How often, in the course of a conversation about politics, society, culture, have you heard the phrase “Any reasonable person would say . . .”? How often have you said it? We feel that whatever claim we make after it must be true, but the implication is that those who disagree are unreasonable — and maybe worse. Who gets to decide that, anyway?
We may say such things, and yet when we think about how divided this country is right now, many of us comment on how terrible it is that so many people won’t listen to other points of view. They are in Crazytown, those people over there, and oh my but the city walls are tall and thick. There’s no gate, no way to get in or out. Just arrow slits.
This year’s commencement ceremony at Notre Dame, where I’ve worked this year and where my wife is a graduate student, strikes me as a fine example of these divisions and the disdain. I attended partly because I hadn’t been to one before, but mostly because of the whole Mike Pence situation. The journalist in me could not resist seeing the news unfold. Following the vice president’s address I left the stadium to find the protesters and learn why they dislike the former Indiana governor so much. They were happy to tell me.
In the two weeks since commencement, I, like many other Notre Dame employees, have also heard and read the opinions of alumni who are unhappy with the student walkout, and with the lack of respect and etiquette at their alma mater that they felt this protest represented.
Both groups care about their causes very deeply, but some seem to have fallen into the very trap that Father John Jenkins, CSC, spoke about that day when, while introducing Mike Pence, he warned the Class of 2017 how often “the love that fires our passion is twisted into a hatred for those who disagree.”
I encountered an example of Jenkins’ warning this spring when I audited a class on magazine writing, in which we often discussed story ideas. One student mentioned her idea of writing on how students feel about having a commencement speaker who hates the LGBT community. I responded that while I don’t agree with Pence on all things, we should question his judgment, not his motives. In other words, we don’t know whether Pence hates anyone.
My remarks were not exactly met with enthusiasm. Instead, several students told me that Mike Pence had funded conversion therapy during his time as Indiana governor. “Electroshock!” they said, apparently expecting this would close the matter.
Perhaps they had a point, I thought. Who would support a thing like conversion therapy and electroshock treatments? On the other hand, I reasoned, a person might if he truly believed he was helping save someone’s soul in that way. I would call it dangerously misguided, and I would strongly question such a person’s judgment. Still, we don’t know a thing about Pence’s motives.
What we do know, however, is that Mike Pence never did such a thing. After a few days of thinking “No way! He couldn’t have,” I researched the point and found that these well-educated Notre Dame students had their facts wrong. According to both PolitiFact and The New York Times, the belief that Pence supports conversion therapy comes from an ambiguous statement on Pence’s website during his run for Congress in 2000. He said then that federal funds should not be given to “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
That could be interpreted as support for conversion therapy, as it has been. But, there is no mention of electroshock treatments, nor has Pence ever advocated for conversion therapy programs either in Congress or as governor. His press secretary says the statement has nothing to do with conversion therapy but rather his belief that funds should be “directed to groups that promote safe sexual practices.” Pence’s socially conservative supporters likely thought he meant abstinence programs when they read his remarks.
The conversion therapy claim similarly emerged in The Observer on a few occasions this spring. One commencement protester, who told me that the Trump administration is “anti-critical thought,” added, when I asked a more direct question, “Mike Pence has always advocated for conversion therapy and he still does.”
In this time when advocates of all kinds are accustomed to calling their adversaries liars, it serves everyone well when we at least get our own facts straight. The students who walked out and the protesters at the University’s Main Gate offered several other reasons for their actions. They didn’t need to stretch the truth on this point. Doing so made the rest of their case look weaker, less trustworthy.
As for those who were angered by the walkout, some have suggested that the students who made for the exits as Pence walked to the podium should not receive their diplomas. Many have blamed the University for decisions made by maybe 3 percent of the graduating class. The delegitimizing term “snowflake” has been thrown around so much that it calls to mind the polar vortex of 2014.
Again, in these divisive times, is insulting those who disagree with us helpful to the causes we care about? Insults don’t win arguments. There was no need for personal attacks on these students in order to make the case that they might instead have listened politely to the University’s choice of commencement speaker. Instead, the insults I’ve read come across as the irrational ranting of unsympathetic bullies.
Turn back time to 2009, when the commencement speaker wasn’t Mike Pence, but Barack Obama, whose invitation to receive an honorary degree riled the pro-life movement. I wonder whether the critics of the 2017 walkout felt the same way about the students who decided to boycott Obama’s address. We may think whatever we want of the students who protested in either year. But either they are all “snowflakes,” unable to hear the views of others without melting, or they are all principled young men and women.
It is terrible that we appear unable to listen to each other in this country. But who listens to people who insult them? And who listens to liars, even those whose unwitting deceptions stem from a failure to confirm the truth of their claims? Advocates on all sides of a lot of issues seem to sling a lot of untruths and insults, and yet how often do we enter these frays believing that we ourselves are innocent?
If we can’t change our ways, that’s Crazytown. Mere partisanship will win the battle against principles, dignity and truth, not just among our politicians, but among all of us “reasonable” people, too.
Rasmus Schmidt Jorgensen is a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism and an intern at this magazine; email firstname.lastname@example.org.