Universities have a great history of activism, and igniting social change. At Berkeley and across the USA in the 60s, Students for a Democratic Society campaigned tirelessly for racial and social justice, and peace in Vietnam. Student activists played a major role the fight against apartheid through the 80s and 90s. The Occupy movement held major protests at a number of prominent Universities the world over. Today, many Oxford students engage in civil action on a number of fronts, whether aiding the homeless or supporting living wage for college staff.
I am entirely in favor of an energetic culture of student activism. University represents the best time for many of us to form our views about the world, and help impact change. However, recent trends in student activism have proved disturbing, as students focus more on targeting individuals than on positive change.
In the past few weeks three prominent American colleges and universities have rejected their commencement speakers. Students at Smith College and Rutgers University forced Christine Lagarde and Condoleezza Rice to cancel their addresses, citing the political and economic views they held or represented. Robert Birgeneau, criticized over his handling of police violence during the U.C. Berkeley Occupy protests, was effectively disinvited Haverford College by a group of angry students.
Here in Oxford, two of the most prominent recent activist events come to mind as representative of this trend. One is the “Books not Bigots” protest over the revelation of Julian Blackwell’s considerable donations to UKIP several years ago. The second is the protest over the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg’s visit to Oxford, which focused around the profound message “Clegg off Campus.”
These sorts of protest and activist opportunities are harmful for two related reasons. In the first place, they limit political and social dialogue and discourse; rather than focusing on discussion, reconciliation, and change, they focus on shutting out rival opinions. In the second place, they waste valuable energy protesting merely symbolic events, rather than trying to make a major difference.
William Bowen, the replacement commencement speaker at Haverford, denounced the students’ reception of Birgeneau. “I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford—no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.” In forcing Birgeneau to cancel, students missed an opportunity for real engagement or progress. The same goes for Lagarde and Rice. Though many might disagree with their actions or politics, they are two of the most well-accomplished women in global politics. Whether or not one agrees with either, their speeches were unlikely to represent any great affront to graduates’ sensibilities, and would have led to a more fruitful conversation.
With Clegg and Blackwell, it is for the best that Clegg moved forward with his visit, and that Blackwell continues to sell books and express his political opinions in the spirit of public debate. If Clegg were a mass-murderer rather than a coalition-member, or Blackwell had supported Neo-Nazi groups with profits from his stores, then such protests would be appropriate. However, the students’ response deters such figures from public expression of their opinions, and threatens to isolate those students who might agree with them and want to engage in a positive manner. As at the American colleges, a minority of students was able to, through vocal opposition, isolate a quieter majority who may have supported or wanted to listen to and engage with Rice, Lagarde, or Birgeneau.
The other problem with these kinds of protests is that they inflate an insignificant defeat of a public figure into the belief in significant accomplishment. For one, UKIP or other groups are likely to become more energized and combative in the face of these sorts of protests. Secondly, these “accomplishments” threaten to take the place of legitimate positive social action. Don’t like tuition fees? Think about ways the system might be improved, come up with options, and pursue them through debate and protest. Don’t like UKIP? Rather than inciting their anger by calling them “loonies and fruitcakes,” show through argument and action that their policies and ideas are misguided. Rather than target Condoleezza Rice individually, speak out about why you disagree with her, and convince others through persuasion rather than exclusion.
Mass social movements and changes have never succeeded through exclusion and silencing. This only serves to push conflict down the road, shutting up and isolating those we oppose in their own views, and impeding progressive confrontation and positive action. By no means should any student stop working for the change he or she wants; we must simply start working in the right ways and right places, refusing to lazily slip into purely negative thinking.
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