Over at The Daily Beast, John McWhorter has an illuminating new piece on the know-nothing campus “protest” movement. He dismisses some of the common explanations, and then offers an analysis of protest as “performance,” similar to the kinds of performances involved in religious rituals:

What’s going on here, then? The term “crazy” fails us here. It refers to behavior that contrasts to a norm, whereas sadly this form of protest has become a norm itself in progressive circles of the collegetown orbit. Clinical insanity is not subject to faddism and copycatting. Equally off-target is the “snowflake” catcall, implying that these protesters just think they’re extra-special and must have things exactly their way. We are dealing with nothing plausibly classifiable as whining. The gloweringly indignant sarcasm, the screaming and profanity, the physical threats—people hurled an unearthed stop sign complete with its concrete base at a car Charles Murray was in—this is not pouting; it is fury and menace.

McWhorter contends that the current wave of student protests differs from previous movements because today’s protesters, more so than in the 1960s,  are engaging in performative gestures as a means of virtue signaling, which allows for a great deal of theatrical exaggeration not unlike the world of professional wrestling:

Thus to truly understand what is happening here, we must see these protesters not as seeking a safe space, but “seeking a safe space,” warning us not of fascists but of “fascists,” “fostering oppression” and threatening “impending resegregation.” Oddly, the kayfabe concept in professional wrestling is the appropriate analogy, a tacit contract under which fans pretend something staged is real. In wrestling the payoff is entertainment; with the new protest movement the payoff is that we all demonstrate our heightened sociopolitical awareness—our faith, as it were. These episodes are religious services of a sort, which is part of why they now occur so regularly.


I do not mean to imply something so simplistic as that these protesters are willfully faking. They are sincere, within their bounds. But the bounds are important—the religious comparison is useful in that the religious person seals off a certain region of their reasoning from the ABCs of pure logic, for what they perceive as a higher purpose. However, we must understand that the protesters are proceeding from just such a cordoned-off area of consciousness, in order to comprehend their refusal to heed calls to observe Enlightenment-style convictions regarding the nature of discussion and the complexities of society.

Finally, McWhorter suggests that part of what makes this current wave of “protests” different is the increased prevalence and impact of social media on day to day life.

…the idea of “doing” a protest is especially available in our age of the endlessly reproduceable image or, in our times, video. The image, make no mistake, has been of considerable benefit in civil rights. Television is why the dam finally broke in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when people could see protesters being maimed in their living rooms. Frederick Douglass would surely have done (be doing?) even more of the “good things” Mr. Trump has praised him for if television had existed in his time. Social media has also gotten America talking about race and the cops in a real way for the first time.


However, technology always has its downsides. When footage of recent protests is endlessly available in everyone’s pockets, the visceral impact of the reproduction as show can take precedence over the substance of the issues that were involved. The event, in its passion and vibrancy, becomes something you want to imitate, to be part of, to “do,” just as one often identifies with movie and musical performances. Our protesters are, in their way, like teenagers playing air guitar.

Read the whole thing over at The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/05/01/the-know-nothing-campus-protest-movement.html

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