The Character of Student Activism

Zachary R. Wood

Zachary R. Wood is a sophomore at Williams College and is the president of the student group, Uncomfortable Learning. Zach has been published in The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Informer, Times Higher Education, and Slam Magazine.

Editor's note: Zachary Wood’s student group Uncomfortable Learning drew attention twice in the last year over the dis-invitations of two speakers it planned to host on campus at Williams College, Suzanne Venker and John Derbyshire. The mission of Uncomfortable Learning is to promote free discussion and broaden dialogue on campus by bringing speakers with controversial opinions. 

Many of the student activists I know are smart, passionate, energetic, and insightful. In fact, some of the most interesting conservations I’ve had in college have been with student activists at Williams, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and other schools across the country. Yet in the last few months, student activists have been described by many as intolerant, disrespectful, overly sensitive, and excessively politically correct.

True enough, some of these criticisms have more than a ring of validity. I know a number of student activists who firmly believe that white people, with few exceptions, should be excluded from conversations about racial justice. I know student activists who demonize other students and faculty who criticize them constructively. And I know student activists who are deeply hurt and alarmed by not being asked which pronouns they would like to be addressed by. Many of these same activists are commonly (and sometimes derisively) referred to as ‘social justice warriors,’ for their unrelenting preoccupation with racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of injustice.

To be sure, they should be applauded for articulating a vision for a better America. Although many do not feel that their grievances have been ameliorated, they should feel heartened by what they have achieved. Student protests and organized political resistance at Yale, The University of Missouri, and a number of other colleges have made it extremely difficult for any college administrator in higher education to trivialize accusations of racism. By voicing their concerns, often provocatively and even aggressively, student activists have succeeded in putting the goals and grievances of African-Americans at the center of policy agendas and national debates. Their accusations, in that regard, not only warrant thoughtful consideration, but by virtue of their earnest efforts and steadfast commitment, have been afforded close examination.

Yet, despite their hard-earned success, there are significant weaknesses that have hindered their moral crusade for social justice. Often, as was the case with the black tape at Harvard Law School, student activists presume to know the motives and intentions behind every incident that offends them, even when there is no evidence from which to deduce a reliable conclusion. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if a week from now, the n-word was written with spray paint on the steps leading up to the student center at Williams, many activists on campus would presume that the defacement was committed by a white student and meant to convey racial hatred.

In reality, however, a student of color could have been responsible and could have intended to provoke a crisis to raise awareness by committing a hate crime. There could also be a number of other explanations that involve other motives and intentions. What is clear is that there is a tendency for student activists to make presumptions of guilt, from which follows moral outrage that is not always well-received.

Another important weakness is the exaggeration of the scope of racism on college campuses. It is fair to say that exceedingly few institutions of higher education are racism free. Racist figures are memorialized on college campuses and most students are not as attentive to issues of inequality as are student activists. However, there is a difference worth considering between episodes that are characteristic of an institution and isolated instances of racism and cultural insensitivity. For many activists, this distinction is overlooked. Equally troubling is the excusal of bigotry by African-Americans directed at other students of color. I’ve experienced this myself as president of Uncomfortable Learning, when students of color called me misogynistic and anti-black for bringing speakers to campus with controversial views.

More destructive though is the tendency of some activists to negate their own will by attributing so much to the influence of white Americans. Put crudely, invoking a rhetoric of trauma to gain attention for a particular cause or grievance can lead to self-diminishment and an inflated sense of victimization. It is ultimately disempowering.

Student activists should be critical of their peers and their administrations and they should be encouraged to voice their dissent, protest when necessary, and explore other effective ways of communicating their concerns to authorities. Without such efforts, there is no participatory democracy. But instead of nurturing a sense of excessive vulnerability to offensive attitudes and ideas, activists should refuse to let words get in the way of what truly matters: the quality of their arguments, the content of their moral visions, and the social change they seek to achieve.

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