Commencements, Causes and Campus Free Speech: The Surprising Case of Dickinson College

When my daughter told me that Mark Ruffalo—an actor and leftist activist—would be receiving a prestigious prize at her 2015 commencement at Dickinson College, I was dismayed but not surprised. Dickinson, an elite liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, is a hotbed of “sustainability” which permeates virtually everything it does, from curriculum to architecture to what’s featured in its quarterly magazine. It came as no shock that Dickinson chose Ruffalo to receive its $100,000 prize for “global environmental activism.”

My dismay came from the sinking suspicion that the commencement experience was likely to be a series of unending left-wing bromides. On this score, neither Ruffalo, nor Sam Rose, who introduced him, disappointed. Rose, the prize’s benefactor, claimed that man-made climate change, not ISIS nor terrorism nor illegal immigration nor [fill in the blank], is the main threat to humankind. He was dismayed, too, that there’s anyone on earth who doesn’t wholeheartedly accept the left’s premises about climate change. So, argued Rose, we need to bring people around, “by hook or by crook,” to recognize these indisputable truths. In other words, when it comes to saving civilization from itself, the ends justify the means.

With the table thus set, Mark Ruffalo was the perfect follow-up act. A dedicated climate-change agitator, Ruffalo founded Water Defense principally to accomplish the banning of fracking in the state of New York. So when he told Dickinson’s graduates to “act up, be misbehaved (sic), buck the system, and fight for what you believe in,” everyone knew he wasn’t talking about just any cause. “You guys are facing a lot of fights,” he clarified. “We have climate change, we have a mass sort of imbalanced corporatization, these lead to environmental degradation and also social-justice issues. And they’re all coming to a head.”  It seems that some beliefs are clearly better to “fight for” than others. The rousing applause throughout the audience indicated widespread agreement; sinking suspicions confirmed.

But then something amazing happened: The commencement address given by British novelist Ian McEwan. Surprisingly, his speech (view it here) was a thoughtful, poignant, unabashed, and—in the inimitably dispiriting context of today’s campus discourse—courageous defense of free speech.

This would have been astonishing enough as the focal point of a commencement address in a time when even the most innocuous comment on campus risks being branded as “hate speech,” but McEwan went even further: tethering freedom of speech to the very possibility of liberty and democracy. McEwan boldly noted, “Freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence.”

He argued that such freedom must be protected not merely also for ideas we find to be inconvenient or offensive, but most especially because of them. He said, “It can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like … or complain that this or that speaker makes you feel ‘disrespected.’ Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society. So, use your education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient, and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have.”

How moving and penetrating. And the thing is, there shouldn’t be the slightest left-right divide around such ideas. But there unquestionably is. All sides can at times be guilty of affronts to free speech; of demonizing rather than engaging intellectual opponents. But make no mistake, the unambiguous head of this class today sits on the left. So thoroughly obvious is this fact that Kirsten Powers, a prominent progressive commentator, felt compelled to write a book called “The Silencing:  How the Left is Killing Free Speech.”

It was interesting to witness the same audience that was cheering when other speakers were championing the progressive agenda. This time it sat fidgeting in awkward silence during most of McEwans’ speech. As my wife and I joined a vocal minority in a standing ovation after McEwan concluded, I couldn’t help wondering what Rose and Ruffalo were thinking. I doubt very much whether either one believes that honest people can justifiably be in favor of hydraulic fracturing or any fossil-fuel extraction; or accept the idea that human activity isn’t the main or only cause of changes in the climate. So people who do hold such views clearly deserve to have questioned their motives, data, legitimacy, and their very right to say freely what they think. Again, by “hook or by crook,” they must be silenced for the greater good.

Today’s progressives ought to put down Alinsky and pick up Voltaire or Mill or Jefferson. If they did, they might even come around to George Washington’s attitude on all of this (quoted by Ian McEwan): “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.”

Perhaps Dickinson College acknowledged this and made its commencement speech invitation accordingly?  If so, that’d be another pleasant surprise, indeed.

R.B.A. Di Muccio

R.B.A. Di Muccio

Dr. R.B.A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the Political Science Department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California.

All posts by | High resolution photos»