Monday, May 18, 2009

The Campus Protest Season

Well, Barack Obama was invited to give the commencement speech at Notre Dame University and all hell, so to speak, broke loose. Anti-abortion advocates were appalled that a stridently pro-choice President was given an honorary degree by a Catholic university. Others were offended that he was giving the commencement speech. It could be worse- our commencement speaker was the elderly Margaret Thatcher, whose speech on "the wahw on tewwowism" was nearly incomprehensible.

I won't pretend to shed any light on the "abortion debate", which has never struck me as an actual debate in the sense of two sides discussing the same issue. Pro-life people express a strong opinion about the ethical dimension of abortion, while ignoring the question of whether the state should have expanded powers to make people more ethical. Pro-choice people express a strong opinion about the expansion of state power, while ignoring the ethical question of ending the development of a unique and unrepeatable human being. Since neither side will discuss the same subject, they've been engaging in a non-argument for nearly four decades. Most of the rest of us have feelings more nuanced than pro-this or anti-that.

Also, I have little opinion about whether or not Barack Obama should have been given an honorary degree, which are these things generally doled out to people who have accomplished something or other, and are not usually seen as testimonies about the recipient's moral character. They're also largely symbolic.

I don't have opinions, but I do have questions about the strange tradition of protesting on American university campuses, which seems to have become an annual event. At Mall University, we have seasonal protests about war, sweatshops, abortion, gay rights, and a few one-offs like the drug laws. Much like honorary degrees, the protests are largely symbolic. They're not remotely pragmatic- that is, they're not aimed at any specific and obtainable ends. Either they aim at ends like "ending gender norms" that can't possibly be quantified, or they aim at quantifiable ends, like an end to war, that can't possibly be brought to pass by an annual protest on college campuses. Rarely are they protesting anything done at the actual university.

Protests are the theatrical representation of political work in the same way that a graduation ceremony is the theatrical representation of academic work.

In general, I think protests are theatrical acting-out sessions, sort of like a rain dance. Professors usually respect the grand tradition of protesting because they respect free speech. And students take part in them because they like to express themselves, and there's something more direct and immediate about doing it in this way. The universities try to remain "neutral" by allowing differing groups to shout their opinions at passersby. And plenty of people outside the university come on campus to protest because they see it as a place where people discuss the questions of the day, although protests generally don't resolve any of those questions. Also, they don't exactly foster discussions. I'm also skeptical that they convince anyone of anything. A protest is not persuasive; it's hectoring. Perhaps they serve to remind us of things that we already believe, but have forgotten.

It's always seemed odd to me that undergrads who have to be begged and prodded to express any opinions in class will rush to express those opinions in public protests. Is it the security of standing with a large mob and shouting? Do the numbers and fury make it less likely that those opinions will be questioned? Or is just the joy of a communal event? Do people just want to spend time together, and holding a protest seems more "worthy" than, say, organizing a game of tag, which has the benefit of being much more fun?

The irony of these campus protests is that people come to them to take part in a larger discussion, but they do so in a way that makes any actual discussion difficult, if not impossible. The most obvious example of this are those protests aimed at controversial speakers who have been invited to the university. Barack Obama, the President of Iran, the Minutemen, David Horowitz, and numerous other speakers have been "protested" or even just shouted down for expressing unpopular opinions on campuses. It this case, it's hard to defend the free speech rights of protesters who aim at silencing people whose opinions they disagree with.

But, it's not clear to me that most protests don't serve to shout down the people who disagree with them. Let me suggest something here, and understand that I'm working through this issue- I agree that the university should be a neutral zone in terms of debates of the day. I think that all opinions should be expressible, but that the university should neither align itself with one side in these debates nor allow one side to drown out civil discussion. All questions should be open questions. This doesn't mean defending indifference; but it does mean defending decorum and respectful exchange. And, yes, it means defending a certain "atmosphere" on campus. The value of a university education should be that it makes it harder for you to shout easy slogans, or to live by them.

So, in that sense, maybe all protests work in opposition to the free exchange of ideas. In some sense, campus protests strike me as profoundly disrespectful towards the university as a place in which ideas are discussed with courtesy and a level head. I like the ideal (never fully obtained) of a university as a place that hangs back from society's current obsessions and madnesses, as well as a place in which young people can safely experiment with different ideas. While both goals can certainly be hindered by an unnecessary "politeness", neither goal seems to me to be particularly well achieved by a promiscuous indulgence in protests either.

Should they be banned on campus? It's hard to say. There is the free speech issue, but it seems absurd to me to suggest that banning campus protests would prevent students from expressing any of their opinions in a more civil and open way. It seems like such a measure would encourage discussion and not stifle it. In some sense, all protests are protests against discussion. And yet, I'm not comfortable with the idea of banning them either. I'm not sure why, but it seems to me that there's some message that can only be conveyed through protest- outrage, for example. These rituals seem, especially, in a university setting, to be somehow therapeutic. I will leave the question open as to if that's a point in their favor.

Anyway, clearly, I'm not the person to invite to take part in a protest! Increasingly, I find myself becoming an inactivist when in public. I'm uncomfortable with the current obsession with politicizing all aspects of life. It's psychologically enervating and vaguely totalitarian. I'd rather offer no political program, and I'm not sure that I trust any of them.

However, if anyone wants to organize a game of tag...


Brian Dunbar said...

From over here, most protesters on campus - and elsewhere - are about the protesters doing something that feels good with minimal accountability.

Change is hard. It takes grit and determination. Most people would rather kick back, drink a beer and have a life.

Attend a protest and you get to congratulate your self for Doing Something. Then go home and have a beer.

It's win-win!

Rufus said...

The only benefit I can think of is maybe getting the publicity, or "raising awareness" as it were. But, even that feels like saying, "Hey you, do something about this!" As opposed to actually doing something.

narrator said...

If we're going to have protests, can we have artistic ones? creative ones? Give me a naked bike ride through Chicago over a bunch of screaming protesters anytime. Or a musical one. Or theatrical - truly theatrical.

Or, yes, the other side would be protest that's actually revolutionary action. But that requires a commitment substantially higher than I see from campus protesters.

Rufus said...

I'll try to post them here if I spot any creative events- I remember some kids in Britain protesting to bring back dandies at one point, which I liked.

Brian Dunbar said...

Give me a naked bike ride through ChicagoNaked bike riding with standard saddles (no padding allowed!) would certainly show grit and determination.