When you are in the communication business, you come to appreciate the finer aspects of public discourse in a freewheeling democracy. You respect those who engage in debate with facts and figures, who cite precedent, who quote documents and authorities, who turn a clever phrase, who craft a believable forecast, who use logic, allegory and analysis -- even if you ultimately disagree.
But crowds of people milling about, chanting, shouting and waving crudely painted signs with crude and profane slogans is tantamount to a 2-year-old's temper tantrum.
That was the scene at UNLV a week and a half ago when a couple of thousand students and faculty rallied to protest the governor's proposed deep cuts in funding for higher education.
Frankly, they should've been sent to their rooms without supper.
But no, they seemed downright proud of themselves.
"This is great!" UNLV student body Vice President Vik Sehdev was quoted as saying. "Last time this happened was, like, in the '60s."
Yes, and before that we had those highly regarded expressions of community umbrage known as lynch mobs.
Instead of serious debate and reasoned rhetoric from the halls of higher education, we got outrage.
As Review-Journal reporter Richard Lake wrote:
"Students are outraged.
"Administrators are outraged.
"Professors, staff and activists are outraged."
University system Chancellor Jim Rogers and UNLV President David Ashley were their cheerleaders, whipping up anger and avarice for other people's money instead of enlightened discourse.
There were chants of "Rogers, Rogers, Rogers," as though he'd just scored the winning touchdown as time expired.
There were chants of "No more cuts, no more cuts ..." ad nauseam. It was a silly, sophomoric display of solipsism. A cross behind sound and fury, signifying nothing, and a senseless and futile gesture.
One student said she was there as a "show of force." Just what we need, a campus where a show of force trumps rational debate.
How about some speeches that are more than petulant whining? How about essays that offer solutions? Instead there were form letters being handed out so the students could affix their X's.
They were proud of themselves, but for what?
Several signs said, "We are your future."
Now there's something to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Some of the responses to a posting on my Review-Journal blog on this same topic were of a similar vein. The following are unedited:
A person who identified himself as Thomas wrote, "I'm ashamed to share a name with you. Your blanket stereotypes are sickening. Writers like yourself give the RJ the reputation of being written for a 5th grade reading level. If these cuts happen, 5th graders won't be able to read. It's sad and misleading to refer to UNLV students as 'children' when the median graduation age is approx 27. We're young adults juggling mortgages, car notes, insurance payments and lay-offs. The same challenges you 'old' people are facing."
After I posted a comment saying I was trying to start a dialogue, Steve replied, "This excuse is as amateur as the crude signs from the rally. The reason I made these asinine and foolish assertions was to get people talking. As if this dialogue will some how solve the problem. This dialogue is as helpful as your boorish excuse. Nice cop out cowboy."
A person named Fafner added, "Presumably you will now graduate, pardon the pun, to yelling 'Fire!' in crowded theaters to 'start some physical exercise.' "
Then someone identifying himself as theo wrote, "Gibbons' blind stupidity was met with blind rage. A response that is apropos, I'd say. Your response, Mr. Mitchell, has all the charm of a Depends-clad, Sun City-dwelling anachronism screaming 'Get Off My Lawn!' "
The discourse degenerated from there with more insults about my age, my hat and my mustache -- including a comparison to the campus mascot known as Hey Reb.
Someone suggested I was against the students exercising their right of free speech, to which I replied I was merely pointing out that they weren't using the right very effectively.
Now that the Legislature is getting under way in Carson City, let's hope the level of discourse is elevated to a higher plane. Such hopes are usually dashed.
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may read his blog posts at www.lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.