Freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest are intimately woven into the fabric of American history. In fact, such freedoms inarguably distinguish the United States from most other nations on earth. The United States is exceptional in large part because its citizens’ speech is not restricted by governmental authority.
Such freedom has been the vehicle of the most prominent of American civil rights movements, and has undeniably led to significant and essential social change. Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks are just a few examples of those who utilized and even innovated the notion of peaceful protest even at times in which it was dangerous to do so.
As a rational society centered on justice, it is vital for us to distinguish between these aforementioned examples of heroic protest which are pursuant of just social change and examples of unreasoned partisan demonstrations.
With that said, I believe the “walk-out” demonstration carried out by students, families, and faculty at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony on Sunday was quite clearly the latter.
— WNDU (@WNDU) May 21, 2017
The over 100 people who walked out cited grievances against Vice President Mike Pence’s political positions, in particular his views on gay marriage and other social issues, as reason for their departure. In protesting his speech, these people were not acting out against an oppressive government, discriminatory laws, or social injustice. Rather, they were simply protesting policy positions and political stances, many of which are shared by the religious foundation of the very university from which such people are graduating.
Everyone, regardless of political affiliation, should be able to acknowledge that the vice president is not a drastically dangerous threat to civic justice. Certainly, many people may disagree with him on political issues. Even as a Republican, I am not in complete agreement with every single one of his political positions. However, mere disagreement over politics should never be grounds for boycott or protest.
It is impossible to categorize the protest of a speaker solely out of political disagreement as a righteous act aimed at perpetuating social justice. Rather, protesting for such unprincipled reasons serves only to halt any form of civic discourse and augment the already massive political and ideological polarization experienced in American society.
As a student at the University of Notre Dame, I have always cherished the university’s historical commitment to intellectual diversity. Notre Dame has a tradition of inviting newly elected presidents to speak at commencement. This year such a tradition was broken by selecting Vice President Pence in place of President Trump.
Despite this attempt to reach a compromise that would appease the politically correct crowd, many students were apparently still unsatisfied. This, I believe, is the ultimate unfortunate reality: A small but rather vocal minority of students across the country will seemingly voice their displeasure with any and every speaker who dares to diverge from such students’ personal beliefs.
Those who walked out at commencement were not met with cheers of solidarity from the other students and families in attendance, but rather left under a cascade of boos expressing the crowd’s annoyance at such a demonstration.
I think it is vital to emphasize that those who participated in the walk out do not represent Notre Dame as a whole. The vast majority of Notre Dame students embrace political dialogue and condemn the suppressive constructs of safe spaces and political correctness.
I would posit that this phenomenon of a silent majority that opposes political correctness is observable at the vast majority of universities all across the United States. Many college students, and millennials in general, oppose the notion of restricting free speech and halting dialogue.
Unfortunately, there is a very vocal minority of young people, most of whom seem to be college students, who suggest through their words and actions that only those who align with their perspectives, beliefs, and philosophies have the right to free speech. These people claim to be social justice warriors, but in reality they bring civic discourse, the ultimate vehicle for societal change, to an absolute halt.
The students, faculty, and family who walked out of Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony had every right to do so, even if their reasons were unsound. However, it is essential that we acknowledge and explicitly identify that examples of partisan, attention-seeking activities such as this are severely detrimental for political discourse.
To my upperclassmen who chose to walk out during the vice president’s speech: you did not engage in a civic struggle for justice. You merely erected obstacles to vital political conversation and the preservation of open dialogue.