When I heard that a group of disgruntled Notre Dame students marched out of the graduation ceremonies in less-than-silent protest this week because the commencement speaker was Vice President Mike Pence, my first thought was “Well, they didn’t attack any teachers like the folks at Middlebury, and they didn’t raise flaming torches like the kids at Berkeley, and they actually let the fellow speak, so bully for them.”
And then reason returned to my cerebral teepee and settled in with a familiar argument: Graduation ceremonies are to celebrate the accomplishments of the many, not accommodate the grievances of the few. In other words, those petulant Fighting Irish need to grow up, settle down, and realize that the world does not revolve around them and their philosophical baggage. If they had a gripe or complaint, they had a variety of different ways to communicate them short of trying to ruin the day for the other 90 percent who just wanted to enjoy their moment in the academic sun.
For example, they could have written an op-ed or letter to the editor. I’m certain they would have found some publication more than willing to give them a platform for their angst, whether it be from the LGBTQ perspective, the “abortion is a right!” perspective, the “no human is illegal” perspective, the “Free Melania!” perspective, or any other number of issues that go to the heart of their shared national nightmare.
But they didn’t want to do that, because that would (1) take some actual intellectual effort and (2) not fulfill the need for flash and glitter, shock, and “aw, aren’t they so brave!” These days, it’s all about the agitprop moment, the idea that we must create our own stage and then force the unwilling audience to sit through all three acts, plus two intermissions, of our personal meltdowns. Not only must we express our views, we must drop them like rhetorical bombs over the heads of unsuspecting others.
Not everyone has a problem with these little graduation displays. In fact, I find myself in the minority these days. When I mentioned on my radio show that it was incredibly disrespectful for those presumably Catholic students at a presumably Catholic university to walk out on a man who supports Catholic values and, by the way, happened to be both the American vice president and the former governor of the state in which that presumably Catholic university was located, I got a lot of push back.
There were the people who said that the students had every right to turn their backs on a man who was viewed by many as someone whose entire life had been devoted to violating their civil rights. This philosophy was best articulated by a press release from South Bend Equality, which stated that: “Our members lived in South Bend when Mike Pence was governor. We know all too well how his policies endangered or caused direct harm to public education, health care, women’s rights, the environment, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants and refugees, reproductive rights, local infrastructure, the economy of our state, and more.”
That was probably not an exhaustive list, but they definitely got their point across. To paraphrase Sally Field, they don’t like him. They really don’t like him.
But even if you shared that view, which I most certainly don’t, because I happen to think that Pence exhibits the compassion and consistency demanded of Catholics, you can still find fault with the students’ attempt to make a spectacle of themselves.
If I had spent four or more years at a rigorous institution trying to get a degree, I wouldn’t take kindly to some activists trying to shove their political agendas down my throat on what should be my day of glory.
When did we get to the point where our own desire to be heard at all costs and at someone else’s expense trumps common courtesy, sobriety, and a sense of fairness? They could have organized in a hotel lobby and screamed their pedigreed lungs out, or unfurled rainbow flags in front of the Indiana state house. No one was stopping those students (and their Stockholm Syndromed parents) from expressing their anger at Mike Pence, or Donald Trump, or whoever else violated their deeply held beliefs. But just as the First Amendment allows for time, place, and manner restrictions, so should campuses provide for limitations on the disruption of important milestone events.
And that’s the problem with Notre Dame. Under the guise of respecting the rights of student protestors, it gave short shrift to the rights of those who just wanted to celebrate the end of one journey and the beginning of another. It should have also had enough respect for its own Catholic character and pushed back against the sort of rhetoric about women’s reproductive rights (spelled “abortion-on-demand”) and LGBTQ rights (spelled “Catholics-are-homophobic”) that fueled so many of the protestors.
Because when you start engaging in identity politics, you inevitably lose your own identity in the process. And that’s a mortal sin.