Controversy, or just confusion?
May 16, 2014
The real source of the annual teeth-gnashing over commencement speech invitees.
It's not a question of free speech or even academic freedom, or "Commencement Bigots," as The New York Times op/ed headline put it last week.
The question is, What are commencement speeches for?
Are they for intellectual stimulation and the spurring of social dialogue? If so, it's of course unforgivable for Rutgers to have accepted Condoleeza Rice's decision to not to come. (And cowardly, not "classy," of Rice to bag out just because a group of students objected to her invitation.)
But I think commencement speeches aren't for those rigorous and constructive purposes. Commencement speeches, like many speeches, are essentially ceremonial and symbolic events, rather than communication opportunities. They are form, not substance.
They say: We invited This Important Person to bless Our Graduating Class and Honor Our Institution with a few words the nature of which don't matter all that much. And This Important Person said yes!
Choose Condoleeza Rice as your Important Person and get her to accept, and you've already said 90 percent of what will be said. Choose Ellen Degeneres, and you've said something else. Lady Gaga, something different still.
Some choices make stronger statements than others. Sitting administration officials, for instance, may simply be seen as good gets, while cherrypicking former political officials might be perceived as more of a political statement—even if the reason is, "We asked Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell too, but Rice was the only one who said yes."
But nevertheless, commencement speeches are ceremonial events rather than substantive summits, and college administrators or invitees shouldn't be surprised or outraged when students at the universities object to the message the invitation has sent. Because the invitation is the communication.
Does that mean the speaker shouldn't go ahead and deliver a commencement speech in the face of broad or pitched opposition? Yeah, I think it kind of does mean that.
We mustn't tolerate intolerance in this country. We ought to embrace dialogue and debate.
But that doesn't mean we should invite people we think are jerks to give long speeches at our graduation parties.
Does it? —DM