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What is bravery? How this question ignited a generational firestorm

| Monday, November 25, 2019

This past week, I posted a comment on the Observer’s Facebook post promoting David Phillips’ letter to the editor. Phillips had written about his participation in the recent protests and the group End Hate at ND, as well as the negative impacts of parietals on student experience.

I was impressed by a group of students who had organized themselves, taken real action and did so under threat of dismissal from the University. I decided to express my admiration on the Facebook post, stating: “Thank you to David Phillips and all of the brave protestors for bringing the complexities of this issue to light!”

To my surprise, this invoked an uncharacteristically large and negative response from several alumni and Facebook users, some of whom accused me of comparing the bravery of the protestors with the bravery of American soldiers in active combat:

“When I was at ND I likely would have considered protesting parietals at a $60k/year safe, private university pretty brave. But after meeting a young USMC veteran who volunteered at 19 for three combat tours in the worst areas of Afghanistan because he ‘wanted to protect little kids going to school,’ I have come to realize what that term really means.”

Most just reacted with the laughter option on Facebook to my post and my follow-up clarifying that I was in no way equating the experience or courage of an active combat soldier with that of an on-campus protestor. While I laughed along with the whole incident because of its sheer absurdity, I was surprised at how great the reaction was to not only the issue of students protesting parietals, but also my comment referring to their actions as brave.

We live in a weird culture today. The left is constantly attacked for being overly sensitive and highly reactive, and yet my simple statement of support for the recent student protests incited an intense response that diverged from anything I had said in the first place. It seems like the accusations of sensitivity may be misplaced. While students, who are currently on campus and aware of the current student experience, are accused of being oversensitive for wishing to abolish parietals, it seems like it’s those who are opposed that are most up in arms.

After clarifying my position and apologizing for what they understood to be demeaning the sacrifice of active combat members, I was told that all was well, but after their years away from Notre Dame they had come to realize what bravery really meant. While age influences experience and can increase one’s knowledge, it’s unfortunate when it’s weaponized as a tool to put down the views of a younger generation. And yet that’s exactly what seems to be happening here.

Within this larger discussion of abolishing parietals is the constant comment of, “We had it so much worse when we were there!” This is probably true. I am sure that Notre Dame in the 1970s and 80s was much more strict in enforcing parietals than they are today. However, this doesn’t mean the current students are unwarranted in wanting to see changes made to these policies. The experiences and viewpoints of our alumni are extremely valuable and should inform our view of Notre Dame as a whole today, but they should never be used to exclude from our own understandings of Notre Dame culture or be used to dominate a conversation to drown out current student experience.

Notre Dame is truly at the epicenter of this hyper-charged generational divide. There are a large number of students on campus who want things to change and are working for change, just like in the larger society in which we live. At the same time, we have loads of loyal alumni and current students who value tradition and balk at any insinuation of deviation from the “ND way” — as do those conservatives in our society seeking to preserve what they envision as “traditional America.”

We need both voices in the conversation. But when conversation devolves into name-calling and unproductive dialogue, we diverge from civil debate and enter into a realm that produces nothing of value. All experiences on this campus are legitimate and should be equally considered. I would have figured that was a given.

With that I will say that my definition of bravery hasn’t changed much. The protestors are brave. But so are the brave members of our military, survivors of sexual assault and Ian Book for walking onto the field every football Saturday. Bravery is a spectrum, and I’m happy to call out those actions that I see as brave.

But hey — maybe my definition is a little too inclusive for some people’s sensitivities.

Jackie O’Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she’s not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. She can be reached at [email protected] or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

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