QotD: “The Tools of Campus Activists Are Being Turned Against Them”

At UC Davis, where student activists still hope to oust Chancellor Linda Katehi, critics of their activism are using concepts like “safe space” and “hostile climate” to attack it.

The student activists had occupied a small room outside Katehi’s office, planning to stay until their chancellor resigned or was removed from her post. By the time they left 36 days later, a petition that now bears roughly 100 signatures of UC Davis students and staff were demanding that they prematurely end their occupation, criticizing their tactics, and alleging a number of grave transgressions: The signatories accused the student activists of sexism, racism, bullying, abuse, and harassment, complaining that many who used the administration building “no longer feel safe.” The student activists say that those charges are unfair.

The conflict illustrates a pattern that campus observers are likely see more and more in coming years: Insofar as progressives succeed in remaking campuses into places unusually sensitive to psychological harms, where transgressing against “safe spaces” is both easy to do and verboten, confrontational activism will no longer be viable.


[The] anti-activist backlash is relevant to those trying to understand campus politics and to activists who care enough about righteous causes to avoid derailing them. The 100-some critics of the campus activists began their statement as follows:

Some of us agree with the broader issues of the protesters, like greater transparency and more dialogue between the students and campus administration. But we write to strongly condemn the tactics of the protesters, including sexist and racist behaviors, threatening and bullying of staff, students and faculty who come to Mrak Hall to work. We feel that these actions undermine not only the values of our campus community, but also the ideals which the protesters claim to defend. Several students and staff have been treated abusively by the protesters.

It’s worth pausing here to note that, this being a group petition on a college campus, what’s characterized as “threatening” and “bullying” and “abuse” may describe behavior that others would call “harassing” or “annoying” or “irritating.” Concept creep has robbed us of linguistic clarity or precision in these matters.

That said, the first specific allegation is disconcerting:

Several protesters took to shouting that an employee was a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) for being a Latina who works for UC Davis.

Since my days in college, when I first heard a friend attacked as a “banana” for challenging a belief of a campus Asian American group, my blood has boiled at the tiny but noxious subset of leftists who stress the importance of identity in politics, then try to exclude people of color from their own respective racial groups–– often using slurs––to evade an inconvenient reality: Neither African Americans nor Latinos nor Asian Americans nor Pacific Islanders nor women are ideologically monolithic. Social-justice progressives do not speak for many in those groups.

The statement continued:

Several students and staff were stalked for a period of time after leaving a meeting with the Chancellor. Many students and staff who are supposed to work in Mrak no longer feel safe. Staff and student workers have been also filmed without their permission. For the sake of the daily operations of UC Davis, we call upon the Mrak Hall protesters to move their protest to a location that does not lead to these aggressive disruptions of UC staff and student work spaces in case they have plans to continue this protest.

Again, I suspect my threshold for what constitutes “stalking” is higher than that employed by the authors of this letter. What’s beyond dispute is that a group of protesters followed Katehi and a small group of students and staff she was speaking with across campus, filming them without their consent, snarking at Katehi, making her companions visibly uncomfortable—as almost anyone would have been in similar circumstances—and coming off … well, you can judge for yourself.

This was petulant and self-indulgent. It was an excuse for two or three activists to peacock and self-aggrandize. The fact that it was posted publicly, as if those who took the footage thought it reflected well on them even in hindsight, astonishes me. The female activist who shouts her head off across campus, literally serenading her chancellor with insults, claims at one point that she is being silenced!

But the part that struck me most is when, at roughly 6:25, one of the student activists reacts to the apparently unplanned arrival of an adult black male, who is friendly toward Katehi, by accusing the chancellor of “doing what they usually do, which is grabbing a person of color as a shield—that’s a tactic that the chancellor likes to use.”

This for merely talking to a black person who approached.

That activist couldn’t see the black man as an autonomous subject—only as a white person’s prop. The offensive jump makes sense within a highly stylized ideology wherein Katehi is “the oppressor” and all black people are “the oppressed.” By that logic, the only possible reason she would be doing something as enlightened as cordially interacting with one of “the oppressed” is if the black man was functioning not as a person, but as a “prop” and a “tactic,” never mind his agency.

The whole encounter is dripping with dehumanization.

It’s ironic, this recurring feature of campus protests: Time after time, activists wield phone cameras, intending to publicly discredit any adversary who lets so much as a “microaggression” slip. And in doing so, they inadvertently reveal prejudices that spring predictably, though quite unintentionally, from flaws in their belief system.


The civil-rights movement, the free-speech movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, and protesters on both sides of the gun and abortion questions have all deliberately tried to make others uncomfortable, intellectually if not physically. They’ve all shouted, insulted, provoked, and tried to deny their opponents “safe spaces.”

Today’s strain of campus progressivism has a more ambiguous relationship with traditional liberal values, finding them too viewpoint neutral and rough-and-tumble.

Still, most campus protests are left-leaning. And administrators cannot help but realize that almost all of that activism is, on some level, about confrontation—that it frequently involves a lot of shouting or chanting or marching or banging on drums. Now, any time such protests challenge the interests of the administration, or make their jobs marginally harder or their lives marginally more inconvenient, they can always pinpoint some folks who are earnestly upset or unnerved by all the ruckus.

They can always undermine the activists of the moment by finding the students experiencing “trauma” from all the conflict; the staff members who feel “unsafe” around protesters, the community member who, in the new paradigm, somehow feel “silenced.”

As best I can tell, this does not worry leftist activists yet, perhaps because they mostly operate on shorter time-horizons than other campus power brokers, or perhaps because they see themselves as marginalized and mistakenly believe these standards will never be applied to them, even though it’s already happening.

Conor Friedersdorf, full article here


One response

  1. Last September, The Atlantic published a disquieting cover story about the current generation of college students. According to the article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, young people raised by overindulgent parents increasingly come to colleges and universities demanding protection from ideas that might challenge them. Instead of learning to think critically, students police the air for “microaggressions”—offhand comments that may reinforce stereotypes—and insist that “trigger warnings” be placed on potentially disturbing texts, including classic works of literature such as The Great Gatsby. Entitled, hypersensitive, quick to take offense: This is the new normal among undergraduates, the article warned, fostering a vindictive atmosphere of political correctness “in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

    Last month, The New Yorker reinforced this impression in a deeply reported piece about undergraduate hypersensitivity at Oberlin. The article depicted the campus as a tense battleground where the free exchange of ideas had completely broken down and ultra-vigilant student activists bristled at everything from discomfiting books on the curriculum to disagreeable murals on the walls. “There’s this persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone,” said a student named Cyrus Eosphoros, who had called for trigger warnings on the play Antigone. Some even took issue with the school’s dining vendor, complaining that certain cafeteria dishes (substandard sushi, an inauthentic bánh mì sandwich) were culturally offensive.

    It’s a disturbing portrait of a generation of students who seem increasingly disconnected from the real world. But does it describe most undergraduates? This past spring, I had a very different experience while serving as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. I’d been hired to teach an undergraduate journalism seminar that focused on polarizing, divisive subjects: abortion, immigration, Islamophobia, the gun debate, campus rape. Issues likely to touch sensitive nerves, in other words, and to stir considerable discomfort among my students.

    Several of the students in my class felt strongly about these issues. A few chose to write term papers that drew on personal experiences as well as on research and interviews they did. But no one in the class seemed uncomfortable talking about them. Nor did anyone object when I told them that, especially when reporting on issues close to their heart in which they had a personal stake, it was essential to talk to people whose opinions they did not share and to imagine things from multiple points of view, including views that disturbed or repelled them. None of the students called for “trigger warnings” to be placed on any of the books or articles on the course syllabus, despite the fact that several contained vivid descriptions of abuse and violence. When students aired criticisms of the readings in class discussions, the objections were about the quality of the work, not the offensiveness of the content.

    In addition to teaching a seminar, I visited half a dozen classes in other departments (English, history, international relations) while at New Paltz. On these occasions, too, I did not come away with the impression that the students belonged to a generation that’s been coddled. If anything, the opposite was the case. The undergrads I met did not express a desire to be spared from exposure to disturbing literature. What they did express, over and over again, was a desire to be spared from the financial debt they were accumulating. After one class, I spoke with Martina Nadeau, a junior majoring in political science. Nadeau had transferred to SUNY New Paltz from American University because going there was too expensive. New Paltz, as a part of the state system, was a lot cheaper, but the cost of room, board, tuition and other fees still exceeded $20,000 annually. Two and a half years into her education, Nadeau, who grew up in a middle-class family in Long Island (her mother was a nurse, her father a retired carpenter), had $45,000 in unpaid loans. “I’m graduating early,” she said, explaining that she had decided to cram four years of coursework into three and a half. “And that’s why I’m graduating early. I literally can’t afford it.”

    Nadeau was one of 15 students in a class I’d visited the previous day. When I asked how many of them would be graduating with debt, 13 of the students raised their hands. If few seemed concerned about “microaggressions,” it’s perhaps because they were too busy trying to keep up with their coursework while earning money in their limited spare time. The very real aggression they experienced was their financial bind.

    Other faculty members at SUNY New Paltz told me that, on occasion, trigger warnings and microaggressions have entered classroom discourse. Yet for most students, the far more pressing preoccupation is paying the bills. A May 15 Pew survey found that 75 percent of Americans 18 years of age and older say college is too expensive for people to afford.

    Nadeau worked up to 20 hours a week as a gallery assistant at a local museum to try to defray the costs. Several students I met at New Paltz were working two or three jobs. Nadeau had considered doing this, but she wanted to go to law school—where she knows she will accumulate even more debt—and had decided to enhance her resume by interning as a student judicial advocate, a position that was unpaid. When I asked her how she met all these responsibilities while finding time to sleep, she chuckled and told me that, often, she didn’t. The previous night, she’d been up till 5 a.m. It was her 29th all-nighter of the semester, she said.

    Far from entitled, the students I met seemed overburdened and financially strapped, members of what Robert Kuttner has aptly termed “the shafted generation” in the pages of this magazine. It’s possible that their experiences and struggles aren’t representative, of course. But this possibility is rarely considered when it comes to students who attend the Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges where the culture wars have grown especially heated of late. Last October, a lecturer sparked an outcry at Yale after writing an email that suggested students should be allowed to wear whatever Halloween costumes they wanted, even if this offended some people. (The firestorm prompted the faculty member to resign.) In December came the story about students at Oberlin protesting culturally insensitive cafeteria food. Both of these stories made national news, deepening the perception that nothing is too trivial to cause liberal college students to take offense nowadays. Even the dining hall fare must be politically correct! Lost in the commotion was the fact that only a small group of extremely privileged students attend institutions like Oberlin and Yale.

    Aside from occasional grumbles that the food was expensive, I didn’t hear many students at SUNY New Paltz complain about the dining options on campus. What I did frequently overhear were complaints about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s so-called “rational tuition policy,” a plan unveiled in 2011 that called for regular tuition increases of $300 a year. The policy does not seem rational to many students, and for good reason: Since 2008, the year the Great Recession began to increase the strain on many middle-class families, the cost of a public four-year college in New York has risen by 25.8 percent, while state spending per student has declined by 7 percent. As bad as things are in New York, they’re worse for students attending public universities in other states. In Arizona, for example, tuition to attend a four-year state institution has increased by 83.6 percent since 2008, while spending per student has declined by 47 percent. In California, the cost has gone up 62.2 percent.

    In March, a throng of New Paltz students walked out of their classes and marched across campus, carrying bullhorns and a banner that read: FREEZE TUITION. Afterward, they flooded Cuomo’s office with phone calls. The protest kicked off “20 days of action,” a campaign launched by New York Students Rising, a statewide organization pushing to defend public education and to raise awareness of how difficult it is becoming for many students to access. Unlike the uproar about cafeteria food at Oberlin, none of this made national news.

    Those who bemoan political correctness on college campuses often associate it with a reflexive form of identity politics that is notably blind to one form of privilege: class. But young people at less-rarified institutions seem acutely aware of inequality and class. Like many of the students I met at New Paltz, Martina Nadeau described herself as a feminist, and said she was paying close attention to the presidential campaign. She was undecided between supporting Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but is attracted to Sanders’s call to make all public colleges and universities tuition-free. On several occasions, I sampled opinion about the campaign in the classes I visited. The students overwhelmingly backed Sanders, irrespective of gender, and nearly always for the same reason Nadeau articulated.

    On some campuses, there clearly is a heightened sensitivity to racism and sexism nowadays. At Princeton and Yale, students have pressed for the names of Woodrow Wilson, a blatant racist, and John C. Calhoun, an unrepentant slave-owner, to be removed from buildings. At other schools, this heightened sensitivity has focused on stranger targets. In April, a group of students at Brown protested a performance of Hindu chants by an alum, Carrie Grossman, because she is white. The protesters saw this as an act of cultural appropriation. It fell to Rajan Zed Kirtan, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, to tell Inside Higher Ed the “color of the person should not matter in devotional singing, and anybody should be able to pay respectful homage to Hindu deities.” In all likelihood, the episode will now find its way into articles lambasting the stifling mood of political correctness on campuses and, in this case, the criticism will be deserved. On some campuses, a dogmatic form of identity politics clearly has taken hold. But what’s too often missing from this picture is the very thing that opponents of political correctness so often decry: a sense of proportion and judgment, and an awareness that what transpires on the radical edges of elite universities is not always an accurate barometer of what’s happening in the wider world.

    Even at places like Brown and Oberlin, there are plenty of less-privileged students struggling to make ends meet. Like their peers at state universities and community colleges, these students have genuine grievances that are grounded in reality and in the very real material burdens that so many young graduates will soon face.

    Eyal Press, Meanwhile, Back on Most Campuses

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