Sunday, May 1, 2011

More Thoughts on UVU Graduation

I've received strong responses to the previous post, pretty well divided between agreement and disagreement. The disagreements are especially welcome, since they highlight important points.

There are two basic complaints:

1. That any speaker for graduation, whether he be the Mormon businessman or whether she be Mother Teresa, would naturally speak from personal experience and that shouldn't be offensive to the audience. Even if Muhammad himself were to speak, wrote one reader, I wouldn't be offended.

2. That I have misrepresented Mr. Gay's speech.

Here's the problem, at least for me, most basically:

If a prominent outsider were to come challenge the majority of us at UVU with his or her thoughts, it would be good for us.

But I'm not convinced that a graduation ceremony is the right place for that.

If Michael Moore, for instance, had been the speaker, and if he had politicized our graduation, it would have take away from the broad sense that all of us, even with our differences, are celebrating our graduations -- all of our graduations.

So I'm all for Michael Moore or Robert Gay or George Bush or Bill Clinton speaking on campus for the School of Business or for the History/Political Science Department. We ought to welcome challenge from many sides.

In this case, it was not a prominent outsider, but an insider who spoke and whose examples, like the testimony meeting example and the African mission-president examples, were drawn from the experiences of the majority.

There's no problem with that in many university settings. If my brother in law, who is a millionaire businessman and now a general authority of the LDS church were to speak about his experiences in either realm to an audience of religious studies and/or business students, it would be a wonderful experience.

But graduation is for all of us, not just for Mormons and not just for capitalists.

My mother taught elementary school in Utah Valley and, despite the legal separation of church and state, started her class with prayer until she retired. I asked her what the children thought and felt who weren't religious, or who weren't Christian, or who weren't Mormon like most of the students. That's not my problem, she said. We're the majority and the minority should not tell us what to do.

I obviously disagree. How the majority treats the minority is a good sign of whether a society will be a civil society.

If Mr. Gay had thought more carefully about his audience, or if he had cared about those in the audience who weren't religious or who were religious in a different way, he would have showed them more respect by giving a less religiously partisan, less politically partisan speech.

As for misrepresenting the speech, I wrote nothing that he didn't actually say. He did denounce Harvard liberals. He did denounce abortion, drawing applause as in a political rally. He did say that if we knew Africa we knew what would happen to the little boy when he went home without money. He did say Africans didn't know the value of service but that they learned it when they went with the Eagle Scout. He did warn us against the evils of a secular society.

And yes, he did say lots of decent things I didn't mention. In that sense, I misrepresented the speech. I also referred to his tears and to him as a simpering millionaire. Those were probably cheap shots; but they grew out of the knowledge that with Mitt Romney and others at Bain Capital Mr. Gay engaged in a particularly odious kind of capitalism, one which produces nothing (no energy, no buildings, no vegetables, no clothing, etc.) but profits. Just one example from the Boston Globe:

Bain Capital put $5 million into its purchase of American Pad & Paper and quickly began charging management and other fees. It also made payments to investors. In all, Bain and its investors reaped more than $100 million even though Ampad went into bankruptcy, workers lost jobs, and stockholders were left with worthless shares. [And creditors got less than 50 cents on the dollar.] 

1 comment:

Carmell said...

Scott, thank you so much for writing this. For saying it. It matters. I was surprised to read Mr. Brown's response. I think there is a misunderstanding. It seems to me that the measure of value isn't in whether we agree with the person's sentiments or not. Rather, it is in whether and how we respect each other. Even in our differences. There is a difference between an audience at a Republican campaign rally and at a graduation commencement address.

Having read Nelson Mandela's autobiography, I continue to be astonished at his graciousness as a human being. Even after his 'enemies' government' was overthrown, his freedom won and his position vindicated, he continued(continues) in his book and life to speak about the individuals with respect.

He fought an idea, an institution, not a person or people. This is what I believe made him truly one of the greatest leaders I have known of. He did not speak from a place that assumed everyone was like him or agreed with him. He spoke from a place of principle: common respect for self and others and the desire for all people to be free. Even those who vehemently hated him.

That said, looking at our own positions with careful scrutiny is difficult. Sitting in my commencement and having the Acting Dean speak to the students about their parents who were so important in their attaining this accomplishment, was a bit galling to me. My parents had nothing to do with it. I returned to school as a "non-traditional" student--this was ALL me. She faltered, I think realizing she was addressing people for whom this perspective was, however unintentionally, belittling.

But a commencement at a public university automatically leads one to realize she or he is speaking to and for people from all walks of life. If I remember correctly, UVU had students from 64 countries and all 50 states graduating this year. Addressing such a group is a responsibility before it is ever a privilege. I think that is what you said, Scott.