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What do dead fish and college students have in common?

Colleges and UniversitiesRutgers UniversityCondoleezza RiceChristine LagardeFox News Channel (tv network)UC Berkeley
Beware of silencing commencement speakers -- or you could end up like Marina del Rey's dead fish

Dead fish and college students generally don’t have much in common.

Except maybe this week.

You see, tens of thousands of dead fish floated to the surface of Marina del Rey’s harbor over the weekend. As The Times reported: “Heaps of sardines and anchovies washed up … forming a carpet of carcasses among docks and boats.”

The cause? “The head of a school of fish likely led the sea life into the harbor, where it dead ends, causing the group to suffocate,” The Times wrote.

Ah yes. A group blindly followed a leader. And the outcome was negative. How unexpected, eh?

It’s actually a lesson that our highly educated, academically adept college students would understand. At least, I would hope.

And yet I see ominous parallels in the current college rush against any non-vanilla commencement speaker: Don’t listen, don’t consider other options; just cancel, in a blind rush to avoid offense.

As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote over the weekend:

“The disinvitation list has been burgeoning. Brandeis canceled human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, saying she’d made remarks critical of Islam. After protests about imperialism, Condoleezza Rice pulled out of her speech at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, said au revoir to Smith College.

“This past week, liberal Haverford College shooed away Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, ‘the big bang of political correctness.’ ”

What happened to “diversity of opinion” and “challenging us to think?” How about hearing what accomplished and strong-willed women and men have to say about their worlds, and ours? If a speaker’s strident statements run counter to a college student’s views, isn’t it useful to hear those arguments firsthand?

There will be plenty of sameness in a career, a town — even in your marriage/partnership. Why start shutting out another side so soon?

Times columnist Meghan Daum wrote recently about this “trigger warning” phenomenon and “refusing to listen to opposing views that might make you angry.”

“Liberals stay away from Fox News. Conservatives shield themselves from MSNBC. We choose to live in particular neighborhoods or regions in part because we want neighbors who share our values,” Daum wrote. “We rant away on social media, but we’re usually just talking to people who already agree with us.”

Listening to my college son relating his East Coast experiences, I’m reminded of the incredible value of controversial, opposing — even shocking — opinions. What better place to learn, hear, share and debate than college?

If a commencement speaker is so controversial, then protest, sure. But problem-solve too. Set up some concurrent panels. Invite a co-presenter. Write a dissent. Start a dialogue online.

Or maybe even consider listening to that oppressive view. Could another opinion possibly be enlightening?

This week, overhearing my other son, a high school senior raised in the warm pool of a town of total like-mindedness, I’m desperately hoping his college will be the setting for new friends from other places with provocative thoughts.

As for the fish:

Well, Mother Nature (in the form of birds and sea lions) problem-solved quite adroitly. “The birds are here, cleaning them up en masse,” L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Brett McCann of the harbor master’s office told The Times.

Bravo: The independents quickly seized on the misstep of a rival leader.

And the lock-step followers who declined other paths? Oh, they were swallowed up.

Sara Lessley is a freelance journalist and editing coach in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Colleges and UniversitiesRutgers UniversityCondoleezza RiceChristine LagardeFox News Channel (tv network)UC Berkeley
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