Today, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff sent a letter to First Lady Michelle Obama to thank her for the inspiring message she delivered on Saturday night to nearly 600 graduates at Eastern Kentucky University’s (EKU’s) commencement ceremony, where she urged the graduates to seek out conversation with people who hold differing beliefs and points of view.
Mrs. Obama’s stirring plea came in the heart of her address, when she said, “If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t.”
“If you honestly engage with an open mind and open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that,” the First Lady said. “Because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do. We just get stuck in our ways.”
We at FIRE could not agree more. In fact, one of the central themes of FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, is that society suffers when people develop the habit of living in a bubble where they only interact with people with whom they agree. Unfortunately, as Greg laments and documents so thoroughly in Unlearning Liberty, that pattern is becoming all too common on America’s college campuses, where speech codes abound that discourage students from interacting with others whom they might offend by disagreeing. This creates a chilling effect resulting from students’ fear of punishment should the offended party complain to campus authorities.
According to news accounts, the First Lady’s speech was welcomed by thunderous applause and standing ovations at EKU—which, by the way, is FIRE’s latest “green light” school. This message is an important one that EKU graduates—and students and graduates everywhere, for that matter—should take to heart. FIRE appreciates Mrs. Obama’s emphasis on encouraging debate and dialogue, and we thank her for helping us spread this important message.