Monday, November 9, 2015

On Protesters

Two protests.  The first involves black football players at a state university.  The other involves people of color at one of the world's most elite universities.  The first has achieved its main goal and has earned the goodwill, more or less, of the media.  The second has not achieved its main goal and has been eviscerated by almost all.

I don't enjoy protesting.  I don't enjoy listening to other protesters.  I don't like shouting in unison.  I don't like showing up at rallies and cheering for people I may disagree with.  The University of Washington had a Black Lives Matter march back in the winter.  One of the protesters complained that the school didn't postpone exams in the wake of the Michael Brown verdict.  I thought this was a stupid complaint.  I still think this was a stupid complaint.  I left the protest.

I often agree with the protesters' general objectives but disagree with the specificities.  I have sympathies with those who protest sexual harassment on campus, but the policies they demand may create problems concerning the rights of defendants.  So I don't join the protest.  Some may consider me a member of the white male patriarchal system for taking this stance.  They can believe what they want, but if that's all they have in response then they aren't going to convince me or anyone else.

Protesting is an anti-intellectual exercise.  Slogans don't have nuance.  Protesters aren't interested in discussion or debates in which there can be fair disagreements.  There are times when they are right to take this stance.  There are times when they are not.  The consensus is growing that the Missouri football students were right to not discuss.  The consensus is growing that the Yale students were not only wrong to avoid discussion, but that they were actively demanding a miserable, anti-intellectual atmosphere, a world without discussions.

Intellectuals can be protesters.  An intellectual can take part in a protest, but in the moment of protest, in the moment of shouting and sloganeering, he ceases to be an intellectual.

When students protest, we have a knee jerk reaction to refer to them as "juvenile," "immature."  "Hopefully, they'll grow out of it." "Don't they realize that they're going to have to argue in the real world." "There's no safe space where they're going."  The truth is that most adults are no different from these students.  They get angry if you disagree with one of their fundamental political beliefs.  They are susceptible to the outrage machine.  They find common cause with fellow adults based on predetermined beliefs.  You couldn't find a single person in my circle who defended Sarah Palin back in 2008.  I and they may have been right, but we didn't come to our conclusions with any discussion.  We just knew the story.

There are many victims in this world.  Protests deny the real existence of victims who complicate the most familiar narratives of victimhood: the white straight male rape victim, the Brown University graduate who is now homeless because of an addiction to heroin, the Jewish student who suffers slurs because she holds conservative views on Middle East politics.  I sympathize with all three, the victim of sexual violence, the victim of a criminal justice and health care system that misunderstands drug addiction, the victim of bigotry.

Poor victims are more sympathetic than rich victims.  This is as it should be.

Many protesters are narcissists.  A narcissist can be a good protester.  More often than not, narcissists are unsympathetic and thus ineffective protesters.

The world needs protesters.  The world needs non-protesters just as much.      

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