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?
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