A week and a half ago, Notre Dame held its 2017 commencement. Mike Pence was there. Graduates walked out when he took the stage. Between eighty and a hundred of them, by most counts. Some of those in attendance cheered them. Some of those in attendance booed them.
People started talking.
The dust has settled a bit over the past days. With the current speed of breaking news about the Trump administration, a few hours can seem like a year’s worth of stories. As a result, this post is belated, and the focus has shifted elsewhere. I hope, though, to use whatever distance a week can count as to peel back the layers here.
Having seen numerous posts from friends (both Notre Dame and non-affiliated), I recognize the seemingly dichotomous position that The Chicago Tribune noticed as well:
There seems to be no middle ground or gray area with this issue. You either support the grads’ decision and their symbolic action or you don’t. Period. Similar protests—silent or screaming—will surely play out in coming months and years in defiance of the Trump administration’s policies and executive orders.
The middle ground spoken of here?
Did they properly exercise their right to free speech and public protest? Or did they brazenly, wrongly, even immaturely behave disrespectfully to our country’s second in command and, in a sense, our very nation?
What response(s) might be justified here? As some social media posts suggest, these students’ actions denied “fruitful” conversation by voluntarily dismissing themselves from the voice of someone who stands—at least in part—for the concerns and fears that these students have for the refugee, immigrant, and LGBT communities.
I teach writing and rhetoric to first-year students at Notre Dame. I’ve not been around long enough to have taught these graduating seniors, though my colleagues have. In a year or two, I’d like to think that my former students would make a similar choice if given the chance. Such a sentiment, of course, is not to dismiss responsible rhetoric. Rather, as I suggest to my students, “rhetoric” is not relegated just to “speech” in the usual sense.
When organizations at Notre Dame stage their annual crosses to commemorate aborted children, that’s rhetoric. When American flags appear on North Quad in an attempt to generate patriotism, that’s rhetoric. When backpacks lay strewn across the campus near O’Shaughnessy Hall to symbolize suicide rates, that’s rhetoric.
When graduates stand up and walk out of their own commencement ceremony despite the “speech” they would sit through…that’s rhetoric too.
Making an argument cannot stand on the pedestal of speech alone. Not these days. I doubt it has ever.
Nor does this stance up the ante. Protesters were present at Notre Dame’s commencement in 2009 and 2016 as well, for Barack Obama and Joe Biden, respectively. Grove City College (shout-out to our own Sarina Moore) and Bethune-Cookman University have voiced their own dissent to the current administration as well.
Where does appropriate action lie? And where has it been defended?
If we grant that these students’ walk-out constitutes an act of free speech, their action was met with boos. Within minutes, Pence lauded Notre Dame as “a vanguard of freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.” This statement was met with applause.
I obviously lean left, though I do wish to point out the details (editorial statement: that’s where the devil lies) that prompted these individuals to exercise their first-amendment rights. While Pence stood in for the Trump administration as a whole, his reputation among Hoosiers precedes his VP-ship. From his endorsement of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to his opposition to admitting Syrian refugees and his stance against unauthorized immigrants, Pence has voiced and enacted his positions that the students who walked out of their own commencement could not stand by.
What line(s) can we draw from? Luis Miranda, the co-organizer of the walk-out and ND MA graduate, voiced his opposition to Pence in The New York Times. His and the WeStandFor activist group at ND can be found in the link below. Such statements are in keeping with Notre Dame’s own devotion to Catholic Social Teaching and the Brothers of the Congregation of Holy Cross commitment to DREAMers. I myself have had students affected by the administration Pence has aligned himself with. I’ve heard the founded worries that friends, colleagues, students have had regarding the lack of respect and dignity that Pence has stood by (if not condoned).
Are these students really in the wrong here?
What harm this backlash against these students would, can, (will?) cause.
As a writing and rhetoric instructor at Notre Dame, I couldn’t be more proud. While conversation is important, mutual respect did not characterize the Notre Dame walk-out on Pence. Words are not the deciding factor here. Actions are met with actions. For these new graduates to be chastised for their response—emphasis on response—is not appropriate. They act as a small minority of LGBT students; as students and family members who do not feel welcome based on immigrant status, religion, or race; or as allies (words without actions be damned) who stood by their friends and graduate class despite the boos of their parents, their socioeconomic status, their backgrounds.
Does such a thing boil over?
When will it boil over?
People talked about this.
I hope that people will keep talking about this.
Jacob Schepers (Calvin ’12) is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), a winner of the 2013 Outriders Poetry Project competition. His poetry has appeared in Verse, The Common, PANK, The Destroyer, and others. He lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife, Charis, and two sons, Liam and Oliver. He is both an MFA student and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.