A Time for Cliches

May 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

You can imagine what the reaction on the right would be if students heckled their graduation speaker with shouts of “Trash” and “Get off the stage.” Actually, you don’t have to imagine. You can find what  the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and similar conservative havens have already said – that campus liberals are against free speech and that they are afraid to even hear ideas they disagree with.

Will they say those same things about the students at Cal State Fullerton who erupted during a graduation ceremony at the College of Communications. The speaker was Maria Elena Salinas, an anchor at Univision, At one point, she spoke briefly in Spanish “to encourage students interested in going into Spanish-language media and to tell them she has a scholarship for them,” (WaPo) The Fullerton student body is 40% Hispanic.

Tensions worsened as Salinas began offering advice to journalism students to use the tools of media to rebut political figures such as Donald Trump. That’s when folks began yelling things to Salinas such as, “Get off the stage!” and “Trash!” (OC Weekly )

Were these students* against free speech? Were they afraid to hear her ideas about Trump? I doubt it. I can only repeat what I said a year ago at graduation time (here): graduations are not about the exchange of ideas, they are about symbolism, and what the ritual, almost any ritual, symbolizes is group solidarity. Conflict is out place. If a speaker represents policies that are highly divisive, or if the speech becomes explicitly partisan, or if the speaker excludes part of the assembled group (e.g., by speaking a language half the group cannot understand), the temporary unity is ruined. The students who heckled Salinas probably felt that she had a right to her opinions and her language, but this was their graduation ceremony, and she was spoiling the show.

I guess there’s something to be said for tepid speeches with their cliches about hard work and achievement, about the future and seizing opportunity, about following your passion and making a difference and all those other phrases on your Commencement Speech Bingo card.

* The students who voiced their displeasure must have been a small minority and seated away from the microphone. In the video in the WaPo link, their heckling cannot be heard. If you watch the video excerpt, you can also hear that the Spanish portion of the speech took less than thirty seconds. So possibly the Post is making a bigger deal out of this than is warranted.

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