by Ben Mckenzie
Let me begin by saying that Sewanee is my home. It is perhaps my favourite place on Earth, and I love this school more dearly than I can express. However, there are moments when I am forced to wonder how I can still love Sewanee so much. The most recent of these was at Convocation last Friday, which I attended in support of a friend who was receiving her gown. I arrived at All Saints’ full of Sewanee spirit and left incensed and disappointed after having been forced to listen to one of the most offensive and disgusting speeches I have ever witnessed. Eric Metaxas, the man who received the doctorate in “Humane Letters,” gave an address which left the assembly in shock. The only thing that kept my spirits up was the dismay with which the audience greeted Metaxas’ speech. Metaxas began on a reasonable note, pointing out the importance of open-mindedness and free speech in civil debate. He talked about the fragility of freedom and free speech and spoke out against the demonization of people who hold opposing views.
At this point Metaxas’ speech seemed like a call for open-mindedness and personal liberty, so it was surprising when Mr. Metaxas began to argue AGAINST personal liberty. All of Metaxas’ examples were instances in which the people whose liberties he felt were being curtailed were trying to restrict the freedom of others. For instance, Metaxas had the bad taste to use the Anti-Apartheid movement as an example of political peer pressure. He told the story of his undergraduate graduation, where all the students wore ribbons to support divestment from the apartheid South African government. Metaxas said that he felt a “vague coercion to wear these ribbons, as if not wearing them meant one was somehow in favour of apartheid and therefore racist. Not to wear them was not an option if you wanted the respect and admiration of your classmates.” I agree that it is inappropriate to pressure others to share your views. Open civil discourse is crucial to the maintenance of a democratic society. However, for Metaxas to imply that his freedom of speech was being restricted by the social climate of his school seems positively juvenile. If one supports, through willful inaction, a government responsible for the overt oppression, imprisonment, and even murder of its own people based on the colour of their skin, one cannot expect increase in the “respect and admiration of one’s peers.” Perhaps even worse than this distasteful anecdote was Metaxas’ following rant on the integral interconnectedness of faith and morality. Beneath a thin veneer of reason and civil discourse, Metaxas continued to push his evangelical agenda.
Metaxas argued that “public” faith was necessary for the maintenance of a “virtuous” and “moral” society, saying that “Our founders understood this and they were explicit about this,” and that “Our republic was made only for a virtuous and moral people,” implying along the way that traditional Christianity was the guiding hand of a free society. Metaxas did make some good points. Freedom of speech and diversity of opinion are invaluable to a democratic society. We can’t wish away all those who hold different beliefs. It is important for us to hear the opinions of others and to take them to heart and to question our own beliefs and opinions. That is why I’m almost glad that Metaxas was brought Sewanee to speak. It allowed me to re-examine my convictions and to ask myself whether I am open to receiving the views of others. The answer is that I believe I am. As strongly as I may disagree with someone I hope I am willing to listen to them and to be respectful. However, if they show the same lack of taste and offensiveness as Mr. Metaxas, they cannot expect me to respect them more because of it.