Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Authoritarian Demonstrators of Amherst

The latest student outburst to get national media attention is at Amherst, where a student sit-in evolved into the Amherst Uprising. On November 13, they issued this list of demands:
We, Students of Amherst College, refuse to accept the negative social climate created towards our peers of color and other marginalized groups. We have begun this movement, Amherst Uprising, in an effort to change the status quo for a more just and inclusive environment within our campus. We demand that Amherst become a leader in the fight to promote a better social climate towards individuals who have been systematically oppressed. Student leaders acknowledge and support the demands previously stated and currently being presented. Furthermore, we demand the College acknowledge its ethical and moral responsibilities as an institution and community of our world. Amherst College should not be complicit in oppressive organizations and systems, no less.

We as a compassionate student body have gathered to address the legacy of oppression on campus. If these goals are not initiated within the next 24 to 48 hours, and completed by November 18th, we will organize and respond in a radical manner, through civil disobedience. If there is a continued failure to meet our demands, it will result in an escalation of our response.
Already from this preamble I get a sense that this is a very strange sort of revolt, which I will try to explain as I work through the detailed list below.
1. President Martin must issue a statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism. Also include that marginalized communities and their allies should feel safe at Amherst College.

2. We demand Cullen Murphy ‘74, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, to issue a statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration, and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism

3. Amherst College Police Department must issue a statement of protection and defense from any form of violence, threats, or retaliation of any kind resulting from this movement.

4. President Martin must issue a statement of apology to faculty, staff and administrators of color as well as their allies, neither of whom were provided a safe space for them to thrive while at Amherst College.
So the first four demands ask no particular action from the administration except a bunch of apologies. Which leaves me scratching my head. Is the administration legitimate or not? If they are not, who cares about their apologies? If they are, shouldn't we assume that they are already opposed to racism, etc.? What attitude toward authority is being expressed here? Does these people want to change something, or do they just wants hugs from the people in power?

The poor president has a lot to apologize for, doesn't she?

I'm leaving 5 for the end.
6. President Martin must issue a statement of support for the revision of the Honor Code to reflect a zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity and hate speech.
Who will decide what constitutes racial insensitivity? The administration? Can they be trusted with that power, given that the students feel the need for an "uprising"? Are the powers that be implicated in systematic racism, etc., or not? If they are not, can the racism really be systematic? And if they are, why do we expect them to magically become wise enforcers of zero tolerance policies?
7. President Martin must release a statement by Friday, November 13th, 2015 by 5:00 pm that condemns the inherent racist nature of the unofficial mascot, the Lord Jeff, and circulate it to the student body, faculty, alumni, and Board of Trustees. This will be followed up by the encouraged removal of all imagery including but not limited to apparel, memorabilia, facilities, etc. for Amherst College and all of its affiliates via a phasing out process within the next year.
Fine, it was a stupid mascot anyway. But the college is supposed to encourage students to get rid of their old Lord Jeff t-shirts? What happens to snarky Young Republicans who refuse? Would that constitute racial insensitivity? Who would decide? What if Donald Trump supporters on campus started selling new t-shirts with Trump's face and Lord Jeff's wig?
8. Dean Epstein must ask faculty to excuse all students from all 5 College classes, work shifts, and assignments from November 12th, 2015 to November 13th, 2015 given their organization of and attendance at the Sit-In.
We want to protest injustice, but not if it affects our chance of getting into law school.
9. Do not threaten the jobs of the faculty, staff, or administrators that support our list of demands. Such threats will result in an escalation of our response.
This seems an unlikely thing for the administration of a very liberal college to do, but kudos to the students for thinking about someone else.
10. The Office of Alumni and Parent Programs must send former students an email of current events on campus including a statement that Amherst College does not condone any racist or culturally insensitive reactions to this information.
Why don't they send out some emails themselves? Why do they need the Office of Parent Programs to do it for them?
11. Dean Epstein must encourage faculty to provide a space for students to discuss this week’s events during class time.
Why don't they encourage faculty to do this themselves? Why don't they all go stand up in class and ask if some time can be spent discussing the issues behind the uprising? Why do they have to drag the Dean into their crusade? Plenty of faculty would love to have a real discussion of politics with their students. And the ones who aren't interested won't be persuaded to change their lesson plans by an email from the Dean.
Please acknowledge that all of these statements of apology are not the end all - that they are only a part of short-term healing and by no means achieve all of the goals we will set forth. We are in the process of finalizing long-term goals which we hope to collaborate on regularly with all members of the community.
So what these rebels want is to be healed.

All of his is weird to me because as a student I always assumed that every university administration is evil beyond redemption. (Perhaps this is because my mother was a professor.) I always thought student rebels were supposed to be opposed to the powers that be. I thought young people were supposed to fight for freedom from adult authority.

But no. At Williams, and also at Yale, the main claim seems to be that the university administration is not loving and parental enough. The angry Yalies told the master of their college that he was not doing enough to make the college a safe home, that he was too concerned about "intellectual space" and not concerned enough about helping them feel safe.

These bizarre protests overturn what I see as the natural relationship between 19-year-olds and 50-year-olds in the modern world. The students are not saying, "Set us free." They are saying, "Love us and protect us and tell us we are ok." The protesters are angry, but they are angry that the administration is not using its power on their behalf. Old-fashioned leftist Fredrik de Boer called this "students becoming complicit in the hierarchies of the neoliberal university by constantly invoking the power of administrators."

The protesters' language is fascinating: "Please acknowledge." They even give Chairman of the Board of Trustees his honorary '74, as if this were a brochure from the alumni office. The whole business has a weirdly conservative air. If you think back to last year's protests about sexual assault on campus, you saw the same dynamic: the students were demanding that the administration keep them safe. The two kinds of pundits who wholeheartedly supported their demands were anti-pornography feminists and arch social conservatives. I read lots of columns by conservative Catholics and the like saying that this was all the evil fruit of the sexual revolution, and the only solution was Faith and Purity. Don't get me wrong, the issue of how colleges respond to charges of sexual assault is a real one, and from what I have learned it seems that some colleges have not been taking the matter seriously enough. But in those protests the students were also demanding that the administration limit freedom in the name of their safety.

And now back to the demand I skipped:
5. President Martin must issue a statement to the Amherst College community at large that states we do not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the “All Lives Matter” posters, and the “Free Speech” posters that stated that “in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.” Also let the student body know that it was racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus and beyond who are victim to racial harassment and death threats; alert them that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.
Stop. The students want their fellow students to face disciplinary action for taking a stand in favor of free speech? I do understand that "All Lives Matter" was created as a sort of counter to "Black Lives Matter," but how can any institution possibly punish anyone for taking the public stand that all lives matter? That most anodyne of good wishes must be banned, and anyone who mouths it punished, because it is racially insensitive? Notice that the students say nothing at all about the perpetrators of the alleged racial harassment and death threats; death threats, after all, are illegal, and some racists in Missouri have been arrested for posting them, and I assume that at Amherst racial harassment is already an offense punished by expulsion. No, they are insisting that the administration punish people who are not sensitive enough toward others who might have faced such traumas at some unspecified time and place.

These students don't want to have to argue for their beliefs; they want their parents, I mean the administration, to step in and protect them from mean people who say bad things.

If that sounds mocking, it really wasn't intended to be; I am trying to understand. It is certainly not only college students who want the people in power to hear their grievances and heal their sorrows; Bill Clinton got elected president by feeling everyone's pain. Right now millions of Americans feel that the old, familiar world is spinning out of control, and what they really want is a leader who will soothe their anxieties and reassure them that everything is not going to hell. So in many ways the student protesters are acting just like middle-aged Republicans.

But I am still baffled by student protesters who speak so fondly of "the Disciplinary Process" and want their enemies to undergo Maoist re-education. Whatever happened to making love instead of war?

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