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Cui: The hullabaloo over campus speakers

Tom Cui, Columnist

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As Spring Quarter’s second wave of midterms crash upon us, it is easy to forget other colleges are letting their students out, from their hopeful freshmen to their beleaguered seniors.  No school would object to the graduating class deserving a good commencement, a reward for four years of work. The interesting thing is what happens when those graduating refuse the plan laid out before them.

I am referring to commencement speakers — the collection of slightly important people chosen by administrators to inspire graduates — and how parts of a campus community protest them. This is different from grumbling about relevance, as some did when Northwestern chose Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to speak this year. It is instead about when speakers, like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or accused Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali, decline their invitations in response to protests about the harm they do in the world.

There is much talk of a “disinvitation season” that signals freedom of speech stifled and the university’s purpose threatened. Talking heads feel compelled to assign blame for the declined invitations on student and faculty protesters. But, even if disinvitation is in season, I do not think there is anything wrong with it.

The first reason is that commencement speeches are rather inefficient. Now that the number of American colleges has blown up into the thousands, wisdom cannot be conjured quickly enough to meet demand. Celebrities and politicians are hired to dress up their message in humor or purple prose, but it is hard to think of ideas that have not been said. We are in an era of diminishing marginal returns. It will save everyone good money if we stop inviting speakers and instead loop David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech — so why should we not aim for that ideal?

The second reason is that there is no material threat to anyone’s free speech; the invitation and its rescinding are just actions performed on a contract. Condi will still have other buyers willing to purchase her time for $35,000. Some critics of protesters think an aborted speech means a lost chance at a discussion. Really, it just means that the discussion can be held anywhere if anyone else is willing to pay to have it.

If I can seize on this last point further — there is a market for speakers, where price signals should reflect information about the speech’s effectiveness. There is something paradoxical about the outrage in general over uninviting speakers. In a world where speechmaking is an industry, celebrities are branded by and capitalize on their ability to give the audience what they want. Their unique personalities mask the homogeneity of the content. The Internet gives us mostly free access to all the claims they will make. Against this zero-cost option, why do we still want to pay for speakers?

You can respond that your time cannot be wasted having to rifle through the Web for a celebrity’s thoughts. You may want the thrill of seeing a personal inspiration in the flesh, or the desire to take a group selfie. These are sufficient reasons, but they are personal ones. They can, and will, be the source of misunderstanding to those who do not understand your exuberance.

The point of disinvitation season, I think, is not about freedom of speech, and I think viewing it in that frame is not useful. The point of these protests is that we assign value on speakers based on their ability to incite our passions, and the way speakers profit is through inciting them effectively. Conversation summoned from excited passions flare up before fading away. Can we not engage in dialogue better? I am not saying that I despise all speaker events on campus. I am saying that, if we had to choose between spending $10,000 for a speaker or for financially supporting a community organizer, I would choose the latter.

Tom Cui is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at tianfangcui2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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