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