Timothy Egan: Do Not Silence the Students

16 May

Oh, Timothy Egan, what were you thinking?  Were you thinking?

Today in The New York Times, the regular columnist Timothy Egan wrote an op/ed called “The Commencement Bigots.”  He starts the piece out with this:

“It’s commencement season, cell-phones off please, no texts or tweets.  Even with a hangover from debt, alcohol or regret, grads across the land may be lucky enough to hear something on the Big Day that actually stays with them.”

I wish I had been so lucky.  The class who graduated before me got a rather amusing speech by Dr. Ruth (you remember her, right?) and we got stuck with quite possibly the most boring graduation speech in the history of graduation speeches.  It was Henry Kaufman who basically gave an economics lecture.  It lasted for the better part of an hour and I am pretty sure came straight out of a book. No preparations necessary, just grab a volume from your library and read about balance of trade, fiscal policy or some shit in the most monotone voice you can muster.  It was terrible.  I just asked my dad what he thought about it and he said,

“Oh, that guy?  That guy was an idiot.  I did not like that guy.  Not only was he boring and an idiot, but he was a has been!  He was big in the 80s!”

I don’t know about all that but I do know that I was bored to tears.  Egan documents a similar experience of the graduates of Stanford in 2009 who had to listen to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy give “an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”  Much better, Egen thinks, were the addresses by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in  2005 (“If you can’t learn to ‘construct meaning from experience, you will be totally hosed'”), Steve Jobs, also in 2005, at Stanford (“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life”) and Stephen Colbert at Knox College in 2006 (“The best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show.  It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous.  And eventually, some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat”).  As much as I would have loved to have had Stephen Colbert speak at my graduation in place of Mr. Gloom and Doom, I wouldn’t exactly call his advice sage.  But I guess that’s not Egan’s point.  What is his point?  Well, basically that college students should shut the fuck up and appreciate who they get because the person could be, gasp!, boring.

Okay, that’s not exactly what he said.  What he said was that protesting college students are akin to censors who do not want anyone to come speak to them and “spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.”  He cites a few examples.  First up was Condoleezza Rice who was slated to speak at Rutgers University but canceled “after a small knot of protestors pressured the university.”  Next up were the bigots (his word, not mine) of Smith College whose concerns about the International Monetary Fund’s part in “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems” caused Christine Lagarde, chief of the IMF, to cancel her prepared speech.  Egen opines about the loss these students will suffer by not hearing one of the “world’s most powerful women” share her insights over (and this he seems to spit) “concerns about the patriarchy.”  This was followed by my absolute favorite line in the entire piece:

“Evil men — we’ll show ’em.”

Here is the thing about it.  It certainly is a shame that students won’t get the opportunity to hear Rice and Lagarde speak.  I agree wholeheartedly with Egen when he says,

“Give me a brisk, strong, witty defense of something I disagree with over a tired replay of platitudes.”

But is the appropriate way to back up that highly logical statement to call those who disagree with it bigots?  I am sure that the people who heard Colbert and Jobs and Wallace speak, especially given that the latter two men are no longer with us, will remember those commencement speeches for a long time to come.  I am sure those graduates, and the attending staff members, friends and families consider themselves incredibly lucky.  But I also think that a person who holds the privilege of writing for a paper as respected as The New York Times should take a little more care before calling college students opposed to the legacies or the mechanisms through which university-chosen speakers make their mark a word as loaded as bigot.  That’s quite a punch to throw.  I also think that, perhaps, a privileged white man should think twice before he belittles a group of women’s concerns about the patriarchy – it is very real and is something they will have to contend with every single day of their lives.  This rings especially true for Smith students who are of color or are members of the LGBT community.

Egen urges these horrible censors to consult Rutger’s student mission statement which reads,

“We embrace difference by cultivating inclusiveness and respect of both people and points of view.”

Egen, perhaps, should have taken his own advice before writing this ill-conceived column.  It is true, that we should embrace inclusiveness and respect different points of view, but doesn’t that include respect for those who disagree with the appointment of certain speakers?  Doesn’t that include those who feel that by sitting quietly in an audience while someone who represents institutions or policies they find incredibly damaging and problematic acts as the exclamation point on their college experience makes them somehow complicit?  Shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that students in our universities are able to question these institutions and speakers and see results?  It is a shame that these women, and Attorney General Eric J. Holder who was also mentioned in Egen’s piece, did not get the chance to speak because of protests, but I do not think that means that we should shame and silence students.  Instead, we should encourage them to continue to protest because it is an active civilian population that is the best way to keep the government in check, to question policies, to support minorities and underrepresented groups, to fight voter fraud, to stop rape culture, to tell the IMF that we do not approve of the way they operate, to let Condoleezza Rice know that she will be held accountable by the population for her roll in the Bush administration, and so many other things.  We need this and by calling active student bodies bigots, we are telling them that their dissent is unwarranted, unnecessary and unacceptable and that is a real shame.  Isn’t it also possible that encouraging a more active population would result not only in better leadership, but also in better preparing our leaders for dissent and criticism?  The thin-skinned should not be in positions of power and, honestly, I am sure they have experienced far worse than some protests by a small group of soon-to-be college graduates.  Their ability to cancel in the face of such limited disagreement is a luxury that is silly.

So, let the students speak.  No, actually, don’t just let them, encourage them.  The best educations, I think, give us the ability to think critically and express our opinions and where is that more acceptable than on college campuses?  I think this country would be a lot better off if we all felt that our voices were heard and that our dissent did not make us bigots.  It’s just too bad that Egen felt the need to use his soapbox to shame a bunch of 21-year-olds.  But, that is his right and I support it, just as I support the university’s right to have Christine Lagarde speak at commencement and the right of the student body at Smith to protest the patriarchy.

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