The Moral Rightness of College Protests

The recent civil disobedience of college students at Yale, Mizzou, and all over the country has been the subject of ridicule in the last few weeks. The protesters, predominately students of color, have been called every manor of name by the media and the commentariat. Conservative shill Roger Kimball called them “crybabies” in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal. Likewise, conservative George Will complained that this was all about thin-skinned and overly sensitive liberals demanding that the politically-correct need to never be annoyed is an entitlement. An anonymous adjunct professor was apparently so terrified he dares not discuss anything challenging in class. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt waxed feverish about the effort to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” in the pages of The Atlantic back in September. Nine days ago The Atlantic published another piece, this time by Conor Friedersdorf, titled “Free Speech is No Diversion,” on how the protesters are “overwrought.” You know, like those women who get fits of the vapors. In a thinly-disguised allusion to the sexist phrase “man up,” Mark Oppenheimer opines in “Person Up, Yale Students,” that they have been “infantilized,” and just need to grow up and act like adults.

The one thing these pieces all seem to have in common is the belief that college students today are coddled, overly sensitive, and nothing like the go-getting, grown-up, wonderful intellectuals these middle-aged prognosticators and their peers were back when they were at university. Partly this is the shallow veneer of hindsight that all previous generations see their own time through. But there is a deeper issue at hand, and that is the dismissive view of Millennials generally. If Millennials are coddled, overly sensitive, and desperate to avoid the difficult rigors adult life (as is repeatedly claimed, with depressing regularity, despite absolutely no evidence whatsoever), then surely the answer to these protesting students and their concerns about “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” must be part of this overall trend as well. Of course, there is no empirical evidence that millennials are any better or worse than any other generation.

The other common thread each of these pieces have (with the exception of Kimball and Wills, of course) is the pains each author goes to present their liberal bona fides. It is as if the authors instinctively know that their positions are virtually identical to those of their conservative counterparts but want to avoid the accusation that their white, male privilege is showing. They don’t want to listen to what these students of color are saying, but they also don’t want to be called on this, lest their paternalistic liberalism be revealed for what it really is. They are all, so far as I can tell, white, middle-to-upper class males, and all part of the power/structure system of our cultural institutions. System-supportive whites in positions of power rarely find protest, civil disobedience, and disruption of the smooth-running of the institution to be an appropriate response to perceived problems.

We frequently forget that the Civil Rights movement of a generation ago was found wanting in just the same ways by whites, for having problems of tone, of being too passionate, of minorities appealing to paternalistic government agencies for help rather than behaving like adults, and that their protest and civil disobedience were inappropriate because they disrupted the smooth functioning of the system. The rose-tinted glasses through which whites look back on the Civil Rights movement today is largely a white construction, a mythic revision of a history that we opposed in precisely the same ways many whites today oppose the Black Lives Matter movement and these student protests.

What all these paternalistic white liberals forget as they go about scolding students of color for their activities and opinions is the racist history of “civil” discourse. Joan Scott pointed out in her excellent piece “The New Thought Police” for The Nation that the real culprits for the enforcement of correct speech on college campuses are the administrators and powerful interests that run them. She observes the distinctly hegemonic assumption behind the demand for civility; the powerful demand the respect of their lessers, and this is rigidly reinforced. As she notes, “the notion of civility consistently establishes relations of power whenever it is invoked. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning—one that, whatever its specific content, demeans and delegitimizes those who do not meet its test.” Anything less is seen as unacceptable.

But there is also a darker assumption behind the demand for civility, the hegemony of a racialized Western supremacy. The origins of the term “civility” is in the word “civilization,” which is constructed in contrast to the word “barbarian.” When students of color are told by their white, privileged professors and administrators that they are behaving with incivility, they are exercising code words for barbaric, irrational, dirty, and playing to the very worst presumptions of 19th century social Darwinism. Here is Scott again, and see if you can’t pick out how directly applicable her words are to the present conflict on campus:

the dissident claims of minority groups go unheard in the public sphere when they are tagged as departures from the protocols of style and decorum—dismissed as evidence of irrationality and so placed outside the realm of what is taken to be reasoned deliberation. They are, by definition, uncivil, and thus beneath contempt. Once a certain space or style of argument is identified as civil, the implication is that dissenters from it are uncivilized. “Civility” becomes a synonym for orthodoxy; “incivility” designates unorthodox ideas or behavior.

These words are an apt description of the complete unwillingness on the part of some to actually listen to the students who are protesting. This inability to hear minority groups is not limited to conservatives, as has become abundantly clear. Paternalistic liberals are vulnerable to the same blindness and deafness; indeed, nothing seems to turn paternalistic liberals into conservatives more quickly than the possibility that millennials are, somewhere, somehow, taking matters into their own hands. It is evidently too much for some to stomach that millennials, particularly millennials of color, are constructing their own safe spaces and confronting the ways in which paternalistic liberalism, for all its good intentions, masks and perpetuates inequality, injustice, and preserves an oppressive cultural and political system.

The ongoing debate over “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggression” in our institutions of higher learning is largely a debate over how systemic the violence and oppression within our institutions really are. It is difficult not to think that the offense of these practices is that they come from below; far from being coddled and looking to be protected by paternalist institutions, students are taking protection into their own hands, however imperfectly. This exercise of self-agency on the part of millennials seems to strike terror into the hearts of those who want all the ideas to flow exclusively downward. One might be forgiven for suspecting that paternalistic liberal institutions might not be so opposed to these things if they had been applied by system-supportive intellectuals rather than by minority students outside authorized channels and beyond the pale of “acceptable” speech.

Far from being concerned with “offensiveness,” which is how these issues are commonly framed by conservatives and perpetuated by structural-supportive liberals, these are matters of oppression for marginalized groups. The benchmark of progressive critiques of violence and oppression rests upon the study of how structures, systems, and institutions perpetuate injustice, and the reason seemingly trivial issues are amplified by our college students is that the growth of semiotic theory and linguistics have shown that language can be just as violent and oppressive as anything else.

In fact, language functions as a root metaphor that controls how marginalized groups are perceived by the wider population, and trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and other approaches are an attempt to unveil how language itself can be violent and give rise to physical violence. We routinely recognize that the use of language to dehumanize an enemy or group is the precursor to genocide, yet we are reluctant to carry this fact into our evaluation of our own uses of language. All-too-frequently, language constructs bring about life-or-death matters for minorities in this country. It might seem to be trivial to crack down on frat boys being stupid and sexist, but young women who have to worry about being raped or killed by men for having their sexual advances denied or requests for a phone number turned down don’t find it trivial in the slightest. Transgender people are disproportionately targeted with physical violence in part because they apply gendered language to themselves in a fashion that challenges common constructions.

In his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, continental philosopher and intellectual Slavoj Zizek writes that there are two kinds of violence, subjective and objective. Subjective violence is what we always think of as violence, criminal violence or revenge. But objective violence is what our focus on subjective violence actually masks. Zizek writes,

subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious–and extensively studied–cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.

I thus suggest that the negative and critical reaction to these social and campus movements by conservatives and those I have called paternalistic liberals is precisely because it exposes the two kinds of objective violence to which Zizek draws our attention. Through their protests, they destabilize the smooth functioning of the system and the violence that is part of its “normal” performance and which is not seen as violent by those whom the system benefits and prioritizes. And through their practice of self-protection, the students expose the inherent ways in which our language choices demean, dehumanize, marginalize, and oppress minority groups. The exposure of lingual violence is taken to be trivial and over-sensitivity by those with the blindness of privilege, when  it is in fact an attempt to actually deal with the root causes of structural and physical violence themselves. America’s unwillingness to address the roots of violence in general provides the river into which such critics form a tributary. If experience has shown us anything, it is that we want less of the violent result (shootings, domestic abuse, etc.) without the determination necessary to cut out the roots that actually bring about such violent results.

The common media framing of campus conflicts as free speech issues often serves to disguise the enforcement of systemic oppression by campus administrations. Tariq Khan penned a piece for the Hampton Institute in which he notes that “in the present-day United States, a shallow idea of ‘free speech’ is often wielded by the privileged as a way to direct attention away from critiques of existing conditions and systems; particularly critiques of capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.”

Issues of free speech are complicated, and I don’t know of any students on any campus in the United States that doesn’t grant this. Matters of oppression are also a matter of perception to some degree, but I also don’t know of any students who don’t acknowledge this. Certainly reading what the students have said about themselves in each of these protest incidents gives no fodder to support calling them thought police or the new totalitarians. Free speech concerns the ability to express one’s opinion. It does not concern freedom from the consequences of that free speech. So far no student I know of has said that the KKK should not exist, or that KKK members should be hunted down and imprisoned. But should a KKK Grand Dragon be invited to speak at our university campuses? Such an invitation would constitute a legitimization of oppression as a reasonable viewpoint, would it not? Tolerance has never extended to oppressive ideology, otherwise intolerance would devour tolerance entirely.

Highly publicized protests of Bill Maher or Condoleeza Rice on college campuses, for example, have to do with the fact that they say racist and bigoted things about Muslims (in Maher’s case), support U.S. hegemony in the world (in both cases), and served as a hegemonic propagandist that got us into a war in which the U.S. committed war crimes (in Rice’s case). Giving Islamophobia and warmongering an equal position with enlightened opinions is dangerous (and there are no shortage of venues eager to hear them); actual Muslims and Iraqis die as the consequence of such ideas, and the positions themselves marginalize Muslims, non-Westerners, and those who are not American. Such opinions are offensive, to be sure, but primarily they are oppressive; or rather, their oppressiveness is the cause of their offensiveness. All opinions are protected under the law, but that does not mean all ideas are equal, nor that we must give them all equal respect. Primarily, though, the concern is with ideas that perpetuate oppression and marginalization, ideas which actually manufacture violence through their use of language. As Khan writes,

Student initiatives on campuses to challenge things such as racial or gender micro-aggressions are not challenges to free speech and they are not based on the idea that micro-aggressions are “offensive.” Micro-aggressions must be challenged because they are oppressive, not because they are offensive. Racist speech leads to an environment that is conducive to racist violence. It marginalizes students of color and makes the university not “uncomfortable,” but unsafe. Anti-LGBT speech makes campus unsafe, not merely “uncomfortable” for LGBT students. Misogynist speech creates an environment that is conducive to sexual assault. Any decent social scientist knows this. It is not about people being “uncomfortable” or “offended.” It is about people being unsafe and oppressed. White frat boys would have us believe that they are being unfairly “silenced” because women and people of color don’t laugh at their misogynistic or racist jokes, meanwhile anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist students and professors face actual repression from law-makers, wealthy donors, campus administrators, police, and vigilantes. The same foolish people who boycott stores for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Lord Jesus God Almighty and the Bible Christmas!” complain that Black students fighting against actually-existing racial violence are “oversensitive.”


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