Whose Side Are You On?

Rachelle Peterson

“#Whoseside” is the hashtag of one of the protest movements currently roiling American college campuses.  The embedded question, “Whose side?” is a deliberate echo of the old union organizing song, “Which Side Are You On?” popularized in recent decades by Pete Seeger’s banjo renditions:

Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

The original was by Florence Patton Reece, the wife of one of the men who organized a bloody strike among coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1932.  She repurposed the music of the Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.”

History abounds in ironies.  The old union song intended to rally Depression-era coal miners to the cause of higher wages has itself been repurposed for a movement that seeks to shutter the coal mines for good.  “#Whoseside” is the hashtag of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which takes as its ultimate goal the end of coalmining and the extraction of all other carbon-based fuels from the ground. 

In choosing that signifier, the divestment movement said a lot about itself.  It said pretty clearly, for example, that the time for debate is over.  The time has come simply to pick whose side you join.  In politics, this is called polarization.  It is a way of radically simplifying choices by eliminating everything beyond group loyalty.  The effort to see some merit in views espoused by people on the other side is brought to a dead halt.  The possibility that there may be more than two sides to an issue—three, four, many sides—is buried.  Attention to nuance is dismissed as weakness.  The search for compromise is likewise interred in favor of a demand for outright victory. 

Polarizing all too often works.  It can be inspiring because it offers the excitement of group solidarity.  And it can feel righteous since it summons opposition to a foe who is depicted as wholly bad.  It isn’t hard to see how starving coal miners in 1930s Kentucky might be roused by an anthem that asks, “Which Side Are You On?” 

But college students and faculty members in 2015? 

Picking Sides

At first I took the hashtag with a grain of salt.  It was a way of pumping up enthusiasm for a quixotic cause.  The iPhone generation is not about to give up the advantages of modern industrial technology based on the energy density of fossil fuels.  Windmills and sun farms aren’t capable of providing more than a tiny fraction of the energy modern civilization needs.  The cry of those who say, “Let’s do away with modern civilization!” is the sort of thing that appeals to the folks who are content to live in straw huts on subsistence farms until the first winter storm or the first broken bone.  Some college students indulge the fantasy for a while, but most are, in the end, more interested in living their lives within the compass of light switches, indoor plumbing, grocery stores, and a paycheck.  

Whose side are they on?  They may not fully realize it, but they are on the side of Exxon, Shell, BP, fracking, drilling, and the internal combustion engine.  In the meantime, they can pretend that the fate of the world depends, as the gurus of the divestment movement would have it, on leaving the fossil fuels in the ground. 

But in the last few weeks I have begun to think that the divestment movement may require stronger medication than a grain of salt.  It has become part of a larger war against freedom of thought and freedom of expression on campus. 

I don’t worry that the divestment movement will succeed in restoring a Paleolithic economy to Cambridge or Middlebury.  I worry that millions of American college students will receive a stunted education that gives short shrift to the fundamentals of free inquiry on which our system of self-government is based. 

Disagreement = Distrust

I am the lead author of NAS’s lengthy, detailed report critiquing the sustainability movement in higher education. One chapter in that report criticized the fossil fuel divestment movement. I characterized the divestment campaign as impotent to stop climate change (cancelling investments doesn’t change the industry’s business model), a misuse of student time (activists can spend as much as 10 hours a week strategizing and protesting), and an openly politicized tool (the movement’s stated goal is to build political momentum for climate legislation and environmental treaties).

I am, in other words, not a bystander to the issues involved in the divestment movement.  My arguments are on the record.  This hasn’t stopped me from continuing to talk with proponents of the movement.  I do so frequently, and I have attended local and national meetings in which the advocates present their views.  In many cases I seemed to be the only non-believer in the cause who is present.  But I have always been welcomed and have found it fairly easy to talk with the advocates.  Sometimes I meet someone who is incredulous about my views but matters usually stay well within the borders of reasonably good manners. 

But something has shifted and it seems worth reporting as evidence of a larger shift. 

“Some disturbing stuff came up,” said one professor who asked to withhold her name, speaking of the Google search results under my name. We had arranged a phone conversation, but now that I’d called her she declined to continue the discussion. What was so disturbing? “I’m on the opposite side of the political perspective,” she said. “I have a different perspective on the sustainability movement.”  

She assured me that she was all in favor of open discourse—she had been on a panel discussion with someone she disagreed with—but this was different because I was part of an “organization” and had a “predetermined agenda.” She apologized, “If I had looked up your organization before, I wouldn’t have said yes” to an interview.

Professor James Recht, a Harvard assistant professor of psychology and a member of the steering committee for the national Faculty/Staff Divestment Network, also alerted me, at the start of our scheduled phone interview, that he wouldn’t answer any questions, because he was alarmed that I had criticized divestment. He was baffled that I could advocate “disinterested scholarship” (per the mission of the NAS) while also opposing divestment; clearly I must have a political axe to grind.

Professor Recht took special offense at an interview I did with the Wall Street Journal Live, in which I claimed that divestment had “no effect on the industry.” He took this to be a “lie.”  

My statement is, I believe, true, but if the evidence swings the other way, I’ll be among the first to say so.  To date the industry seems to have suffered little from the divestment campaign. Shell sought and got permission this spring to extract oil from new undrilled territory above the Arctic Circle, even in the wake of the most aggressive semester of student activism, marked by 450 protests on Global Divestment Day in February, 11 sit-ins on college campuses in March and April, and 10 (out of 29 total) divestment victories on American college and university campuses in the last six months.

Professor Recht cut in to remark that in the past divestment had worked to change public opinion about Apartheid and second-hand smoke. But before we could weigh out the two arguments, he hurried on to explain that evidently I had a “conflict of interest” and a “hidden political agenda,” and that “it’s pretty clear that you’re not a reputable person and your organization is not a reputable organization. In my mind you are somewhere off the radical end of Fox News.” After a few more vituperous attempts at character assassination, he hung up the phone.

Professor Recht’s skittishness at talking to an intellectual opponent mirrored that of another member of the Faculty/Staff Divestment Network. Cynthia Kaufman, the head of the VIDA civics institute at De Anza Community College in California and a “mentor” (her word) to the students who ran a successful divestment campaign there, had agreed to answer my questions by email. She told me how some of the students in Professor Nicky Gonzalez Yuen’s political science class had received “service learning” credit for their work on the divestment campaign, which Professor Kaufman considered appropriate: “One of the most important goals of education is preparing people to be citizens of the world and participants in democracy. Activism is a crucial tool for monitory democracy.” (Professor Yuen had previously agreed to and honored an appointment for a phone interview with me.)

Professor Kaufman offered to make herself available for follow-up questions, thanked me for “the interest and the thoughtful questions,” and mentioned that her husband had been active in the San Francisco State University divestment campaign. Shortly afterwards she wrote again saying that actually her husband was not interested in an interview because “He is concerned that you may not quote him honestly.” She also asked me to show her the text of anything I wrote before I published it. I declined but reiterated my commitment to representing all sides fairly.

Later that day Professor Kaufman sent a warning to all members of the Faculty/Staff Divestment Network alerting them to watch out for the “extreme right wing” radical interviewer asking people about divestment:

July 1, 2015

[Topic:] National association of scholars


I wanted you all to know that I was interviewed by someone with the national association of scholars. Afterward, I realized they are an extreme right wing group opposed to divestment. They are working on a long research based piece to come out in a few months. They seemed to be angling for the idea that faculty are manipulating students to do divestment work, and were very interested in students getting service learning credit for doing divestment work. Just an FYI to be thoughtful if they reach out to you.

Since then, no faculty members who advocate for divestment have agreed to a conversation with me.

Echo Chambers

This might sound a bit like I’m asking for sympathy.  I’m not.  I intend to continue my efforts to engage in conversation with the divestment advocates.  But I am astonished to see whose-side-are-you-on-style polarization carried to the level of these recent conversations. 

What I make of it is that the college campus is in the flood tide of animus against free speech.   Every month is now “disinvitation season.” Trigger warnings flow freely.  Students are hectored about imaginary “microaggressions.”  “Safe spaces” swaddle students in the comforts of conformity. Religious groups outside the campus mainstream have lost licenses to operate. In fall 2014, a debate on abortion at Oxford University was cancelled because activists protested that both debaters were male and thus incapable of forming a relevant opinion of abortion. Logic, out; ad hominem, in.

We are, in sort, faced with a decay in the basic principle of treating opponents with respect—a principle without which the university becomes a nullity.

Professor Recht explained the alternative:  the principles of communication within the “activist academic communities” he knew.  “We expect our peers to be forthright about their attitudes and their political views. If someone agrees with me, we tend to talk openly about our interests. And if someone disagrees….” He trailed off. “Affirmative consent” standards are now becoming popular in campus sexual harassment policies requiring all parties to consent verbally to each stage of a relationship. Do we now need “affirmative consent” for conversations, in which both interlocutors disclose their full political predilections and size up each other’s likelihood of compatibility before they engage in conversation?

“It’s not the kind of discourse that is helpful,” said the professor who stipulated anonymity, echoing a similar reason for why she wouldn’t continue our conversation. “It looks like you’ve had (climate change) deniers within the organization. That is anti-intellectual. I really can’t be a part of it.” (NAS, a membership group of academics with varying areas of academic expertise, has no position on climate change.)

The temptation to demonize opponents rather than debate the merits of their case is a strong one. It’s simpler to scorn the messenger than refute the message. In the rough and tumble world of reality, it’s tempting, too, to obstruct the ideals of debates and turn them into political soapboxes. But the ideals of rational, respectful dialogue are worth defending. They are the foundation of academic discourse. For what does a university exist if not to seek the truth and train young people to do the same?

Alinsky in, Aristotle out

The fossil fuel divestment campaign is actively opposed to the conditions under which free speech thrives, though not every activist adopts this perspective. Divestment campaign founder and figurehead Bill McKibben agreed to an email conversation with me, and as noted, several divestment supporters have consented to interviews. But on the whole, the campaign hones the art of demonizing opponents and obstructing open communication. 

The campaign has been successful at eroding ground for nuanced conversation.   “Conversation” itself became code for “capitulation.” Students at eleven campuses held sit-ins at administrative buildings, alleging that the trustees—many of whom had bent over backwards to meet with students—had not engaged in a fair “conversation.” At Yale, 19 students who marched into President Salovey’s office, met and talked with him, and then refused to vacate the building. After they were escorted out by campus police, Fossil Free Yale Project Manager Mitch Barrows announced in a press release, “Yale would rather arrest its students than re-engage in the conversation.” The group commented on its website that because Yale would not divest, the administration had demonstrated its “failure to engage in a conversation on climate justice.”

Smearing administrators as financial puppets of Big Oil, divestment activists at the University of Vermont, University of California–Santa Cruz, University of Washington, and elsewhere held mock marriages on their quads showing the wedding of trustees to a greasy city slicker, Mr. Fossil Fuels. At California State University-Chico, student activists in Professor Mark Stemen’s Environmental Thought in Action Class create a “human oil spill,” holding photo-shopped Chico Enquirer magazines emblazoned with the president’s image and headlined “President Zingg...awarded limited supply of PEAK OIL for his contributions (to climate change)!” (Professor Stemen also consented to an interview with me.)

The most egregious example of hostility to civil discourse occurred at Swarthmore College two years ago, when a mob of divestment activists took over a board meeting, snatched the mics from trustees, and spent the next ninety minutes laying out their demands. When one student spoke up to request that the meeting return to order, the activists clapped in rhythm to drown her out. Later, one of the activists told us they had planned the clap-down technique as a fail-safe in case one of the trustees tried to restore order to the trustee meeting.

That clapping was a dirge for free speech.  No doubt it made the activists feel powerful to silence the lone voice of dissent in their midst, but lone voices are usually where the spirit of free speech resides.  Our campuses have become, all of a sudden, inhospitable places for that spirit.  Colleges are roping off intellectual boundaries (so-called “free speech zones”) where free expression is kept safely tucked away from the plainly unfree remainder of the campus.  Free speech shrinks when we assume our opponents are not only factually wrong but mercenary. When we scorn humility and assert that conversation among those who disagree is futile, we turn free speech into an urn on the mantelpiece—a repository for the ashes of the great debates of the past when a Lincoln and a Douglas could both assume that disagreement actually mattered. When we refuse even to talk to those who have different opinions, free speech dies.  We are left with the hollow sound of the Swarthmore students rhythmically clapping, or Professor Recht trailing off and hanging up the phone.

Higher education is not about picking sides in matters of debate—even urgent debate.  The real urgency is reason and reasonable respect towards proponents of views with which we disagree.


Image: "Wharncliffe Silkstone0118" by Paul Reckless / CC BY

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