Imagining the Motives of Others

May 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s been much hand-wringing about commencement speakers now that the season has begun.  The critics complain that because student protests – or hints of protest – last year caused speakers to withdraw, the fashion trend in speakers this year is toward bland rather than brazen.  (See this InsideHigherEd article.)

These alarms over university pusillanimity offer us two lessons in sociology: one is the attribution of motives; the other, the nature of rituals.
The hand-wringers, mostly sitting over on the right of the field, seem to know what’s motivating the protesters: fear. 

The unwillingness on the part of some students to allow another voice in the discussion is indicative of people who fear their minds will be contaminated just by listening to another viewpoint. 
(Christine Ravold at American Council of Trustees and Alumni.)

I think it’s the extension of the echo chamber from our personal curated Twitter feed or Facebook friends. Now students like seeing just the views they agree with, and it extends past social media onto the commencement stage. . . . “If we treat ideas we don’t agree with as barred from campus, then really what’s left are only the most inoffensive, and by extension most uninteresting, folks.
(Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. )

We should always be just a bit suspicious when commentators attribute a motive that the person in question does not acknowledge. In this case, nothing in what the protesters have done suggests that they are afraid. They just don’t want that person to be the voice of their graduation. The leaders of the protests, far from holding their hands over their ears and eyes, have probably scanned every word the speaker has written in their search for evidence of villainy.

Rarely do those attributing the motives bother to confront that evidence or the other arguments that the protesters make. When Condoleezza Rice withdrew as speaker at the Rutgers commencement last year, critics accused the protesters of being against free speech and of being afraid to hear ideas they didn’t like. Never mentioned was the protesters’ argument that Rice had been a leader in policies that were immoral, unjustified, unwise, and disastrous for the country.

Needless to say, when people agree with the protest, they make no such attributions.When President Obama was asked to deliver the commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009, some students protested, and 65,000 people signed a petition urging that Notre Dame disinvite the president. The right-wing became silent about free speech, and nobody accused the protesters of being afraid of hearing Obama’s words.

Commencement protesters at Rutgers 2014 and Notre Dame 2009

Instead, they correctly saw commencement as a ritual. As Durkheim said more than a century ago, a ritual, whatever its stated purpose (honoring graduates or bringing rain ) has two slightly less obvious functions – enhancing group solidarity and reflecting the group’s shared ideals and values. The protesters are up in arms because their school is honoring someone who contradicts their values – values which should be those of the school as well.  The ritual should be strengthening the connection between the graduates and the school, but for a substantial number of students, perhaps a majority, the school is doing the opposite.

What matters is who the speaker is, not what she says. In most cases, the world little notes nor long remembers the content of the speech. Neither do the graduates. But they do remember who their commencement speaker was – what he stood for and, at least at my graduation, what the students stood in protest against.

For a longer version of commencement-as-ritual, see last year’s graduation post (here).


Anonymous said...

I find this quite interesting. The institutions that go out of their way to espouse liberal thought and encourage tolerance at the same time vehemently make an effort to silence those who have different worldviews. The notion that academia provides a neutral zone to allow open expression is kind of a joke. Though I would acknowledge that at a commencement ritual it might not be an ideal social context to invite a speaker that is truly controversial, it is still at best hypocritical that colleges and universities go out of their way to make sure that certain speakers toe the same ideological line. Why? Aren't presentations of opposing ideologies promoting discussion and create truly liberal thought? I am currently reading "The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech", by Kirsten Powers, a political columnist that affiliates herself with the Democratic party. It is an interesting read written by someone who is being critical of her own ideological base. It may be worth some review. I agree that the ritual of commencement holds substantial social significance and is clearly denoted as a form of right of passage, yet to channel only one form of ideological perspective at other activities in the universities is disingenuous to students and faculty and leads to a monoline and myopic worldview.

Jay Livingston said...

Yes, there does seem to be a grim puritanism in some quarters on the left. But in some cases, it’s not really about free speech. Usually, when students don’t want some outsider to come speak, it’s not because they fear that he will seduce listeners to his evil cause. It’s that the invitation seems like an institutional endorsement. Or, in some cases, the students just want to register their own position and inform others that the speaker’s position is offensive. So they protest.

Other restrictions on free speech – speech codes – are usually attempts either to ensure civility, or they are intended to protect the less powerful from the more powerful. (The great flaw of libertarianism is that it ignores inequalities of power.) Most people recognize this protection principle. It’s the basis of free-speech restrictions on kiddie porn and verbal sexual harassment. In fact, you could argue that protesters who shout down a speaker are exercising their right to free speech. A campus policy not allowing such shouting would be restricting their free speech in the interests of civility or of protecting the minority (the one speaker) against the many.