Are you next?

Are you next?

Everything always happens to everyone else, right? But are you next?

Imagine you’re standing on a stage, delivering a speech you truly believe in, but the subject is not well received by your audience, to put it mildly. They begin to “boo” you. Your microphone is unplugged twice. People out in the audience walk up to you on stage, throw things, stand up and turn their backs on you, walk out on you and police officers have to whisk you off to protect you.

Now you’re in Chris Hedges moccasins, giving the commencement address at Rockford College. How does it feel? The outrage, the rudeness, even the hatred. Do you feel like you’re in America, the land of free speech?

Of course, even though it’s your first commencement address, you’d probably be smarter, as Hedges should have been, right?

You consider your audience, and try to persuade the audience to your point of view, as Hedges should have tried, too, rather than preaching, with no appropriate acknowledgment of the occasion and no transition to his subject of concern.

Imagine how different Mr. Hedges’ reception might have been if he had begun his address in the following manner: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, hard working and proud parents and graduates, esteemed faculty and all honored guests. It is my privilege to stand before you on this day of celebrating your academic achievements at an institution that is the alma mater of the Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams. Did you know that, Addams, your most famous alumna was booed off the stage at Carnegie Hall during World War I for advocating pacifism? War was to her a horror, as I am sure it is to many of us. I wish to speak to you about war today because you, as graduates, may have to deal with war, make decisions about war. You may send your sons and daughters to war. You may fight in war. I feel war is the most pressing issue of the day. As many of you know, President Bush’s new doctrine of pre-emptive action has prompted much criticism from around the world. Much of the world feels we are only after oil in the Mideast, and this doctrine is the beginning of a new age of American imperialism. You may agree or disagree with this assessment, but I ask you to consider my experiences and conclusions after 15 years as a war correspondent. Hopefully, all of us will continue to learn after we leave these commencement grounds today. Consider what I have learned, for now, and for your tomorrows.”

If Hedges had given a similar introduction instead of just launching into the opening line of his speech, “I want to speak to you today about war and empire,” he most likely would have received an entirely different reception.

Instead, in all likelihood, he was trying to employ the dramatic device of shocking the audience to get their attention. He and many of us were shocked, instead. Bad approach, bad reception, hopefully, with the best of all possible intent on both sides.

One or two or three or four or more agitators can appeal to and multiply the latent mob psychology that lurks in every crowd, if the appropriate trigger is pulled. One would hope that mob psychology would be out-thought on a college campus. But Mr. Hedges, surely unintentionally, pulled that trigger with his lack of consideration of the day and lack of introduction, and shot himself and our community into the national crosshairs.

We became the target of conservative talk shows and media outlets that misinformed the public as to the nature of the Rockford College student body and our community. They colored us with the broad brush that fit their agenda. We were said to be “conservative,” whereas we are representative of the American public. Our students and our citizens are mixed, conservative, liberal and independent, just like the rest of the American public.

Those who avidly protested were a minority of the crowd, since critical, fact-checked estimates of the very vocal or active elements of the crowd were 25 percent to 5 percent or less of the crowd. Those figures are accurate.

Mr. Hedges’ misjudgment and this very vocal or active minority share the blame for ruining what should have been a great day for all Rockford College graduates. Both Mr. Hedges and this minority showed a lack of respect for the purpose of the day. Sadly, the freedom of speech was the tool and right misused by both parties.

True rights are not only inalienable, but rights are also privileges that can be abused and manipulated. Abuse anything and it may be lost because the manipulation is apparent.

The sensationalism that resulted from this misuse called the right of freedom of speech into question. Both sides of the question said the other side did not respect the right of free speech in this instance; and considering the concept of “mutual respect,” they were both correct because of the manner in which free speech was exercised—rudely.

Ultimately, in this country, a person can say whatever one wants, but one had better be ready for the consequences if the topic is loaded.

Consequentially, writers and commentators across the country took their shots at the events of May 17 at Rockford College. Some wrote accurately; other had an agenda.

Any writer or commentator who claims they bring no bias to a subject is a liar. What that writer or commentator must try to uphold the standards of journalism and present the facts as clearly and objectively as possible. Conquer or admit that bias. However, a news story and an opinion piece are two different approaches. Slants in a newspiece are commonplace and unprofessional, supposedly hidden. Presenting the facts is the goal. Bias in an editorial is employed with persuasion and logic and purposely declared. Hopefully, the audience is persuaded to a point of view. Thankfully, the audience perceives much more than many manipulative egoists desire.

The damage done by slapping on broad-brushed labels such as conservative or liberal and using those labels like obscene words is considered effective and now a common tool of manipulators. “Oh, that leftist liberal! Oh, that right-wing kook! Conspiracy freak! Look out for the black helicopters!”—all are rhetorical tools, sweeping generalities used to kick an opponent in the argumentative privates.

Again, thankfully, sharp minds reject such obvious ploys and low blows aimed at regimenting us all into groupthink and to make people afraid to speak out. Intolerant ideologues who employ such dirty weapons underestimate the intelligence and spirit of their audience. Both “conservative” and “liberal” are words of nuance because of their many interpretations, disparate elements and even disagreement inherent in each supposed movement or category.

Does “conservation minded” in regards to the environment mean a political conservative? Of course not, and in some cases just the opposite. Even the phrase “a liberal education” has been stained by such ploys.

A sharp mind will not dumb down the phrase “a liberal education” to equate the phrase with someone who advocates national health care or other supposed “liberal” issues.

The liberal arts, which are studied in a liberal education, are commonly known as the study of language, philosophy, history, literature and abstract science.

Rockford College has a tradition of being known as a fine liberal arts college. The college’s new president, Dr. Paul Pribbenow, wishes to reinforce and stress that tradition. His goals do not automatically make him a dreaded “liberal”; and really as an administrator and community representative, he should not profess one political philosophy at the cost of another.

By bringing Hedges here, he has been accused of promoting one political viewpoint, and nothing could be further from the truth. Several months ago, as a board member of the Friends of the Howard Colman Library at Rockford College (I am also a graduate of the college, my bias), this writer listened to Dr. Pribbenow declare he wished to promote the liberal arts, as well as the business curriculum and the heritage of Jane Addams at Rockford College. Pribbenow said he wanted to challenge the students and give them the broad based understanding and preparation for the real world that the liberal arts provide. He stressed that the well-rounded-approach makes better business people and teachers alike. He is to be commended.

That some of the most avid protests came out of the Masters of Education section of the commencement attendees is very shocking. The lack of respect and the lack of consideration for their fellow graduates, the college’s reputation, let alone the speaker, is amazing. These people are going to teach children when they act like children?

When dissenting views, no matter how inappropriately presented, become a matter of disruptive behavior, academics require the highest standard, not one of mob tactics. Intellect and class rather than loud crass voices should rule. Walk out, just as one would on a poor sermon, but to shout is unseemly and ultimately ineffective because it reflects so poorly on the rude.

Even more disturbing, Rockford College was not alone in commencement attendees’ rudeness, although we topped the list for their misbehavior. Recently, boos met commencement speakers from Cardinal Francis Arinze, ice cream makers Ben and Jerry, pundit Phil Donahue, and even President George W. Bush. Why? Because one side or the other, supposed conservatives or liberals, disagreed with what the speaker said or supposedly represented, and acted out.

Civility, rather than shouting to compete with the public address, is the standard and order of the day at any commencement, and should be the rule of academic law as well. If this trend continues or expands, how will any speaker be able to express an a viewpoint?

Accordingly, those who unplugged Hedges’ microphone should be pursued by an active police investigation. Our state’s attorney should demand it, but he said he will not.

Also, any graduate who signs up to receive their cap and gown should be required to sign a statement that they will behave with civility or their diploma will be pulled. Just like you don’t get your diploma if you don’t return your cap and gown. Perhaps fines would be appropriate, too. Graduates already have the option of receiving their diploma and not attending the graduation ceremony. However, any student who is surprised and offended by an address may leave the commencement ceremonies, and ask and receive a full refund of any related fees. Or the offended student may also continue in the tradition of civil disobedience and face the consequences as all committed protesters always have. That’s the true freedom of choice.

The point is, disruption of an address at academic ceremonies must not become a casual or fashionable occurrence. Only the highest standards must prevail at institutions whose very existence depends on the free, open and respectful exchange of ideas. If such a fashion of tyranny by the majority or the minority is established, free speech really is in danger.

No one is right all the time, as the liberal arts teach. Let us learn from each other and protect that process—firmly. Let academics set an example, as the learned should.

Otherwise, you may be the next speaker to be shouted down and unplugged. Again, are you next?

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