Our Obligation to Speak Up and Out

So, here is the question that is puzzling me. Can someone, whether they are a President or anyone else, redeem themselves and cure omissions by later clarity and specificity?

This question is obviously prompted by the violence at the University of Virginia and the two speeches by our nation’s president. And the speeches, for the record, were several days apart.

This is bothering me: can one refine ones comments on White Supremacy and racism that were too vague and too weak by ramping up one’s outrage later? Do we treat the later comments as a reflection of the real feelings of the person speaking and ignore earlier flawed rhetoric or do we look at the first words spoken and treat them as “truth?” Does it matter if it is minutes, hours or days between the first comments and the improved comments?

I have been worried for years about the absence about leaders speaking up and out and while we can debate why there is silence, it is unacceptable. Fear for one’s job, fear of alienating donors and/or alums aren’t excuses for me. It is as if college and university presidents have abdicated their bully pulpit. It is a topic on which I have written at some length. See for example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karen-gross/football-and-higher-education-ray-rice_b_5662983.html; https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/03/02/essay-says-life-rev-theodore-hesburgh-should-inspire-college-presidents-speak-out.

My own view is that one has to wonder what took the President so long to speak up and out. Of what was he scared? Losing voters in 2020? Losing his conservative base of White Supremacists? Did someone get to him and write his new words for him? What about the week-end tweets? They did not repair the damage. Just asking: how do we redeem weak speech?

And, one more thing: to what standard do we hold our leaders with respect to their obligation to speak up and out out on topics such as discrimination, racism, sexual assault, violence? High — the question is how high the bar is and should be.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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