By Ken Trainor
I was disgusted and disappointed by the comments that piled up — and piled on — following our online publication of Steve Gevinson's OPRF commencement speech. Fortunately, I had time to compose myself before composing my reaction — something the vast majority of online commentators failed to do.
Wednesday Journal's Comment Policy, which I doubt anyone reads, states in part: "Be nice. No one likes to be SHOUTED at. No one likes to be insulted. This is intended to be a strong and pointed conversation. But don't confuse rude with strong on this website."
That clearly isn't happening, judging by the 77 comments still up at OakPark.com as of Sunday morning. We removed some of the more obnoxious ones, but the remaining commentary still doesn't meet Trainor's Rules for Civil Discourse.
Guideline #1: Take time to cool down before commenting.
I'm writing this after church, where the importance of charity toward all was emphasized, so I'll try to be as charitable as possible even though the majority of comments seemed intent on punishing, insulting, and inflicting emotional pain.
Guideline #2: Be charitable. If you don't know how, learn how. Become a more complete human being.
Our commentators, in general, need a major behavioral upgrade.
Guideline #3: When you comment, show some respect — for yourself.
Your ever-so-clever aliases don't give license to behave badly. Please act like an adult.
Guideline #4: Don't do unto others what you criticize them for doing unto you.
This is my "Reverse Golden Rule." Most of those who criticized Gevinson for being one-sided were one-sided in their criticism. Most who said he was "arrogant" were haughty in saying so. They said he was "biased" and did so in a biased way. Those who said no commencement speaker should impose his opinions on an audience seem to be trying to impose their opinion on this and future audiences (If OPRF is swayed by this teapot tempest, no one will ever be allowed to express a point of view in any future commencement speech — like most of the previous commencement speeches).
Guideline #5: Disagree without being disagreeable.
If you read only the comments online and not the speech, you'd think there wasn't a single thing good about it (in spite of the few who rose to its defense). The critics said he used "I" too often. He didn't give River Forest equal time. He dared to point out that Oak Park hasn't always been a bastion of diversity and a beacon of tolerance. He articulated a viewpoint outside the ideological comfort zone of controversy-averse listeners.
Guideline #6: If you can't point out the good as well as the bad, your credibility as a critic plummets.
Steve Gevinson delivered a very positive speech, starting with the title: "A great, evolving tradition," though you'd never guess that from all the criticism. Read it for yourself, starting on the previous page. Here's a sample:
"OPRF has always been a great public high school … We are still a traditional academic powerhouse, and when many of you go off to college, you will find that you are far better prepared for your new world than most of your classmates. … So you're graduating from a special place, and you're bringing a remarkable educational legacy and experience with you into the world."
Did you fall asleep? If your commentary had been turned in as an assignment in Steve's former English class at OPRF, he'd give you a low grade for reading, or listening, comprehension and make you read it again.
So read it again.
Guideline # 7: Recognize that the person you're criticizing has feelings.
Guideline #8: Don't use name-calling, sneering and outright mockery as your primary rhetorical devices.
Steve Gevinson is a good man with strong convictions. They may differ from yours, but he deserves the same level of respect you would like to receive. He's not "fair game" just because he's a board member and enjoys a six-figure pension. This is not a predator/prey relationship. It's supposed to be a civil exchange of ideas.
You can do better than this.
We all suffer catastrophic charity failures from time to time. Yes, including me — all too frequently, I'm afraid. So I'm not going to write off Gevinson's critics as pompous asses, the way many wrote him off.
"I especially want to thank you in advance, Class of 2014, for listening eagerly and carefully to what I have to say, and for remembering it for the rest of your lives. … Before I leave you with some unforgettable advice … Now let me offer you some invaluable and memorable advice to take along …"
Arrogant? He's engaging in ironic hyperbole. It's a long-established rhetorical device — exaggerating playfully for effect. Apparently you took him literally and missed the tone entirely.
"Listen to all voices," he said. "Think critically about everything that comes your way — including what I'm telling you right now [my italics for emphasis]. Figure things out. Come to your own independent judgments using your amazing, God-given brain. … But don't take my word for it [my emphasis again]. Read about it. Figure it out for yourself."
Were you not paying attention – or merely looking for nits to pick? That's called selective listening and critics who practice it deserve to be ignored.
Whenever I'm tempted to go off on somebody, I remember a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, which doubles as …
Guideline #9: Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
Of the 77 comments, a good 15 or so were positive. Two were neutral, correcting a couple of historical inaccuracies (See Bill Dwyer and Bobbie Raymond's comments if you want to see how it's done without snide asides). Of the roughly 60 negative comments, maybe 10 were of any real quality. Let's say the remaining 50 were actually present for the speech. With almost 1,000 graduates, there had to be at least 2,000 family and friends on hand (probably many more — I'm estimating conservatively).
So 50 is not exactly a large sample. I'm just disappointed none of the graduates chimed in. I'd love to know what they thought of the speech. They were, after all, the target audience.
Gevinson sent the right message to new grads: Be one of those who acts more than being acted upon. Inform yourself, then don't be afraid to take a stand. His critics are sending the wrong message: Don't rock the boat or we'll shout you down.
But read it for yourself, as Gevinson said, and draw your own conclusions. And when you reach that conclusion, remember …
Guideline #10: Express yourself like someone who's aware he's talking about a fellow human being.
No one is saying don't comment, just do it better.