Picking battles is often one of the most difficult things to do when everything, everything, provokes outrage and offense. In the war over the Harvard Law School shield, the trauma of the Royall family’s history as slave owners compelled some students to demand its eradication. They demanded a “debate.”
Over the past few months, many have accused student activists from Cape Town to Cambridge of engaging in polemic behavior and creating hostile campus environments. Critics have argued that, in doing so, activists are killing productive discourse, ignoring the implications of the sound of silence, and exploiting terms like “white privilege.”
In conversation last Monday, Professor Nesson described the recent debate about changing the HLS shield given its ties to slavery as an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from polemic student protests—we could set the standard for a dialogic process and protect its legitimacy.
Except the other side wasn’t sufficiently interested to play its role in the show.
While the FedSoc board member continued to push back, Professor Fried went on to say that he would rather FedSoc write a letter in support of changing the shield than it make a mockery of itself trying to defend it. He then recited the contents of his imaginary letter. Professor Fried concluded by saying that he could not identify any professors who would defend the shield except those who would debate even a “lunch menu.”
There was only one defense for the shield to be offered, that its existence had established it as a tradition. It wasn’t worthy of putting on a dog and pony show; don’t want it? Hate it? Traumatized by it? Shrug. Whatever.
Professor Noah Feldman explained that he’s confident that anyone who might want to defend the status quo at HLS has the courage and ability to do so. He questioned the notion that student activists opposed to the shield have a duty to bend over backwards and invite the other side to a debate, thus potentially strengthening and encouraging a perspective with which they disagree.
Feldman’s view, that student activists have no duty but to their cause, is the predominate view in the war for social justice. And to this end, the students at Brown have shown their mettle.
“There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on,” said David, an undergraduate whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity. Throughout the year, he has worked to confront issues of racism and diversity on campus.
His role as a student activist has taken a toll on his mental, physical and emotional health. “My grades dropped dramatically. My health completely changed. I lost weight. I’m on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills right now. (Counseling and Psychological Services) counselors called me. I had deans calling me to make sure I was okay,” he said.
It’s hard work turning over rocks in search of things to be outrage about. Indeed, with so much offense out there, can a student activist even survive the effort?
As students rallied to protest two racist columns published by The Herald and the alleged assault of a Latinx student from Dartmouth by a Department of Public Safety officer, David spent numerous hours organizing demonstrations with fellow activists. Meanwhile, he struggled to balance his classes, job and social life with the activism to which he feels so dedicated. Stressors and triggers flooded his life constantly, he said.
While some might be inclined to view “racist columns” as free speech, they fail to appreciate that student activists cannot tolerate hate speech without taking up arms against it.
When faced with the decision of completing activist work or studying for an exam, students sometimes feel obligated to choose the former, said Liliana Sampedro ’18. This choice, often made by students advocating for increased diversity on campus, “has systemic effects on students of color,” she added.
“I hadn’t eaten. I hadn’t slept. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally,” she said. After hours of work to compile and present the demands, she forced herself to stay up to complete the project anyway.
The hard work of student advocates leaves little time for that other student activity, academics. Does Brown University not appreciate that it is a racist hotbed, and how critical is the need to eradicate racism from its Ivy League midst? David Bernstein notes the hardship under which Brown student activists labor:
What I found especially of interest is that both this and a previous story in the Herald suggest that one incident that took an emotional toll on activists was protesting an appearance on campus by Natan Sharansky and Michael Douglas, who were there to discuss their perspectives on Judaism, Israel and current-day anti-Semitism. Students for Justice in Palestine decided that this would be a dandy occasion to engage in a loud, disruptive anti-Israel protest. An assistant dean was on hand, in part to provide “academic and emotional support” to the protesters, according to the Herald.
That would be the same Sharansky who spent nine years in a Soviet prison as a dissident Jew.
Is there a better indication of the decline of American higher-ed culture than a bunch of Ivy Leaguers at risk of emotional breakdown due to the presence of one of the great, stoic heroes of the Cold War on their campus?
Noah Feldman understood what David Bernstein, obviously, does not. There is no room in the life of a dedicated student activist to tolerate any voice, any idea, that fails to adhere to their orthodoxy. They are too busy, too exhausted. How can one compare the plight of someone who spent time in a Soviet prison with the hard work of student activists, when there are always more rocks to turn over, new things to be outraged over.
At Harvard, no one cares enough to waste their time defending the Royall shield. But those who demand its eliminating, Royall Must Fall, found it worthy of their efforts. They must be exhausted.