“Where’s the bathroom? I really need to take a sh*t.”
“Would you rather have a gay son or a thot daughter?”
“YOUR MOM’S A HO!!!”
Remarks like these conjure thoughts of a middle school Discord server or a couple of 12-year-olds making fun of each other after school— no critical thinking, no seriousness, just immaturity. So, it was confusing to hear Stanford students direct these remarks towards the 48th Vice President of the United States during his campus visit.
Two weeks ago, the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) held a speaker event featuring former Vice President Mike Pence titled, “How to Save America from The Woke Left.” Stanford’s student government (the ASSU) initially withheld funding for the event, but after a battle in the Constitutional Council, the ASSU was forced to provide funding and the event was approved. The event was a victory for free speech on Stanford’s campus and a triumph over students who try to prevent conservative speakers from coming to Stanford in the name of ‘safety.’
But free speech is not just the act of allowing someone to be present on campus; it is to allow them to speak and present their views in a way such that they can be challenged intellectually during questioning. While the Vice President was technically able to deliver his speech, student heckling (quoted from at the beginning of this piece) routinely interrupted him. Students watched the drama between the Vice President and the hecklers unfold, laughed, and took part in counter-chants rather than seriously considering the points being made.
Those protesting outside the event venue did not prevent anyone from hearing Pence’s remarks. However, some inside began yelling “F*** YOU!” as soon as Pence started speaking, shouted inane responses to his claims, and used the Q&A session to debut their dead-end comedy careers. The hecklers not only prevented people from hearing, understanding, and engaging with the Vice President—a once in a lifetime opportunity for most—they also conveyed a clear lack of respect for one of the highest offices in the nation.
The disrespect conveyed by some students cheapened the experience for everyone else. Because interested students were unable to carefully consider the speaker’s message, they may become less likely to consider alternative points of view as a result. When a speaker's ideas are ridiculed in such a pointed and belittling manner, it creates a sense of intellectual “forbiddenness.” This prevents the vast majority of students, who are still young adults trying to refine their worldviews, from obtaining a well-rounded learning experience.
In a hyperpolarized political climate, disrespect for authority figures like Vice President Pence is deeply concerning. How can we expect to foster dialogue if society’s future leaders at universities like Stanford cannot bring themselves to give the bare minimum of respect to our nation’s leaders? The ability to express differing viewpoints is only half the battle. Nurturing a culture of decency and basic respect for individuals, regardless of their political or ideological affiliation, is the next challenge, and perhaps a far more difficult one.
This isn’t just a question of left versus right, it’s a question of the integrity of Stanford as an academic institution. For Stanford to fulfill its mission, it must expose students to information from a variety of sources. A fundamental prerequisite for learning from a source is to have respect for it—otherwise no one would give any consideration to the information coming from it. As such, it is my hope that Stanford’s administration views the Pence event as a wake-up call. The University must address the culture of disrespect to fulfill its responsibility as an educational institution and to preserve its commitment to its self-proclaimed mission: “to advance knowledge and contribute to society through research and the education of future leaders.”