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Open letter from Fr. Jenkins

| Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Abraham Lincoln worked tirelessly and ultimately gave his life to preserve a divided union and end the blight of slavery in the United States.  Thus it is most unfortunate that a recent event on campus bearing his name divided our community.
I have been asked to condemn the speaker, but I will not do that. We have at Notre Dame an Open Speakers’ Policy that allows recognized student groups to “invite and hear any person of their own choosing,” and states that sponsoring such speakers “does not imply” — either by the group or the University — “approval or endorsement of their views.” We strive to create a forum in which many voices can be heard, and the merit of what any speaker says can be judged by members of the community based upon the presentation and subsequent discussion. It would be a bad precedent for the President, speaking on behalf of the institution, to either support or condemn particular presentations of individual speakers.
It is the responsibility of the President, however, to uphold the values of the institution, and among Notre Dame’s most central values is “to create a community that honors the human dignity of each member and that is characterized by a love of truth, active care and concern for the common good, and service toward others” (du Lac, Community Standards preface). An email was sent to members of the event’s sponsoring club that used language and made assumptions that could have reasonably been perceived as demeaning to members of our community and vulnerable groups in our society. While perhaps unintended, this communication has caused pain to individuals and groups on campus and has harmed our aspiration to create an environment where all feel welcome. We must therefore use this opportunity to remind ourselves of the values our community espouses and to re-commit ourselves to those values.
As members of a community that strives to seek the truth and to honor the dignity of all, we should state our views forthrightly and argue and advocate for them as passionately as we wish, but we must never express ourselves in ways that, intentionally or unintentionally, demean others. At a university, our work is reasoned inquiry and discussion and our object in arguing for our views should be to persuade others. Language that demeans others closes rather than opens conversations, prevents understanding and deepens division.
Whenever we find ourselves the target of demeaning statements, whether at Notre Dame or elsewhere, let us not return insults with insults. A more powerful response is to offer your perspective with conviction, but to present your views with respect and thus rise above those who demean.
Last December, we mourned the death of Nelson Mandela. He spent 27 years in prison and was often forced, in incarceration, to endure a regimen designed to humiliate and break him.  He had every reason to respond with hatred and anger, but his remarkable accomplishments came because he didn’t try to humiliate or defeat others; he showed them respect and won them over. In fact, when his lawyer first came to visit him two months into his imprisonment, Mandela was surrounded by eight guards. After a brief greeting, Mandela said to his attorney: “I’m sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honor.” He then introduced his guards, identifying each one by name. Mandela’s greatness was evident in the fact that he could rise above attempts to humiliate him and treat even his captors with dignity. That quality was no doubt part of what enabled him to unite a divided people and come to be recognized as the father of his nation. We can learn from his example.
Let us continue to embrace vigorous dialogue on our campus and renew our commitment to treat one another with respect even in our most passionate disagreements. Let us be attentive to the impact of our words on all, and especially on those who may feel vulnerable or marginalized.  Let us reject polarizing rhetoric and instead strive to make our community a model for civil discourse.
We are all Notre Dame. Let us treat one another in a manner worthy of the name.

Fr. John Jenkins
University of Notre Dame
April 14

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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