Fabio Rojas is a professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington. He’s the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline and Theory for the Working Sociologist published by Columbia University Press. He blogs at Orgtheory.
Understanding the rules of activism [06:30]
Doing activist work that’s unsatisfying but important [08:13]
Visiting Wellesley University’s Freedom Project [11:18]
Is understanding necessary for effective activism? [22:15]
Two new articles: a new survey of student activism; defining scholarly roles [26:34]
Fabio Rojas:Yeah, I think that’s a really excellent point [about censorship]. And one thing that people say to me, they say, “We have a speaker on campus. Do you agree or disagree with him? Do you think that person should be banned?” And one thing I really say in response is, “Look, would you like a committee of professors or students to dictate what you can say? To get an approval for which speaker you can bring in to a classroom or what books you can assign for a syllabus?” That’s a very dangerous road to go down. And I think people are confusing two things, which is the fact that some people have genuine bad ideas. That’s an issue. But also, they think that the way to respond to that is to not let those ideas be expressed and debated and pulled apart and discussed.
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Chris Martin: Thanks for listening to the Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast. I’m Christ Martin. My guest today is Fabio Rojas. He’s a professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington.
He’s the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement becamse an Academic Discipline, published by Johns Hopkins University Press and more recently Theory for the Working Sociologist published by Columbia University Press.
He also has a short ebook called Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure. He’s currently the editor of Contexts, a general sociology journal and he’s the editor of Orgtheory, a blog about sociology.
Fabio Rojas: Hi Chris. How are you doing today?
Chris Martin: I’m doing well. It’s getting hot here in Georgia. How is it in Indiana?
Fabio Rojas: It’s very nice today. It’s a perfect spring day.
Chris Martin: My one visit to Indiana was in June and it was beautiful.
Fabio Rojas: Indeed.
Chris Martin: And on a side note, my graduation brochure from William and Mary, my graduation program rather, cites me as being from Pune, Indiana rather than Pune, India. So I’m an honorary Indianan.
Fabio Rojas: Ah. Well, it gets more complicated than that. There’s a town in Indiana called Hindustan, Indiana.
Chris Martin: Wow.
Fabio Rojas: Yes. So there’s a lot of kind of cultural borrowing between the Midwest and other parts of the world.
Chris Martin: Well, Georgia too. Georgia has Rome, Athens, a few other places. We’ve got Dublin.
Anyway, jumping to sociology, I thought we would start by talking about your first book about social movements and universities. Tell me a bit about that book and what made you think about studying that topic?
Fabio Rojas: Yeah, absolutely. The first book is called from Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline. It was published in 2007 by the Johns Hopkins University Press, and the book, roughly speaking, is a historical account of how black student activists mobilized their ethnic studies in the 1960s and in exploration of why some programs were stable and why some of them were not and that story is intrinsically interesting.
It’s a story of student activism, civil rights, black power and racial de-segregation. It’s also a story that is relevant to people who care about social movements because we really care about what the outcome is. We care about whether the movement has a durable outcome or whether the outcome just goes away after a couple of months or a year. So studying student activists within the university is a really great way to get into that topic and to summarize a couple of major points of the book, there are a couple of points.
One is that students were way more successful when they protested rather than doing nothing. So often people will talk about things but not do anything. But the data shows that actually activism works.
Chris Martin: So the ones that weren’t protesting were literally doing nothing or were they doing something else?
Fabio Rojas: Well, in an article in Social Forces in 2006, which is partially reprinted in the book, what I did was I looked at the sample of all four-year colleges and universities in the country. Then I had undergraduate research assistants look through the New York Times for every incident of black student activism on that campus from 1968 to 1998 and I have them coded in three ways. In that year for that campus, nothing could happen. There were no reported events in the media. It doesn’t mean that there were not any events, but none reported in the media.
There were events that were reported in the media and I quoted those as being either disruptive or non-disruptive with non-disruptive things being like meetings or rallies or a request for social change with disruptive things being things like having fights, destroying property, burning cars and that sort of stuff.
Chris Martin: OK.
Fabio Rojas: And all three things happened. A lot of campuses didn’t have any protest that made it to the national media. Some had very mellow protests where it’s mainly in the form of just asking for things and having rallies and then there were definitely cases where people chose violence or disruptiveness in order to make their point and one of the big lessons of the research is that doing something definitely gets you results.
We have to do it in a non-violent and relatively non-disruptive way and one of the things I argue in the book and in related articles is that when you become violent or disruptive as a protester in a democratic society, you become delegitimized.
What that means is that when people look at you and they see you getting arrested or they see you throwing a brick through a window, they say that’s not the kind of person I want to associate with. That person is really bad and then case after case and also in the statistical data, we see a systematic difference between movement activities that are non-disruptive and those that are and the ones that are disruptive are statistically identical to not doing protests at all.
So it’s so counterproductive. They might as well not have done anything in the data set. Then the second half of the book is really discussing with a lot of historical case studies why certain black studies programs succeeded, why some of them went away and a really big part of it is that you need people on the inside of the institution who understand how the institution works.
One way to summarize the argument is to say it’s about the difference between the logic of protest and the logic of the institution. So if you’re a movement and you’re trying to create change in an organization like a university, you have to understand how that organization works. Otherwise, you’re going to make all kinds of mistakes that undermine whatever victories you may have gained.
So that’s also a really big lesson of the book.
Chris Martin: So essentially academia has a particular culture and you have to understand the unwritten rules. You have to be a lay sociologist in a way. Is that right?
Fabio Rojas: Yeah, I think that’s a great way of saying it, that you have to really – whether you’re in a corporation, a church, a university, each of those social domains has its own rules of conduct, its own values, its own things that you can do and not do. If you don’t understand those things, your movement can come to a grinding halt, even after being successful in staging a protest.
Chris Martin: Now when people did not follow those rules, do you think they didn’t know about them or you thought – do you think they thought they would be more effective if they violated those rules and that would make a statement?
Fabio Rojas: Well, I think the story is a little bit complicated. So for example, if you were to ask a typical undergraduate, “What do you need to get tenure at a university?” most of them wouldn’t know.
So if in this particular case one of the things they were asking for is have a department of black studies or African-American studies and that means creating tenure lines, creating courses, writing budgets. So – and those are things you have to master in order to have a successful and vibrant academic program.
So if your students don’t even know about it, that’s one problem. Another issue is they – a lot of activists see these as kind of a – not relevant to what they’re doing and this comes up a lot in the early history of Black Studies where people will say things like, “I’m really trying to represent a certain population or certain community,” and I don’t want to waste my time with the finer points of academia, right?
Like I don’t want to deal with journals. I don’t want to deal with this or that. Instead this is really about activism and social change and in that case, that’s where a person may have known about the rules and just decided it wasn’t in their best interest.
Then of course there are cases where people are trying to follow the rules. But they’re just not very skilled at it. So for example in one of the chapters of the book, I discussed a little bit about academic programs where people didn’t get tenure or they weren’t able to get published. That’s the case where they knew what the rules of the game were but they weren’t as skilled at it as other people and the activists and scholars ended up really developing good at black studies programs tended to be those people who had a lot of energy, but also had a very deep appreciation for what academia is as a culture.
Chris Martin: The second thing you said is interesting, the point about activists knowing but not wanting to do those things because I interviewed David Frum a few weeks ago and he said something similar to what Alice Dreger said in an article, which is that if you want to be an effective activist, you have to be willing to do some things that are boring and you need to be willing to think about specifically what you want to achieve and put that in measurable terms, essentially do things that don’t feel fulfilling on the surface.
Fabio Rojas: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct and actually on this very day, I’m working on one of my own personal political issues, which is immigration reform. You may know that that’s one of my big topics. So there’s a lot of unglamorous work that goes behind getting a speaker on the topic and finding a place to have the speaker and getting the funds and as somebody who’s in his mid-40s, I’ve done these things before and I already know that they’re very unsatisfying, to use your terms, but they’re extremely necessary. You know, so if I want an event that looks good where people get informed and what not, then that means I have to play by certain rules of the game and it behooves me to learn those rules and to really apply them in the best way that I can.
Chris Martin: Right. This reminds me of Eli Finkel’s book on relationships and how in modern relationships we’re looking for – how does he put it? Self-actualization and I think sometimes people expect constant self-actualization from participating in social movements. I mean maybe. That’s the hypothesis. It could be false.
Fabio Rojas: Well, the scholar James Jasper, a very well-respected and eminent scholar of social movements, has actually written multiple books on emotions in social movements and I think one of the more interesting arguments that he makes is that these forms of self-actualization or expressiveness are part of the normal life of politics because if your entire life was doing boring things, then I think a lot of people would have a tough time getting into it.
So you need some kind of back and forth. You need moments where you’re very happy and fulfilled and that helps you get through the times where you’re dealing with budgets and university committees and offices that don’t always respond to your emails.
Chris Martin: Definitely. So it is a bit like marriage.
Fabio Rojas: Indeed, with hopefully excellent results.
Chris Martin: Hopefully. Fortunately marriage comes with no committee work. Maybe in-laws are kind of like committees. I don’t know. I really like my in-laws.
Fabio Rojas: You and I are both lucky.
Chris Martin: We are. We are indeed. So jumping to more recent work you’ve done, you gave a talk at Wellesley. You gave two talks at Wellesley rather. It was part of the project that ended up being kind of controversial because some of the funding came from the Koch brothers. But your talks didn’t have anything to do with the Koch brothers per se. So tell me a bit about what your talks were about and how they were received.
Fabio Rojas: Sure. So a little background for your listeners. Tom Cushman is a sociologist at Wellesley College. He’s a very noted scholar of human rights, especially in Bosnia and that part of the world and a couple of years ago, he created a center called the Freedom Center where he would invite people to give talks and lectures and kind of hang out and talk about issues relating to political and social freedoms and as you noted, part of it – part of the funding comes from the Koch Foundations and he has other funders as well and twice I was invited to speak at his workshop which happens between the fall and spring semesters at Wellesley College and I came and I spoke about two topics.
I was asked to speak on the topic of whether social movements are good or bad for freedom and then I also was invited to speak about open borders, the idea that people should be allowed to migrate between countries peacefully without any hindrance or obstacle.
In the first talk, I basically argued that social movements are mixed for freedom. Some of them lead to great freedoms, some of them lead to disaster and so I don’t think that activism or the social protest is a silver bullet that solves all problems. Instead you have to really think about the ideology of the movement. What do they want? The kinds of tactics that they tend to use and that’s very important in assessing whether that movement would really enhance individual autonomy.
Then in the second talk, I was invited to speak about open borders because that’s something that I do a lot of organizing around and speaking and writing about and there I presented arguments for open borders from different political perspectives.
So for example, you could ask with the academic perspective and my argument is that mostly academic literature shows very positive benefits of migration to both the migrant and the country that they move to. I also talk about this from an ideological perspective. So for example, I will say that liberals should be in favor of open borders because it is a policy that helps the poorest people. You know, the fastest way to solve poverty is to move to a place where people aren’t quite as poor.
Conservatives should definitely be for open borders because restricting borders is a way of restricting free markets. It’s a way of splitting up families.
So a lot of things that conservatives believe are violated when you restrict migration and when I gave these talks, it was to a workshop of maybe about 15 to 20 Wellesley undergraduates. Wellesley College is one of the most selective colleges in the entire country. They have some of the very best students in the entire country. So it was a real pleasure to debate these issues and some people disagree with me, some of them agree, some of them disagree. And I thought we had a very productive conversation.
And also, when you visit their winter workshop, you get to hang out for the day and see other professors speak. So for example, there was a professor, she, a philosopher from Wellesley, who argued against free speech on the campus. She argued against the broad notion of freedom.
There was a professor named Nadya Hajj in the Political Science Department who gave a talk on Palestinian property rights and how forms of economic freedom are cultivated even in the very difficult situation that Palestinians find themselves in.
So that was my visit to the Freedom Center. I thought it was a very positive experience and I really hope the students enjoyed my conversation and discussion with them.
Chris Martin: On the issue of activism, your first talk, did you get any interesting questions from student activists or did there happen to be any student activists in the audience?
Fabio Rojas: Well, that’s a really great question because a lot of students at Wellesley are involved in politics on some level. So for example, a lot of them were involved in the Hillary Clinton for president campaign, a number of them had other issues. Some of them were just not that political and this is the first time they really thought about these issues.
So in terms of what they thought about activism, I think that was, of the two talks that I gave, I think that was the talk that seemed most sensible and straightforward to them. And I think people appreciated the point that activism varies like anything else. There is some activist where you listen to them and you hear what they want changed and you say, “That sounds like a really reasonable thing to demand.”
And then in history, we’ve seen some really authoritarian movements, some really violent movements, and we should be aware of that that not everybody who says, “I’m an activist,” is automatically a good guy. You actually have to see what they have to say and you have to judge their behavior.
Chris Martin: And the person who presented against free speech, sorry, I had forgotten her name, but you being there, did you have any questions for her? I know you’ve written one blog post on orgtheory defending Charles Murray’s right to speak at Indiana University. So was she suggesting that people like Charles Murray not be allowed to speak?
Fabio Rojas: Let’s see. I saw her talk two years ago so I’ll preface – I’ll apologize in advance if I make any mistakes in her argument. But my memory of the talk is that she believes that some forms of speech could be harmful that they would be disruptive to a college environment, that places like Wellesley College provide a, you may call it a haven, for people to learn in a stress-free environment.
Like for example, who – so the example one might raise in defending her point of view is to say, how many Jewish students would appreciate going to a campus with a Nazi symbolism all over the places? I think people would be very justifiably upset about that.
So from that perspective, she argued that free speech is not absolute. In fact, it should have some restrictions. And since this was a talk for the students, I didn’t believe at the time. That was my place to really raise my hand and really argue with her in class even though we did have a discussion over dinner later that was quite spirited. And my response to her style of argument is to say, “People are a lot tougher than we expect. They can listen to a wider range of things than you might admit.”
Another issue is that colleges and universities exist in order to promote debate and discussion so that means that we should be tolerant of things that may upset us and whatnot and that can be done in a scholarly fashion. So it doesn’t mean that we’re going to walk around with a bull horn and scream at people. That’s not what we’re saying.
But we could have a seminar discussion or a public lecture or have a book reading about a controversial issue and we can do it in a very professional way. And that enriches everybody and it’s also consistent with our culture in the United States which is that we really believe that people are autonomous. They have the right to think certain thoughts even if they’re in error, even if they are mistaken as long as they don’t publicly or privately advocate violence towards other people. We should be highly tolerant with people.
And so, that was my response to her. And I brought this up a little later informally but in the class, I don’t remember having raised it because I was not a student. I was kind of a visitor in the back row just enjoying her presentation.
Chris Martin: I think some people think Heterodox Academy is a free speech absolutist organization and it’s interesting. I don’t know of anyone involved with Heterodox Academy really is a free speech absolutist I think. Most of us share the perspective that you have which is that a lot of people including underrepresented minorities have the capacity to listen to controversial arguments about race and gender and integration and discrimination and a number of topics.
I think one thing that people work on campuses also need to consider is that when you allow authorities to censor, then they may eventually censor you for some reason in the future and you may not foresee that happening but it could happen. So there’s an element of the golden rule as well.
Fabio Rojas: Yeah, I think that’s a really excellent point. And one thing that people say to me, they say, “We have a speaker on campus. Do you agree or disagree with him? Do you think that person should be banned?”
And one thing I really say in response is, “Look, would you like a committee of professors or students to dictate what you can say? To dictate to get an approval for which speaker you can bring in to a classroom or what books you can assign for a syllabus?” That’s a very dangerous road to go down.
And I think people are confusing two things, which is the fact that some people have genuine bad ideas. That’s an issue. But also, they think that the way to respond to that is to not let those ideas be expressed and debated and pulled apart and discussed. And I think that’s the real mistake here because even if I did believe and I do not believe in the theory that just because you say a bad idea doesn’t mean that it will happen or will be legitimized.
But even if I did agree with that, I would be very worried about having a committee of professors or deans or students to sit around and pass judgment on what somebody in English Department can teach or what a student group on campus can do.
I really think they should only intervene in very unusual cases. And so, controversial scholar like Charles Murray, I may agree or disagree with what he says but I think he certainly had the right to give a talk and people have the right to disagree. And I don’t think he should be shut down and yelled at. He should be allowed to be a guest of a person at the University in a peaceful manner.
Chris Martin: On that note, I have an article coming up. I don’t know where it’s going to be published yet but it’s a set of three or four sensible guidelines for how to have – how to decide on a policy or how to decide whether a speaker should be allowed on campus. And I think one sensible rule is, was it a faculty member or a student group who invited the speaker? Because faculty have academic freedom and by virtue of that academic freedom, if they invite someone like Charles Murray, they should definitely be allowed to bring them on campus.
But I thought we’d jump to a different topic before we run out of time, which is the topic of Heterodox Academy itself.
Fabio Rojas: Sure.
Chris Martin: At Heterodox Academy, we’ve argued that one benefit of having more centrists and conservatives and liberals – sorry, libertarians, in academia is that liberals will understand those philosophies better and actually be more effective in their own activism. What’s your opinion on this perspective?
Fabio Rojas: Well, it depends on what you mean by successful. So for example, you can win an election. You can be a politician without ever really understanding the other side, right?
Chris Martin: Right.
Fabio Rojas: And in questions of pure power or pure political influence, you might not care what the other person has to say. You just want to win a fight. However, that’s not my personal ethic. I don’t think that’s a good ethical stance and especially it’s antithetical to what universities stand for, which is the truth on however you define that.
And so, one way to think, not the only way but one way to think about the quality of your argument is to say, “Would somebody believe this if they didn’t – would somebody believe what I am saying if they didn’t already believe it to begin with?”
Chris Martin: Right.
Fabio Rojas: Right. So in other words, if I just say, “Trump is great. Get lost.” That’s not an argument, right? You would only believe that if you already liked the President. But instead, if I said, “Well, he is proposing policies X, Y, and Z, which are bad in this way and that way,” then that’s an argument. That’s better.
And I think what academics, scholars, and professors should strive for is presenting high quality arguments. So, one reason to engage people who are not like yourself is to have an argument that somebody might buy if they didn’t already agree with you. And I think that’s one valuable thing about Heterodox Academy which is that it’s not taking a side from what I understand. I don’t think it takes a side. It doesn’t say, “You have to be this or that.”
But instead it says, “Let’s have a little bit of heterogeneity. There’s definitely a range of opinions that are worth thinking about and talking about.” And by having that then you can get to a point where you could say, “Yeah, I think somebody who didn’t already agree with me might find this an interesting argument.” And that’s a good thing.
Chris Martin: And when you were researching activism, did you get a sense that activists were – so we already talked about rules and how an understanding of implicit rules was helpful, did you get a sense that activists were also more effective if they understood the ideology of the people they were arguing against or the people who are resisting their claims?
Fabio Rojas: Well, once again, it depends on what you are looking for. So for example, if you want to get on the news and you want to project yourself under the media, and sometimes all you have to do is to yell as loud as you can.
Chris Martin: Right.
Fabio Rojas: And ignore the other side. So for example, the controversial speaker, Milo, I always forget his last name. He has a long last name.
Chris Martin: Yeah. He goes by – well, he uses the last name Yiannopoulos but is actual last name is Hanrahan. He just wanted to add something exotic. So that’s his stage name.
Fabio Rojas: OK. So Mr. Hanrahan or Yiannopoulos, he tracks and barters in controversy and it’s not entirely clear to me that he is interested in real actual debate, right?
Chris Martin: Right.
Fabio Rojas: So he succeeds in getting a paycheck. He succeeds in getting on TV. But he may not succeed in making the world a better place, which is to find the highest quality arguments for different positions. And you could only do that by really sitting down and thinking about what somebody else has to say and what’s the right part of that and what’s the wrong part of that. And I think activism is the same.
So if you want to get on TV, yelling as loud as you can is a great way to do it. But for example, if you really want to say, start an academic program, if you really want to influence some group of policy makers, you have to think about their world, what they are trying to accomplish, think about people on the other side, and that’s when you can really make some progress.
Chris Martin: And you contributed one blog post to Heterodox Academy several years ago. It was summary of a contribution you made to a book edited by Neil Gross. Are you planning to write anything in the near future about academic freedom or ideology in the academy?
Fabio Rojas: Well actually, yes, there is an upcoming article that was just accepted in Sociology Compass. It’s a journal that asks scholars to review certain areas of research and comment on them with two of my co-authors, Jelani Ince, Brandon Finlay of Indiana University. We have an article that surveys student activism from the left and the right. We talk a little bit about things like free speech controversies as parts of modern student activism.
So it’s definitely an issue I continue to think about. Listeners can check out my book on student activism, From Black Power to Black Studies, my other writings. And they can check out the Sociology Compass article.
Chris Martin: Great. When does that come out?
Fabio Rojas: It should come out sometime next – about a year from now, maybe a little bit less. It depends on how fast journals go.
Chris Martin: OK. Is there a pre-print available online at the moment?
Fabio Rojas: No. It’s literally just accepted the other day so our listeners are invited to email me. I’ll be happy to share a copy. But also, recently at the James G. Martin Center, I had an article called Defining Faculty Roles: Scholarship First, Activism Second where I argue that you have to be careful when it comes to mixing activism and scholarship. It is true that scholars do have a role to play in public. They have ideas. They do research on things that matters.
But on the other hand, you don’t want to let your personal politics swamp or overshadow your role as a researcher and a classroom teacher. So that is called Defining Faculty Roles: Scholarship First, Activism Second.
Chris Martin: I wasn’t familiar with that article so I’ll have to check it out myself.
Fabio Rojas: Yeah. It’s a very interesting debate.
Chris Martin: So do you have any closing thoughts before we wrap things up?
Fabio Rojas: I just want the university to be a place where people really seriously listen to each other even if they’re not – even if they don’t already share the same perspective or ideas.
Chris Martin: On that note, thank you for joining us and thanks for being part of Heterodox Academy. It has been good talking to you.
Fabio Rojas: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it.
Chris Martin: Fabio is on Twitter at @fabiorojas. You can find out more about Fabio at his home page on Indiana University and you can find his blog Orgtheory at orgtheory.wordpress.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoy this podcast, you may also enjoy Two Psychologists Four Beers. It’s a podcast about controversies in science hosted by Yoel Inbar and Michael Inzlicht. Episodes 1 and 3 of their podcast are about the campus free speech crisis and the intellectual dark web. They are members of Heterodox Academy, but their podcast is self-produced.
My next guest will be Canadian professor Rick Mehta. I’ll also have upcoming episodes with Zachary Wood , and Jessica Good social psychologist at Davidson College.
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Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com