Fighting the good fight

Professors can protest and participate in activism on campuses, but only if they do so respectfully

Recently, a University of Connecticut professor responded aggressively to preachers who came to the UConn campus to proclaim “evolution is a lie,” among other messages. The professor, James Boster, who teaches anthropology, came very close to the visiting preachers and yelled at them, repeatedly asking if they had read Darwin and using expletives to charge them with ignorance.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Boster justified his reaction by saying he confronted the visiting preachers in order to “defend my students from strangers who come to call them sodomites, fornicators, and sinners condemned to hell.” However, the University of Connecticut released a statement saying they did not approve of Boster’s reaction because “The use of abusive language and a confrontational posture are inconsistent with UConn’s values.”

From the video of Boster’s reaction, the proclamations of the visiting preachers cannot be well-discerned, aside from the messages on their signs: “evolution is a lie” and “sin awareness day.” But if we accept Boster’s account that the visiting preachers “attacked my students for their sexual behaviors, sexual preferences, religious beliefs” — as it is common for these kinds of groups to do when they come to college campuses — it is understandable that Boster felt a need to defend his students. However, focusing on his opposition to the preachers’ views on evolution, Boster’s method of defense did not set a good example for the students he attempted to protect, and created an environment not conducive to healthy debate.

Boster displayed a lot of aggression toward one of the preachers, using physical contact to force him to walk backwards, and yelling expletives directly in his face. The altercation came dangerously close to crossing into the realm of violence, which should only be used for self-defense.

It was also clear that Boster’s language intended to denigrate the visiting preachers rather than just challenging their ideas. It may not be possible to engage in effective debate in this context, because the preachers may not be responsive to dissent, but the professor’s language demonstrated techniques that foil effective debate rather than encouraging it: attacking the person rather than the views and attempting to intimidate the opposition. Such a reaction does not set a good example for students to engage in constructive debate in other situations more conducive to it.

Following the incident of hate speech at the University earlier in April, we endorsed the students’ response, as it demonstrated community solidarity and support for love rather than hate. This response was not one of aggression but rather one of positivity. The protestors in this case were more focused on condemning certain groups of people rather than making an argument, but the situation still demonstrates how students — and professors if they wish — can respond without using physical aggression or demeaning phrases.

Professors’ opinions matter to the university communities they belong to, and professors can certainly play a role in activism on campuses. Many professors participated in the movement to reinstate University President Teresa Sullivan, and professors have actively supported the Living Wage Campaign. But professors must utilize respectful methods of protest in order to set an example for their students, and in order not to undermine the causes they seek to promote.

Published April 29, 2014 in Opinion

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