But it’s close.
The recent anti-racist protests at Yale seem to be getting less general media traction than the ones at the University of Missouri — depending on your vector, because nobody outside a few deluded alumni cares about Yale’s football team, or because the Mizzou students could point out actual threats against their physical well being (however incompetent the threateners). The East Coast bias of our “important” media, however, ensured that the Eli grievances would not be overlooked. (A tweet I can’t find joked that coverage of the Yale protests gave more than one reporter a chance to humble-brag about their own Ivy-League connections.)
Back in the early 1970s, I was acquainted with some feminists from the first wave of women permitted to enroll at Yale. My Yale acquaintances were very outraged that they could not consider their university a safe space, but in that less enlightened era they got little sympathy for what was media-branded as “much ado about nothing” — ugly graffiti in the dorms, vulgar chants by fraternity gangs, an icy absence of understanding from the university administrators and professors authorized to bring the vandals to order.
From what I gathered, I got the impression that these were very smart and extremely engaged individuals who’d dedicated their whole conscious lives to working hard enough that they’d finally be granted the freedom of an intellectual nirvana where petty concerns of gender would no longer be the defining structure of their daily lives. But that admission proved to be grudging, and the continued barriers to equality gleefully flaunted by those on the powerful side of the power divide. One quote I remember being passed around like a relic or a totem: “You can force us to give you a seat at our table, but you can’t force us to explain our jokes.”
My feminist friends knew, all too personally, that worse things had happened. But these terrible things were happening to them, right now.
Our social media, such as it was, consisted of mimeographed fanzines and newsletters, ‘alternative’ campus papers, word of mouth. I went to a big state university; our most public battle over “safe spaces” involved a largish anteroom to the women’s restrooms in the union building, outfitted with some couches and a few study tables and known as the Women’s Lounge, which some prototype Mens Rights Activists decided was a gross violation against EQUALITY, MAN! For some weeks, one couldn’t pass through it without stumbling over one or a couple of unprepossessing men “reclaiming” the space, uneasy under the death glare of a group of female separatists who looked more than capable of ejecting them if necessary.
From what I gather now, on our much more copious and swift-moving news/opinion sources, some things haven’t changed all that much in the ensuing forty years. Which is why I would like to highlight a very smart piece from Professor Daniel Drezner, in the Washington Post, on “the trouble with 21st century campus politics“:
… The problem is that for those of us not at Yale, it is all too easy for the most absurd, theatrical and controversial elements of this dispute to blow up on our social media, and to have those aspects of the incident frame how we perceive the current state of play. The larger context does not mean that outside observers should say that students have every right to scream at administrators. Nor does it mean that free speech issues shouldn’t be of paramount concern on college campuses. But it is just too easy to take the most extreme incidents, caricature them even further and then conclude that today’s college students “just don’t get it” — when, in point of fact, there is probably a lot more that external observers aren’t getting.
An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.
The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent. As Rossler noted in his Facebook post, “I recognize that we published the article with only a Yale audience in mind and that many readers outside of Yale took issue with the article’s perspective.” If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time.…
I don’t think that today’s college students are uniquely stupid. but once upon a time college was supposed to cure ignorance, not encourage it. As for the women who were first admitted to Yale, they were seeking admission, not special treatment. And that was nearly half a century ago.
I am not saying that racism and sexism don’t exist. But a few isolated and trivial incidents is no excuse for collective hysteria and butthurt. Nor is it evidence of systemic oppression.
Toughen up, buttercups.