Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A reasonable way to air grievances?

The recent hub-bub over protests against commencement speakers (Haverford, Rutgers, Smith, Harvard...) has got me thinking about what is a reasonable way for people to air their grievances. To start, let me start by saying that I find the protests at Haverford to be reasonable (this is the only one I've looked into). Given that this all started with the "Occupy Cal", I should also say that I didn't consider that protests strategy to be reasonable.

So, what makes a protest reasonable? Basically, it comes down to how disruptive the protest is and how severe the grievance is.

For the Haverford protest, I consider it reasonable because the disruption was minimal and the grievance was meaningful. The Haverford protest consisted of nothing more than a letter. After the school administration invited Birgeneau to speak, about 30 students and 3 faculty (at a school of 1200 students) sent him an open letter saying that they'd prefer that he not come. At worst, this was mildly rude, but the protesters had a meaningful greviance against him -- his support of the police who violently broke up the Occupy Cal encampment (shown above). Since Birgeneau bowed out, we can't know whether they would have been more disruptive if he came, and as it stands, their protest was well within reason.

The widespread criticism against these protesters (from the academic and media elite) seems to rest of a few silly misrepresentations of the situation. First, they act as though any politicization of commencement is disruptive to the event. However, the reality is that the act of inviting a commencement speaker is just part of the influence game that university administrators play, and issuing invitations to these influential speakers is in fact a political act. If administrators don't want a political commencement, they should not invite people who fashion themselves as leaders; invite more humble people. There's no surprise when this elite network closes ranks to protect one of their own against criticism.

The second misrepresentation is that this is somehow about "academic freedom". Nothing could be further from the truth -- these are about accountability for how certain people wielded power. Anyway, it is impossible for a person holding such a privileged podium as a commencement speaker to simply be regarded as  another person expressing his views. In this unique role with a captive audience, the speaker is representing the institution.

So now I'm thinking about how to scale grievances in order to evaluate what a reasonable response is. Birgeneau does not match the "liar, thief, murderer" description that I apply to many politicians (though Rice arguably does), which is expected given his distance from the levers of coercion. However, he did still have some power and can be judged for how he used it.