Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Intolerant protest and the lantern

Obstreperous protests are roiling campus at elite universities throughout the nation. At Dartmouth, a Rosa Parks for a new generation screamed “Fuck you, you filthy white fucks!” at students studying quietly in the library. At Yale, protesters fought for sensitivity and racial understanding by spitting on people. At the University of Missouri, protesters made nation news by variously harassing, threatening, and assaulting journalists trying to cover protests taking place in public on an open quad.

The debate over this behavior has unfolded predictably, with those on the hard left trying to draw our attention to the racial problems on these campuses and in society at large which inspired these protests (although the specific offenses cited can seem rather underwhelming) and the right professing simple outrage, unalloyed by any hesitation related to the age of these protesters, the nature of the problems being protested, or the difficulty of growing up and fighting for what you believe in in the era of cellphone cameras and outrage politics. Charges of fascism are leveled, indicating we are in a day whose name ends in a "y."

But both sides, it seems to me, are glossing over the key question which screams out from any reasonable mind reviewing these actions: What on earth were/are these people thinking? Why are people acting in reasonable and inoffensive ways -- people like Tim Tai, Nicholas Christakis and Ericka Christakis, and Tim Wolfe -- the targets of such fury and contempt?

Not for any acts of racism they have committed, for they have not, in the main, been accused of any. Not for any anger or contempt they showed themselves, as may naturally spark anger in return, as those we have on video confronted by protesters (all except Ericka Christakis, and we have her e-mail for comparison) exhibit almost preternatural patience while accepting horrible abuse.

The anger we are seeing, which at a few removes seems utterly disproportionate to any offense offered, is it seems to me best understood by looking at the dynamics of group hysteria -- specifically the way hysteria is deployed by groups to enforce conformity. EM Forster alludes to this in at a key moment in A Passage to India:
But the Collector looked at him sternly, because he was keeping his head. He had not gone mad at the phrase "an English girl fresh from England," he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed.
It is sadly apparent that the behavior Forster attributes to Anglo-Indians can be seen in any community, but particularly a tightly-knit community with a strong sense of its own values (a strong sense which perhaps tends to be the stronger when people are conscious that those values may not be shared by all.

It is clear that the protesters believe that this is a moment of great crisis, of emergency, and they believe that they are subject to awful persecution as part of the larger problems of racism, sexism, ableism, etc., which are (as always) worse than ever before. Both the belief in the moment of crisis and that things are catastrophically bad have become markers of group identification for the protesters.

In this context, it does not take anger, or racism, or even indifference to the cause to spark rage. All it takes is a refusal to accept the tacit assumptions they we are in the midst of a crisis of the marginalized, legitimizing the most extreme passions and before which other concerns or other contrasting values or aspirations are but leaves blown about in the howling storm of righteous rage.

To politely remonstrate with the representatives such a community may enrage them more than anything; worse than a defiance of substance, those trying to address the protesters calmly and maintain a sense of proportion are guilty of a defiance of a collective mood. Once again the lantern of reason irritates and provokes those who have decreed its extinction.

This behavior is never laudable, though perhaps one could make an argument for it as one of many characteristics of groups which are morally and ethnically not defensible but which strengthen groups against hostile outsiders and, thus, are persistent. But its use here is particularly pointless and self-destructive, or, to quote another fine English novelist, "as frivolous as the application was ill-judged."

How are these tactics wrong? Let me count the ways. First, this sort of bullying emotional hysteria is by its very nature a tactic of majorities. And while the advocates of political correctness may form a majority of sorts on some campuses, in the wider society they are anything but. And the wider society is ultimately the place where decisions about funding, about regulation, about things such as whether affirmative action will continue to exist are taken.

Second, these protesters have chosen their enemies exceptionally poorly. Choosing the right enemies, and encouraging them to express themselves in the right way, is a critical part of what makes protest successful. Police dragging a tired old woman off a bus at the end of a long day's work; Bull Connor with his fire hoses and his police dogs; the comically evil hatred of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Compare, say, Ericka Christakis, whose firing the Yale protesters have written into their demands:
I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
There is more to Christakis' letter, but it is all of a piece with the above; measured, judicious, a little bit boring; a liberal arts academic doing exactly what anyone who has spent five minutes with a liberal academic knows that they do: they take a concept or accepted line and "problematize" it. That's virtually their raison d'etre.

This was the e-mail that promoted the student in the first video to scream "You are disgusting! You should not sleep at night!" (They also decided to yell at the husband for something his wife wrote, which is an…interesting…choice for radical social justice advocates.)

This is worse than an error: it's a mistake. Protest, as Gandhi so succinctly expressed it, is about defeating physical force with spiritual force. It is about creating a moral story which is compelling to people on the outside of the dynamic. In this, these protests have failed spectacularly.

Protesters by their very nature don't have more physical (or legal or financial…take your pick, depending on the circumstances) power than their opponents. If they did, they would simply impose their will. So protest is inherently a matter of fighting a stronger opponent. To fight someone stronger, you have to be smarter. You have to be more disciplined. You have to pick your battles carefully and with an eye to the wider public who are not directly engaged. Because whether a rebellion is violent or nonviolent, they mostly share this feature: those that do not acquire external allies will fail.

I see few of these qualities in the current protests. They seem unable to acknowledge that while they may be discriminated against in important ways, that they are also, as students of elite American colleges, very privileged in their own right. They seem to believe they can bludgeon their teachers and their peers with hysterical anger at the slightest deviationism, and yet not spark a backlash.

Instead of focusing their outrage on the horrific racism and other disgusting offenses against modernity with which our society is amply supplied (see any GOP candidate for president), they stay snug and secure on campus, selecting targets of opportunity who on a political correctness scale of one to ten, would on their worst day score no lower than a seven. Rather than focus on police violence or income inequality or lack of representation in government or corporate America, these protesters demand "free expression" posters be prohibited -- and that they be excused from classes missed while protesting.

I am over forty, so take what I say about the young and their methods with appropriate skepticism. That being said, the Christakises are still in their jobs, Tai is still taking photographs, and reeducation classes for dissenters are still just a (disturbing) twinkle in PC eyes. I suspect we have seen the high-water mark of this particular wave of campus protest, and the academy's final verdict will be: "You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these."