A “Millennial View” on Campus Protests

A “Millennial View” on Campus Protests

I remember campus protests when I was in school. They were small-scale mostly, protesting for higher wages for dining staff. Once or twice they got larger, like when Condi or President Bush visited and people had turned against the Iraq war.

I was never a part of them. But still, at least I thought the protests were sincere. I could respect them. Some among recent college protests, however, baffle me.[1] They seem to fall in one of three categories:

–          The ridiculous format: Gun control is a worthy issue for debate, but I don’t know what point students at UT Austin were trying to make when they strapped giant dildos to their backpacks as a protest against concealed weapons on campus. Erm, what? I suppose it got media attention – is that it?


–          The lightweight cause: Oberlin students protested changes to the recipes of Asian cuisine in the cafeterias because that seemed to them like ‘cultural appropriation.’ Not only is the argument questionable[2], but also even if you buy it, the cause seems hard to hold up against the gravity of an anti-war or anti-discrimination protest. We’re against Asian fusion cuisine today; next week we take on racism?


–          The always right: This is when protesters don’t want to allow opposing views to be heard. Some students at Amherst got angry with other students who posted flyers promoting free speech. The reason? The protesters demanded the posters get training for ‘racial and cultural competency.’ [3] Free speech is not given the respect it once had. In a more active example of shutting down free speech, Yale student protests threw out a house “Associate Master” who politely expressed that she didn’t think there should be cultural guidelines issued for Halloween costumes. I’ve read her email. You can, too – see if you can spot the wildly offensive part (I can’t): https://www.thefire.org/email-from-erika-christakis-dressing-yourselves-email-to-silliman-college-yale-students-on-halloween-costumes/


I’m not too worried about the first category, except that it makes light of serious policy issues.

The second is concerning because it turns most issues into issues that can’t be talked about because they provoke moral outrage. Moral outrage loses its weight and meaning when it’s widely applied.

And the last is downright dangerous to our political environment. No one makes the best decisions when debate is shut off, when protest takes the place of debate. Shouting and waving signs is something you do when you think that those you oppose are terribly, morally wrong. It’s not the best tool to initiate a productive conversation.

So it’s your responsibility, and mine, and theirs, to politely and respectfully engage people of all perspectives who are open to engaging.  As the Yale college master said in her note, “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

And as for the students? They’ll soon discover that to make it in the world, they will have to be able to listen to and even work with people with whom they disagree. I just hope they start learning that sooner, and not just because it’ll help them get ahead.

Emily K., Boston, MA

[1] And before you say it’s because I’m old and cynical, I’m less than 10 years out of school.

[2] If you go back far enough, what is the remaining perfectly culturally pure food? And even if there was a good example, what is the reasoning by which it should have the moral high ground? I for one love the melting pot approach and see it as having its own moral backing.

[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/karinagness/2015/12/30/ten-most-ridiculous-college-protests-of-2015/2/