Call the Police, It's an Academic Lecture!

January-February 2011By Randall B. Smith

Randall B. Smith is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is currently at work on a book on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate and is editor of the web magazine

I had just parked my car and was walking toward the lecture hall when I heard the siren, a short blast from a Notre Dame campus-security vehicle moving traffic out of his way. At first I thought he was merely pulling over a speeder on a nearby road, but then I saw him pull into the driveway in front of the lecture hall toward which I was walking. Parking right behind another security vehicle already on the scene, the officer hustled out of his car and into the building. “Oh, of course,” I suddenly realized. “Someone’s talking about the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality.” And that usually means a public demonstration and attempts to disrupt the lecture. Sure enough, fifteen demonstrators had gathered inside the lecture hall, right outside the doors of the auditorium, to read “queer poetry” in protest of a lecture by a young woman named Melinda Selmys. Selmys, as it turns out, had self-identified as a lesbian for many years, but later converted to Catholicism — a conversion that at first caused her to resolve that she must forever live a life of celibacy. But some years later, she met and fell in love with a man, married, and now has five children. You can see the problem. Selmys’s experience has become a threat to other people’s identity.

By the time I had gotten inside the auditorium, the protest had disbanded. Selmys’s husband and some of the conference organizers had invited the protesters inside to hear the lecture. The situation inside the auditorium remained tense, however, and Selmys was visibly nervous. So much so, in fact, that she largely set aside her prepared comments in order to address the concerns of the protesters, saying that she was not there to demonize anyone. She seemed anxious both to hold fast to the teachings of the Catholic Church and not alienate members of the “gay and lesbian community.” She mentioned several times that her comments were drawn largely from her own experiences and that her experiences would not necessarily be the same as anyone else’s.

When the time for questions came, however, the room was still identifiably tense. In spite of repeated appeals that questions be kept short so that a maximum number of people would be allowed to participate, the first questioner spent nearly five minutes lecturing Selmys on how she was “demeaning” those with a gay identity by “privileging” her Catholic identity. After hearing Selmys’s response, the questioner immediately launched into a long follow-up question, and then another, and another, and another, basically dominating the first fifteen minutes of the scheduled twenty-five-minute discussion period. She would not voluntarily relinquish the floor until general crowd disapproval and an intervention from the chair forced her to do so. The lecture hall was now even tenser than before.

The second question was fortunately brief and to the point, but it too came from one of the protestors: “Aren’t you asking me to give up my gay identity in order to embrace my Catholic identity? Why should I have to choose between the two?” After a brief reply, the third and final question came from another of the protestors: “Should homosexuality be added to this university’s non-discrimination clause, and if not, why not?” This was another blessedly brief question, but as Selmys pointed out, she wasn’t a representative of the university and thus knew nothing about its internal political debates.

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This reminds me of a young man being interviewed about his conversion from liberal to conservative. One of the things that contributed to his conversion was that he noticed that all his liberal friends were not interested in dialogue (if it consisted of arguments contrary to their beliefs) and tended to malign his questions and search for truth. His conservative friends, on the other hand, welcomed debate and dialogue and tried to understand his position as well as to articulate theirs. I would think that the university would first teach (and insist) the manners of debate and true dialogue before allowing anyone to protest or participate in such conferences as that attended by the Selmys couple. This tendency, by liberals to protest, shout out the speaker or worse attack them on the university campus is neither intelligent nor appropriate. If one can't make his/her case in an intelligent and articulate way, then maybe it isn't worth making. Since most professors seem to be liberal, they are part of the problem and a reason I no longer am in favor of taxpayer dollars funding the university. Their products are neither educated in the art of debate, knowledge of our constitutional republican form of government nor schooled in the appropriate manner or behavior in the public square. Sadly, many leave a university that claims to be Catholic with an understanding of their Faith that is less than when they entered the halls of learning. Posted by: awunsch
February 02, 2011 09:42 PM EST
This was an excellent article, thank you for writing it.

Isn't this the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel? The problem seems deeper than particular factions not being willing to enter honest dialogue. How can they? The underlying problem is that words of a common national language are literally losing any meaning within the nation that speaks that language.

When children talk about "loving cupcakes" or "hating homework," it seems harmless enough because children are more emotional than intellectual. But the "American language," i.e. American English, now sees educated adults commonly abusing these terms freely, as though the same word to describe one's favorite TV show is also appropriate for saying farewell to a loved one, i.e. "I love Hill Street Blues," and then "I'll see you next summer, I love you," or the same word to describe their least favorite style of shoe as to describe a term that legally enhances the crime of murder, i.e. "I hate low-top sneakers, they give no ankle support" and then "I was charged with a hate crime because I blew up a church."

Speech can easily be abusive. But the idea that adult college students would need fortitude to understand that speech, by definition, cannot be literally violent, and therefore that figure of speech has no place in serious, literal dialogue, only scratches the surface. They have not been educated properly about the meaning of words. How can they dialogue in a language that they literally don't understand?

Many such terms seemingly undergoing this awful devaluation are fundamental to understanding basic civic values. Society cannot function when we can't agree what love is, or what hate is, or what violence is. That is how "health insurance" becomes interchangeable with "medical care."

Language is cheapened. So people form their own linguistic currencies within various factions. So words lose currency in the broader society. Ideas cannot be exchanged. Things cannot be built. The things which already exist fall apart. Another Tower of Babel falls, yet again.
Posted by: Linus
December 20, 2013 04:10 AM EST
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