This post is a result of frustration with Todd Gitlin's editorial in today's NYT. I can't stand his self-serving invocation of '68. No student protests or radical political efforts since '68 ever measure up to his rosy-tinted glory days and he is always happy to tell us why. This time it is because the protesters are complaining about vulnerability and movements don't win unless people are strong. Gitlin's basic move is bizarre: the students at Missouri won. Their football team put their economic power in the university to work as political power. Students all over the country this week put their universities on notice, occupied spaces, opening up another round of discussions of racism in colleges and universities . This doesn't seem like a story well-described with a headline about protesters' fear.
That said, the rhetoric of safe spaces, vulnerability, and civility does seem part of the current moment. Why? Gitlin too quickly dismisses political economic considerations -- the enormity of student debt, diminished economic prospects, loss of rewarding work, and intensified financial insecurity facing this generation of students. He notes, only to discard, the surveillance part of contemporary life. I think these political economic factors are more important than Gitlin allows. They establish the terms through which the students are voicing their critique. Students frame their opposition in a language of safety and vulnerability because that is the language available to them after forty years of neoliberalism and in the second decade of the war on terror.
The new left stood on the shoulders of the old left they sought to defeat. Available to them was a rhetoric of class struggle, equality, strategy, and solidarity. Contemporary students come into a different university, one focused, first, on profits, individual success, efficiency, and the victory of the strongest and, second, on safety, security, and comfort. They are taught that what matters is their individual psychic, physical, and emotional health. They have to defend themselves, take care of themselves, listen to themselves. If they don't no one else will. So they are pushing back against a university system that they experience as hostile, damaging, unhealthy.
Some universities present themselves as caring, as providing mental health services and a personalized environment that will help students meet their individual needs and goals. For the most part, this is advertising -- as everybody knows. The reality is stress, debt, the reproduction of privilege, and, for some, a few years of extreme partying.
The university concentrates the tensions of the larger society: competition v. security, profits v. comfort. When every space is a site of struggle -- to get that job, that A, that recommendation, that attractive mate, that sports victory -- no space is safe (that students in Texas can carry guns is an extreme illustration of this point). The university tries to promise to its customers a safety it cannot provide because it's impossible, particularly under capitalist conditions. Capitalism requires losers, victims, an exploited underclass, a reserve army of the unemployed, and, more pointedly, those who ruthless enough to cut, fire, and coerce.
When every course or offering requires an economic justification (the proliferation of "leadership" as a buzzword is one odious example), cultivating reflection, respect, understanding, and the languages of critique seems an expense few can afford. The university either cuts them entirely or the students in these courses realize the fundamental tension between the course and the university itself: will getting a good grade in theories of social justice make a difference in the job market?
Students are using a vocabulary of safety and vulnerability because that is the one that registers in contemporary culture. Since 9/11 they've seen that it works. Need resources? Highlight a security threat. There's always money for weapons and police.
The critical language of too much of the academic left amplifies the appeal of a critical language of vulnerability: grievable lives, mourning, melancholia, exclusion, failure, the rejection of power, the potential of any term, act, norm, or demand to harm and exclude.
What's innovative in the last round of protests is the weaponization of safety and vulnerability. Think cultural revolution rather than therapy, hundreds and thousands of students on campus after campus rejecting the status quo and demanding change. The attack on privilege is an attack on hierarchies of race and class, waged in the language available to those told they live in a post-racial society offering no alternative to capitalism.
That said, there is a risk in the current struggles-- and it has nothing to do with a threat to free speech as the liberals would have it. The risk of invoking vulnerability and appealing to safety comes in the reinforcing of an authority who would promise security, who would recognize the vulnerable as vulnerable and guarantee that he would protect them from harm.
I don't think the current wave of protests will end up in this position for two reasons. First, such protection is impossible -- it exceeds the boundaries of the university. From the changing climate to the barbarous economy, the university can't shore itself up against the society it includes and reproduces. The more it tries, the more caught up it gets in the contradictions of struggle and safety. Second, and consequently, efforts to meet students' demands by strengthening administrative authority reveal the impossibility as the incompatibility between capitalism and the promise of a decent, humane life on which the university relies. Decent, humane life, equal life, solidary life, responsive life, requires remaking the university, using it as a base camp in a struggle for society against capitalism -- in other words, cultural revolution.