President Obama Tells College Students the Cold Truth

"Listen. Engage. Learn. Don't Shut People Down."

President Obama spoke at Howard University’s commencement ceremony Saturday. Among other things, Obama spoke about the importance of listening to those with whom we disagree. This is too often ignored on college campuses today.

Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said — this is a good quote here: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.” Think about that. That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.

So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice.

But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.) I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.

Politico has the full speech transcipt; the White House YouTube page has the video.

Cross-posted from the Volokh Conspiracy.

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