Making sense of the student protests

Gwen Ngwenya writes on the relevance of the 1970 Scranton Commission report's relevance for the crisis on campus today

Dear SA, some advice on student protests, from Richard Nixon, with love

Following almost a decade of intensifying student protests and violence, Kent State on 2 May 1970 had its buildings set on fire. An attempt to disperse a crowd of students who had thrown rocks at police escalated from teargas to open fire resulting in the death of four students.

Those events prompted Richard Nixon to establish the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. The report compiled in June 1970, hereafter referred to as the Scranton Commission, is the work of a large body of contributors and headed up by William Scranton, a former Pennsylvania Governor.

The 450 pages will relieve South Africans of any concern that our problems are unique or insurmountable, and can be found in full here. What follows is an application of some of the recommendations and ideas to the South African context.

“Universities must sustain their commitment to the life of the mind.” William Scranton in the submission letter of The Scranton Commission

It is increasingly clear that the radical Fallists are not committed to the life of the mind. Ideas to them are corporal and not abstract; they are bound not by the epistemological conditions of gaining knowledge such as empiricism or rationalism but are bound within a tangible human edifice.

The consequence then is that the integrity of ideas is to be judged not by questions such as “what are the propositions from which we understand this to be true?” or “is this a reliable pattern of data that I may call it evidence?” but rather knowledge is to be judged by its anthropomorphic traits, “what is the skin colour of this belief” and “what are the geographic origins of this belief?” There is also a strong desire to denigrate that which is universal in the human condition in favour of a perverse relativism where every claim is true depending on its context. 

“Whereas earlier civil rights activism had generally attacked off-campus targets, the protests of black militants now were usually directed against the university itself. The university, they claimed, had helped to perpetuate black oppression through its admissions policies, its "white-oriented" curriculum, and its overwhelmingly white teaching staff. Black students found their cultural heritage slighted or ignored altogether.”- The Scranton Commission, page 33.

“How do we even start to decolonise science…Science as a whole is a product of Western modernity and the whole thing should be scratched off especially in Africa. So if you want practical solutions to how to decolonise science, we have to restart science from, I don’t know, an African perspective, from our perspective, from how we’ve experienced science”. These words are the latest insights into decolonisation from a speaker of the Shackville TRC.

The Fallists, and other ideologically affiliated splinter groups, in favour of a decolonised curriculum know what they wish for it to entail. And by insisting that they know prove a critical point; this knowledge is out there and accessible to all who wish to receive it. This is not about giving people access to knowledge which is locked up somewhere.

It is not good enough that they know it, they wish for their ideas to be taught to others and for their ideas to enjoy pride of place in examinable curricula. Here then we reach the thrust of the movement; racial egoism, the self as racial, and the humiliation of not seeing that racialized self as an innovator and progenitor of ideas. The protests then become a manifestation of the politics of humiliation.

Black culture has been disrespected, and the movement is about the sentiment that we will no longer be disrespected on our own land. I disagree with the impulse: the need to see one’s physical self reflected in ideas, and therefore the need to ground ideas in some physical person or place. But I can empathise with it, because for all my individualism I cannot escape my outer shell as a black woman.

There is an under appreciation for what it means to navigate a world in which you are wrong and seen as the foil for white/western progress and white/western righteousness. I, and many black people, in South Africa, and in other parts of the world exist in an environment where everything about us is wrong; our hair is wrong, the way they we speak is wrong, our ancestral beliefs and culture is wrong, our dress is wrong etc.

This is not to engender sympathy but empathy, nor is it an attempt to monopolise struggle. Life is hard for most people, in different ways, but we are being asked to empathise with those who have experienced the hardship of having borne an existential crisis from birth.

The answers are complex; they involve tough empathy in the place of soft sympathy which is often the gift of the guilt-ridden. Soft sympathy is the patronizing appeasement of every whinge and is more about assuaging one’s guilt than a concern for equal opportunity. For some the cry is for an equal opportunity to compete. Tough empathy in the context of curricula would mean that universities should be open to new ideas and sources, but they cannot be violently introduced, they have to compete.

Suggestions of African authors and their ideas will have to stand up to intellectual scrutiny, they will have to prove their value in the advancement of human progress or they must be abandoned. This may not be fair but it is just and pragmatic. There are African scholars (not necessarily themselves African but engaged in African scholarship) who are committed to this academically rigorous and democratic process and they should not be thrown in the same pot with those intolerant to scrutiny and who promote anti-intellectualism.

But if we are to distinguish the rational voices, these voices need to make themselves distinguishable by supporting non-violence and supporting the return to peaceful negotiation.

 “In the midst of a crisis, some administrators believed that their only options were to do nothing or to call in the police. If they did nothing, they would allow the extremists to take over the campus; if they called in the police, they could not be sure the police would act properly.” –The Scranton Commission, page 38.

Lessons from the student protests of the 1960’s indicate to us that universities need to get the following four things right; 1. They must ensure that within the university there is room for legitimate protest, 2. Codes of conduct and consequences of their violation are communicated widely, 3. Internal procedures are put in place to handle disruptive behaviour with appropriate escalation methods to law enforcement when disruption becomes violent, and 4. Punishment is indeed meted out for violators. In the present instance amnesty for violations, especially consequences which are transparently communicated, undermines universities’ commitment to restoring order on campuses.

“Students should not expect their own views, even if held with great moral intensity, automatically and immediately to determine national policy. The rhetorical commitment to democracy by students must be matched by an awareness of the central role of majority rule in a democratic society and by an equal commitment to techniques of persuasion within the political process.” – The Scranton Commission, page 207

Students must expect the university administration to take both “soft” and “harsh” measures. Protecting the right of students to picket, to march in designated areas, to conduct sit-ins where they do not obstruct the operational ability of the university etc. may be seen as ‘soft’ but is vital to democracy broadly and to academic freedom in the university specifically. ‘Hard’ measures, meaning only the commitment to enforcing codes of conduct and to seek the help of law enforcement, can and should be taken when students protest by infringing on the liberties of others. 

Protest in a democratic dispensation cannot be conducted using methods that should attend a dictatorship. In South Africa political processes exist, including general elections and the ability to vote a political party that sympathises with free education and decolonised curricula, some might say such a party already exists. In addition all and sundry are able to pen critical letters in the media to persuade the public to their cause. There exists even the possibility to take the matter to the courts.

If the matter enjoys support then the funds will be forthcoming to finance the legal process as have other socioeconomic issues which have been taken up on constitutional grounds. Of course it may be that no political party is sympathetic, nor the broader public, nor any reading of the constitution by the courts. But that’s democracy; if you fail to rally up the support then it cannot stand. Examples of violent protest action under apartheid or a dictatorship are not analogous to the present where critical voices can be vocal without fear of violence or intimidation. 

Where there is intimidation, the intimidation must be condemned without yielding to the protesters demands. Protesting students should not be surprised to find that their demands do not gain legitimacy just because they are intimidated or threatened. And it is the responsibility of their fellow students and the public to guard their sensibilities from that dangerous conflation of sympathies.

“But the best of administrators cannot operate without the support of the university's other major constituencies; the students, faculty, and trustees. This support often has not been forthcoming.”- The Scranton Commission, page 123

This is an important point but does not require much elucidation. Faculty members who assist students in disruptive and violent behaviour should have no place in the university community. The university administration cannot be expected to uphold the values and codes of conduct of the institution, when its own staff seek to subvert it from the inside. Unless lawlessness is to abound, faculty particularly must be committed to guiding students in conducting peaceful protest and dissenting within the formalized university committees, which enjoy staff and student representation.

“Increasing numbers of citizens believe that students who dissent or protest even those who protest peacefully deserve to be treated harshly.”- The Scranton Commission, page 5

Public universities are exactly that and cannot be viewed as private fiefdoms. It is entirely appropriate to expect that in your own home your rules will be followed and those who do not like it are free to leave. But the university as a public entity must be open and tolerant of the expression of divergent views. We are, as the public, at times in danger of allowing extremists to push us too, to extreme positions.

 “Actions and inactions of government at all levels have contributed to campus unrest. The words of some political leaders have helped to inflame it. Law enforcement officers have too often reacted ineptly or overreacted. At times, their response has degenerated into uncontrolled violence.” - The Scranton Commission, page 8

The Commission on Campus Unrest was formed at the behest of President Richard Nixon, and it begins its recommendations with him. For the President and his cabinet they urge for their full support to be afforded to the universities. They ask for leadership in steering the country towards a common goal.

South Africans at this time, no doubt ask the same of Zuma as was asked of Nixon, “to exercise his reconciling moral leadership as the first step to prevent violence and create understanding.” Failing that to lend the support and assistance of his office to universities to accomplish the goal of ensuring that no poor student is denied access on financial grounds, which cannot be done without the requisite political will. 

“Again and again, the cameras focused on whatever was most bizarre, dramatic, active, or violent. Few television or radio and newspaper reporters had the time or knowledge to explore the causes and complexity of campus protests.” - The Scranton Commission, page 28

Those in the media are unenviably damned if they do and damned if they don’t. On the one hand there should be a commitment to keeping the South African public informed in a context in which the national broadcaster is committed to keeping scenes of protest hidden. And on the other is a sensationalization of events by prioritising extreme voices, relegating moderate students to the fringes of conversation, publishing video clips without caption and leaving it to the public to imbue images of violence with their own version of context.

Perhaps the lesson is for the public not the media; to consume news critically. Every video of a police officer dragging a student is not necessarily violent and improper, force is often necessary to carry out arrest because the subject resists. And not every student that resists is guilty of violence. But image bias is not given the same consideration by consumers of content as reporting bias.

Images and videos for some still enjoy a status of ‘truth’ which needs to be dispelled. The Miner’s Shot Down documenting of the Marikana Massacre highlights the importance of being aware of image and camera perspective bias. Work in this area is likely abundant, but more recently the research by a Ohio University professor, G. Daniel Lassiter, reveals that a police interrogation video can sway the opinion of a jury solely on the basis of the camera angle used.

When it’s all said and done hopefully we can walk away knowing that whatever the outcomes it was ideas that won and not brute force, lest we become a caricature of that Stalinesque rally ‘ours is a just cause; victory will be ours!’ The world is replete with just causes, they do not create a better world when they are realized by the creation of other injustices.