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Last night on Twitter I said a few things about the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon — the hostility and abuse that folks have been getting recently in online spaces when they express criticism of Bernie Sanders or his candidacy for president — and I want to say a bit more about it today.
My own experience, and it’s shared by a lot of other people, is that this is real, and — in this campaign cycle — distinctive. I get more crap, and more aggressive crap, when I say something negative about Sanders (who I’m likely voting for) than I do when I say something negative about Clinton, and I’m more likely to have my motives questioned when I do. When I tweeted a few things a week or so back about Sanders’ ill-phrased Supreme Court tweet, a bunch of people showed up to tell me exactly what was wrong with my tweets, my character, and my intellect, including several with high follower counts who I ordinarily don’t interact with.
So why is this happening? I have a hunch.
In 2000, there was a tremendous amount of animosity between Gore supporters and Nader supporters, with a huge amount of vitriol being expressed on both sides. Same thing with Clinton and Obama in 2008 — lots of ugliness, lots of anger flowing in both directions. This cycle there’s some of that coming from the Clinton camp, but it’s not not as much as is coming from Sanders supporters.
To put it another way, what’s weird is less what Bernie’s people are doing than what Hillary’s people (mostly) aren’t.
If you look at Nader 2000, Gore 2000, Clinton 2008, and Obama 2008, one common factor, absent in Clinton 2016, leaps out: They all thought they were the underdog. They all thought they had a shot to change the world, and they all thought they were getting screwed out of that shot by the system and their opponents. Nader was running a third-party campaign in a country where the major parties conspire to keep third parties down. Gore’s people were scared that Nader was going to tank the election for them. Clinton was battling to be the first woman president, facing all the misogyny that went with that, and Obama was in the same boat with regard to race. In each of those cases, for the supporters of each of those candidates, victory was close enough to taste, and the prospect of defeat was too bitter to bear.
Which brings us to 2016.
For Clinton, there’s far less cause for anxiety than there was in 2008. She entered the race as a huge front-runner, and she still holds that position. She’s got more experience in both campaigning and governing, a much bigger advantage in cash and endorsements, and a far weaker Republican field to contend with if she makes it to November. She is, by just about any analysis, the clear favorite to win both the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, on the other hand, is right where all the others were in 2000 and 2008. He’s underfunded. He’s widely reviled or dismissed by powerful forces in the media and his own party. He’s fighting an uphill battle against the DNC and Wall Street. And as the country’s potential first Jewish president, he’s facing no small amount of ugly bigotry along the way.
Sanders’ supporters see victory as almost within their grasp, and a lot of them think that if he loses it’ll be because the presidency was stolen from him. They’re simultaneously ecstatic and terrified.
And sometimes — as we saw eight years ago and eight years before that — people in that frame of mind wind up freaking out and doing stupid and obnoxious things.
Not all of Sanders’ supporters are acting like jerks, of course. Most of them, the huge majority, aren’t. But some of them are. Enough of them to be a problem.
Demographics play a role in this as well. Sanders’ support skews young, which means there are more of his partisans in the social media spaces where the worst of this kind of obnoxiousness tends to take place. The most vocal jerks among his supporters also include quite a few white men who are happy to deploy racist and misogynist attacks against those they disagree with.
It’d be a mistake, though, to attribute the obnoxiousness of Sanders’ worst followers purely to the demographics of his base. Yes, Sanders’ support skews white and male, but Clinton still has enough of a lead nationally that in raw numbers, the two candidates are running pretty much even among men and among white voters.
Sanders presumably leads among people who are both white and male, and even more so among young white men, but those differences aren’t staggering — Clinton has plenty of young white men in her camp, and it’s not just (though it is disproportionately) young white men who are engaging in this behavior. My strong suspicion is that if the underlying dynamics of the race change — if Sanders, say, wins Iowa and New Hampshire and then goes on to pull out a third straight victory in Nevada — we’ll see the vitriol from his camp decline and that of the Clinton camp rise, even if their supporters’ demographic skews stay pretty similar.
• • •
When I talked about this stuff on Twitter last night, one of the most interesting responses I got — and I got it from several people — was the argument that this stuff shouldn’t matter in the election, because people shouldn’t be basing their votes on which campaign has the worst supporters. This struck me as wrongheaded in a few different ways.
First, there are reasons to talk about this stuff other than its horse-race impact. If it’s true — and I believe it is — that Sanders’ supporters are disproportionately abusive in online settings, that’s not just a problem for Sanders. It’s a problem for the people who are being targeted, and Sanders supporters may be in a better position than others to assist them. Those of us who support Sanders’ campaign can help address this problem, and if we can, we should.
And even if we think people shouldn’t change their votes on the basis of the actions of online jerkery, elections aren’t determined by how people should vote. They’re determined by how people do vote, and whether they vote at all. And if people’s experiences online make it less appealing to be a Sanders supporter, less comfortable to associate with that campaign, that’s got the potential to cost him votes. Even if people don’t jump ship to Clinton because of it, some may stay home, or volunteer less, or opt out of discussing their views with their friends. The Sanders campaign is a grassroots campaign, and grassroots campaigns need all the enthusiasm they can get.
I’m seeing far too many people spending far too much energy trying to convince folks that their experiences with Sanders supporters online aren’t real, or aren’t important, or shouldn’t be discussed. Nobody’s going to vote for Bernie because someone tells them they’re wrong to be angry about this stuff, or that they’re lying about it, or they’re stupid if they let it affect their vote.
That’s not how you build a movement. That’s not how you make a revolution.
The things she knew, let her forget again—
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.
Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the needless, tuneless songs to sing;
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.
—Dorothy Parker, 1928
So last night on Twitter I was talking about the student movement, and someone said they were troubled that “this movement sometimes seems very leftist but not very liberal.” I asked them to say more about that, and they said this:
“I see an activist culture marked by adherence to a fairly rigid, totalizing ideology that does not fundamentally value opposing viewpoints, which I see as an essential liberal value. Although I largely agree with structural critiques of racism, I do not see them as providing the only legitimate framework for discussing the intersection of race and power; I do not like when structural definitions of racism are treated as the final, undeniable word on the subject. I think that the notion that airing noxious ideas can be considered as “violence” fundamentally clashes with liberal views on freedom of speech.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get at it.
I want to come back to the “rigid, totalizing ideology” bit, but let’s put that aside for a second and talk about the idea that today’s activists don’t “fundamentally value opposing viewpoints.” I’d take issue with that on a few grounds.
For starters, I’d say that the extent to which most people “value opposing viewpoints” is often ridiculously overstated. Most people, in and out of organizing, surround themselves with more or less like-minded individuals, and most of the time nobody finds that fact particularly troubling. It’s true that people vary in how much they value, or maybe “prioritize” is a better word, the expression of opposing viewpoints, but that’s not quite the same thing.
Do student activists today value diversity of opinion less than most people? I’m honestly not sure how to answer that. Usually when that question is asked the activists aren’t being compared to a typical person on the street, to start with — they’re being measured against an ideal, often an academic ideal, of freedom of expression. And in that context I think it’s worth noting two things. First, as I suggested in my Rolling Stone piece last week, it’s easy to value diversity of opinion as an abstract concept when you hold the reins of power in a particular institution. Tolerance for dissent and tolerance for democracy are two different things, and there’s quite a bit more of the former than the latter on the American campus today.
And frankly, there’s not as much of the former as I’d like. Another argument I made in the RS piece was that student activists are frequently attacked as enemies of freedom of expression when all they’re doing is speaking their minds, while restrictions on students’ speech often go unchallenged.
But let’s circle back to the question of whether today’s activists have a “rigid, totalizing ideology.” Certainly the campus movements of today have plenty of shibboleths and articles of faith — if you use the term “reverse racism” in an organizing meeting these days, you’re likely to catch hell. But that’s always been the case, in my experience as a historian and a former activist — movement politics tend to foster ideological conformity and ideological litmus tests. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a whole other discussion, but it’s certainly a thing.
And I also think it’s easy to underestimate, from the outside, just how much intense debate goes on within activist environments. When I spend time with student organizers, I see no shortage of disagreement within their ranks. And it’s just my subjective impression, but my own sense is that student activists are better at disagreeing without rancor or enmity than they were ten or fifteen years ago. The current movement truly is an intersectional movement, which means that people are coming together from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, and ideological commitments, and coming together, typically, with an understanding that effective organizing means finding common ground.
I know that all sounds very abstract, so let me make it a bit more concrete. Most summers, I spend a week at the National Student Congress of the US Student Association, a student-led, student-run organization of activist undergrads. I do workshops, I advise on logistics, I help chair meetings. And what I see these days when I go to those meetings is a tremendous amount of mutual respect among people coming from very different perspectives within student organizing. And part of how they build that mutual respect is by agreeing to honor each others’ concerns. What to an outsider can look like “PC” — negotiated safe spaces, ground rules on personal pronouns, policies on how to applaud a speaker — is actually a form of diplomatic etiquette, designed to smooth the rough spots of social interaction so that the gathered students can do the hard work of crafting coalition without shattering into a million antagonistic factions.
Do students invest a lot of energy into those kinds of rules these days? Yep, they do. Can the rules be bewildering to the outsider? Sure. But they’re not arbitrary, and they’re not all that opaque if you take the time to understand them. And they allow people within an organizing environment to come together at great personal risk, to make themselves vulnerable in ways that participants in more narrowly-defined organizing spaces rarely have to do.
So. That’s my reply to your first sentence. On to the second.
On the question of how we understand racism and antiracism, I agree that there are a variety of legitimate ways to approach the issue, but I will say — as I’ve said before — that whatever vocabulary we use, we need to grapple with underlying structural questions, and we shouldn’t use definitional quibbling as an excuse to avoid doing so.
I’d also say that it’s okay for movements to have unifying ideologies, even where those ideologies exclude potential allies. the bigger the tent, the more time you spend keeping the tent from collapsing, and it’s legitimate for organizers to say that unless you agree with their basic premises, it’s probably for the best if you don’t invite yourself to work with them.
Can that kind of cocooning of opinion go too far? Absolutely. But it’s also easy to get derailed and dispirited by trying to include everyone, to be all things to all people. It’s a hard question, and my impulse is generally to say that it’s legitimate to set your boundaries where you feel you need to set them.
Okay. Last sentence. Home stretch.
You write that “the notion that airing noxious ideas can be considered as ‘violence’ fundamentally clashes with liberal views on freedom of speech.”
Okay. Here’s my deal on that. Calling someone’s speech “violent” is itself a speech act. It’s a rhetorical device. It’s not an act of censorship, and it’s not a declaration of hostility to freedom of expression. It’s debate. Robust, aggressive debate.
I suspect that there are some unresolved inconsistencies in my position on this, by the way. I’m quick to criticize when someone calls student activist speech “illiberal” or “bullying” or “censoring,” because I believe that it’s improper to characterize legitimate speech acts as somehow beyond the pale. But are the people who use that language themselves illiberal? Are they themselves censors? By my own principles, they can’t be, because they’re just engaging in rhetorical combat of their own.
But having said that, I’ll say this: When a First Amendment scholar is told her speech is an act of “racial violence,” that’s free speech. When that scholar responds that to describe her speech that way is an act of “censorship,” that’s free speech too. But the second statement troubles me quite a bit more than the first.
I have an essay in next week’s Chronicle of Higher Education exploring how the demographic and governance changes that have transformed the American campus over the last half century have set the stage for this semester’s student protests, and what history tells us about where the activists are likely to take it from here.
Unfortunately, the essay is behind the Chronicle paywall, at least for now, but here are the closing paragraphs, just to give you a taste:
Today’s students are also unlikely to be bought off with symbolic gestures or limp “diversity” initiatives. The origins of today’s student complaints are deep and in many cases intractable, and the more accustomed activists become to protesting, the more readily they will mobilize in response to new provocations. And while some of the recent demands have seemed haphazard and ill-conceived, in the past few weeks we’ve seen a growing sophistication in students’ messaging, with more and more protesters pushing for substantive changes in university policy — and increasingly for seats at the governance table. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, activists’ demands have included voting seats for students and faculty, staff, and community members on the Board of Governors. At Amherst College, where protesters were harshly criticized for stances seen as hostile to free expression, activists withdrew their early demands — and won pledges of reform to increase the staff for diversity training and campus mental-health programs, and to improve the recruitment of faculty of color.
It is, of course, possible that this fall’s campus unrest will simply burn itself out, though precedent suggests that’s unlikely to happen before summer. More likely there will be flare-ups and lulls over the next few years, with a new baseline that resembles this fall more closely than it does the autumn of, say, 2013.
And history tells us that as student movements mature, they become more ambitious and more aware of the dynamics of institutional power. The activists of the ’60s and ’70s, confronting universities that were hostile to their values and ideals, launched a movement that remade American higher education in their own image — not completely, and perhaps not permanently, but in significant, lasting ways. Today’s activists may yet articulate — and enact — a similarly far-reaching agenda.
If you’re a Chronicle subscriber you can read the whole thing here.
Three black students at Loyola University Chicago are facing possible suspension or other disciplinary action for holding a peaceful demonstration on campus last month.
The demonstration, held on November 12, was a rally in support of student protests at the University of Missouri. Some seven hundred students, faculty, and staff attended the event, and according to the organizers, attendance was boosted by a notice on the university’s website.
At the time, Loyola president John P. Pelissero praised the protest, saying that he was “proud of our community’s response” to the call to action, and that Loyola “celebrates the free exchange of ideas.” Yesterday, however, a campus spokesperson told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the students are being investigated because of “their decision to not register the demonstration, which is a violation of the university’s demonstration policy.”
That policy defines a demonstration as
“any event in which two or more people gather publicly in a coordinated and organized manner to display support or opposition for, or express a position or feeling toward a person, organization, or cause.”
Any student or group wishing to hold such a demonstration must submit a “Demonstration Proposal” form to the Dean of Students three business days in advance. Once such a proposal is submitted, the organizers must meet with the university to discuss “all elements of the planned demonstration … including any intended movements to other areas of campus.” Without written approval from the office of the dean, no such demonstration may be held. (One campus lawn is exempt from these regulations — there, students must merely reserve the space in advance with the Office of Campus Reservations.)
Any time that two or more students decide to get together in any public area of the Loyola Chicago Campus to “express a position or feeling toward a person, organization, or cause,” they need to contact the Dean of Students three business days in advance, detail their plans to the administration, and receive written approval. If they don’t, they can be brought up on disciplinary charges.
Set aside the absurd overreach of the university’s definition of a “demonstration,” which would, as written, extend to any two people deciding to get together in a public space to “express … a feeling” about someone else — or even themselves. Set that aside.
The students who organized the November 12 protests are scheduled to be charged at 3:45 this afternoon, in a meeting that could easily go past the close of business this evening.
If it does, and students want to express public disapproval of whatever happens there, they won’t be able to do so until next Thursday. They won’t even be able to apply to do so until Monday.
And again, this isn’t just theoretical. Three students are facing charges for holding a protest that the university president approved of.
Imagine how he’d respond if he were the target.
Update | The university has dropped charges against the three students, and is reviewing its demonstration policy.