The ‘Tolerant’ Millennials Who Hate Free Speech

commencement protest


When is it okay to invite a controversial current or former public office holder to speak at a college commencement (graduation) ceremony, and when does issuing such an invitation imply acceptance and endorsement of that person’s every action and decision whilst in office?

This question is coming up a lot, primarily in the United States, as the ‘old guard’ of politicians and appointed officials who held the reigns of power during the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who were at the helm during the financial crisis and great recession, approach retirement and seek to secure an income in retirement while simultaneously shaping their legacies.

Earlier this month it was former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the headlines, pressured to withdraw from her engagement giving the commencement speech at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony after extensive student pushback at her selection, culminating in a sit-in protest. Her offence was to have been a member of the second Bush administration, and her public advocacy for the Iraq war. But now the forces of retroactive censorship have claimed a new victim – Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF.

Olivia Nuzzi at The Daily Beast reports:

Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, has decided not to serve as commencement speaker for Smith College’s May 18, 2014 graduation, after students started a petition protesting her selection.

The petition—which boasts 483 signatures (less than half of their goal of 1,000)—states that although they “do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments” and they “recognize that she is just a good person working in a corrupt system” they do not want to “encourage the values and ideals that the IMF fosters.” 

While falling over themselves to add caveats and backhanded praise for Lagarde, the activists make clear that her particular views had become unpopular and were not to be heard at their institution. Never mind the prestige of hosting a high-profile guest and never mind those students who were perfectly happy to hear from her – the vocal, outraged activists successfully manage to parry away a threatened intrusion from the nasty world of realpolitik.

These developments – and the two mentioned here are only the most recent – raise some important questions about the polarising of America along political and cultural lines, academic censorship and the ability of the current generation to listen to alternative viewpoints.

In the case of Condoleezza Rice, her viewpoint – in favour of war, supportive of the Bush administration – was commonplace in America for the majority of the Bush presidency. Are all those who once thought as Rice thought now persona non grata at Rutgers University? Or perhaps it is just those who could be considered ‘thought leaders’, those who influenced and shaped the public debate at the time who are to be singled out. In which case, how far removed does one have to be from the centre of decision-making to avoid being rendered untouchable by America’s universities?

The case of Christine Lagarde is even more perplexing. As head of the International Monetary Fund, she clearly represents the ideals and goals of that organisation. But so do a solid majority of mainstream politicians from both parties, including some very popular ones in academic circles – such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama – who would be welcomed with open arms and festooned with honorary degrees.

MassLive adds some detail about the petition-signers:

“Utterly disgusted that Smith has chosen to host someone from the IMF, an organization that has proven itself to be nothing but imperialistic, ineffective, and oppressive,” wrote one woman who signed the online petition.

Another woman who identified herself as a graduating senior wrote: “It was in a Smith classroom that I first learned about the problems that the IMF has wrought on the Global South, and how those problems have affected women’s lives for the worse.”

And here’s the problem. The activists disagree – strongly and sincerely – with the policies and worldview of the speaker. Fair enough. But somewhere along the way they have been led to believe that they have the right to filter out any views or opinions that they find objectionable, causing them to turn their displeasure into calls for the speakers to be banished.

At one time, student activists would have relished the opportunity to see their nemeses take the stage at a high profile event on their campus, perhaps taking the opportunity to hold an inventive protest or at least to offer up a choice heckle or two. Are today’s millennials really so precious and coddled that they cannot even tolerate the presence of dissenting opinion, devoid of the ability or drive to engage with contradictory viewpoints when they appear?

This attitude – and the howls of the “how dare you invite someone who disagrees with me politically to speak at my graduation” – resembles nothing less than the Facebook-isation of academia and the real world, where people with different or troublesome views can simply be blocked, defriended or “disliked” until they fall off the collective radar and cease being a nuisance on our newsfeeds.

But what is possible in the world of social media is not necessarily desirable in the real world of bricks-and-mortar educational establishments. Academia requires debate and argument in order to thrive, and by so publicly banning many of the past decade’s movers and shakers, the student bodies and faculties concerned are cutting themselves off from the possibility of benefiting from the insight of these recent historical figures. Simultaneously, they are doing nothing to help counter accusations from the American right that elite universities are inherently hostile to conservatives and conservative thinking.

Sometimes the arguments against hearing from the big beasts of the past are more persuasive and complex. Take the case of former Vice President Dick Cheney, desperate to cement his hawkish neo-conservative legacy in a positive light and willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. The always-astute Andrew Sullivan keeps a close watch on Cheney’s continued public and media briefings since leaving office and is convinced that the likes of Cheney are engaged in a deliberate effort to recast their horrific actions and decisions in a positive light. In such cases, an argument could be made that it is best to invite such people to speak only in the context of debates (where other participants with opposing views could question and challenge the speaker, and vice versa) rather than bestowing the prestige and carte blanche of a commencement address invitation.

Ultimately, when considering whether to invite a controversial figure from the past – whether it’s a peddler of discredited economic theories, a proud and unapologetic torturer and warmonger or anything else in between – a balance has to be struck between ensuring that the purpose of the event will not be disrupted, that something of interest will be said, and that issuing the invitation will not play into the hands of any ulterior motive that the invitee may have. This type of sober and reasoned discussion does not lend itself to an emotionally manipulative e-petition or Facebook campaign.

No one is asking Condoleezza Rice or Christine Lagarde to hand out the best picture statuette at the next Academy Awards. If, through their own actions, politicians and public figures make themselves pariahs at the hip parties of Hollywood or the parlours of Washington D.C., that is their unfortunate lot and they can take it up with George Clooney.

But it is worrying that many of our students and academic institutions are so eager to impose their own layer of self-administered moral censorship on top.