Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This week, DG Roundtable is discussing activism on college campuses, in light of the incidents at Yale and the University of Missouri. Among other things, we want to address the aims of student activism and the means of achieving those aims. We invited a guest to this roundtable, Jay Clayton ’16.
jay (Jay Clayton ’16) [2:51 PM] Thanks for having me. I just want to say, first of all, that student activists often bring topics to national attention that most people aren’t familiar with. I think that many of us, as college students, sometimes act as though activists are complaining about problems we already know about, but often that’s not true. So whatever else, student activists really do achieve a great success whenever they bring issues of racism, inequality, etc. to a wider audience.
That said, it’s absolutely true that student activists sometimes have pretty vague and unworkable goals. No student group can possibly succeed in “eliminating racism,” for example, and so I understand why people would find this annoying, or even believe it to be counterproductive. Personally, though, I think setting these really ambitious goalposts helps set the tone of the debate in really positive way, by encouraging other students to address the root issues underlying whatever particular grievance occurred.
allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar, Co-Editor in Chief) [3:14 PM] I really want to stress Jay’s point that student activists bringing these issues to the forefront of both campus and national conversations, which is significant and very draining work. The most common criticism of student activists is that these protestors are just twenty-somethings whining about nothing. My favorite commentary on the recent events has been from Roxane Gay at The New Republic. She points out that college students *do* understand the real world, because they’ve existed as women of color or queer people or low-income people before they stepped foot on campus. And while it might take different forms, the discrimination and terror they face on campus — everything from people wearing blackface on Halloween to literally threatening their lives — is very real. And a college is a system that forces coexistence, and has some potential for change. It’s no surprise that this is where we see these conversations happening. I think activists are asking for very reasonable things. Safety is, in my opinion, a minimum expectation for students on a college campus.
isaacl (Isaac Lee, Assistant Opinions Editor)[3:18 PM] In regards to strategy, so far Mizzou’s protests worked very well to bring one of their central demands in having the president to step down. The proximate cause is in having football players, which bring in enormous revenue, going on strike until the president resigns. In this instance the protesters were lucky in that they had an ally wielding enormous economic power. But in other campuses where such a serendipitous situation does not exist, what can students do to really affect change?
avishwanath (Arjun Vishwanath, Opinions Editor) [4:37 PM] I come from a more skeptical place regarding student activism than Jay or Allison. But my criticism doesn’t lie in activism in of itself – as someone deeply interested in politics, I applaud political, civic, and social engagement, and this sort of awareness and action regarding problems in our society is laudable. So yes, I do agree that these are issues that exist outside of universities and that they are not isolated. So I take issue less with the “what” than the “how”. Let’s take what happened at Mizzou for example. These activists feel that they are not safe at their university and so they are protesting the institutions that allow this to happen. Fair enough. But look at how they turned on Tim Tai, who was trying to report on the events, and as Conor Friedersdorf put it, “weaponized” the concept of safe space. This is the issue I have with campus activism. The same thing happened to Danielle Charette at the board meeting here three years ago. The response to minority groups feeling that they have been silenced is for them to silence individuals who don’t share their worldview. This is a tremendous problem with campus activism – I came to this school three years ago very interested in the goals of activists, but I quickly realized that if I didn’t share their absolutist worldview, they would not tolerate me. This “tolerance” was really tolerance of certain groups, not of everyone.
jay [4:55 PM] I think the crucial thing to note is that the context for student action matters. Protestors wanting to fence themselves off from the media makes perfect sense, even if we’d rather not do it ourselves, in the context of a long history of infiltration and misdirection intended to discredit activists.
Here’s an example. Just this semester, infamous right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe sent an operative to Oberlin College. Posing as a student, he entered faculty offices, told faculty members that they found the Constitution “triggering” and asked faculty if they would agree to ban it from their classes. This operative also repeatedly attempted to convince students and faculty to literally shred copies of the Constitution. Of course, these conversations were covertly filmed.
Now, at James O’Keefe’s website, there is a story and video about intolerant leftists at Oberlin, based on heavily edited footage, to make it appear as though many students and faculty want to ban/shred the Constitution. One professor targeted has received death threats.
This is what the protestors at Mizzou wanted to avoid. Do I necessarily agree with the initial decision to try to create a space away from media? No, but I can’t hold it against them in the context of their aims and the history of student activism. Also, let’s not invoke Tim Tai. Tai has declared that he has no intention of holding the student activists as a whole responsible for what happened to him and deeply resents the way he is being used as a weapon to discredit them.
isaacl [6:20 PM] The media has been essential in publicising movements such as BLM and without public pressure, institutions may not be as willing to change. It is only because we have video footage of Eric Garner that the outrage has been so large. The instances is Yale and Mizzou in which the media worked against the activists is precisely when the activists have been caught doing things such as blocking Tim Tai, or when a student shouted against a Yale Master.
jay [6:41 PM] I think that’s a really misleading interpretation of the role of the media. They’re thinking about Ferguson and Baltimore, where the media lambasted protesters as thugs and rioters. They’re thinking about studies that show that people of color are most often covered on local TV when they’re accused of a crime. To suggest that the media consists of activist allies who only turn on the “bad” or illiberal activists is deeply unsettling.
I mean, look at what we’re talking about right now. There are serious, very scary issues going on at Yale and Mizzou (as across the nation). But to hear most commentary, you’d think the biggest problem was PC culture. It’s totally devoid of context.
I just want to note that these are STUDENTS. They’re not politicians trying to have a sinister meeting away from the press. They’re kids, like us, and they wanted a place to think about these really important protests without being hounded by the press. It’s not contradictory to treasure the role of the media in political discourse while also accepting that it can be invasive.
isaacl [6:57 PM] The students are protesting in a public place. That is in itself a strategy to get attention and publicise their cause. You can’t invade something that is already public. Again, in terms of strategy, students need to avoid appearing to be against what they are preaching for – a more just and free society. That may be a tall order for such tumultuous times, but in order to take the moral high ground, you need to express it in action.
Certainly, a few incidents should not discredit a whole movement. People who are against the student’s goals just because they watched a few unflattering videos would probably not have supported their goals in the first place.
The only issue is if those incidents are reflective of a mentality among students – that it’s OK to shout down college professors, or that the press should be impeded. That’s what the commentary surrounding these events are about. How much do these incidents reflect a whole generation of activists and where does that lead us?
Does the pursuit of social justice mean other things cherished, such as intellectual discourse or a free press, have to be compromised? I don’t think they have to be, but some commentators do worry about that.
allisonhrabar [7:21 PM] I won’t say their actions have been perfect, but at least at Mizzou they’ve welcomed the media back. As far as whether it’s “OK” to shout down professors, I’ll ask: what should they do instead? Who had heard about the problems at Mizzou or at Yale before these students started shouting?
isaacl [8:32 PM] Mizzou blew up when the football players started going on strike. There are many ways to generate attention. Also, not all publicity is good, negative attention turns the public against you.
anniet (Annie Tvetenstrand, Co-Editor in Chief) [9:12 PM] I agree with Jay: I think that the much of the media has been focusing not on the overwhelming assertion from students that these issues run deep and instead focuses on trivializing the events that precipitate these reactions (e.g., what do you mean these kids can’t handle an offensive Halloween costume). And Isaac, I think that that’s why the students are so sensitive about media coverage: they know that their anger/pain can and will be spun into a narrative portraying them as fragile and intolerant.
jay [9:25 PM] I do think Isaac makes an important point re: tactics. It might very well be that this sort of thing is counter-productive. But, two caveats. First, I’m inclined to think that as Isaac hinted at earlier, the people who are really getting angry about Mizzou/Yale are the people predisposed to dislike these student activists (e.g., Chait, Friedersdorf, Cooke).
More importantly, if we’re making this a question of tactics, haven’t we ceded the moral high ground to call these students threats to liberalism? If this is more about the effectiveness of one type of protest over another, rather than the inherent moral goodness of one type, then I think we owe student activists an attempt to understand them and where their aims and tactics are coming from, rather than wax endlessly and condescendingly (as most pundits have done) about how they are “illiberal,” “Marxist,” or “crybabies.”
allisonhrabar [10:11 PM] On that note, it’s very frustrating for me (as someone who did a lot of student activism as an underclassmen surrounding Title IX, and as someone who supports the student work at Mizzou) to see people agree with the larger goals of those protests but quibble over tactics. It reminds me of the stories from the Swat Black Liberation protests in 1969: what are we doing to help if we don’t like what they’re doing themselves? Are we really supportive of their ends if we’re not helping them reach those goals?
At least at Swat, these student pushes can really help get goals off the ground. I highly recommend checking out the archive of Swat’s history here so we can see what tactics have been successful and not over the past few decades on our own campus.
avishwanath [10:21 PM] On the media – I think the invocation of Tim Tai is relevant even if he doesn’t want it because it’s representative of how individuals are treated, same as Christakis. Those who oppose the aims of these activists are suppressed – there isn’t really a better way to put it. I’m less concerned with the tactics as a means of achieving their ends than I am with the tactics in terms of how they affect other people who are caught in the crosshairs. You might be correct in what you say about the media in general, but how the movement treats individuals matters a lot, and it seems like activists are willing to run roughshod over those who disagree with them. In this sense, I share Isaac’s concerns about the potential compromising of intellectual discourse or a free press to achieve aims of social justice.
I would support action through common avenues of discourse, such as student government. And yes, protest can definitely play a role. I don’t deny the effectiveness of protests at all. It’s more when the protests shout others down or attempt to limit the speech of others when I question them – both tactically and morally, because to me, they lose moral high ground when they act so rudely to others.
Also, one more point about the media – they go after everyone, from politicians to celebrities. You can’t expect that they’re going to cover you sympathetically, or even honestly/fairly. But the response isn’t to shut them out, it’s to be smart about what you do.
isabelknight (Isabel Knight, Managing Editor) [10:27 PM] Here is my take on the media: if we think there is a serious problem with the portrayal of these events, the answer is to try to reform the media rather than blocking them out entirely. I don’t think media organizations are so intractable that they cannot be changed. I think the negative portrayal of the student activists comes from both sides. The fact that so many pundits have been condescending (and I don’t think all the criticism of protesters is condescending, just because you are a victim shouldn’t make you exempt from criticism) can’t just be because all these pundits had it in their agenda to demonize these students from the very beginning. I’m sure there are some of those people out there, but I think that the students have a role to play as well in how they are portrayed. And in this regard, I personally just don’t think incivility is as useful as other tactics could be because you open yourself up to allowing others to criticize you and destroy your image so easily, at a time when image is so important to your cause and effectiveness. When all you have is your voice, it is that much more worth it to make your voice sound reasonable, even if you are angry.
In response to Allison, I think tactics are definitely important in these kinds of movements, as with any kind of action where you are trying to get someone, especially someone with authority, to do what you want. The whole fact that they have to resort to protest is because if they had the institutional power to change things in other ways, they would. Just because their cause is a good one does not mean anything they do to try to achieve their goals is good. I think this has been a problem for Swarthmore in the past as well: we tend to make a lot of noise but ultimately accomplish little (though I would say the Title IX effort has been an exception).
jay [10:30 PM] I think in the end, then, this comes down to the same question we’ve been talking about for years: whose responsibility is it to make sure the debate is (somewhat) civil? It’s understandable to warn activists that they harm their own cause through incivility, but for me, these issues are uncivil from the beginning, and what we’re essentially doing is asking activists to unilaterally disarm, because no matter what they will be blamed more than their opponents.
avishwanath [10:36 PM] Do you think the other side is being less civil? There is a difference between protesting (which some might consider uncivil, I don’t) and the way in which they do it, because they are so absolutist and illiberal in the way they do it. To give a quick example, I don’t consider myself particularly inclined or disinclined towards divestment, but the tactics of the divestment movement at Swarthmore were so absolutist that I found it very difficult to identify myself with their cause.
jay [10:48 PM] I mean, yes. I’m unaware of any principle that would lead to the conclusion that yelling down a professor and “House master” is less civil than, say, a whites-only frat party. But I guess my larger point is that what counts as civil/uncivil, absolutist/amenable to compromise, liberal/illiberal is subjectively defined by the people who react. And right now there is no attempt to understand the students and where they’re coming from, which I think makes it impossible to figure out what’s right, both morally and strategically.
anniet [11:09 PM] To wrap up, I’m glad that we’ve been discussing the role and power of the media in representing and framing these issues. As Isabel mentioned, we all contribute to the media in one way or another through our work at the DG.