Student Protests and Free Speech

With the fall semester ending and other developments sidelining the controversy about the controversy over racism and “unsafety” at American colleges, might those of us who weighed in on it step back and acknowledge that, on the one hand, student protesters aren’t as coddled and unjustified as their critics have proclaimed but, on the other hand, critics rightly fault some of their demands and the few administrators and apologists who’ve indulged them?

Have I asked too much already? Then here’s a trigger warning: What follows may be as painful to read as it’s been to write. Since I’ve taught Yale undergraduates for 15 years and spent as many years tracking and criticizing black protest strategies in New York, let me try to open the reckoning by observing that nobody’s ideological or partisan preconceptions have captured what we’ve been witnessing.

About self-segregation and solidarity

On the one hand, black and other student protesters aren’t nearly as coddled or closed to thought as generations of white college men and women, quite a few of them conservative Republicans, who’ve retreated nightly to cultural houses known as fraternities, sororities, societies, clubs, and religious centers, some of them calling one another “brother” or “sister” in order to feel loved.

On the other hand, there’s a lot less “solidarity” among “people of color” than today’s protesters proclaim, and more than a little anti-black racism among them. And just in case no one has noticed, women and LGBTQ people can become civically mindless managers, hucksters, mandarins, and even demagogues or thugs as easily as straight white men can. Nothing about gender identity or sexual orientation has ever prevented this, as progressives tend to assume.

About disadvantages and injustices

On the one hand, the self-announced fears and self-doubts of black student protesters reflect not only the legacies of disadvantage but also effects of “market” currents making American society more dangerous for everyone, but more so for blacks. Riptides of uncreative destruction that are now dispossessing, stressing, and dissolving the cultural bonds of Americans of all colors –with predictable results in shootings, sexual and racial assaults, and the gladatorialization of sports and entertainment –are turning even universities into corporations’ marketing services and amenities.

No wonder that black students, for whom off-campus life is more fearsome amid growing evidence of racist abuse by police and of criminal-justice railroading, crave shelter and support on campus from what seems to them a gathering storm.

On the other hand, parceling out college courses and services on lines that conflate having a skin color with having a culture and a special curriculum won’t calm that storm, because it’s enveloping people of all colors. Color-coding can’t strengthen liberal education by draping the raiment of “diversity” over a global managerial class without teaching it to care for and answer to any republican or democratic polity and moral code.

That failure (Trigger warning here, conservatives!) hastens what former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis calls the “retail-store university’s” transformation from a crucible of civic-republican leadership training into an international career center and cultural galleria for the global workforce that has no civic commitments.

Turning 18-year-olds into citizens requires facing pedagogical challenges that too many administrators and faculty no longer even notice in one student’s quiet civic passion or another’s busy emptiness. It requires teaching students to interrogate the reigning premises and practices instead of just facilitating them. It requires teaching them to take responsibility for hard moral choices that factor in their real social consequences.

If I haven’t lost ideological and partisan readers by now, let me propose two modest adjustments to the dialogue of the deaf that has overtaken the controversy over the controversy on campuses.

First, helicopter pundits should do more than drop in on campuses occasionally to give talks to the like-minded or snoop around looking for targets that’ll bring traffic. They should do more even than meet a class once or twice a week without ever really meeting students not beholden to them for a grade.

Doing so might help them to remember, perhaps painfully, what they (we!) were like at 18 or 20, especially if they were activists or evangelists of one sort or another. It might help us to remember that an undergraduate student body is a civil society on training wheels. Its guardians and administrators must provide guidance and guard rails, but they must also tolerate ethno-racial flag-waving and political propagandizing by students who’ve recently left home and are trying out a not-quite-mature politics of self-definition through moral posturing.

(This, Yale residential college master and lecturer Erika Christakis, a target of some of the protests there, has declined to do, announcing suddenly this week that she won’t teach her scheduled course this spring, thus foreclosing dialogue and giving conservative “free speech” propagandists a martyr to dine out on.)

Leftist students went too far when they manhandled Harvard College Dean Archibald Epps in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War. So did Dartmouth Review students who chased and hectored a black professor to protest affirmative action many years later, and Yale students who broke into the room of a student who’d placed an upside-down American flag in her window to protest the Iraq War, tearing down her flag and covering her walls with graffiti. Few black student protesters have done any such things recently, although, of course, they, too, will make mistakes.

But there’s no excuse for adult writers who zoomed in on, vilified, and endangered a histrionic 20-year-old student protester at Yale last month, or for others who caricatured, as coddled, spoiled ingrates, groups of protesters they’d never met. Helicopter pundits – we’ve seen them on the left, although not recently — damage not only their targets but the freedoms of inquiry and speech they claim to defend.

Second, it would be helpful if more writers described black protesters’ experiences and goals fairly and intimately, instead of declaiming about them, drawing on decades-old memories and news headlines and recording and cherry picking students’ public statements.

Some black students do strike passive-aggressive poses that signal, “I am excluded; therefore, I am.” But more simply endure and try to ignore but occasionally do protest whites’ mistrust and misperceptions. Some also fear becoming victims not only of crimes committed by other blacks and by white vigilantes like George Zimmerman and by officers of the law; they also fear being victims of routine white suspicion that they themselves have committed crimes they would never commit.

What writer will call their fears exaggerated? Only one who hasn’t talked with them quietly and trustingly enough to learn that beneath the occasionally histrionic complaints lies a vast weariness of whites fears, projections, and even over-solicitude that is itself almost an insult. A writer who can tweet that Yale President Peter Salovey, in meeting some of the students’ demands, rejecting others, and finessing still others, “Commits Yale to victimhood forever!” hasn’t been doing due diligence.

The protesters’ critics, who now include some of their classmates, are right to insist that while freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, it requires self-restraint, because a free-for-all would be a free-for none. But preaching this to protesters counts for little if one isn’t practicing it oneself, and some of the critics haven’t been doing that.

If protests continue on campuses, some students will almost certainly take wrong turns, a politics of self-definition through moral posturing eclipsing democratic deliberation and liberal education itself. But other students will exemplify and try to advance those great strengths, and they’ll be looking for cues and support from observers with enough intellectual and moral integrity to help them do what a liberal education, too, should help them do: interrogate what’s unsafe and unloving in American civil society instead of just facilitating or compounding it.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.