Like many Americans, I have watching the recent outbreak of campus protests with keen interest – and not a little concern. The recent turmoil at the University of Missouri, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Yale University, my alma mater, and an ever growing list of campuses has gained particular attention due to cell phone videos that capture vitriolic interactions involving students, faculty, administrators, and the media. The question is should we be celebrating the courage of students and faculty who are attempting to highlight persistent injustices or denigrating their message and methods?
One core problem that any campus protesters face is one of perception. We instinctively react negatively when those whom we perceive to be in positions of great privilege are doing the protesting. We see students and faculty shouting and marching on gorgeously appointed campuses and tend to shake our heads because they seem so spoiled and screechy. To those who are simply trying to work and survive, it can sound very much like Hillary Clinton complaining about being “dead broke” or Donald Trump fussing about the property taxes on one of his mansions. Add to this the smug certitude of youth and the often incredible insularity of academics – both spewing flame-throwing messages on social media that could at times benefit from a little forethought – and you are sure to raise the hackles of someone who has more experience with the messy, compromised world beyond the ivied walls of a college campus.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to parse out the message and listen to the frustrations of the protesters. The horrid persistence of hate and the grim existence of want collide headlong with the perhaps unrealistic – but still laudable – idealism that is the hallmark of all youth. Remember that we would be criticizing these same students for their apathy if they were exerting the same energy drinking and ignoring the many alarming problems in the world around them. To cluck about coddled college students whose perceptions we believe have been skewed by a sense of victimhood and entitlement that many believe bears no relation to the reality outside the walls of their campuses seems both a bit churlish and terribly shortsighted. After all, is it worse to care too much or care too little? What are we to think about all of this energy and anger?
Perhaps, when all is said and done, the message is reasonable – but the methods are not.
To deny college students the opportunity to speak out about issues that concern them is to deny the core function of higher education, the open examination of ourselves and the world around us. After all, injustices – economic, racial, and sexual to name just few – are everywhere. To presume we are free from the bigotries that have haunted our history is simply wrong, and it is the duty of every American to continually ask ourselves how we can improve our nation and fulfill its highest ideals.
However, I believe that those students and faculty raging against poverty, war, and injustice must remember that it is both necessary and valuable to listen to viewpoints other than your own. Anyone who insists that they – and only they – speak the truth is simultaneously demonstrating both their arrogance and laziness, and any notion that free speech must be suppressed or controlled in order for discussion to proceed is incredibly wrongheaded and dangerous. Any belief is valuable and useful only to the extent that it can stand a cold blast of rigorous examination. To blithely dismiss all who disagree with you as either bigots or fools is to betray your own inability to engage in reasoned debate. An idea that cannot survive outside the hothouse environment of a “safe space” devoid of free and open discussion is likely to be nothing but an effete intellectual dead end that will result in nothing other than a dissertation no one will ever bother to read.
Finally, keep this in mind, campus protesters: ISIS and a host of other worldwide threats will not engage in mere micro-aggressions; their actions will, as we have already seen, be macro to the max. This type of existential threat to freedom and democracy is perhaps the best reason of all to “privilege” free speech and open debate on all our campuses in pursuit of the common good, and we need to loudly insist that this be the foundation of all discussions regarding the form and future of our nation.