In Response to ‘Illiberal Demands’

In the Atlantic article “The Illiberal Demands of the Amherst Uprising”, Conor Friedersdorf criticizes a list of demands published by student demonstrators at Amherst College. He also attempts to refute the suggestion that negative public reactions to the demonstration, or to its specific aims, can be construed as an effort to silence the voices of its participants. Not only are his arguments unrealistic characterizations of the demands and their real-life implications; they also illustrate a broader failure to contextualize both the words of the student demonstrators and analysis thereof.

I agree with the author that if a statement is coerced, its meaning inherently changes. However, to describe the students’ demands and the leverage behind them as coercion is overblown. Coercion implies the use or threat of physical force to demand the action of someone otherwise unwilling. Anyone familiar with the Amherst community would assume that an “escalation” would entail little more than further or more widespread occupation of student spaces. While it may be enough to elicit a response, it can hardly be called a threat of violence.

Even if one believes that the students’ demands lie somewhere on a spectrum of coercion, it’s hard to argue that any resultant action would lose its impact entirely. If it did, what would be the point of any protest? If there is truth in the spirit of the demands, they will retain their impact even if they do not come to pass spontaneously.

In any case, the author seems to put little stock in these “threats”. But If he really interprets the students’ ultimatum as “campus-activist hyperbole”, it seems contradictory that he would point to the exact opposite interpretation of it as proof of its inevitable self-defeat. It bets against the tact and professionalism of the school’s administration and law enforcement. More importantly, it places blame for this yet-to-be-perpetrated excessive force squarely on the shoulders of its victims. Lest we forget, one of the many injustices this and other movements are fighting against is the fact that people of color are the victims of excessive force by police extremely disproportionately to white people, no matter what they do or say.

While I agree with the author that the students should demand more autonomy and power to shape the institution themselves, I don’t think that calls for authority to take action are necessarily impractical or contradictory to their underlying goals. “Shouldn’t the activists demand the ability to send their own emails? They seem to believe that taking action entails demanding that authority figures take action.” This is as if to say: to fight the injustice of institutionalized white male heterosexual supremacy, students should not demand that authority change, but change themselves and hope that authority transforms in turn. Even if we generously interpret the author’s point to be that the emails would be more effective coming from the students themselves, it still seems off base. If either of these suggestions were a realistic paradigm for social change, I don’t think that in the year 2015 we would be having this discussion at all.

Calling for an authority to take action is itself taking action, and often it is the most powerful option. It’s worth noting that in the list of demands from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which the author proffers as the paragon of reasonable tactics; not most, but all of the demands were for the action of some authority. In the context of a college campus, administrators and faculty are responsible for most operations – everything from selecting and shaping the student body to designing policies and curricula. Their place in correcting institutional injustices cannot be overlooked.

A statement from an administrator also serves a different purpose entirely than a statement from the students would. The duty of an administrator is not only to make decisions regarding policies and their implementation, but also to stand as a living embodiment of the spirit and values of the institution. The President’s public condemnation of racially and culturally insensitive behavior has deep practical and symbolic significance. It lends a powerful voice to the real stories of suffering that have gone unheard. It helps to elucidate the more subtle and insidious forms of prejudice alive and well at a purportedly liberal institution. It explicitly defines not only the college’s policies regarding acts of discrimination and hate, but also its moral imperative to end the harmful legacy thereof. These statements don’t just serve as a validation; they constitute concrete promises that can, when necessary, be held up for future scrutiny.

Too many of these criticisms seem to be aimed somewhere other than the students’ proposed course of action. The author tells us that the students’ demand to be excused from class made him “laugh out loud”. This seems to be more of a jab at the legitimacy the students’ anger than a practical assessment of the demand. The implication is that real activists should be willing to face punishment. If things really were so bad, they should have no problem sacrificing everything for their cause.

What is the real purpose of infantilizing these students for their alleged dependence on and deference to authority? Rather than to suggest a more practical course of action, these interpretations seem to impose a set of standards for real activism that real students could not possibly meet. If the demands are too radical or seemingly inconsistent, then the protesters are illogical and self-defeating. However, if the students show anything less than 100% personal commitment to those demands, then they are merely “posing as activists”, which undermines the integrity of their ideas.

These arguments seem to belie a weak understanding of what motivates this movement, and the difficult judgments its leaders and participants face. Is it really so incoherent for these students to see their school’s administration simultaneously as part of the problem and part of its solution? Is it so incoherent that they would be willing to disobey authority on behalf of their cause, and at the same time fear potential personal repercussions? It seems to me that to claim these things as irreconcilably incoherent, and at the same time to claim that you believe in “vestiges of institutional racism” on college campuses, is itself insidiously, toxically incoherent. I choose to believe, however, that this incoherence is reconcilable.


 

Criticisms of the recent movements at Mizzou, Amherst, and Yale have largely centered around the protection of individual rights. No cause, no matter how great, should be advanced at the expense of the inalienable freedoms granted by our Constitution. I agree that to punish those responsible for the “All Lives Matter” and “Free Speech” posters would constitute a suppression of free speech. However, despite widespread indignation, these infringements remain for the most part hypothetical. Calling for someone to be punished for something they said does not equate to actually punishing them.

And while these individual rights are immensely important, they are by no means absolute. They are applicable only so far as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. Profanity, pornography, defamation, and hate speech are all examples of ways in which free speech is limited.

What exactly constitutes punishable hate speech? For the most part these interpretations are made adequately at the individual or community level, without the need for mobilization by armchair ideologues. Take for example President Martin’s response to the students’ demands, or the Missouri protestors’ eventual reversal of their decision to bar journalists from their camp.

It seems that the majority of instances in which individual rights are not adequately protected happen when the victim is a member of an underprivileged group. This makes it all the more ironic when indignant cries for protection come from the powerful majority against the alleged transgressions of an oppressed minority, precisely at the moment that minority is fighting for equal protection.

If you believe as I do that one group’s perspective can be said to be “mainstream”, particularly as it is informed by the race, class, and sexual orientation of that group, it is easy to see how an inflated sense of the importance of the free speech issue vis-à-vis the student movements might follow directly from membership in said group. From the perspective of a member of an oppressed demographic, it’s conceivable that the point about free speech might not seem so important relative to the points about institutionalized racism. But not only are mainstream views more widely represented, they are also commonly accepted as more legitimate because of the status of those who hold them. Thus voicing one’s mainstream opinion in response to an alternative perspective inherently contributes to drowning out that voice. This is the same point President Martin makes about the timing of these reactions. If one self-identifies as a representative of mainstream culture, and also believes in the existence of profound social inequality, it will sometimes be most constructive for one to hold one’s tongue so that quieter voices can be heard.

If instead you believe that these criticisms come from objective analysis rather than a subjective, mainstream perspective, just look at the author’s response to President Martin’s suggestion. “…the timing of the criticism is neither coincidental or ironic; it is offered now, because they just issued their illiberal demands.” Nowhere is it indicated that the “accusations” to which President Martin refers (most likely the posters) were posted after the students’ demands were published. By conflating his criticisms with those of others, the author unwittingly frames the movement and the reactions thereto as a debate between two opposing camps. Furthermore, his suggestion that there could be such a thing as “dispassionate analysis” when discussing a legacy that began on this continent with the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of people is proof that his camp is overwhelmingly informed by privilege. Fair and constructive criticisms are going to a lot more work than this.

One thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that we can look to history for guidance. I was not present at the 1963 march, but based on what I know about the backlash suffered by many of its leaders and participants, I suppose that not everyone back then thought those demands to be as reasonable or necessary as most of us do today. Granted, not all points of view currently deemed “radical” will necessarily be considered mainstream in time. Nevertheless, amongst a diverse group of people, opinions as to which issues deserve attention, and how to attend to them, will vary enormously. The 1963 march organizers seem to have accounted for these differences in part with a disclaimer at the bottom of their list of demands, as if didn’t go without saying; “support of the march does not necessarily indicate endorsement of every demand listed.”

I think this is a deeply important lesson. It opens to door to fighting for the success of a movement for what it stands for, even if one does not support its every word.

Surely the value in this idea is not lost on us today.