Conservatives’ condescension won’t solve the issues students are protesting

Conservatives’ condescension won’t solve the issues students are protesting

Organizing or protesting as a young person exposes one to a lot of what I like to call “special snowflake” conversations.

These conversations occur when the critic of a youth or campus-based movement or protest bemoans the evolution of a culture where youth are treated like “special snowflakes,” are too thin-skinned to challenging or offensive ideas, or are simply too naive to understand that the real world is a tough place and that we just need to learn to live with that fact.

After a surge in news coverage for student-led anti-racism demonstrations across the country in the last week, most notably at the University of Missouri and Yale, many such comments were made by members of the media. Conservative pundits around the nation came out in force (presumably after wrapping up their blog posts about the apparently totally legitimate and not at all overblown controversy surrounding Starbucks holiday cups) to decry the death of intellectual discourse heralded by these protests, after concerns arose regarding the blocking of reporters by protesters in Missouri from accessing the protests, which were being held in a public space on campus.

Legitimate discussions regarding freedom of speech and press in public spaces (rights, we should keep in mind, that have been dramitically and unequally enforced throughout our history) raised by the incident quickly devolved into special snowflake conversations in much of the national discussion.

Key to this line of attack is conflating the grievances and fears that students of color are articulating on their campuses with concerns popularized by such articles as Vox’s “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” published earlier this year. That article details how faculty around the country have begun to rightfully voice concern about what amounts to the consumerizaton of the college intellectual experience that left unchecked is fostering a culture in some classrooms and administrations that “the student is always right,” and limiting the free and open exchange of ideas in the academic space.

We must make no mistake, however. These are two completely separate issues.

There is a fundamental difference between students exploiting the concept of a safe space to insulate themselves from ideas that are intellectually challenging to their worldview and students demanding that their views be respected and their grievances heard in the face of systemic oppression and discrimination. The fact that African-American students remain dramatically underrepresented at American colleges, that graduation rates of students of color still trail those of their white peers, or that the employment of of Black tenure-track professors at a college like Mizzou is only 20% of what you would expect were faculty composition to match the demographics of the state are not trivial issues. They are indicators of a system that is failing these students.

While some scoff at the idea of college as a safe space, the protests at Mizzou and Yale, as messy and imperfect as they are, are aimed at bringing light to the fact that students of color at these schools have faced real threats for years, whether it’s an explicit threat of a noose hung over a tree, or an implicit threat contained in the use of racial slurs and insults heard across the campus. Never mind that the students are now facing death threats as a result of the protests themselves. Or that Mizzou students saw Ferguson go up in flames after the killing of Michael Brown. Or that the son of an award-winning journalist was held at gun-point by Yale police this year because they thought he looked like a criminal.

Standing up in the face of those threats is the opposite of weakness, intellectual or otherwise, and we should not let ourselves be fooled into believing anything else by individuals who call college students weaklings but fail to see the strength these students displayed in taking to the streets in protest and solidarity in the face of hostility and condescending dismissiveness.

Photo of University of Missouri students via Jack Howland/Creative Commons

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Grady Burns
Grady Burns 44 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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