Protesting Protests

Amherst College in the 2012-2013 school year was a place and time filled with pain and discomfort in more ways than one. A number of important and contentious debates sprung up on campus. Words were spewed from many different angles. On the surface this was perhaps abnormal, replacing the usually somewhat tepid and quiet Amherst awkward and filling the space with radical action and concern over laudable, progressive causes. Everyone at Amherst, faces new and old, should be aware of this. But what they should also realize is how little has actually been accomplished and how uncommitted most students at Amherst remain to pushing forward in substantive ways. Don’t get me wrong; they are committed in the abstract, supporting the idea that something needs to happen, but when it comes to the debate about what exactly few have come to any consensus.

There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most contentious one is the belief that student activists are at fault for pushing too far too quickly and for asking too much. The culture of decrying radical, non-institutional action we see among people angry at protests over recent national events such as the Zimmerman trial is not foreign in our own backyard. But getting angry is one thing. Using this anger to justify a lack of concern for social justice by blaming the protestors for estranging people from the cause is another. Essentially, this means that social justice initiatives are at a crossroads with two dead-ends, either compromising their cause and settling for a barely-substantive solution or pushing forward, only to anger everyone around them. Talk about a catch-22.

Enough with the abstractions though. Last year at an optional gathering of the students, faculty, and staff of the college to address sexual respect issues on campus, while President Martin was speaking, a number of students arose and walked through the sea of students brandishing signs matter-of-factly asking why the college and the student body refused to acknowledge some of the more serious issues related to the subject. Why wasn’t race a part of the discussion? Where was the discussion of male privilege and how college groups reinforced them? Important questions the college wasn’t asking, meaning there would be no answer. The tone was sobering and uncomfortable, the students not showing off as righteous freedom fighters brandishing fire and brimstone phrases but the tired, weary but still passionate and angry students they were, simply looking for an answer and wanting their pain to be known by others.

One could see the look of disgust on the faces of the students in the crowd, almost in unison as if they were programmed to do so . However, this disgust was not aimed at the conditions the activists were pointing out, but the activists themselves. Through the silence one could hear comments passed around: “How could they be so rude?” “They don’t care about anyone but themselves.” “There are survivors in the audience.”

Some students actually compared acknowledging the role male privilege plays in sexual assault to denying men a say in the issue, going on to say that this is tantamount to ideological rape itself. On a more national level, we hear similar comments all the time. Men say they are nice to women and protect them rather than abuse them but argue that they are turned off by feminists who ask for equal rights and pay equality, as though they are over-stepping their role in society by asking to be paid the same as men for the same job. The same plays out with race; whites using a façade of pseudo-equality to blame minorities for asking for “special privileges.” Excuse them for bringing up problems which still exist in society that the majority doesn’t want to acknowledge. But that’s the point isn’t it? They don’t have to acknowledge it now that there aren’t as many formal barriers to equality and freedom as existed historically, so they can pretend that everything is fine and blame activists for overstepping their original goals of equality.

This exists on campus too. There are few explicit barriers to student activism, which gives students license to argue that student protestors shouldn’t protest but should instead slow down, keep quiet, and calmly discuss with others what they want and how they should pursue these goals. What few realize is that most of the activists have been doing this for a long time. Many do it to the point where their grades and social lives suffer for it, but no one acknowledges this. No one acknowledges the long nights and hard-won (or more frequently lost) conversations the students who held those signs had been having for a long, long time, longer than even most of the students on campus realized sexual assault even occurred here. You know, because Amherst students are too “good” for sexual assault. These students have tried to calm down, have tried to initiate conversations with other students on campus, often to no avail. And what do they have to show for this? Well, their anger for one. Which is why they chose to unleash some of it in front of the student body in a quiet, respectful manner, simply looking to breed discussion. But isn’t that what students who criticize them want in the first place?

In this light, the comment “they don’t care about anyone but themselves” is perhaps the most offensive. Not only is it dismissive, but it assumes they have no knowledge of what other students think. Of course, promoting conversation is important and it is important to value the input of others, but this comment assumes that every student on campus is adequately equipped to actually understand the seriousness of these issues in the first place. Like it or not, this is a huge assumption. The same comments were passed last year during a student vote about the Multicultural Resource Center, in which a majority of students voted down an initiative to make the MRC more available to students at the expense of the game room and the College decided to initiate the plan anyway. They were accused of putting the interests of some students over the majority, and therefore hindering democracy.

The problem with calling this democracy is that it assumes, absent formal barriers, every student is equally capable of understanding the importance of an MRC or more drastic sexual respect initiatives. This is the same problem which governs almost every debate about freedom in the U.S., going back to the idea that the removal of barriers means some notion of freedom exists. No one bothers to mention that more implicit ideological barriers exist. With regard to sexual assault, typical discussions of the issue reflect dominant middle class values. They hold that rape is bad but it’s more of a personal issue between the assaulter and the victim. Perhaps the assaulter should be punished but only because of their individual deviance, not because they acted with the implicit backing of a society predicated on male and (often) white privilege.

Most students cannot grasp the idea of male privilege simply because we aren’t taught this… society does not want people to be aware of it, so why would any institutions actively promote an awareness of male privilege? Regardless of your feeling on him, one of Karl Marx’s most well-known phrases comes to mind: “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Asking every student’s opinion and then working from there isn’t true democracy if most students just reiterate the same ideas handed down in society over and over again. Sometimes more drastic efforts need to occur; is this “abusive” and “controlling” as some have said? Harsh words, but there is a kernel of truth to them in select instances (many say the same about socialist governments and their abuse of the public in the name of equality and social justice), but it’s important to understand these efforts come from a need to challenge deep ideologies which are oppressive but which few accept as such. Doing so adds context and moves the debate beyond blaming and onto understanding.

Critiquing signs and protests, when unaccompanied with a trigger warning, for unfairly hurting survivors is a more good-hearted effort, but no less problematic. Victims of sexual assault have been hurt deeply, but hiding this as the College seems mostly willing to do will not solve their pain. The College seems willing to provide help for students who have been hurt, giving them counseling and other efforts which often ask them to cope with their assault by forgetting it. Of course, helping victims is an admirable goal, but it also has a second more sinister effect: keeping the prevalence of sexual assault on campus as quiet as possible. It also serves to separate victims from the rest of the campus while their perpetrators continue to blend in with little trouble. Sexual assault is deeply uncomfortable, but hiding it doesn’t solve the problem. Of course we want to be comfortable, but in order to move past these issues we need discomfort because it is the only way students can truly understand the impact of sexual assault on communities and individuals. And that is exactly what the student protestors are trying to do. Could this sometimes be uncomfortable for victims? Yes, and protestors should be aware of this and include trigger warnings whenever possible. But blaming students for holding signs up without a trigger warning when they had no means to express one is unfair because it blames them for the very conditions which they are fighting against in the first place.

This would be akin to blaming civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s for angering whites who then at times increased their own violence against minorities. Should the civil rights demonstrators have been aware of this and tried to minimize it?

Absolutely, but too often minimizing this meant allowing already existent violence against minorities to continue and doing nothing for fear of angering whites. The problem isn’t the demonstrators; it is the conditions which make it almost impossible to demonstrate and protest without consequences and backlash in the first place. This is what we should be addressing. In order for true change on campus to occur, we will all have to become more aware of sexual assault and we will all need to feel uncomfortable, and this includes victims as well.

On a simpler note, all of this boils down to a simple often misguided idea: that there are appropriate places and times to protest. The idea that it is not okay to promote your own notion of democracy peacefully in the middle of a college sanctioned effort to promote progress is reductive and downright offensive, as though the College should have a monopoly on social justice. This reeks of a need to segment off protestors, deny them social agency, and compartmentalize true democracy from everyday life. Can protestors be out of line? Possibly, as can anyone, but an analysis of the protest without the context is meaningless, and very few people bothered last year to understand the context in which the protestors were acting.

At the end of the day, much of the reaction to more substantive forms of protest are rooted in the fact that it does in fact make people feel uncomfortable, wondering if they could do more. And we as Amherst students are all busy, so it may be more natural for us to feel uncomfortable with our lack of time to engage in social justice efforts, but we should not take this out on those students who make us aware of this. We should be aware of it, learn from it, and try to do whatever we can. And for new students, a quick message: don’t just support social justice in the abstract. As a previous orientation leader for two years, I can’t tell you the number of students who sympathized with concerns over race and class by passively noting something akin to “well race and class don’t matter to me because I’m okay with everyone, but I guess they matter to other people so we should be respectful of that.” This sounds good on the surface, but race, class, and gender diversity and inequality matter to all of us and we should all not just accept those who value them but learn to value them ourselves; otherwise we run the same risks as those criticizing protestors for caring about these issues “too much.” And don’t blame activists for their efforts without understanding the situations which lead to them in the first place. It’s easy to see them as blaming the “majority” for the supposed actions of the few sexual abusers, but it’s important to understand why this is the case, and more importantly, why it is necessary for change to truly occur.