university’s mission resonates with me on a very personal level, for I’ve learned in my own life the transforming power of education.
The first responsibility is actually one you have to yourself, and that is the responsibility to find and follow your passion.
There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you’re absolutely sure that you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say “Amen” to everything that you say, find other company.
A commitment to reason leads to your third responsibility as an educated person, which is the rejection of false pride.
The last two are especially precious in context. People, avoid echo chambers, be committed to public reason, and don’t surround yourself with lickspittles. Now let’s get going an launch a bloody, debt-financed invasion of Iraq right now because otherwise Saddam’s BALSA WOOD DRONES OF TERROR will come to destroy you and everyone you care about.
I’ve been insisting on the term spectacle because, as everyone knows, the operative fiction of Carter’s letter and Bowen’s sermon is bullshit. Not even your liberalist liberal, your deliberativest deliberative democrat, could in good faith claim that commencement speeches are scenes of open debate. They are, rather, capstone moments where the university takes on a body, incorporates itself, and seeks to establish the conditions of its corporate reproducibility. A lovely experience validating 240k in cash or debt, a spectacle for parents and future donors—but hardly a scene of debate or discussion! Just a droning message, some platitudes, and the implicit promise that the fundraising office will soon track you down.
Thus, Carter’s sarcastic reminder that students are “graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict,” his sarcastic injunction that childish student protestors not “sweep away complexity and nuance’”—all of this is the height of cynical bullshit. I can’t imagine that there’s a student protestor who would not have jumped at the chance to address the middlebrow dads of the world in the august pages of BloombergView, to be recognized as mature enough to participate in the dads’ super-smart high-intensity debates, nuanced and complex as they are. (I can’t imagine, moreover, that there’s a single student protesting the IMF’s Lagarde who is not aware of the US’s historical involvement in it, I can’t imagine that there’s a single protestor who would not be happy to disinvite the US—as Carter suggests students would not be—should the Statue of Liberty or something try to give a commencement speech. But Professor Carter insists on his students’ stupidity, their lack of sophisticated thinking. Ad te fabula…)