Who could disagree, in the abstract, with President Eisgruber’s calls for civil discourse and learning from others with whom one disagrees? But civility is not the same as submissiveness. The students who silently turned their backs on George Will, who had been chosen to speak at a graduation event intended for the entire University community, presumably did so in part because they were not given the opportunity to verbally contest what he had to say. They did not leave or seek to prevent Will from speaking.
It is difficult to see why values of civility and democratic discourse would have required docile compliance with a campus ritual wherein Will’s voice was elevated to the status of a neutral dispenser of wisdom. Unspecified calls for civility too often leave no place for collective action to pursue real changes in the distribution of power. At their worst, such exhortations ask us always and everywhere to engage in politics with the sanctimoniousness of a Sunday-morning talk show where nothing more than the conversation itself is at stake.
Student activists are often wrong. But they also have to spend the rest of their lives in a world that people like Will have created. Their desire to act, and not merely opine, is an antidote to the smugness of a comfortable managerial and professional class for which politics has long since ceased to hold any sense of urgency.