There's No College P.C. Crisis: In Defense of Student Protesters

Students are agitating for what they believe in, and we should support them

Yale students have recently protested racism and a lack of diversity at the university. Credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

As Halloween approached at Yale this year, a university committee sent around a mass email encouraging students to consider that costumes playing on ethnic, racial or other stereotypes might cause offense. A student life administrator, Erika Christakis, circulated a critical response to that email, which in turn sparked a campus-wide discussion. Faculty, staff and students debated the issue in person, in school publications and online, sometimes heatedly. Many students argued Christakis' stance was incompatible with her role overseeing a campus residential community. Others disagreed. Some even argued Christakis and her husband, who had been similarly vocal, should be fired — a call that the university quickly rejected.

Many of us, watching from afar, saw all this as a controversy in the best traditions of American college life — spirited debate, heated disagreement, rowdy protest. And if the stakes struck us as small, and some of the reactions overheated, that was hardly unprecedented either.

For others, though, the events at Yale were a major scandal, confirmation that the U.S. higher education system is in a deep and dangerous crisis. The students who protested Christakis were, it was charged, a mob of censors — "snowflake totalitarians" who "made no allowance for legitimate dissent."

How did we get to this point? Why are such ordinary disagreements suddenly being cast as threats to the American university, even America itself?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that these disputes are now more public than they were in the past. Our current boom in student protest is the first since streaming video and social media made every sit-in a real-time global spectacle. Twenty-five years ago, the last time the country freaked out about student radicals and "political correctness," we had a bit more distance, and maybe even a bit more perspective.

There's also the issue of who today's activists are, and what they believe. The demographics of American higher education have been transformed dramatically since the 1960s, and the concerns of protesters have changed as a result. No previous generation of American student protesters foregrounded the concerns of women, students of color and LGBT students like this one has, or was so visibly led by people who weren't middle-class-or-better straight white men. And much of the jargon of the current movement — trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces — can be off-putting, particularly to non-initiates. 

But these explanations only go so far, particularly since so many of the movement's critics are self-proclaimed free-speech advocates. Even if they think the students' ideas are bad or weird, the right to put them forward is surely worth defending. But that premise — that campus activists have free-speech rights that are worthy of robust and aggressive defense — has been largely absent from mainstream writing about contemporary campus culture. Many high-profile commentators, in fact, have taken the opposite tack, claiming that the students' ideas are so bad and so weird as to represent a threat to free speech itself.

A bizarre, but not unrepresentative, example: Early this year, a student theater group at Mount Holyoke College announced that they would no longer be staging their annual production of The Vagina Monologues, explaining that the play's "perspective on what it means to be a woman" is too "narrow" and "reductionist" for their taste. When word of this decision broke in the media, the troupe was widely accused of censorship. By canceling the play, Lizzie Crocker wrote in The Daily Beast, "you're excluding me from watching something I want to see." Feminist writer Meghan Murphy asserted that the group was "silencing women." New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, a leading critic of today's student activists, highlighted the Mount Holyoke case in a widely read essay that condemned political correctness as an "attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate."

But who exactly was being censored here? Who was being silenced? What was being regulated? The troupe hadn't been forbidden to stage the play. They'd just decided not to. Surely the same freedom of speech that had given them the right to perform it gave them the right to stop. And even if other students had encouraged them in their decision — if, say, activists had gone to the troupe and explained their objections to the play and asked them not to put it on again, and the performers had mulled the request and decided to honor it — that wouldn't have been censorship either. It would have been dialogue, discussion — exactly the encounter of minds and ideas that the university is supposed to nurture. 

Some will argue that I'm painting too rosy a picture of typical campus "discussions" around issues of identity and ideology in the year 2015. It's not rational discourse that such activists use to change people's behavior, argues Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, a persistent critic of the movement, but "stigma, call-outs, and norm-shaping." But even granting that premise, since when is upholding norms something to condemn? When has publicly shaming people who do publicly bad things ever not been a legitimate part of political debate? Friedersdorf is shaming activists, not reasoning with them, when he describes them as overwrought children. I'm shaming Friedersdorf, not reasoning with him, when I point that fact out. And that's OK. There's nothing wrong with a little public shaming. In fact, sometimes a little public shaming is exactly what circumstances call for.

Last May, news leaked at San Diego State University that Vincent Martin, a tenured professor, had been found by campus investigators to have sexually harassed one of his undergraduate students. He'd neither been terminated nor publicly reprimanded — the whole thing had been swept under the rug. When students found out, they protested. They planned a picket outside of one of Martin's classrooms, and when he canceled that day's classes they plastered his office door and the surrounding walls with their signs and posters.

The protesters' goal wasn't to engage Martin in discussion. They had no reason to believe that a rational consideration of the harms of sexual harassment would dissuade Martin from re-offending, or, for that matter, convince the university to get him out of the classroom before he victimized someone else. (It has since emerged that Martin sexually harassed multiple students at two different universities.) No, what the protesters were engaged in was exactly what Friedersdorf criticizes: "stigma, call-outs, and norm-shaping." And they were right. That was what the situation required, and it worked — Vincent Martin is no longer employed at SDSU, and he will have a very difficult time finding another teaching job.

Sometimes, as Frederick Douglass once wrote, "it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder." Some occasions call for rational debate, he said, but others demand nothing less than "a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke." To acknowledge that is not to express hostility to discourse, but to embrace it — to embrace the power of speech in its full scope and capacity.

Student activists have always understood the power of thunder. And they understand as well that sometimes thunder, on its own, isn't enough. Sometimes you have to do more than just speak. Sometimes you have to organize — to, as the First Amendment says, assemble and pursue a redress of grievances. Sometimes, as Mario Savio declared in the greatest and most famous speech to emerge from the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley half a century ago, "the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that … you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." Because sometimes putting your body upon the wheels is the only influence you have.

In a November essay, Jonathan Chait described the Yale students who protested Erika Christakis and her husband as "jeering student mobs expressing incredulity at the idea of political democracy," screamers who see debate as "irrelevant." But Yale is not a democracy, and the administrators who set and enforce its policies are not elected officials accountable to a campus electorate. What the activists understand, and what Chait does not, is that in the governance of the university — in the making and enforcing of the rules that govern students' lives — debate, however cogent, often is irrelevant. 

Columbia professor John McWhorter, another critic of today's protesters, concedes that some of their goals have value. For instance, he says, "campus police must conquer any leaning toward treating students of color like potential criminals." But look at that framing — "police must conquer any leaning." Not "must be compelled to conquer," or "must be held accountable if they do not conquer," just "must conquer." And if they do not, what then? McWhorter doesn't say.

We see this over and over from the protesters' critics. "If any discrete group of students is ever discriminated against," Friedersdorf writes, then "of course … remedies should be implemented." But if they are not, again: What then?

Unacknowledged here is the obvious: That students have very little direct power on the contemporary American campus. Administrators have lots of power. Trustees have lots of power. Faculty have quite a bit. But students have very little. And so a call to resolve campus disagreements by reasoned debate is a call to allow the people who have been setting the rules to continue to set the rules. Students understand this, and that's why they have little patience for decorum. It's why activists sometimes yell at professors. (And why the professors typically stay calm when yelled at.) It's why activists make demands — because the power to change the university directly isn't theirs to wield.

I'm not saying that students should have the power to fire college presidents and remake curricula at will. (Not quite.) But I am saying that a "free speech" argument that ignores power — an argument that says "let the best debater win" without acknowledging that being the best debater is not, for students, a path to victory — is not an argument that any student activist will, or should, find convincing.

Claims that student activists are trampling on free-speech rights are, as we've seen, frequently overblown. But to the extent that activists see free-speech arguments as, as Jelani Cobb wrote recently in the New Yorker, a "diversion," it's largely a reflection of the constant use of "free speech" as a weapon against legitimate agitation by critics who don't understand that a student protest and a debating society are two different things.

Those of us who would have today's student activists embrace free-speech principles, rather than grudgingly tolerate them, need to defend the activists' free-speech rights. When they are punished for marching, we must defend their right to march. When they say things we think are stupid, we must defend their right to say them. When they yell, we must defend their right to yell — even at professors, and especially at professors who are saying things we find sensible. When they engage in behavior that pushes at the boundaries of acceptable speech, we must remember that pushing at boundaries is what the First Amendment, and the university, are for.

When student activists advocate policies that would, if implemented, compromise essential free-speech guarantees — punishing fellow students for constitutionally protected speech, for instance — their proposals are worthy of pushback. But if we are really committed to preserving a climate of rigorous, robust disputation on campus, we have to commit to defending students' right to agitate for what they believe in — which means distinguishing speech we find obnoxious from acts that threaten free expression itself. We have to stop screaming "censor" every time a student says a challenging thing in a challenging way, and we have to start rebuking those who do.

If the critics of the current student movement continue to reflexively demonize students' speech, tactics and demands as hostile to free-speech principles, students will continue to tune those critics out — and rightly so. Today's campus activists are raising urgent questions about the proper character of the university, initiating debates that will only grow broader and more important as the campus movement continues to develop. Their ideas deserve supportive engagement, not dismissal.