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.