by Kathleen Goodwin
Here's a quick summary of the recent undergraduate commencement speaker protest trend: students at Rutgers University, Smith College, and Haverford College have protested against their school's commencement speaker invitations to Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau, respectively. All three potential speakers cancelled their planned appearances at commencement exercises as a result. While each set of students has complaints specific to their particular speaker, it boils down to just a couple of shared grievances: 1.The student body was not given a sufficient voice with which to express their opinion in the selection of a speaker and 2. The chosen speaker, or the institution that she/he leads, has made decisions in the past that the students do not agree with.
Congratulations soon-to-be or just-graduates, you have successfully confirmed the fears of many of your imminent employers (and the internet community at large) that the class of 2014 is just as entitled, short-sighted, and loud-mouthed as our generation is often rumored to be. However, your antics may not actually be as unique to millenials as many assume. In the worlds of David von Drehle at Time, “Fish swim, birds fly, students protest. Anyone who has been 20 years old surely recalls the fierce clarity of a college student's mind. The sharp steel of a whetted education, undulled by the nicks and scrapes of experience…” I, myself, graduated 12 whole months ago and thus have volumes of wisdom to impart on you from my extended experience in the usually dull, if not dulling, real world. In your defense, I am not so far removed from graduation as to forget the emotional volatility and extreme insecurity that accompanies the final weeks of undergraduate life. So while I deeply sympathize with the urge to take one last stab at directing the world around you, lashing out at commencement speakers is not the correct way to regain control of your rapidly shifting environment or to voice your opposition to the practices of these global and academic leaders and the organizations they lead.
Commencement exercises have been star-studded political platforms for generations (see Marshall Plan) and I certainly can't fault you for wishing your final memory of a place that significantly shaped you, and may have emptied you and your parents' bank accounts, to include a memorable and respected speaker who symbolizes a vision of the world you'd like to create in adult life. But as an apt headline in Slate captures, “Elite College Students Protest their Elite Commencement Speakers”, the ideological battles that college campuses wage often exist within a homogenous bubble of liberal elitism that people simply don't have the time or patience for in the world outside.
I fully understand the perceived injustice of being forced to listen to a person whose values and actions are in opposition to your own, however; get ready to enter a world where the vast majority of people did not just attend a liberal four year college. You may discover that those older and wiser, or even those your own age but simply from alternate circumstances, have very different views and expectations than the ones that you have been immersed in for the past few years. Chances are that you're going to be working for, or with, these people and chances are even better that you'll be riding the subway, standing in checkout lines, and competing for barstools, with even more people who may be even more different from you. If your default practice is to avoid hearing from those who have different convictions, you're going to be walking around with your headphones turned up to full volume the majority of the time.
Here is my point: there's a lot to be learned outside of books and like-minded professors and peers. Perhaps those accursed leaders that your school had the audacity to invite know a little bit more than you about what it's like to make critical decisions in a complicated world under an increasingly harsh media glare. That's not to say that the decisions they made were necessarily the best or correct ones. However, I am fairly sure that Condoleezza Rice is quite aware of the number of American troops and Iraqi civilians that were killed, and people who were tortured, perhaps as a direct result of her decisions. And I am quite sure that your protest of her as a commencement speaker because of those decisions will not change them nor increase the level of remorse Rice is burdened to shoulder. Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor of UC Berkeley during the Occupy protests who authorized police to use force to disband the protesters, has apologized and stated that he takes full responsibility for these measures. Yet, you at Haverford still find him too reprehensible to listen to, despite admitting that you admire his work on “LGBT rights, affordable education, and the plight of undocumented students.” Christine Lagarde's indiscretions are even less concrete than Rice and Birgeneau's— Smith students were protesting the past practices of the International Monetary Fund, which while certainly imperialistic and ultimately harmful to some developing economies, are no longer its doctrine. Lagarde has the opportunity to rectify the consequences of precisely these past practices and yet you, the women of Smith, are unable to trust her inclination to disrupt historical norms, which as the IMF's first female leader she already has to some extent. These leaders were chosen by your schools because they have experienced the paradoxes of living in an unjust world firsthand and while you may not agree with their policies, they certainly deserve your respect, in much the same way that everyone you chance to meet deserves your consideration.
While it may be a stereotype that a lack of education breeds bigotry, displaying bias against the beliefs of others has discordantly become a foundational aspect of supposedly liberal communities. To use New Republic's Isaac Chotiner's pithy phrase to describe the recent behavior of protesting college students, “liberal intolerance” appears to be on the rise and, “Everyone has a red line, but it sure seems like people are drawing them hastily.” While many left-leaning students may believe that prejudice is the domain of gay-hating, gun-toting conservatives, there is a tragic irony when liberals churn out just as much intolerance towards those who disagree with them as conservatives allegedly spew at others. Michelle Goldberg of The Nation calls this “left-wing anti-liberalism” and makes a distinction between the “liberals”, who are those currently in power, and “the left”, who are inherently more radical and wish to protest the status quo. She characterizes “the left” as a community made up mostly of idealistic college students.
In an interview with Vox last week, Goldberg explores the significance of the protests as an example of the kind of leftist frustration that emerges when Democrats are in power but the liberal agenda isn't achieving the kind of reforms they promised. She says, “People despair of changing things at the national level or the state level. But you can change things in the little self-contained world of your college campus.” However, even as she, like myself, understands the righteous frustration that inspires student protests, she is wary of the proclivity to ban some voices simply because they are unpopular. Valuing some ideologies over others works to your advantage in a liberal setting, like a college campus, but when the same rules are applied in the world, where different power structures may exist, they may backfire catastrophically. Goldberg uses the example of 2003 when the Republican controlled Congress proposed to cut NIH funding to research on prostitution, AIDS and drug use because they couldn't understand why “taxpayers' money was paying for that sort of thing.”
In summary, I offer a sincere congratulations to all members of the class of 2014 but at the risk of sounding like a commencement speaker, I caution you to remember to be fighting against narrow-minded attitudes rather than silencing opposing viewpoints, simply because you can. Maintain your own ideals to the best of your abilities but be open to listening to the values of others and even attempting to understand what shaped divergent values. I highly doubt that my words will offer an effective dose of humility to those who disagree with me but the harsh realities of the world outside the theories of the classroom will do the trick soon enough.