In this installment of “In Defense Of,” Julia Goodman protests the protest of protests. We promise this article will be way easier to read (and way more enjoyable) than that just was.
Yesterday, a disturbing editorial ran in the Spectator entitled “Make protesting pragmatic.” It opens with the observation that “campus protests have become less disruptive,” which apparently, in the view of the editorial board, is a good thing. I’ll spare you the full rundown, because frankly, I have never been prouder of Spec’s commenters, and they did an excellent job of highlighting some of the issues. But let’s look at some of the problems with this editorial, not least the fact that it apparently reflects the views of the entire editorial board.
I’ll start here: “Interestingly, the current sexual misconduct policy is itself partly a product of a rules change following rallies in the fall of 1999, ignited by the administration’s misguided assertion that no rapes occurred on campus at all.” I honestly don’t understand what this means. Is that interesting because radical activism sometimes gets things done? If so, why are they using an example that goes directly against their point? Those 1999 protests are described, in the old Spectator article they link to, as “intended to be both thought-provoking and disturbing.” Or is this a not-so-subtle criticism of those 1999 protestors for not doing enough, considering that we still feel the need to protest Columbia’s sexual assault policy? If that is, indeed, the case, then perhaps we should consider that activism that is more “disruptive”—not less—may be what we need.
Now, on to modern times. In describing the recent protest at the Athena Film Festival, the article notes, “students interrupted the Athena Film Festival awards ceremony to protest recognition of Sherry Lansing, who is engaged in contract renegotiations with allegedly underpaid employees. Ironically, Lansing was not present for the protest about her.” What’s ironic about that? They were protesting the fact that she was being honored, not her presence at the award ceremony. Members of the administration are not often present for protests of their actions. As long as people in power hear about it, the protestors are still accomplishing something: namely, being heard.
The editorial continues on to its key point: “An environment in which students can freely express dissent is vital, but students should think twice before engaging in needlessly disruptive protests that carry little relevance to the University community.” What, exactly, is the good of a protest that doesn’t disrupt anything? The whole purpose of communicating through protest is to try to take some control over a conversation one has been shut out of. Not all of us have the luxury of politeness. We’ve all heard about how hard it is to get things done in the Columbia bureaucracy. One way around that is to be loud enough that people take notice.
And apparently, one reason we shouldn’t take the 1968 protests as an example is that they “brought an enormous amount of trouble,” caused “a total halt to regular University operations,” and meant that “the University’s reputation fell” and alumni donations tanked. These last two points are especially disturbing to me. I want Columbia’s reputation to be one of action, of students who care at least as much about the real world as they do about their education. Yes, I agree that it can be good to focus on issues that are “relevan[t] to the University community,” but Columbia’s policies on sexual assault, and where it invests its money, are relevant. What could possibly be more relevant? And by the way, alumni donations tank when alums don’t approve of what’s happening on campus. Can we think of any other reasons besides “The 1968 protests were bad!” that a bunch of old, mostly white men wouldn’t be happy about those protests?
By the end of the article, “Rash activism” and “Fringe protests” have been equated with “frivolous actions” of which “the greatest victim…is the cause itself.” If any of the recent protests had been frivolous, I might agree. However, I fail to see what is “frivolous” about any of these actions. I have yet to see a truly “rash” protest on this campus—it’s not like anyone did anything illegal or violent. I haven’t seen anything that “delegitimize[ed] their protests” or “alienat[ed] potential supporters.” But if any of these issues truly do not “carr[y] some degree of broader student support”—which I believe they, in fact, do—it’s even more important for protestors to speak up. The minority opinion does not lose validity simply because it is the minority.
Beflanneled protester via Shutterstock