Education

When Student Protesters Defeat Their Own Cause

A challenge to "expressivism" on campus.

It's not about you.

Photographer: Max Whittaker/Getty Images

At Middlebury College, student demonstrators recently shut down a speech by Charles Murray, the conservative author, in the process injuring a Middlebury professor who was accompanying him.

At Claremont McKenna College, student protesters earlier this month succeeded in shutting down a speech by Heather Mac Donald, another conservative author. In a subsequent letter, students from the adjoining Pomona College explained that Mac Donald “is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”

Officials at the University of California at Berkeley this week canceled a scheduled speech by Ann Coulter, the conservative author, on the ground that the school could not “find a safe and suitable venue” for her. (The decision was reversed a day later.)

Outbursts of campus activism can be good, potentially even great. But far too often, they turn out to be about expressing what students regard as the correct values, rather than actually improving people’s lives. Expressive protests take up a lot of time and energy, and produce an abundance of passion. But they tend to do little or nothing to address the injustices that students say they want to remedy.

Efforts to shut down speakers are the worst and the most extreme form of campus expressivism. It should go without saying that at colleges and universities, free speech is indispensable, and interferences with it are deplorable.

But I want to emphasize a different point: Those who shut down Murray and Mac Donald apparently thought that they were striking a big blow for justice, but they really weren’t.

What probably happened is that like-minded students, talking mostly to one another, got all stirred up to the point where they went to indefensible extremes. That’s a pervasive risk in politics, and it is a hallmark of campus expressivism.

If the goal is to combat “interlocking systems of domination,” students have a lot of opportunities, whether the activity involves helping particular individuals who face terrible conditions, or devoting time and attention to some kind of reform that might produce systemic change. Instead of silencing speakers, how about helping victims of domestic violence, or working on behalf of increasing the earned-income tax credit, one of the best programs for combating poverty?

To be sure, most forms of campus expressivism are a lot less harmful than efforts to shut down speakers.

Officials at Harvard, my university, recently announced that they are seeking substitutes for the final line of the alma mater, written in 1836, which ends: “Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love/Till the stock of the Puritans die.” According to one faculty member, the line could be seen as “complicit with racism.”

In my view, the reference to the Puritans has some charm, but it’s a product of a particular time and place, and it’s not a horrible idea to find a substitute for it. But careful scrutiny of old song lyrics isn’t exactly the best way to change the world. It belongs in the same category as protest activities about old statues or names on old university buildings, perhaps the most common recent form of campus expressivism.

At Princeton, for example, students engaged in a 32-hour protest and sit-in at the office of president Christopher Eisgruber, asking him to excise Woodrow Wilson’s name from its buildings and programs because Wilson believed in racial segregation. But how, concretely, would it further the cause of racial justice if Princeton dropped the name of its former president (and the president of the United States)? Were the protesting students focusing their time and attention in the right place?

No one should deny that symbols matter, because they can affect how people experience their institutions. It is important to reckon with history, and in some cases, changing names might make sense, especially if a building was originally named after a prominent defender of slavery.

But far too often, student expressivism looks inward at college life, rather than outward at the world, focusing on what is happening on campus rather than in places where people most need help. It ensures that students will devote their limited time, idealism and concern for justice to actions or reforms that do little or nothing to improve human lives.

Previous generations of student activists contributed immeasurably to the civil-rights movement and the fight against sex discrimination. On the right, they helped create the Federalist Society, which has transformed how judges and lawyers think about the Constitution. On the left, they have given life to the movement for LGBT rights.

In the current era, student activists would do well to think much less about how to express their values and instead to focus insistently on a single question: If I succeed, how many people will I actually be helping?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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