Ok, while Butler’s president hasn’t admitted it publicly, I have to believe that he’s regretted bringing up the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech as part of his explanation for why he filed the world’s first-ever lawsuit in which a university sued over on-line speech. After all, how could he not be terribly embarrassed to have his ill-considered remarks repeated so widely?
A Virginia resident with ties to Virginia Tech made the case as well as it could be made when he wrote to the chair of Butler’s Board of Trustees “You may think it a stretch to link Jess Zimmerman’s blog posts to the impassioned essays of our Founding Fathers, but Dr. Fong’s linking of Jess’s remarks to the shootings at Virginia Tech is far greater hyperbole. As a resident of the Virginia Tech shooter’s home town and one with two nephews who recently graduated from that excellent institution, I must protest that those ill-considered remarks trivialize the tragedy of that mass murder in a way that is deeply offensive.”
But what I just realized is that Butler’s president has a tie to Virginia Tech that makes his comments even more reprehensible than I first thought. Soon after the shootings, The Chronicle of Higher Education invited a number of people to address the following question: “If you were giving the commencement address at Virginia Tech this year, what is the core of the message you would like to leave with the graduates?”
Very likely because Butler had suffered through a campus shooting of its own, Butler’s president was one of those The Chronicle approached. His message was a simple but important one: both as individual students and collectively as an institution, Virginia Tech was not alone. He wrote, quite movingly, “In the depths of misery, there will be cords of compassion to draw you back to others.”
He also offered some advice about fear to those who had just experienced the unimaginable. After noting that “Life can be dangerous, full of risk,” he went on and urged them to attempt to move beyond the fear that has to be inherent in such situations: “to respond to life with fear is to diminish yourself.”
When it became clear that he was going to have to explain why he authorized the university’s attorneys to file the lawsuit against “John Doe,” he immediately retreated to fear – and he immediately diminished himself. He told the faculty on October 13th that the provost “was afraid, for her own safety, for her husband, for her house and property.”
Of course, no one who read what I had written believed a word of what he had to say. And even those who wanted to believe him couldn’t help but repeatedly question why the university didn’t call the police to deal with the threat they perceived rather than file a secret lawsuit.
But by invoking fear as a rationalization, as so many others have said, he trivialized the truly frightful experiences of others and he failed to take the good advice he offered to students at Virginia Tech.
It seems peculiar that the president doesn’t pay any attention when he makes very good sense, but he expects the rest of us to listen when he makes no sense at all.