The Obedient Rebels

Back in the 60s, one group of protesters tried a novel strategy to attack the big banks that they hated. They distributed flyers around town telling everyone to withdraw their entire savings from one particular bank at a preordained time. In effect, they were trying to create an artificial run on the bank, with a small core of ideologically committed people helping to set off a mass panic and withdrawal.

For various reasons, this protest ended up not working – maybe there weren’t enough people on board, or maybe the bank got wind of this ahead of time and built up enough reserves that triggering the run became unfeasible. But what’s remarkable about this story is that these protesters had a specific plan to gain power. They were not just pamphleting and picketing because that’s what protesters are expected to do; rather, they started with a goal in mind and used in their understanding of the financial system to actually try to achieve those goals for themselves.

Compare that to the recent spate of campus protests, from Oberlin students protesting cultural appropriation in their cafeteria food to Princeton students demanding that Woodrow Wilson’s name be swapped out for a leftist of more recent provenance. They do hold a few rallies, likely because rallies have become part of the grammar for any political group. But beyond that, they’re taking no direct action to actually try to achieve those goals. Instead, these "protesters" act more like petitioners. They write blog posts, look for signatures on petitioners, and entreat with professors. Rather than trying to take what is theirs from the hands of an illegitimate authority, they try to persuade authorities, who they view as entirely legitimate, to see things their way.

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning wrote an insightful paper contrasting three different moral regimes. In an honor culture, you’re supposed to defend your honor through your own personal efforts. In a dignity culture, insults have less impact, and you’re supposed to delegate enforcement to agreed-upon civic institutions. In a victim culture, insults matter a great deal once again, but the correct response is to assume a powerless victim role and basically passively request that powerful other people, usually institutions, step in and do something about it.

Now, I think for student protesters, this is usually the objectively correct strategy in that it implicitly recognizes that universities are both way more powerful than the protest movements, and have large internal factions that are likely to be sympathetic to their petition. So assuming a victim role is an efficient way to get things done.

But at the same time, it speaks to a student culture that has internalized powerlessness, cowardice, and lack of agency. The world is way bigger than you, and your only hope to get things done is to passively broadcast your grievances and hope that some other institution takes up your fight.

These are the kids at elite schools in one of the richest countries in the world – if anyone should feel like they have agency, it should be these guys. Perhaps they’re insulated in a bubble that’s force-feeding them signals to conform. Perhaps they’re reacting to a real phenomenon of elite overproduction, so they are correctly insecure about their future and pessimistic about their abilities. But it should be a remarkable fact that our future elites have internalized the idea that taking action on their own is futile, and that they can only do something remarkable if they make the proper petitions to vast formless institutions.