The Know-Nothing Campus ‘Protest’ Movement
This is not pouting; it is fury and menace.
Advocate “fascism”? No: Mussolini would recognize little to none of his ideology in Coulter’s opinions. Yet still, there was the issue of what Coulter would have “fostered,” right? But she “fosters” whatever she fosters 24/7 on top-rated television shows and in a weekly column. Speaking to a few hundred people one night on a college campus, though, would have led to some kind of phase shift in her influence?
Of course not—and so we suppose it’s the “principle of the thing.” But just which principle justifies this new fashion of refusing to allow people to speak on college campuses whose views on social issues stray from the MSNBC consensus? That the routine has now drifted into actual physical harassment of such speakers if allowed to speak anyway—as has happened of late to Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna—makes it even more urgent that we try to make sense of what’s going on here.
And the problem is that any attempt to find coherence in this behavior fails, unless we understand that the entire business is a performance—gesture in the guise of action. We object to these people with logic in vain, missing that they are less protesting than “protesting.”
The first indication of these protests’ fragile mooring to logical premise is that the protesters and their supporters continue this noxious behavior in the face of conclusively articulated shutdowns by people from all parts of the political spectrum.
It is painfully obvious that shutting people down is incompatible with the basic principle of free speech. No one at Berkeley could possibly miss the tragedy of refusing to allow views to be expressed near exactly the Sproul Plaza where Mario Savio totemically spearheaded the Free Speech Movement at that very school. No one contests John Stuart Mill’s point that even noxious ideas must be aired regularly so that new generations can be taught their flaws and the rest of us can be reminded of just what they are. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued, to widespread agreement, that treating disturbing ideas as intolerable psychic injury goes directly against the principles of psychological therapy, as in what most would call dealing with real life.
Of course, speech cannot be entirely free. For reasons of pragmatism and civility, an advanced society need not endlessly rehash why genocide, slavery, male-only suffrage, or open and institutionalized bigotry are not the proper ways to go. However, the people being witch-hunted off of today’s campuses are hardly arguing otherwise. Or, if their ideas could be construed as enabling such revanchist notions to pervert societal procedure, one must consider whether or not these ideas have in fact done so.
Take Charles Murray’s argument, with Richard Herrnstein, that black people have lower IQs on average than others. One would be hard-pressed to identify a single public policy this argument has had on societal procedure of any kind since its airing a quarter century ago in The Bell Curve. Or, many claim that Murray’s Coming Apart—which is what he was at Middlebury to discuss—“blames” the poor for their condition. But his argument is actually that today’s behaviors are an unintended legacy of past developments. People who readily understand the legacy concept in the writings of the black left suddenly find the argument as opaque as quantum physics when used by someone they don’t like. This is transparently unfair.
And, again, plain illogical—one more indication that there is something going on with these protests beyond what has motivated protest from the left before. Especially shaky is the basic premise that an unwelcome word or statement constitutes grievous injury unreasonable to expect normal people to walk past. The larger debate over the line between what we designate “mere words” and psychic abuse has been welcome and appropriate, but the extreme delicacy today’s protesters are demanding we observe suggests hothouse flowers no civil rights hero would recognize.
“You’re hurting me,” a black student earnestly objected when David Horowitz once spoke at UC-Berkeley. But Horowitz was simply arguing that reparations for slavery have already been granted in the form of affirmative action and the Great Society programs. One may disagree, but King, Malcolm X, DuBois, and Garvey would have been gobsmacked at the idea that Horowitz’s statement qualified as a verbal punch in the gut. The “safe space” concept, too, implies that oblique microaggressions, goofy jokes, and the occasional drunken idiot pushing the envelope with a costume or catcall at a party qualify as pugilistic abuse. But the very concept of black, or even human, strength, is lost here—as Todd Gitlin has noted, the student protests of 1968 were about strength, not folding up.
What’s going on here, then? The term “crazy” fails us here. It refers to behavior that contrasts to a norm, whereas sadly this form of protest has become a norm itself in progressive circles of the collegetown orbit. Clinical insanity is not subject to faddism and copycatting. Equally off-target is the “snowflake” catcall, implying that these protesters just think they’re extra-special and must have things exactly their way. We are dealing with nothing plausibly classifiable as whining. The gloweringly indignant sarcasm, the screaming and profanity, the physical threats—people hurled an unearthed stop sign complete with its concrete base at a car Charles Murray was in—this is not pouting; it is fury and menace.
The only way this thuggery in the name of enlightenment does make logical sense is if we realize that these people are protesting in quotation marks. The chasing people off of campuses, seemingly so unreasoning, is a physical enactment of the mental process of disagreement, manifesting itself physically as ejection. The assertion that controversial ideas must not even be given an airing performs the sentiment that an idea is noxious, befouls the air, would ideally be absent. Note a common conversational gesture on such topics in which one waves one’s hands as if warding off a stench.
Yes, there is always an element of the theatrical in protest. One makes signs, one speaks loudly, one seeks attention. But these new campus developments are something different. The environmentalist crafts slogans and raises their voice, but their concern for the state of the planet is concrete, based on a literal fear of impending biological catastrophe. One is arguing from different grounds to disallow someone to even give voice to an argument that the police help more black people than they kill, or that the state of the employment market is not the only reason people may be poor, or that our nation’s immigration policies are too lax. Whatever one’s take on those views, to insist that they are equivalent to those of Hitler or a Southern segregationist displays a shocking blindness to simple proportion—unless one’s actual intentions are different than we are assuming. They are.
Namely, this is protest at a kind of remove from, of all things, reality. It is, rather, an imitation of protest: “protest.” One can see a certain logic—in itself—in executing a pose of receiving today’s writerly controversialist with the furious revulsion one would direct toward a revivified John C. Calhoun. Doing this signals that you well and truly understand certain philosophical resemblances between these new views and hideous older ones, and that we must be vigilant against the return of the latter views themselves. You “get it.” This signaling, in the immediacy of its visceral payoff, risks seeming more important than the reality, which is that the modern views are as unlike the old ones as they are similar, are usually more reasonably subject to reasoned debate, and if they aren’t, typically pose no threat to the common order.
As in: Yes, this applies even to racist white nationalists speaking on campuses. Richard Spencer says some stuff in an auditorium, upon which… what? When I was in college in the ’80s, one protested against such people and wrote editorials in the college paper, and life went on (such as to a black man being elected president twice). Today the good word is that a Spencer shouldn’t even be allowed on campus, despite that his speech would have no more effect on life as we know it than a similar one decades ago. Obviously, the goal here is the indication of one’s awareness, not a proactive sociopolitical objective.
Thus to truly understand what is happening here, we must see these protesters not as seeking a safe space, but “seeking a safe space,” warning us not of fascists but of “fascists,” “fostering oppression” and threatening “impending resegregation.” Oddly, the kayfabe concept in professional wrestling is the appropriate analogy, a tacit contract under which fans pretend something staged is real. In wrestling the payoff is entertainment; with the new protest movement the payoff is that we all demonstrate our heightened sociopolitical awareness—our faith, as it were. These episodes are religious services of a sort, which is part of why they now occur so regularly.
I do not mean to imply something so simplistic as that these protesters are willfully faking. They are sincere, within their bounds. But the bounds are important—the religious comparison is useful in that the religious person seals off a certain region of their reasoning from the ABCs of pure logic, for what they perceive as a higher purpose. However, we must understand that the protesters are proceeding from just such a cordoned-off area of consciousness, in order to comprehend their refusal to heed calls to observe Enlightenment-style convictions regarding the nature of discussion and the complexities of society.
The performative aspect of these services is not difficult to perceive. It first occurred to me at Stanford in 1989 when I was graduate student. That spring, a coalition of students (just as today, including many white students—my analysis is by no means limited to people of color) took over an administrative building with a slate of demands which, one couldn’t help noticing, seemed rather incommensurate with the tenor of the sloganeering, yelling, and confrontations with law enforcement (several students were arrested). The fact that the school had yet to establish Asian-American Studies and Native American Studies departments and had not yet hired an assistant dean for Chicano Affairs (yes, these were the demands!) hardly seemed to justify the idea that the university, with its racial preference policies, black and Asian student dormitories, bureaucracy of infrastructure devoted to addressing minority students’ concerns, university-funded black, Latino and Asian student associations, etc. was “a racist institution.” Note that this latter only made any kind of sense in quotation marks—as did the protest itself.
Nothing underscored this more than that so many of the protesters were smiling so much of the time, including when being bussed to the police station. I had occasion to see one of the leaders a month later at a party talking about the whole episode, talking with the joyous elation of someone backstage after a successful theatrical debut—despite that the administration had promised only further “consideration.” This building takeover was, in essence, an imitation of student protests a generation before—a “protest.”
But that Stanford scene sounds tame compared to this new business of completely shutting people down in the name of enlightenment and even threatening violence if they dare appear, dismissing all critique as clueless, bourgeois harrumphings. Whence this new kind of protester who can square this know-nothing brutishness with subsequently being granted a bachelor’s degree from an august institution, processing with a mortarboard on their head and receiving a diploma to frame? Why is this happening now?
What is different from episodes like the Stanford one during the first Bush administration is the tone, and what has focused this is social media. Twitter and Facebook, once they had become prevalent by 2009, first revealed their insidious power in how they whipped up the Tea Party brand of conservatism. Constant contact and repetition seal off alternative views, heighten sentiment, and then encourage copycatting. The modern wave of student protests have been sparked and buoyed in like fashion, taking their cue initially from the Black Lives Matter protests, which themselves followed from the protest nationwide against the exoneration of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. For the record, I have supported both Black Lives Matter, despite some caveats, and the grievances against the Zimmerman verdict—my problem is not with protest, but with “protest.”
And as such, what about this scare-quote aspect of the protests, specifically? What has made it feel so normal for students to wield protest as a kind of performance art, adopting the turned-up-to-11 tone justified in someone protesting police murders but now against someone invited to their campus to talk in an auditorium for 45 minutes and answer some questions?
Surely part of the reason is a desire to make a difference in a time when the issues are usually more abstract than battling legalized sexism and segregation. No protester in Selma or Birmingham took to the streets as a performative gesture, none smiled, and none based their participation on the possibility that anyone was abstractly “fostering” or “implying” anything. Today, one may seek to follow in the footsteps of the elders, and may even feel responsible for reproducing their fury. But reality interferes: The racism a James Baldwin knew was more immediate than the institutional racism, microaggressions, and cultural appropriation most of concern today.
One solution is to take on the same “Burn this mother down” demeanor as Malcolm and Stokely—at Berkeley opponents warned that Coulter would be shut down “by any means necessary”—while fashioning an argument that keeping us moving forward demands this same tone and furor even if the reasons are more abstract. That the seismic public shift on gay marriage has happened without any such know-nothing, id-driven behaviors doesn’t figure in the reasoning, within which the mic-drop, the primal, room-clearing payoff of the scream, takes precedence.
Then, the idea of “doing” a protest is especially available in our age of the endlessly reproduceable image or, in our times, video. The image, make no mistake, has been of considerable benefit in civil rights. Television is why the dam finally broke in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when people could see protesters being maimed in their living rooms. Frederick Douglass would surely have done (be doing?) even more of the “good things” Mr. Trump has praised him for if television had existed in his time. Social media has also gotten America talking about race and the cops in a real way for the first time.
However, technology always has its downsides. When footage of recent protests is endlessly available in everyone’s pockets, the visceral impact of the reproduction as show can take precedence over the substance of the issues that were involved. The event, in its passion and vibrancy, becomes something you want to imitate, to be part of, to “do,” just as one often identifies with movie and musical performances. Our protesters are, in their way, like teenagers playing air guitar.
At heart, it’s “I want to do that.” At first it may take a bit of a leap to assail a college administrator as a racist for questioning whether all acts deemed cultural appropriation qualify as bigotry, as happened at Yale, or to assault and nearly barricade a building a speaker is in like whites besetting a small-town Southern jail seeking to lynch a black man. However, there are always a few especially nervy individuals, and these days it’s easier than ever for them to rally the troops with the village in all of our pockets. Add in that today’s novelty is tomorrow’s commonplace, and the result is the norming of performative intemperance.
It is predictable, also, that the new mood is hardly restricted to college students. The most violent of the protesters against Murray, and the most vocal of the ones against MacDonald as well as Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley in March, seem to have been from off campus. Social media warp us all, and the new “protest” meme will hardly be confined to colleges. This ought frighten us even more.
Because these protests are at heart a kind of acting, sober objections about the nature of free speech and intelligent inquiry argue past the participants. These protesters are quite aware that shutting down the expression of ideas does not eliminate those ideas from society, and if anything, only calls more attention to the speakers in question. All of these protesters are people who would bristle at any charge that they lack strength or self-regard, so fragile as to be constitutionally incapable of hearing dissent from their own beliefs.
Rather, we are watching people who have internalized a sense that to mime white-hot and even violent indignation, against expressions of ideas rather than against actions, demonstrates one’s moral sophistication in modern society. Logical argument will be as powerless against this new practice as it is irrelevant to its motivations.
That is, unless university administrators and professors revise the kind of logical argument they are presenting, and face a responsibility sadly difficult to step up to in our current atmosphere. If we are to allow a reasonable conception of free speech on today’s college campuses, then student protesters of this purging impulse must be told that despite the imperfections of society, their position on right-wing speakers will be neither accommodated nor sanctioned, not only because it threatens free speech and civility, but because it is a histrionic pose based on stark exaggeration.
Short of that—and let’s face it, all indications are that we shall be short of it—it would seem that we are in for a future in which controversial speakers stop even venturing to speak on college campuses, such that collegetown life becomes even more of an echo-chamber than it already was.
What lovely times we live in, in which we not only have a “president” on the right, but also a campus climate in which “progressivism” successfully exterminates the expression of all views rightward of The Nation—as in, most of the spectrum of human opinion.