Conservative Juggernaut Hits Campus

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Advice from the University Conversion Project

Rich Cowan and Dalya Massachi

Do you mean to prohibit expression of ideas that are not “politically correct”?

There is nothing wrong with trying to influence opinions. There is nothing wrong with trying to establish new standards of decency different from those of our parents’ generation. As peace activists, our challenge is to influence people by non-violent methods, by persuasion rather than coercion. We also recognize that people who have historically been ignored in the political process may at first need to speak louder or more often in order to be heard. Or they may need to meet by themselves within a “safe space” in order to find their voices.

All of these activities are attacked as “censorship” by those who are accustomed to monopolizing the stage and dominating the decision-making process. It is both ridiculous and dangerous to compare these activities to the historical legacies of colonialism and white male supremacy. The danger in the “anti-PC” campaign is that privileged groups will view challenges to their privilege as “fascism” in order to justify responding to these challenges with violence.

Conservative groups have repeatedly indicated a goal of eliminating the left (or liberalism). Jack Abramoff, former national chair of the College Republicans, went so far as to say, “we are not just trying to win the next election. We’re winning the next generation. . . .It’s not our job to seek peaceful co-existence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently.”

By talking so much about the right, aren’t you labeling people and creating an “Us vs. Them” dynamic that only breeds violence?

Identifying and naming the oppressor is fundamentally different from using the oppressor’s coercive tactics as an instrument of rebellion. We would favor the former, and oppose the latter. As long as power hierarchies exist, it is necessary to name them if we want to understand and/or change the world. Those who commit acts of violence must be held accountable for their actions.

For example, it is OK for women to say that men have the vast majority of power in our society or for people of color to talk about the pervasiveness of white supremacy. It is OK for people in the Third World to identify the First World nations that use the majority of the world’s resources.

The discomfort caused by questioning these power relationships inevitably brings charges of “us-them” thinking or coercion, but it cannot be compared to the violence involved in enforcing those relationships.

Tactically, there are reasons to avoid alienating those who hold power. But this alienation can only be avoided if people “within the system” (or members of “oppressor groups”) take some responsibility for continuing this dialogue.

Aren’t you lumping together “legitimate” conservative political activity with hate groups such as neo-Nazis?

No; we are not equating the two groups. Harassment and coercive political activity are quite different from non-coercive persuasion. But to limit our focus to extreme groups would assume that these groups are the sole protectors of inequality: if they were to dissolve tomorrow, everything would suddenly get better. This is not the case.

More mainstream conservative groups–whose audience is much larger–preach an ideology that assumes the “free market” can rectify social inequality. If “it takes money to make money,” as capitalists claim, are we to believe that those groups who tend to have more money deserve it because “they are more intelligent,” “they work harder,” or “they were here first”? Challenge racist and sexist assumptions.

Shouldn’t professors be free to be spontaneous in class?

Of course. The problem occurs when professors don’t realize what may be offensive assumptions they make about the students in their classes. When they do not use inclusive language or are not sensitive to the new perspectives brought by their students of diverse backgrounds, they are not opening their classrooms to the rethinking of “traditional” scholarship and ideas. Learning and open-mindedness does not end when you are no longer a student–as the student body changes, so must professors.

To be fair, shouldn’t student activity boards refrain from funding political activities, or from funding “left” activities more than “right” ones?

Student fees were established at many schools so that student activities can be controlled democratically by students alone, and not be limited to those which support the policies of the university administration.

With or without funding from student fees, many student governments have enacted policies which forbid the use of student funds for “political activities.” While the university’s non-profit status justifies a ban on supporting partisan (e.g., Democratic or Republican) political campaigns, a ban on all student funding of political activities–as approved recently by the California Supreme Court–is anti-democratic.

This policy plays into the strategy of the right by forcing student groups to rely on funding external to the university. Such a policy is hardly “apolitical.” It biases student expression to reflect the existing order, thus perpetuating the inequities of our society. In other words, students whose views coincide with the interests of corporations, wealthy individuals, or the Defense establishment find it easy to obtain funds to express their views. But students with alternative viewpoints will be financially limited, even if their views are popular.

Tips on Responding to the Right Wing

Rich Cowan

Progressive groups on campus who are attacked from the right basically have three options. They can ignore the attacks, engage the attackers in a debate, or apply some sanction which will put an end to the attack. Keep in mind that an attack is not necessarily a bad thing. As in a game of chess, if your opponent’s attack is weak, you may wind up way ahead after the exchange. Instead of losing support, a progressive group can expose the history, tactics, and funding of the right, turning this right-wing disruption into an embarassing scandal.

Sometimes the best course of action will be obvious; often not. The debate about what to do will be a contentious one, and has split many progressive groups. If we do not quickly mend these splits, we will fall into the traps set for us by the right. This article offers a framework for discussion so that our groups can more quickly reach a consensus.

These guidelines may also help you respond to a sectarian left group that attacks you for not following their “party line” closely enough.

In such discussions, it is important to evaluate whether the right’s provocations reflect a sincere desire to present an alternative point of view, or whether the agenda is primarily to disrupt your campaign. It is also very important to monitor the tide of student opinion: do not lose touch with your constituency.

Ignoring the Attack

Many students today have a disdain for politics because they view it as a shouting match between two extreme points of view. Since the right has money, not numbers, this situation works to their advantage by discouraging mass political involvement. At all costs, avoid mudslinging that merely puts a bad taste in people’s mouths.

When the young Republicans wanted to co-sponsor a debate with a peace group I was in, we refused in order to avoid a mudslinging fest that would only speak to the converted on both sides. We agreed to a debate only if it was sponsored by the student government.

Sometimes an attack is so low that no response is necessary. Disclosing the nature of the attack alone will build sympathy to your cause even without discussion of the issues. If the attack is personal, try to have someone else respond other than the person attacked; an injury to one is an injury to all.

Levels of Engagement

The following are some possible ways to respond, from a minimal level of engagement to greater levels. In general, we recommend minimizing the engagement; if a right-wing group has a tiny audience, you only increase that audience by engaging them. However, one or two people can spread one or two points that may cause potential supporters to question your entire campaign. In this case, you will be better off if you are ready with a response. A few ideas:

  • Don’t bring yourself down to their level. A minimal level of engagement might be making a public statement as to why you do not intend to get into a harangue with the group. Perhaps you could shoot down just one of their arguments as an example of why you think students should not take the rest of their arguments seriously.
  • We know what you’re against, but what are you for? For example, many right-wing groups question affirmative action. Granted, affirmative action laws do not result in perfect decisions. But do the conservatives have any constructive plan to rectify historic inequality?
  • Question the arguments directly. If the right is well-trained and reaches a large audience, your best defenses will be a good political line. Keep in mind some vulnerabilities of the right:
    • The PC label is not as effective as it once was; it is now a “tired argument.”
    • The leftist campus climate that is often alleged by the right simply does not exist; if you can demonstrate how right-wing interests dominate your school’s governance, people won’t take the right’s charges seriously.
    • The right has often used anecdotal evidence and bad science.
    • The interests of students making $10,000 a year are really not the same as those of corporate sponsors of the right, making $300,000 per year.
  • Question their “Americanism.” Part of what makes the US attractive is the right of citizens to oppose their government. If the right is so patriotic, why do they oppose our involvement in dissent? Remind people that McCarthyite tactics designed to ruin faculty careers are hardly “American.”
  • Question their independence. Use the UCP Guide to show how your local right-wing group is not an independent grassroots initiative, but part of a nationally coordinated strategy. Ask the group who trained them. At least one Madison Center paper has had its funds cut off after printing liberal ideas. Is there a connection between the right’s funding and the arguments they present, on health care for instance?

“There is no defense against ridicule,” wrote Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals. Ridiculing someone’s arguments can be very effective–especially in those cases where the right’s arguments are, well, ridiculous.

Exclusion: The Free Speech/Harassment Debate

The right may deliberately operate in a gray zone between legitimate political activity and harassment. The best advice we can give to a group is to establish clear, justifiable definitions of disruption, harassment, and hate literature in advance, so that you can defend a decision to take action when your political opponents cross that line. Free speech is not without limits; if your school fails to respond to harassment, your group could organize a response.

All progressive groups that have succeeded over the long haul have established mechanisms to prevent disruption by individuals, right-wing or not. See the excellent book The War at Home, by Brian Glick.

The authors thank Ron Francis for discussions which improved the first section of this article.

Rich Cowan and Dalya Massachi were with the University Conversion Project.
©1994, University Conversion Project.

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