All human beings deserve to be treated with decency and respect, regardless of whether their opinions differ from yours. Tonight I witnessed my peers laugh at John Ashcroft’s sincere comments, attack his character, shout at him, call him a liar and question the existence of his soul. I didn’t think Ashcroft was above reproach, for he too contributed to the devolution of the event by interrupting questioners, but what could’ve been a thoughtful discourse became an interrogation. I commend students who asked pointed intellectual questions that Ashcroft seemingly dismissed, but overall I am embarrassed by the actions of many Knox students.
Never in my four years here have I felt so ashamed of my peers and my institution. Knox professes to be a progressive campus of tolerance and open discourse. Yet tonight these were nowhere to be found. I’m a liberal person, and a Democrat, as people who know me will attest — I don’t like Ashcroft, his opinions, and many of the decisions he’s made — but the behavior I witnessed tonight was disgraceful.
I’m all for free speech, political dissent and protest, but there is a right way to do it. I applaud the creative thinking and abilities of the students, many of whom are my friends, who dressed in orange and pulled black bags over their heads; this dramatic display obviously required thought, but it smacks of propaganda and bias. The theatrical presentation was rude and distracting, and it only inhibited efforts at achieving open discourse. For this reason, peaceful protest outside the event would’ve been a better outlet.
If John Ashcroft is hypocritical for claiming to represent freedom and liberty while at the same time curtailing and restricting the all-important constitutional freedoms of Americans and foreign detainees, then Knox is hypocritical for claiming to represent tolerance and for claiming to cultivate an environment where views can be expressed free from prejudice. If tonight’s event is any indicator, Knox is intolerant of conservative and Republican views. Had students chosen to protest Bill Clinton’s commencement speech in the same manner — by emphasizing the former president’s neglect of the Rwandan genocide or his affair with Monica Lewinsky — the campus would’ve been outraged. Not only is Knox intolerant, but many students are disrespectful and downright rude toward conservatives and Republicans. Ripping down signs and publicity for events that you don’t agree with is undemocratic. It’s repressive.
It will be difficult for Americans to achieve anything until we can prove that political allegiances are only so important. A certain presidential candidate would agree: Obama wants change, which means bridging partisan gaps to accomplish real progress. He has tried to stay above the political fray of personal attacks. I may disagree with much of what John Ashcroft says and does, but that doesn’t mean I can’t engage him in a real, substantive dialogue in which both sides are sincere and open to what the other has to say. Persuasion can’t happen unless mutual respect is given, and intellectual debate and discussion can’t occur unless people stop resorting to immature personal attacks.
Too many students at the talk neglected to consider the effects of their actions. Personally, I imagine it will be difficult for Knox to raise any more money from their conservative alumni. Also, how can Knox hope to attract conservative students to the college, when it is increasingly apparent that they’re not welcome? This is not diversity. Moreover, I’m afraid of how I — and Knox College — will be viewed in the Galesburg community. While I’m proud to be a liberal Democrat, I don’t want tonight’s events to enable anyone to dismiss my arguments or beliefs because I’m “just another radical Knox student.” Will employers take me seriously? It is my hope that memories of Knox students blocking the hateful rants of Westboro Baptist Church members at Kyle Wehrly’s funeral will not be replaced by recent images of students disrespecting John Ashcroft.
To affirm the conception of Knox students and graduates as responsible, caring individuals, I hope the collective student body will join me in apologizing to the citizens of Galesburg. I hope the larger community will not attribute tonight’s events to Knox College or to the majority of its students.