Student Protest and Liberal Reaction: A Response to Nicholas Kristof

In the past year, students in South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India have mobilized to challenge the status quo at their universities. An important strand of the student movements seeks to “decolonize” universities by contesting the symbols, systems and daily experiences of privilege, knowledge and knowledge production that were instituted, along with many universities, in the service of colonialism. One collection of movements, often labeled together as “RhodesMustFall,” contests the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes, the whip of British imperial capitalism in southern Africa. In March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town protested for the removal of Rhodes’ statue from their campus.

Within weeks, students at Rhodes University, also in South Africa, called for a name change and engaged in protest action against the race-, class- and gender-based oppressions that students, staff and workers experience at Rhodes University. As student protest spread to other South African universities, solidarity for “RhodesMustFall” came from students at Oxford University, University of Edinburgh, University of California, Berkeley and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. In the United States, students at several universities protested systemic racism. Globally, students have decided that exclusion and oppression have no place in their universities.

Recently, the popular American columnist Nicholas Kristof made his own protest against universities as sites of exclusion. However, Kristof’s argument that universities should stop discriminating against conservative academics amounts to a reactionary defense of the academy as it is — in fact, a case for entrenching its exclusionary legacy further. He is not alone in this, but he is widely read and deserves to be challenged on his views.

Responding to critics, Kristof expounds the great liberal lie: “Classic liberalism exalted tolerance.”

Four centuries of systematic intolerance of women, Africans, Indians, Native (North and South) Americans and poor and working-class people are expunged. Liberalism’s bonds with the practice of slavery and ideological investment in imperialism and capitalist exploitation are ignored. Lauded liberal thinkers include John Locke, an investor in the slave trade and theorist of land expropriation in the colonies, and, later, John Stuart Mill, who argued, “barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one.” Cecil Rhodes, a liberal, professed a similar line, and he has a university named after him; as does the Brown family of slavers from Rhode Island. The modern, elite, global university has its origins in colonial exploitation; colonial logic is often taught as fundamentals of modern “freedom,” and practices of raced, gendered and classed exclusion persist.

In the last half century, the liberal “tolerance” which has allowed a more diverse crowd into the spheres of power and wealth, heralded by the era of multiculturalism and the “end” of racism, has been a thin polish on the ugly perpetuation of intolerance of the same excluded peoples.

In this latter vein, we find Kristof’s argument: “Stereotyping and discrimination are wrong, whether against gays or Muslims, or against conservatives or evangelicals. We shouldn’t define one as bigotry and the other as enlightenment” — this while those contesting police violence against Black people are faced with the trite racism of “all lives matter.”

Liberal tolerance, Kristof continues, intrepidly, is “reflected in [the] line…’I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'” Kristof’s concern is that, “On university campuses’ this liberal axiom is sometimes updated to: ‘I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.'”

Parodying the complaints of students from New York to Johannesburg, Kristof writes about the daily struggle of conservatives, who are marginalized, abused through “microaggressions” and underrepresented in the academy, bearing the brunt of the liberal shutting-up. Conservatives, according to Kristof, become a “minority” alongside “gays, black people, and women.” (Two of the three conservative academics Kristof cites are also Black.) One gets the sense from Kristof that the closing of debate is, at least in part, to be blamed on university activists.

However, the debates closed at universities are those that activists or progressive academics have sought to open. For instance, South African students have facedcourt interdicts and police violence, while the issues they raise are strangled in official channels. Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson, suggested in response to protest that campus police should be armed. A hiring scheme for conservative intellectuals is not going to open debate in a meaningful way.

The mistaken image of the university that Kristof presents is one where conservatism is not already present. Universities have responded to protest with a preference for “reasoned debate” with “all stakeholders” and “all points of view” represented — including noted racists, misogynists, exploitative employers and the ever conservative “powers that be.” Universities can be preserves of personal power as well as institutions where “the system” is produced. In a telling moment, Kristof suggests that left academics in the United States could (and should) be more influential by becoming more “mainstream.” What is the mainstream but the intersection of knowledge, its production and power? Mill on barbarians is certainly apropos in the era of the “war on terror.”

Students around the world are not mobilizing because their universities are too progressive and short on conservative academics; what Kristof calls “liberal echo chambers.” They are mobilizing because their universities are often corporatized, oppressive and exclusionary spaces where critical thinking and debate is discouraged and sometimes punished. Students (and academics) live with the tyranny of debt and sometimes the tyranny of funding; others are overseen by statues of imperial criminals, while they and their families struggle through the enduring consequences of the crimes. The words of one South African student activist ring potently here in the United States:

[The] liberal conception of politics assumes, at its heart, that all voices are heard equally. It assumes that those who exist in the peripheries of this institution — and our society — can simply get together, sign a petition and have their grievances addressed. This idea of politics imposes a “methodology” of participation. It assumes that those who are protesting are asking to be integrated into the system that currently excludes them.

Kristof expects his readers to believe a fantasy where ideology can be divorced from power. Students and academics who have challenged the status quo know that simply having a diversity of ideas does not make the university a more open or diverse institution. Established traditions of exclusion die hard. Commentators like Kristof, who offhandedly belittle ongoing struggles, spurn history and tout themselves as guileless voices from the “left” are poisonous in a society where systems of exclusion are entrenched and defended daily.