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The Newer Intolerance of Student Activism

I clicked on the headline “The New Intolerance of Student Activism” thinking that the article would be about the current disdain that many people have for student activists. Instead, I got yet another article expressing disdain for student activists.

My constant favourite thing about these articles is the level of cognitive dissonance required to make the claims that they make. This particular article spends a great deal of time talking about paternalism, student agency, and whatever:

In [Erika Christakis”] view, students would be better served if colleges showed more faith in their capacity to work things out themselves, which would help them to develop cognitive skills.

Which, sure, I don”t disagree. But then the writer later says:

It ought to be disputed rather than indulged for the sake of these students, who need someone to teach them how empowered they are by virtue of their mere enrollment; that no one is capable of invalidating their existence, full stop…

Which is it, though? Should we trust that students are able to work things out for themselves or does someone need to teach them?

Honestly, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of this conservative backlash against student activism. These articles are rife with inconsitent, contradictory, and sloppy reasoning. These reactionary writers can”t quite seem to decide whether or not kids these days are too naive, stupid, or whatever to take an active role in their education or whether or not kids these days are too coddled and sensitive to take an active role.

These articles are also very delicate balancing acts of doing precisely what they accuse students of doing: not engaging in good faith, honest dialogue:

This notion that one’s existence can be invalidated by a fellow 18-year-old donning an offensive costume is perhaps the most disempowering notion aired at Yale.

I don”t know. Maybe it continues to be disempowering to students that the ‘adults” around them refuse to take their feelings and emotions seriously. The deep ableism and, honestly, lack of compassion drips from the article:

But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain.

This is also tied into the article he references about the ‘coddling” of students these days. He speaks often of ideology within the article while never once interrogating the implicit Enlightenment ideology that he is operating within. He assumes that everyone ought to value emotionless logic, rationality, and debate in the exact same way he does. And because he refuses to engage the students on their terms, they are the unreasonable ones.

Likewise, because student activism and agency doesn”t look the way he thinks it should, it is clearly the sign of a failed ideology:

But none of that excuses the Yale activists who’ve bullied these particular faculty in recent days. They’re behaving more like Reddit parodies of “social-justice warriors” than coherent activists, and I suspect they will look back on their behavior with chagrin.

Beyond how patronizing this is, I”m interested in his invocation of the ‘social justice warrior” spectre. That looming figure that apparently is irrationally devoted to flawed ideologies and desires to impose their feelings on the general populace.

At several points in the article he notes how, because these are Yale students, they are all in the position of receiving a prvileged education. I”m curious to know what, exactly, he actually thinks is taught at Yale. This goes for other critics of current student activism.

When you look at the research produced by various fields in the academy, inclusive of psychology, sociology, political science, critical race, ethnic studies, anthropology, geography, English, etc., it quickly becomes clear that these ‘flawed ideologies” can all be found within academic literature itself, something he clearly has no familiarity with. Given that these studens are attending an elite institution of education, I”m unclear as to why he can”t credit them with even a modicum of intelligence and agency.

One of the prospect that these reactionary critics always fail to consider: what if these student activists are actually putting into practise exactly what they are learning in school? What if they are deciding to move from theory to praxis? What if they actually know and understand what they are doing it and why they are doing it?

You don”t have to do a lot of digging to find academic resources on cultural appropriation and the harms it can cause. Is there a consensus within the academy? Of course not. Does this mean that students coming to the conclusion that cultural appropriation is harmful is unreasoned? No.

All of the above, of course, applies to the situation at Mizzou. Where we are seeing similar reactionary responses to student leadership and activism. I think the most ironic thing about this all, is that some of these students have likely attended a class where they learned about institutionalized oppression and focused on the Academy as one such institution.

If these people were truly interested in students exercising critical thinking and agency, then they wouldn”t disparage them when it arises in a form they don”t agree with. Because I see no more tolerance from these commentators towards the claims and ideas of students than they see from the students to their administrators. The patronizing and condescending tone to these articles is also, very clearly, not actually a good faith attempt to engage students at all.

Is it any wonder that students these days are disinclined to listen? When what they are told is that they must develop critical thinking but only in the way that ‘adults” deem appropriate.