At what point does protest become thuggery? Protesters might say they are peaceful. But just because there is no violence does not mean that there is no intimidation or bullying. Unfortunately, threats and ultimatums have proliferated on American college campuses, and, until now, university presidents have largely raised the white flag and given in, encouraging more such behavior at other schools. Bullies can sense weakness; bullies tend to pick on weaklings.
Inside Higher Ed tells of a group of Oberlin students issuing a 14-page list of demands. The college’s president is standing up against the demands. But he does so at peril. As Inside Higher Ed puts it:
The list from students ends by saying that they have provided “demands and not suggestions. If these demands are not taken seriously, immediate action from the Africana community will follow.”
The student document ends with: Or Else!
Or else what? One can imagine a range of unpleasantness in the “immediate action” threatened.
Even if such action does not descend into vandalism and such, we should recognize that protests themselves can border on thuggery. They consume administrative resources, including attention and emotional energy. Public assemblages consume security resources. They often disrupt common spaces and established patterns of campus life.
Everyone agrees that there is a line of propriety somewhere, a line dividing the praiseworthy raising of objections and the blameworthy disrupting of common practice and imposing of costs and unpleasantness. As Jonathan Haidt says, diversity and civility depend on sensibilities of generosity. The line of propriety, separating what is praiseworthy from what is blameworthy, should be assessed and applied fairly across the varied interest groups. No double-standards.