The Chronicle Review

Civil Debate Is Fine. Protest Is Even Better.

September 26, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Students and professors at Georgetown U. Law Center protest a speech there on Tuesday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In his address on Tuesday at Georgetown University, Jeff Sessions spoke out for "freedom of thought and speech on the American campus," a value that he believes is under threat. He decried how "protesters are now routinely shutting down speeches and debates across the country in an effort to silence voices that insufficiently conform with their views."

In one sense, the attorney general is right: Protest and direct action have erupted seemingly everywhere (his Georgetown address was not immune). But the battles being fought are hardly unfamiliar. They may be sparked by recent developments — an Ann Coulter speech here, a Charles Murray lecture there — but the skirmishes echo protests of the past, and remind us that such upheavals have long defined the campus.

Sometimes you have to disrupt the immoral status quo to find justice.

Not that the critics remember this. Sessions is merely the latest in a long line of naysayers who have assailed students for their disruptive tactics and have urged the restoration of civil discourse in our polarized time. They invoke the capitalist principle that allows competition, a so-called marketplace of ideas, to determine the best ideas — a hardy perennial for those who pine for the good old days, when civil debate mythically led to vast changes in inequitable policies. As Sessions put it, "The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas." He’s been echoed by politicians on both sides of the aisle. In a U.S. Senate hearing regarding free speech on campus, the Republican Ted Cruz of Texas claimed that higher education now operates by way of the "heckler’s veto." The Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut declared that "respect for the rule of law is really so fundamental to this conversation." The insistence on law and order was the underlying message of these Ivy League-educated legislators (Cruz went to Princeton, Blumenthal went to Harvard).

But campus disruption is not the exclusive terrain of the left, as Sessions and critics like him would imply. In 1946 white Princeton University students threw snowballs at the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Walter F. White, after he had been invited to the northern institution to introduce new ideas about race. Consider those students the early snowflakes.

Today, pundits and scholars are calling on students to employ the tactics of moral suasion — that is, appealing to the sympathies of opponents and decision makers to change policies they disagree with. Moral suasion is rooted, partly, in the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s call to allow good ideas to defeat bad ones via civil discourse.

The methods associated with moral suasion include public debates, meetings with powerbrokers, letter-writing campaigns, and other such appeals that would allow better ideas to prevail. The progressive Harvard philosopher Cornel West and the conservative Princeton scholar Robert P. George wrote in a joint statement of the necessity to "do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments." They regretted that students are disrespecting the sacrosanct exchange of ideas with their raucous demonstrations and asked: "Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?"

Well, that depends. Moral suasion works only when the opposing party is sympathetic and willing to act upon that which is just. Where civil dialogue failed, it took activism and agitation to create the positions in African-American studies that Professor West has held throughout his career.

An undercurrent in these concerns over activism is the threat of escalation — of peaceful demonstrations veering into violence and property destruction. To be sure, disruption should not be mistaken for violence, and inflicting physical harm (not counting self-defense) on opponents and property often derails a just cause. At times, though, it is the violent or destructive demonstrations that draw the attention of the wider public and motivates decision makers to act. The response of the institution to nonviolent disruption often determines the reaction of agitators. Some will quibble about what constitutes self-defense or even violence, but America’s past has proved that the powers of persuasion do not often yield just results.

For black students and people in particular, moral suasion historically has not been effective. James Meredith, a U.S. Air Force veteran, appealed to a common humanity when he sent a letter of application to the University of Mississippi, underscoring that he was a U.S. citizen, a Mississippian, who just happened to be black. Upon discovering his race, the registrar rejected his application. It took Meredith suing the flagship institution (funded by the taxes he paid), a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to admit him, hecklers rioting, the arrival of U.S. marshals, the shooting deaths of two people, and $4 million for Meredith’s protection before he could enjoy higher education at Ole Miss. To whose morals could he appeal? The fact is that he and fellow activists had to disrupt the immoral status quo to find justice.

The failures of moral suasion have been especially profound for black students. Activists in the Movement for Black Lives and their peers have come to understand that they will never be able to convince some people of their humanity, and that even if they could, those who hold the keys to the gates of power would not necessarily feel inclined to yield to their demands.

The 1960s and ’70s were filled with examples of activist agitation in the face of indifferent campus administrations, actions that have now become part of radical lore. There were building takeovers to protest university ties to war research during the Vietnam War (Columbia University); the institutional usurpation of land in urban black neighborhoods (University of Pennsylvania); and university investments in apartheid South Africa (Princeton University). Black women at Pembroke, Brown University’s women’s college at the time, led a successful walkout to protest for increased black admissions.

During the height of Black Power and what the scholar Ibram X. Kendi called the Black Campus Movement, black students at San Francisco State University and Cornell University shut down campus operations in demonstrations to enhance traditional curricula with black and ethnic studies. At Dartmouth, students, motivated by the news of turbulent demonstrations at other institutions, negotiated for the Shabazz (Malcolm X) Center — a notable victory considering the very conservative reputation of the New Hampshire colonial college.

Moral suasion works only when the opposing party is sympathetic and willing to act upon that which is just.

The protests of recent years recall those actions — and heed the lessons of past student activists. Princeton students demanded that the university change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of the racist past of the Princeton alumnus and U.S. president. In response to student pressure, Princeton officials announced the renaming of its West College for the Nobel laureate and black author Toni Morrison. The university also named an auditorium in the Wilson school after Nobel laureate and black economist Sir Arthur Lewis.

Similarly, at Yale University, concerned students petitioned the university to rename John C. Calhoun College, a residence hall. They decried the fact that the Yale alumnus was a slaveholder and pro-secessionist politician. University leaders rejected the students’ request. Taking their cue from a black custodial worker who had broken a stained-glass panel depicting enslaved people that hung in the building where he worked daily, the young agitators chose disruption by blocking traffic, among other protests, drawing further national attention. Earlier this year, the trustees finally agreed to remove the name of the white supremacist from the building, exchanging it for that of the eminent scientist and U.S. Navy admiral Grace Murray Hopper.

Flagship and elite institutions expect their graduates to become world leaders. We should expect, then, those students to take the lead on controversial and contentious issues. Authorities want students to confront issues of racism and imperialism using civil methods and "proper" forms of communication. But civility and speaking quietly allowed racial bigotry to rule for decades in these spaces.

In recent months, American University, the University of Maryland, and Bowie State University have experienced overt racism. At American, bananas were found hanging from nooses on campus on the same day a black woman took office as the student body president. On the bananas were scrawled the letters of her historically black sorority. At the University of Maryland, someone placed a noose in the kitchen of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house. Worse yet, a white Maryland student who was affiliated with a Facebook group called "Alt-Reich Nation" is accused of killing a black Bowie State University student in May.

In response to the incidents, the University of Maryland’s president, Wallace D. Loh, denounced the acts and declared that the university valued diversity. Students staged a sit-in at the administration building and demanded more transparent communication on race issues with the entire student body and immediate consequences for perpetrators of racist acts. A statement from the Black Student Union immediately after the stabbing death of the Bowie State student said, "This is not the first incident exposing the escalating racial tensions at the University of Maryland." In response to earlier acts of racism on campus, officials only called for dialogue and civil discourse. But, the letter argued, that call for civil discourse ended up allowing racial hate to be classified as an idea worthy of debate — which resulted in death. The lesson: moral suasion had failed to prevent racist behavior on campus.

Sessions, in his speech, bemoaned the "permissive attitude toward the heckler’s veto [that] has spawned a cottage industry of protesters who have quickly learned that school administrators will capitulate to their demands." But what recourse do students have when moral suasion has failed?

The culture war places black and other marginalized students in the unenviable position of having to compete academically while also acting as soldiers guarding against racial terrorism. They must be nonpaid educators, sharing their knowledge with the white majority regarding race relations. Reasonably, some black students become frustrated when they observe administrators, hoping not to offend donors and critics, moving lackadaisically on issues of racial bias. So, they employ the disruptive tactics of yesteryear, even if it makes the campus community — and American society — feel uncomfortable.

But these student agitators have concluded that if they do not feel welcome, no one else will either — and that their humanity and safety are no longer up for civil debate.

Stefan M. Bradley is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (University of Illinois Press, 2009).