It was some time around 2010, I think, that the nature of student protest took a new form. Young activists on campus have been with us for a long time, since the Eisenhower Era when groups started to form. They spoke and behaved quite differently from the current cohort of activists, however. Something decisive has happened to them.
The alteration is easy to observe. In the old days, protesters objected to policies and realities. Students for a Democratic Society, for instance, started out as a program against racism, then it took up the university’s connection to the military-industrial complex, and soon after, the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, the list of issues raised by activist groups was led by apartheid in South Africa and the plight of the Palestinians.
Throughout those decades, young protesters focused mostly on the object, the injustice of this and the depredations of that, not on themselves. They wanted to make a difference in what was happening in the United States and around the world, not to gain personal rewards or relief.
In the 21st century, that has changed. Students who march on the provost’s office or allege that a syllabus triggered them highlight precisely the personal dimension. They come not to push a new policy or introduce new and better facts and opinions into a debate, at least not as the first order of business. Instead, they want officials to feel their pain. They want their feelings of offense or threat lifted.
And, added to that, perhaps most important of all, they want the source of their pain punished, the person who uttered the offensive words or assigned the offensive book. Indeed, the maintenance of the culprit in his position only prolongs their suffering. They want the cause of it removed.
We might understand it this way: The personal nature of the protest—“I’m offended!”—requires a personal solution, the censure or cancellation of another person. It’s easier to attach one’s offense to a real offender than to an institution or policy. We need an evildoer, a villain who can be banished. If it's feelings that have sparked the protest, only other and better feelings can compensate, and those other feelings can certainly include the satisfactions of vengeance.
Feelings of offense run deep. They don’t dissipate with a promise by the provost that a commission to study the university’s ties to slavery shall soon be formed. They want more than a few professors of color on the faculty and some counselors devoted to their special problems.
Offense is personal—it’s a personal injury. It strikes at the heart and the ego, not just the intellect. It has an element of insult. Campus activists today experience a disagreeable speaker precisely that way. A man who opposes same-sex marriage may do so because of the fundamentalist Christian teaching that he has observed for his entire life, but the LGBT activist only hears a denial of her desires, her identity, her very self. His belief is her pain.
For that belief to stand, even as a small part of the discourse on the table, is to extend the insult. For him to remain in the area is to force her to share space with a cad. She feels deeply, she has passion, she can’t function with such a denier of her personhood nearby. The consequence comes down to a simple choice: he or she. Who gets to stay?
Campus activism has thus raised the temperature to unbearable levels. People are at stake, jobs and livelihoods. On one side we have the angry and offended undergraduate, lots of them; on the other side, we have a solitary individual with a dissident opinion. No surprise that the former wins. Her intensity overwhelms his reasoning. She doesn’t have to cite evidence or build a persuasive argument. Her emotions do the trick. She makes others uncomfortable. The atmosphere goes electric when she voices her indignation, and everyone but her allies hopes that she will settle down.
Her elders learned long ago to control their expression and funnel emotions through an academic disposition. They try not to be reactive, no reflexive outbursts. They are teachers and administrators, too, which makes them instinctively supportive of students and concerned for their welfare, particularly if that student is perceived to be a member of a historically disadvantaged group.
It's a paradoxical situation. The figure who stands lowest on the institutional ladder, the undergraduate, has the highest moral authority (again, if that student belongs to a victim group). The president may sit at the top, but he dreads the sight of 10 students of color organizing outside his window. The young activist has realized the power she possesses in her person, and the canniest among them knows how to put that power to good use.
We have witnessed downright bizarre episodes of 19-year-olds bullying and haranguing men and women of long experience and impressive accomplishment. The obsequiousness of the latter doesn’t fit with their prestige. Such occasions don’t make sense to people far from the campus where authority is straightforwardly hierarchical.
Once the activist turned to the personal, though, once victimhood became a position to claim, not renounce, the vindictive element was bound to enter. Many decades ago, this trend toward the personal and emotional was termed “the triumph of the therapeutic.”
We live in an age in which truth gives way to feelings, and debate bends to pacification. Battles of words/ideas end with the nuclear weapon of “I’m offended.” Leaders craft tactics of mollifying late-adolescents who’ve never led anything in their lives but a group of peers in a campus sit-in, which in the present environment takes little skill and forethought. Authority is up in the air, and the most Machiavellian ones seize it.