The internal proletariat is a-risin' (maybe)

Thu 10 Mar 2016 08:05 AM

There seems to be more campus activism now than there was a decade ago or (peering further into the past) when I was a student in the 90s and early 00s. However, there's a loud chorus of the jabbering about current activism which decries student activists as entitled cry-babies who want to undo the enlightenment.

This story at the Daily Beast leads with the headline "The College That Wants to Ban 'History'". The story is actually about students at Western Washington University who issued over-the-top demands in which they opted to spell 'history' as 'hxstory' and 'person' as 'persxn'. Coverage at Inside Higher Ed is even-handed enough to note that this spelling is a peculiar affectation: "Replacing certain letters in pronouns or some other words (like 'Latinx' for Latino or Latina) with an X is [a] strategy to avoid gendered language. Changing other words, like 'person' and 'history,' in that way does not appear to be a very common at all, however: neither 'hxstory' nor 'persxn' have been used often enough to be graphable by Google Trends."

It seems unlikely this is actually a substantial student movement. The group's petition has only reached half of its goal signatures, and most of those are transparently unserious. Some use perennial joke names like 'Benjamin Dover'. Some use less common joke names like 'Solomon Lowe' and 'Mush Forbrains'. Others didn't even bother with joke names and just sign the petition with expletives, like 'Lolololol NOPE' and 'Demanding Entitled Shithead'.

This strongly suggests that this is not a student movement at all. Maybe it's performance art, orchestrated by a few students but not reflecting anything about current higher education. Maybe it's a bad joke.

This is not to deny that student-led protests are a real thing, like the protests at the University of Missouri last year which led to the resignation of the president and chancellor. The point, rather, is that highlighting the hyperbolic list of demands at Western Washington serves a rhetorical strategy of portraying activists as nincompoops. It's a strategy to marginalize legitimate activism.

Some people comment that campus activism these days reminds them of the 1960s. For my part, I can't tell how much legitimate activism there is today as opposed to bogus activism. And none of it seems as violent or as disruptive as the storied days of the 60s and 70s.

In his history of the UAlbany philosophy department, William Leue describes a very different set of pressures from student activism during a student strike in 1970:

Not all students went home however. Some continued very earnestly with the project to make the world hear and change its ways. Some, or perhaps they were non-students, worked hard at smearing the buildings with tired slogans applied with permanent paint. Still others tried burning down the place. We had several bad fires.

Faculty volunteers organized to patrol the buildings at night. I recall Bill Reese being on duty all one night, and Bob Creegan and I shared a patrol of the Humanities Building from two to four-thirty one morning. When our relief arrived, two bearded young men in Romance Language, we hesitated before unlocking the door and letting them in. The seeds of mistrust had been deeply sewn.

In contrast, the story from Western Washington does seem like the alarmist claptrap that it is. The resignations at Missouri were ultimately forced when the football team threatened to walk out, and so it was the business of college sports that decided things.

There are serious problems facing our society, and we should all commend attempts to make it more just, less racist, sustainable, and generally less bad. Undergraduates who want to make the world a better place are a good thing. Whether they can succeed is not for xs but for hxstory to judge.