On Sunday, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Rutgers University. Press accounts of the president’s remarks highlight his not-so-veiled “swipe” at Donald Trump and tacit criticisms of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Other parts of the speech may not have been as interesting to political reporters, but they were no less significant. Of particular note, the president renewed his critique of those who refuse to engage with those of opposing political views.
Here are some relevant bits from the White House transcript:
one of the reasons that people don’t vote is because they don’t see the changes they were looking for right away. Well, guess what — none of the great strides in our history happened right away. It took Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP decades to win Brown v. Board of Education; and then another decade after that to secure the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. (Applause.) And it took more time after that for it to start working. It took a proud daughter of New Jersey, Alice Paul, years of organizing marches and hunger strikes and protests, and drafting hundreds of pieces of legislation, and writing letters and giving speeches, and working with congressional leaders before she and other suffragettes finally helped win women the right to vote. (Applause.)
Each stage along the way required compromise. Sometimes you took half a loaf. You forged allies. Sometimes you lost on an issue, and then you came back to fight another day. That’s how democracy works. So you’ve got to be committed to participating not just if you get immediate gratification, but you got to be a citizen full-time, all the time.
And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you. I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement. Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say — I believe that’s misguided. (Applause.) I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. (Applause.) I believe that’s misguided.
If you disagree with somebody, bring them in — (applause) — and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. (Applause.) If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. (Applause.) Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins. (Applause.)