When my daughter told me that Mark Ruffaloâan actor and leftist activistâwould be receiving a prestigious prize at her 2015 commencement at Dickinson College, I was dismayed but not surprised. Dickinson, an elite liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, is a hotbed of âsustainabilityâ which permeates virtually everything it does, from curriculum to architecture to whatâs featured in its quarterly magazine. It came as no shock that Dickinson chose Ruffalo to receive its $100,000 prize for âglobal environmental activism.â
My dismay came from the sinking suspicion that the commencement experience was likely to be a series of unending left-wing bromides. On this score, neither Ruffalo, nor Sam Rose, who introduced him, disappointed. Rose, the prizeâs benefactor, claimed that man-made climate change, not ISIS nor terrorism nor illegal immigration nor [fill in the blank], is the main threat to humankind. He was dismayed, too, that thereâs anyone on earth who doesnât wholeheartedly accept the leftâs premises about climate change. So, argued Rose, we need to bring people around, âby hook or by crook,â to recognize these indisputable truths. In other words, when it comes to saving civilization from itself, the ends justify the means.
With the table thus set, Mark Ruffalo was the perfect follow-up act. A dedicated climate-change agitator, Ruffalo founded Water Defense principally to accomplish the banning of fracking in the state of New York. So when he told Dickinsonâs graduates to âact up, be misbehaved (sic), buck the system, and fight for what you believe in,â everyone knew he wasnât talking about just any cause. âYou guys are facing a lot of fights,â he clarified. âWe have climate change, we have a mass sort of imbalanced corporatization, these lead to environmental degradation and also social-justice issues. And theyâre all coming to a head.â It seems that some beliefs are clearly better to âfight forâ than others. The rousing applause throughout the audience indicated widespread agreement; sinking suspicions confirmed.
But then something amazing happened: The commencement address given by British novelist Ian McEwan. Surprisingly, his speech (view it here) was a thoughtful, poignant, unabashed, andâin the inimitably dispiriting context of todayâs campus discourseâcourageous defense of free speech.
This would have been astonishing enough as the focal point of a commencement address in a time when even the most innocuous comment on campus risks being branded as âhate speech,â but McEwan went even further: tethering freedom of speech to the very possibility of liberty and democracy. McEwan boldly noted, âFreedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence.â
He argued that such freedom must be protected not merely also for ideas we find to be inconvenient or offensive, but most especially because of them. He said, âIt can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you donât like âŠ or complain that this or that speaker makes you feel âdisrespected.â Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; itâs the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society. So, use your education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient, and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have.â
How moving and penetrating. And the thing is, there shouldnât be the slightest left-right divide around such ideas. But there unquestionably is. All sides can at times be guilty of affronts to free speech; of demonizing rather than engaging intellectual opponents. But make no mistake, the unambiguous head of this class today sits on the left. So thoroughly obvious is this fact that Kirsten Powers, a prominent progressive commentator, felt compelled to write a book called âThe Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.â
It was interesting to witness the same audience that was cheering when other speakers were championing the progressive agenda. This time it sat fidgeting in awkward silence during most of McEwansâ speech. As my wife and I joined a vocal minority in a standing ovation after McEwan concluded, I couldnât help wondering what Rose and Ruffalo were thinking. I doubt very much whether either one believes that honest people can justifiably be in favor of hydraulic fracturing or any fossil-fuel extraction; or accept the idea that human activity isnât the main or only cause of changes in the climate. So people who do hold such views clearly deserve to have questioned their motives, data, legitimacy, and their very right to say freely what they think. Again, by âhook or by crook,â they must be silenced for the greater good.
Todayâs progressives ought to put down Alinsky and pick up Voltaire or Mill or Jefferson. If they did, they might even come around to George Washingtonâs attitude on all of this (quoted by Ian McEwan): âIf the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.â
Perhaps Dickinson College acknowledged this and made its commencement speech invitation accordingly? If so, thatâd be another pleasant surprise, indeed.