Oberlin Blogs

Action and Talking

January 15, 2010

Sam Jewler ’10

Two months ago the Sons of Liberty, Oberlin's student libertarian group, brought a climate change skeptic to speak on campus. It being a relatively liberal campus, student reaction ranged from eye rolling to highly skeptical curiosity, to principled anger. And many students are still talking about what happened at his talk.

A group of environmental activist students decided to turn their passion into action, and showed up to the presentation armed with flyers, banners--and knowledge about their target. The speaker, meteorologist Richard Lindzen, spoke for about an hour, claiming that all environmental measures other than carbon dioxide levels are improving, and that even if climate change exists it probably isn't caused by humans. Now, granted, I'm no scientist. But I did take a Climate Change class this past semester, and in it I learned about quite a bit of evidence that renders those two ideas questionable at best.

I wasn't the only person skeptical of Lindzen. The protesters and audience were incensed at what they saw as a scientist promoting inaction on the most important issue of our time. The protesters loudly questioned Lindzen's credibility, based on his work for a think tank funded by ExxonMobil. Students and professors in the audience grilled Lindzen on issues of environmental justice and why, regardless of science, people shouldn't try to clean up the world simply for its just and purifying benefits. Lindzen was taken aback, challenging the protesters to explain themselves and calling his reception "silly."

The purpose of this post isn't to debate the fine points of science. In writing this I hope to start a conversation about the rights and responsibilities of protesters, especially student protesters at Oberlin.

The Oberlin Review's account of the protesters' tactics opened them up to both praise and disapproval. The protesters had challenged Lindzen with beliefs common to Oberlin students, but they had done so using signs that read, "Boo," "Laugh," and "Dick Lindzen is a neo-con puppet." Those supporting the protesters were happy to see their political beliefs manifesting into real action at Oberlin, but critics worried that their approach was disrespectful both to Lindzen and to the guidelines of public discourse.

Both sides have some validity, and ultimately there may be no right answer. It's easy to see why Oberlin students feel so fired up about climate change. It's a time-sensitive issue with the direst of stakes, on which the world at large seems to be taking insufficient action. And frankly those students' actions were effective, sparking discussion at the event itself and around Oberlin for the rest of the semester. Subtler protest would have been more easily forgotten.

In the opposing view, such protest is an act of conceit and disregard for free speech. This side was articulated most dispassionately by President Marvin Krislov, who weighed in a few weeks later in the campus newsletter The Source. He wrote about respectful dialogue as a key part of education and intellectual enlightenment, saying "Nobody has a monopoly on the truth." In this time of increasingly emotional political fervor, it's important, he noted, for Oberlin to rise above the fray.

President Krislov supported his position with Oberlin's written policy on dissent and protest: "The right to dissent is the complement of the right to speak, but these rights need not occupy the same forum at the same time.... The dissenter must not substantially interfere with the speaker's ability to communicate or the audience's ability to hear and see the speaker."

When influential conservative Newt Gingrich came to speak last year during the presidential campaign season, many people worried how Oberlin students would receive him. We met him with a great deal of respect, which I for one was proud to see. The policy quoted above was circulated at the event and all protests were framed as questions in the Q&A session at the end of the talk. Everyone left agreeing to disagree, but with a better understanding of the other side's take on the issues. Intellectual stimulation abounded.

However, when a disruptive resistance group turns out to be right, history often smiles upon its tactics. We find examples of this in the history of Oberlin itself. In 1967, campus opposition to the Vietnam War was steadily mounting. Students felt powerless to resist being drafted to fight a war they didn't believe in. Searching for a way to show their opposition, they circulated petitions and held sit-ins outside of recruitment sessions.

But these forms of protest left the disaffected feeling unfulfilled. "Everyone said this sucks. This really feels lousy," student Bernie Mayer later told a student writing a great thesis paper on Oberlin protest history. "This feels wimpy. We're not going to do it again." So one morning in October, fifty-three students staged one of the most dramatic events in the history of the school. They surrounded the car of a Navy recruiter as he drove up Main Street, refusing to move--or let the recruiter drive--even as police assailed them with fire hoses, smoke, and tear gas.

As impressive as their bravery was the protesters' ability to balance passion with moderation and level-headed discourse. They allowed the trapped recruiter to use the bathroom at a nearby gas station, and they later turned themselves in to the police. They even designated a student liaison whose job was to "maintain relations with the athletes and the faculty members who we knew would be pissed off by what we were doing." The following Monday between 400 and 600 students showed up for a discussion of the events.

At that "think-in," Oberlin College President Robert Carr lamented the students' actions, saying, "Lt. Commander C. R. Smith came to the campus to use speech--words--in order to counsel with those who voluntarily wanted to talk with him privately. The students who imprisoned him... used force to prevent him from talking." While President Carr held free speech as the most important value, many students argued that the moral obligation of their cause outweighed concerns of civil liberty.

Ironically, it was free speech that led 1968 Oberlin peacefully to the consensus that it would never again allow military recruiters on campus. Dean of Students George Langeler never called police to quell the students, which had resulted in violence at other schools (Berkeley, Columbia, Kent State). Langeler later said, "What I wanted was for people to keep talking."

And people are still talking--but how they talk makes all the difference. It's easy for us to say that the Vietnam protesters were right, since that war is now considered to have been a wasteful debacle. The student protesters of 1967 Oberlin are celebrated for taking action to save their lives and the lives of their fellow students. But if climate change turns out to be as dire as many fear, what of the 2009 Oberlin student protesters?

Keep talking.

Responses to this Entry

Are you arguing that activists' desire to feel fulfilled is worth defying the commitment we made to open debate by attending Oberlin? You point out the primary objection to Mr Lindzen was that he was "a scientist promoting inaction on the most important issue of our time." Did the protest of his speech change that? No. You suggest that the protest was successful by "sparking discussion at the event itself and around Oberlin for the rest of the semester." Yet students have been discussing climate change and working to ameliorate it for years before Mr Lindzen's speech. I haven't seen any evidence that the protest has substantially increased or improved that existing activity. What have those crass, self-defeating disruptions of Mr Lindzen accomplished besides making activists feel good about themselves? Or is it even worse: did the activists' rudeness and incivility decrease the likelihood of Mr Lindzen reevaluating his beliefs and thereby undermine their mission?

I also disagree with your argument that "it's easy for us to say that the Vietnam protesters were right, since that war is now considered to have been a wasteful debacle." That argument cheers and forgives the Weather Underground's bombings. I believe that the horribleness of the Vietnam War doesn't justify every protest.

And Oberlin does allow military recruiters on campus.

Posted by: Colin on January 15, 2010 10:54 PM

A clarification of my last point: the Solomon Amendment, upheld by the Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), allows the federal government to withhold certain federal funds from institutions that don't give military recruiters student access equal to other recruiters' access.

Posted by: Colin on January 16, 2010 4:58 PM

Thanks for the comment, Colin. My intention in this post wasn't to support the Lindzen protesters, only to discuss the merits of their tactics in the context of our school's illustrious protest history. If you asked the protesters I'm sure they'd tell you that they did not expect to change Lindzen's beliefs, only to represent the opposition to them.

Oberlin students have certainly been active in environmentalism for as long as the movement has existed, both in our personal lives and en masse. My point was that the actions of the Lindzen protesters raised awareness and sparked discussion precisely because they were so brazen--and I agree, rude. Similarly, the audacious Oberlin students who surrounded the recruiter's car raised national and international awareness of students' opposition to being forced into a war they rejected. Their actions went beyond rudeness. My point was that the incivility of *their* actions (I'm not talking about Weather Underground) no longer matters, because now it's called heroism.

History doesn't turn because of people following niceties of social conduct.

Of course that doesn't mean inappropriate forms of protesting are always justified. The question is whether climate change is urgent enough to warrant "rude" forms of protest. Certainly they're not the most tangibly constructive forms of activism, but in being so controversial they do tend to spur discussion, and that's part of the battle.

Lastly, you're right about Oberlin's policy on recruitment. The source I read was slightly inaccurate on that. This article by the Alumni Magazine (http://www.oberlin.edu/alummag/summer2007/features/where-are-they-now.html) has some great pictures of the recruiter protest along with profiles of the protesters, and it says "military recruitment was suspended." I for one have never seen military recruitment on campus, though I've seen plenty of recruitment for OPIRG, Democrats and various other liberal organizations.

Posted by: Sam on January 16, 2010 6:39 PM

Great article sir. I'm curious about the motives behind inviting such a speaker in the first place. Did the powers that be decide to test the students, see how they'd react? Was it simply to expose the other side of the global warming argument? Something else? Also, how organized were the protesters and how much time did they have to plan?

Posted by: Mookie on January 17, 2010 12:42 AM

@Mookie: The Republican and Libertarian student groups brought Mr Lindzen to campus. The College Republicans run the Ronald Reagan Lecture Series, which is primarily funded by an alumnus.

This Oberlin Review article attributes the protest to a student group called Earth First!.

Posted by: Colin on January 17, 2010 1:08 AM

Also, upon reading these comments, I offer a couple thoughts:

-I wholeheartedly agree that a poorly planned protest will make any group intelligent activists appear as irrational idealist extremists. It is the responsibility of intelligent activists to not behave like jackasses.

-20/20 hindsight will ALWAYS affect the perception of past events. The phrase "it's easy for us to say" doesn't imply justification of events, it describes justification of opinion.

-If the goal of a protest is to change the mind of one speaker, they've failed already.

-Going beyond the line of rudeness is a necessary element of a protest, at the very least one such as this one. If you're trying to not be rude, you'll be too passive and ultimately ineffective. If you ARE being rude, you're displaying a great deal of immaturity and will not be taken seriously. So all that's left is to cross that line. The trick is to still maintain some control, and for lack of a better term, professionalism. A lack of control obviously leaves anarchy, which is of course no good, as it is seen as utterly irrational. Balance between abrasiveness and professionalism is key.


Posted by: Mookie on January 17, 2010 1:17 AM

I dispute the idea that civility necessarily leads to ineffectiveness. Count me among those who still believe in the power of respectful + intelligent discourse to effect change.

Posted by: Will on January 17, 2010 9:48 AM

I can be counted as someone who is staunchly disheartened and embarrassed by Earth First!'s response to Mr. Lindzen's discussion, but not for the particular reasons stated above.

I take issue with the nature of the attacks. Mr. Lindzen's discussion was about half scientific and half political; he presented first the political reasons that people or institutions might want to overreact to global warming data, or lack thereof, and then presented a scientific argument along the lines of, "we still have no idea what is going on". A friend of mine has summarized his thesis, fairly aptly, as, "the evidence for or against global warming does not support the hysteria surrounding the topic". (These aren't direct quotes, rather paraphrases.)

Mr. Lindzen is a "dynamical meteorologist with interests in the broad topics of climate, planetary waves, monsoon meteorology, planetary atmospheres, and hydrodynamic instability. His research involves studies of the role of the tropics in mid-latitude weather and global heat transport, the moisture budget and its role in global change, the origins of ice ages, seasonal effects in atmospheric transport, stratospheric waves, and the observational determination of climate sensitivity" (MIT's faculty profile, http://www-eaps.mit.edu/faculty/lindzen.htm). Basically, he's a scientist, and he was presenting a scientific argument.

And Earth First! attacked him personally. The attack, a sign held up after the presentation that read "brought to you by ExxonMobile", referenced a previous talk he gave at the CATO institute, a "public policy research foundation" that works to "increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace" (Cato Institute, http://www.cato.org/about.php). Mr. Lindzen had presented at Cato, just like he presented at Oberlin, and collected his payment for such an arrangement.

If I recall correctly, the amount ExxonMobile donated to Cato was $90,000. That number pales in comparison to ExxonMobile's donation to Stanford recently, which checked in at $100,000,000. Are we going to discredit anyone who has ever given a talk at Stanford University?


Posted by: ike on January 17, 2010 10:35 AM

The name of the game is 'Respect'.

This man was aware that he was coming to speak at a campus that didn't exactly see 'eye-to-eye' with him. While I think it's unrealistic to expect a completely quiet audience, I refuse to believe the notion that it's impossible to make a point without degrading oneself to a level of disrespect that comes with name-calling and signs that attack your opponent on a personal level. If one wants their argument to hold any merit, shouldn't they act with the same respect and integrity as the person they're protesting against? I highly doubt Mr. Lindzen outwardly offended any of his audience members with blatant signs of disrespect. He was simply speaking about a topic that he was passionate about. He has the right to disagree without being disrespected. I think this is an argument centered on the differentiation between these two realms.

Posted by: Evan on January 20, 2010 6:42 PM

Yes, Richard Lindzen is in the same class as Lomborg. Likes the limelight and is quite eloquent, but using highly spurious data to back up his arguments...

Posted by: Cheryle Crossley on July 20, 2010 4:44 AM

There is no such thing as open debate on the Oberlin campus, one either shares the cultural Marxist mindset or they are silenced.

Posted by: Richard on June 18, 2011 9:10 PM

I’ve no doubt that sanity (and by concomitant default civility) will eventually be restored to “red-diaper” institutions such as Oberlin in that even lemmings have some instinct for self-preservation. What is foreboding for the future is that the process of digging out from the chic of Marxist didactics will be ever longer and more painful for our acquiescence. What scares grown-ups more than anything Sam is the belief held by some students: “that the moral obligation of their cause outweighed concerns of civil liberty.”

Posted by: Diana on June 13, 2012 7:50 PM

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