When protests unfolded last term, it was not uncommon to hear more politically visible members of the student body scoff at peers who passed over public demonstrations in favor of more private discussions. While protests are surely important tools for change, an unfortunate effect of our campus radicalism is that many Yale students are quick to suspect those who may be ambivalent or politically tentative as ignorant, dismissive or even instruments of an oppressive regime.
Uncertainty or respectful skepticism about issues on our campus does not make one a handmaiden of the oppressor. Disengagement from Yale’s protest culture entails a definite, albeit cautious, rejection of the ecstatic and sometimes militant approach to campus discourse supported by a significant portion of the Yale population, but it doesn’t necessarily dispute the concerns being expressed.
Of course there are students whose disinterest in political performance stems from genuine unconcern or blatant spite. On the other hand, ambivalent but otherwise sympathetic voices are often cowed into offering lip service to what they may consider unreasonable reactions, and genuine uncertainty is distorted as a special brand of entitlement. The rejection of particular methods and proposals does not entail denial of the genuine experiences so bravely disclosed by students. Rather, the uncertainty lies in whether these problems were and will be treated in a productive way. In fact, certain contradictions within our student “radicalism” can even render it less revolutionary than it sometimes purports to be.
It’s no secret that many of the demonstrations and demands of last term may have invited the practice of the prejudice they opposed. We will need to be on our guard against enabling a culture of a condescension that treats minorities as too fragile to navigate the vicissitudes of discourse, and an environment that belittles and marginalizes people of color in the very ways the protests opposed. Conservative claims of threats to free speech and academic freedom were rightly challenged, yet there are reasons for progressives to be wary of obsessive fears of offense. While frantic censorship of even the most “micro” of aggressions can cloak reproachable sentiment and ease discomfort in the short term, it can also foreclose and derail cross-cultural conversations.
Radical students should (and in many cases do) respect the desire, idealistic though it may seem, to engage ideology directly — whether campus racism or “P.C. culture” — rather than to meet it with passionate gestures and sweeping claims. The expressions that arouse sympathy or ire may ultimately divert attempts to work through difficult conflicts. We must be willing to engage with opponents who understandably balk at student reactions that treat even confessions of confusion and calls for discussion as forms of oppression in and of themselves. When it comes to lasting change — which takes time — everyday engagements and open discussions are potent and subversive tools for improving campus climate.
One must admit that implicit collaboration with oppressive ideology has a tendency to be masked as high-minded intellectualism. There are grounds for claiming that those who retreat from campus unrest are eggheads preoccupied with “reasonable” approaches that ignore actual impact. Yet as the support for ethnic studies has shown, protestors admit that even academic discourse constitutes a crucial means of evaluating institutional forms of oppression, and that such work takes place within existing structures.
It’s one thing to change policies, but it’s quite another to establish a campus culture that is stimulating and challenging while still being respectful. As we continue to try to learn from each other, we would do well to remain open to ambivalence and to the reflections that develop in private and academic forms of discourse. While certain work may be best achieved in a very public and even radical way, we should admit the possibility of ethical uncertainty and allow that the margins of our public spaces can be politically robust.
Katherine Adams is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .