Shoving aside last night’s Republican debate, which I’m sure was the usual crazy salad, I want to say a little more about the situation at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I have no doubt the campus is a genuinely hostile place for black students. And I have no doubt that the examples of racist incidents given in news stories are just the tip of a huge iceberg. I’m sincerely glad the students’ protests got some tangible results.
The student organization behind the protests, #Concerned Student 1950 — 1950 is the year the university began to accept black students — managed to screw the pooch by trying to physically evict journalists from their gatherings, in public space on university grounds. The incident that got everyone’s attention involved a senior at the School of Journalism named Tim Tai, who had gotten a freelance photography assignment to cover the football team protests from ESPN (good for you, Tim!). As he patiently tried to explain to hostile protesters that he had a First Amendment right to report on public demonstrations on public property, an assistant professor of media (NOT part of the School of Journalism) named Melissa Click actually tried to grab Tai’s camera and then yelled “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”
(I was seriously relieved to learn that Click is not a J School prof. When I was a student at the J School, covering the news any way we could was considered a sacred duty.)
In the video of Tim Tai trying to carry out his ESPN assignment, I see the most vivid example yet of activists twisting the concept of “safe space” in a most confounding way. They have one lone student surrounded. They’re forcibly preventing him from exercising a civil right. At various points, they intimidate him. Ultimately, they physically push him. But all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe.
Not all of the news stories about this have explained that Tim Tai is also an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri. It’s not just his public space; it’s his campus. Do go to Friedersdorf’s column to see the video and read his blow-by-blow description. I cringe whenever righties dismiss progressive demonstrators as thugs, but in this case the demonstrators were being thugs.
Do we need to review the Bigger Asshole Rule, people? Let’s do it, for the record.
The Bigger Asshole Rule
Effective demonstrations are those that make them look like bigger assholes than us.
It’s important to be clear how mass demonstrations “work.” Demonstrations should be viewed as a form of public relations. The point of them is not to somehow intimidate or change the minds of the people you are protesting. The point is to win public sympathy to your cause. Demonstrations can also be tools for organizing, among other things. But demonstrations are a dangerous tool, because they can just as easily work against you as for you.
The really great mass protest movements — the prototypes are Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — worked because the public at large sympathized with the protesters. The protesters behaved in a way that demonstrated they were worthy of respect, and the Powers Than Be they were protesting — whether redneck southern sheriffs or the British Empire — behaved like assholes. Eventually it was public sympathy — not the protests themselves — that forced the Powers That Be to step down.
In short, if your demonstrations don’t win public sympathy, you are shooting yourself in the foot and hurting your cause more than helping it.
At Missouri, the football team created a financial leverage that spoke louder than the demonstrations, but this is very unusual. Most of the time when people demonstrate in public it’s because they have no other leverage.
So now that we’ve reviewed the Bigger Asshole Rule, let’s go back to the University of Missouri. Charles Pierce wrote,
There’s now a lot of cheesy posturing going on regarding an encounter between a photojournalist named Tim Tai and an assistant professor of mass communication named Melissa Click. Tai was trying to cover the student demonstrations at the University of Missouri and Click went apeshit at him. This immediately made Tai a hero to anyone wishing to discredit what the students at Missouri accomplished over the past week. Rod Dreher was beside himself, which certainly is at least one too many Rod Drehers. The gang at Breitbart’s Mausoleum For Chronic Unemployables stamped their little feet in outrage. And other, lesser fauna joined right in. For his part, Tai seems baffled at being in the middle of this, and good for him. If he can resist the temptation to conspire in his own martyrdom, he will be a better person than most of the people who are claiming to be his champion. …
… Tim Tai was doing a job of work. He should have been allowed to do so without interference. He also should have been allowed to do so without being turned into a cudgel to be used against the people whose protest he was trying to cover. Welcome to the world, Tim. Hang in there.
See, this is what happens. Certainly there’s nothing #Concerned Student 1950 could have done to make the likes of Drehers and the Breitbrats like them, but even in Missouri there are some reasonable people whose sympathy is still up for grabs. #Concerned Student 1950 will need that sympathy going forward, if they’re going to win any battles with the troglodyte state legislature. It’s unlikely they will get that sympathy.
BTW, Click has issued an apology to Tim Tai. Yesterday the journalism faculty met to discuss revoking Click’s teaching privileges in the J School; she was not a J School professor but apparently taught a class there now and then. She resigned her own privileges before that was decided, however.