Free Press, Free Expression and “Coddled” Students: The Evolution of a Week of Campus Activism

Photo credit: Mitch Bennett

Last week began with the resignation of Mizzou’s president amid racial tensions on campus, brought to the forefront by a student’s hunger strike and the football team’s boycott of future practices and games. Clashes between protesters and the press followed, with some staff and faculty members coming under fire for their roles in an aggressive confrontation on the university quad.  Protesters had claimed as a “safe space” and media-free zone, and the story turned to a narrative pitting students’ struggle for equality against freedom of the press. A social media backlash and threats against black students led to the arrest of two white students.

At Yale, another story was playing out on a very different campus. An email from a faculty member decrying the university’s “censure and prohibition” of students’ free expression (in the form of racially insensitive Halloween costumes), coupled with several black students being denied admission to a “whites only” frat party, ignited debate on campus. Though tensions never reached quite the same boiling point as they did at Mizzou, the story linked students’ struggle for equality with a growing sense that universities are so afraid of controversy and offense that they are handling students with kid gloves and doing little to prepare them for “the real world.”

As the week unfolded, students and faculty of color and their allies gathered at campuses nationwide in shows of solidarity. University administrators pulled together student forums and issued statements on diversity and inclusion, tolerance and intolerance, justice and injustice. On social media, ‪#‎blackoncampus‬ shed light on black students’ and alumni’s encounters with racism.

Ok, that’s a lot of context-setting. So what?

I stand wholeheartedly with students who are calling out both individual and structural racism on their campuses and demanding action. But I struggled with a few key aspects of the way the events at Mizzou and Yale have unfolded–freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and the criticism of our overly-PC culture. These issues made me hesitate to speak up.  In the meantime, I devoured everything I could about what was unfolding–news, commentary, Facebook posts, tweets.  By deliberately removing myself from the conversation, I was able to watch how the stories evolved over the course of a week and finally begin to dissect my own feelings.  That process of reflection served as the impetus for creating this blog, a slow reaction to our fast news cycles.

Freedom of the press: I first was challenged by the aggressive tactics that protesters at Mizzou used to keep the press (including student journalists) out of the “safe space” they claimed in a central, public part of campus. Mizzou is home to one of the country’s leading journalism schools, and, despite my support for the protesters, I was discouraged by their actions. I watched the video of Tim Tai being bullied by protesters, and I was struck by the fact that the protesters trying to block press access were predominantly white, including the staff and faculty members who were most singled out as being in the wrong. Good for these students and faculty for showing up as allies. Shame on them for getting carried away in a protesting power trip and allowing the important message of Concerned Student 1950 to get obscured by a debate about the First Amendment. By way of contrast, the video of the core Concerned Student 1950 group blocking the president’s procession at the University’s homecoming parade a few weeks earlier showed a disciplined team that supported one another, remained focused on their message and maintained level heads as others tried to rile them up and physically push them out of the president’s path.

As movements gain momentum and rally others to their cause, it becomes harder to maintain discipline over the growing group and ensure that everyone stays on message. From my perspective, that’s what happened on the perimeter of the safe space on Mizzou’s quad, and we can choose to disagree with how those tactics escalated without discounting the important message behind them. It seems that far too many of us were far too ready to use this incident as an excuse to discredit the validity of the protests and to shift the narrative away from the underlying issues.

I couldn’t be more impressed with how the student photographer at the heart of the clash both handled himself in the heat of the moment and later reflected on the way the encounter drew attention away from the main issue, saying on Twitter: “I’m a little perturbed at being part of the story, so maybe let’s focus some more reporting on systemic racism in higher ed institutions.”

Freedom of expression: In considering the situation at Yale, I had trouble discerning how much of the student reaction was oversensitivity on the part of black students, as has been regularly portrayed in descriptions of the situation there. I read the email that Erika Christakis sent after the university asked that students be considerate in selecting their Halloween costumes. My first impression of the email was that it was fairly well reasoned and diplomatic; though I felt conflicted about her message, I understood the gist of what she was saying in arguing that students should be allowed to think for themselves, largely be trusted not to take things too far, and be encouraged to talk with one another about what are and are not appropriate boundaries when it comes to matters like this. The email was far from perfect, but I was surprised that this was the message that had sparked so much outrage, and I struggled to understand why.

If you have felt similarly baffled by what happened at Yale, I encourage you to read this response from a Vietnamese doctoral student, Viet N. Trinh.  (If you read nothing else that I’ve linked here, please give this one your time.)

Christakis’s argument puts the onus on students who feel offended to make change, and, in so doing, she gives the impression that the problem is with the person who feels offense, not with the person whose actions or words have offended. This is a particularly twisted form of victim blaming that characterizes these students as overly sensitive, emotionally fragile “thought police.” It is yet another way that we as a nation have tried to change the narrative so that we can avoid the uncomfortable conversations about the realities of racism.

Coddled students: Christakis has widely shared a recent piece from the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” as a response to the criticism she’s received.  This piece tackles the issue of college students seeking protection from all manner of challenges they might encounter on campus and warns that giving in to requests for “trigger warnings” on syllabi will create a generation of thin-skinned, entitled graduates who are little prepared for the real world that awaits them. This is an excellent article in many respects and gave me pause as I thought about what it said about what has been happening at Yale and across the country.

But something about it still didn’t sit right with me, and I’ve struggled to reconcile the article’s condemnation of a campus that treats its students like delicate flowers with the issues student activists are trying to bring to light. Ultimately, my problem with the article–and with similar arguments that try to dismiss these issues as “thought policing” or being too obsessed with political correctness–is that they are presented as a problem of “kids these days” who aren’t tough enough to hold their own, as if what we were talking about here was the effect of helicopter parenting and not the effect of long-standing, systemic racism.  Even the photo at the top of the piece is of a towheaded little white boy, as if white guys are the ones for whom microaggressions are a daily issue.  The authors seem only tangentially aware that the “PC obsession” they are condemning is inexorably bound up with issues of racism and sexism, as another Atlantic piece explores. 

The authors argue that by “coddling” students with trigger warnings and zero tolerance bullying policies, college campuses leave them unprepared for the big, bad world. Yes, racism is an unfortunate reality in our country, but does that mean that college administrators should look the other way when racist acts occur on campus or plug their ears to racial slurs because that’s “part of life?” And what of the idea that colleges bear a responsibility to shape their students into responsible adults? College campuses may be insulated from much of the “real world,” but the role that college plays in shaping the minds and attitudes of its students is tremendous, giving universities the opportunity to change the “real world,” even if only incrementally, as those students graduate.  If you’re interested in reading more on the topic, this column by Yale professor Zareena Grewal offers additional perspective.

I’ll admit that expecting professors to put trigger warnings on everything from Huckleberry Finn to a history lesson is not the answer and is indeed taking things too far. What we need is for professors to use opportunities like these to foster honest dialogue about racism and privilege. Those conversations are undoubtedly uncomfortable at times, but it is in the moments that stretch us beyond our comfort zones that we learn the most.

To bring this back to the situations at Yale and Mizzou and other universities, what students are asking for is not a campus that walks on eggshells around issues of race but a campus where they feel safe, welcomed, and valued, and where their experiences of racism and discrimination are taken seriously and addressed by administration.

As an aside, because it could be a post all its own, I do agree with the authors of the Atlantic piece that the trend of “disinviting” controversial (often conservative) speakers from campus in the face of student backlash is hugely problematic. We all need to hear ideas that challenge us, stories that help us find our common humanity and perspectives that broaden our minds even when we disagree. The increasing insularity of thought on both the left and the right is not the way that we will make progress or heal the hurt that our country is feeling.

I applaud the black students who have brought these conversations onto a national stage over the past few weeks, demanding that the country take notice of the ways that racism continues to impact their lives and the challenges they face in even getting their universities to acknowledge that simple fact. These are not comfortable conversations to have, but we owe it to ourselves to recognize the many ways that the fundamental narrative gets hijacked and redirected in a desperate attempt not to deal with the difficult issue of racism in our country. Racism is the issue these students are challenging; everything else is just a distraction.

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