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Information Age? Or Intolerance Age, given the fall of graduation speakers

May 5, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
Another casualty of the ability to communicate rapidly and digitally may be the graduation speaker.

We cannot tolerate hearing anyone we’ve ever held a disagreement with. Or more likely, we don’t want to see anyone be paid or honored with whom we’ve disagreed in the past.

Give credit to embattled General Motors President Mary Barra for going ahead with her graduation address over the weekend at the University of Michigan. Correct me here, but it would seem that UM graduates a bunch of engineers who, over the years, probably have found long-lasting, good-paying careers at GM.

Barra was protested by some on campus for speaking and being paid to speak while her company is dealing with its recall nightmare. The simplistic approach is to say that she shouldn’t talk while her company is killing people.

Former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice canceled her planned May 18 address at Rutgers, where groups were protesting her because of her involvement in the Iraq war. She said graduation should be a time of joy and she didn’t want to become a distraction.

First Lady Michelle Obama moved a graduation address that was planned at the Kansas City public schools to senior day event because there was a fear that her appearance would mean limited ticket availability for parents and families at graduation.

This year isn’t the first time petitions were circulated and protests lodged against graduation speakers, to be sure.

But it seems to me that more and more even supposedly non-controversial figures are being kicked out of the graduation address spotlight.

I mean, doesn’t it strike anyone at all as odd that people wouldn’t want the opportunity to hear from a former secretary of state, one who didn’t leave office under cloud of suspicion, corruption or accusation? Ditto landing the president of GM. This isn’t the head of the local tire store. This is the president of GM.

And, regardless of political views, somehow it would seem that kids who have a first lady deliver the graduation address for their high school might have a fighting chance of remembering what she said than the words that would be delivered by just about anyone else of lesser rank.

I once got to interview Watergate figure Chuck Colson at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he was receiving an honor and speaking. At the time, I didn’t give a darn about redemption. I was young and wanted a shot at interviewing a Watergate figure. I don’t recall there being protests 30 years ago, though surely someone, somehwere on campus would not have wanted to honor a man who was partially responsible for the complete and utter lack of faith in government that has existed since the Nixon era. It was a chance to hear someone interesting, a modern historic figure. Didn’t matter if I thought at the time he was a bum who deserved a longer jail term.

My point: We communicate much more readily digitally. But, we’re willing to hear less and less in person. Maybe the “int” in “internet” stands for “intolerance.”


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