I’m rubber, you’re glue

It’s a school tradition. Poking fun at an assembly speaker is as much a part of the fabric of the community as hamburgers on the first Friday of every month or mid-semester break.

It’s easy to sound witty when dishing out criticism, and what do the guests care if they’re badmouthed? They’re getting paid an exorbitant sum anyway, aren’t they?

Of course, it’s true that when students joke about a particular speaker, it hurts no one. Sticks and stones, etc. But much of the trenchant criticism is entirely unfounded, and it shows that many students are unwilling to learn from the guest. Why take the time and effort to invite speakers if the crowd refuses to listen?

Take the Black History Month speaker, Constance Rice. Even while she was speaking, students arrogantly lambasted her for caring far too much about poor blacks and far too little about impoverished people of other ethnicities.

A valid criticism, if only it were true. Rice spent much of her speech discussing how poverty and intolerance is a disease endemic to all mankind, not just whites or blacks. She even belabored the point that blacks are some of the most racially mixed Americans, and she told the audience several times that she felt as connected with her European ancestors as she did with the African ones.

But even more importantly, she had been invited to speak specifically to honor black history, not to shower the crowd with bland, racially neutral platitudes. I can’t fathom a more appropriate time for a speaker to focus specifically on the black community.

Our student body appears to be either so competitive that it actively hunts for something to criticize about everyone that stands up before them, or so ignorant that it can’t recognize an opportunity to learn from the luminaries we have been privileged enough to witness.

Two years ago, students taunted lawyer Gloria Allred for her indifference to women suffering in the Muslim world when she had specifically talked about trying to promote awareness of that issue. Others giggled savagely at Malcolm X’s daughter Atallah Shabazz’s use of “black” rhetoric, such as repetition of certain phrases and religious diction. Former Clinton cabinet member Henry Cisneros’ speech this year was undercut by snickering about his misdemeanor conviction.

After the most recent speaker, veteran journalist Helen Thomas, 86, at the annual Women’s History Assembly, students filing out of Taper expectedly made fun of her age, her looks, and her attempts at humor, such as her quip about a “nasal drip” when she wiped her nose.

But that’s where the critique  ended. Behind the superficial jokes about her appearance, there was almost a hesitant reverence on the part of the students, who responded strongly to her honest portrayal of the quagmire in Iraq and her impressive life story.

Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. If anything, cruel taunts are an improvement from the years immediately after the merger, when dissidents slashed the tires of former Gender Studies teacher Joannie Parker on the day of the speech. But if we as students are willing to open our ears to what assembly speakers have to say, especially if their opinions are different from our own, we might actually file out of Taper a little bit wiser for having listened.

Besides, shouldn’t we save our traditions for things that really matter?