On Sunday May 21, the University of Notre Dame said farewell to its 2017 graduating class. But before the commencement speech could start, some graduates took a stand and said farewell to the university. The reason the graduates stood and walked out of their own graduation ceremony: Vice President Mike Pence. When some graduates at Notre Dame learned Pence would be speaking at their graduation, they organized a protest and quietly left the stadium. It is estimated that 100 graduates participated in this walkout. As the graduates left for the exits while Pence continued with this address, the stadium filled with boos and praise.
Those graduates were in the right to leave the graduation ceremony the way they did, exercising their right to peaceful protest.
The contention over this walkout is centered around respect. Not all graduates enjoyed or will enjoy their commencement speeches or speakers. I’m sure plenty of conservatives listening to Hillary Clinton, Will Ferrell and other liberal speakers at their graduation ceremonies are tired of the not so inconspicuous jabs at the Trump administration. Regardless of political or ideological disposition, we all find ourselves faced with individuals with opposing, even offensive viewpoints. And while with an average Joe we might just walk away from the inane babbling, some situations require a certain degree of respect. Similar to leaving a bad date abruptly, leaving a commencement speech in a political stand against the speaker is considered disrespectful, but respect is not bought with elections.
Pence has been an Indiana politician since 2001, governor since 2013. While his political career denotes experience, his titles do not elicit respect from me. I respect any individual to the extent that they earn respect. I respect him enough to commend his political expertise, his seamless handle of the Notre Dame situation as he continued on with the speech without noticeable distress which is surely a product of his years of public speaking and self-composure. However, he — in the works he has done as an Indiana politician and now vice president — does not represent many of the students in that Notre Dame stadium. If I was in their position, I would have joined the protest.
Pence has opposed Syrian refugees from entering the state of Indiana. Pence has fought against LGBT+ rights and civil liberties. Pence has refused reproductive education and resources for Indiana students and citizens. Pence has struggled with modern science, as indicated by his Op-Eds. And let’s not forget, Pence has committed to four years as President Donald Trump’s vice president, defending and lying blatantly in support of Trump’s inflammatory, incorrigible rhetoric. These sort of politics do not elicit respect from me. They elicit disgust. Regardless of his political career and title of vice president, respect is earned by representing the people. He may represent some, but he doesn’t represent us all.
So, for me and the graduates that left the ceremony, Pence is not worthy of much respect. Though I must say, these students quietly left their seats and headed for the exits. There was no loud commotions or jeering from the graduates in question. This was a silent protest that made their opposition clear but otherwise did not impede the ceremony for anyone else — reminiscent of Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneel protest.
There are some that are strictly perturbed by how unconventional the walkout was, and in a sense disrespecting the ceremony itself. Let’s get something straight though: we should care less about the situation and more about the opportunity. Graduations are purely ceremonial formalities that allow graduates to sit, walk and take pictures in colorful robes and cords. This is not a religious event, there is no higher audience that should be offended if the ceremony is not to par with expectations. In fact, the only audience graduates should worry disrespecting is themselves (individually) and their family and friends. For many of the silent protestors, that is the reason why they left their seats. Some were LGBT+, undocumented, or first-generation students personally affected by policies Pence and Trump have passed. In their minds, it would be disrespectful to themselves and their families to support an opponent to their rights. They sacrificed a part of their graduation ceremony to honor their friends, family and selves.
Why even come to the event at all then? Opportunity. The walkout was political, no doubt. Some will argue this was not the time for political messages, but those individuals fail to recognize political messages must be public, and this one could not have been carried out any other way. Their message: Mike Pence does not represent them and they will not listen to a man who has lost their respect. If the graduates decided to miss the event entirely, their protest would not have been public, and therefore the political message never heard. If the graduates had decided to make a stance after the event, their protest would have been hypocritical to their point. University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins said, before introducing Pence, “Even those that disagree with Mike Pence recognize him as a man of principle. I do as well, and I am proud to call him a friend.”
I’m sorry, Jenkins, but his principles do not align with many of our own. It may be your honor to welcome him to Notre Dame, but for the silent graduates do not expect them to be “honored to welcome the 50th governor of [Indiana] and 48th vice president of the United States, Michael Richard Pence.”