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Critical failure

The political crisis of the protest movement

I am sorry to have to write this article. I want so badly to instead pen my full-throated support for the grassroots movement for equality that is long overdue. But I can’t, and I won’t. When a card-carrying member of “the Left” has to express reservations about a social justice movement, something has gone seriously wrong.

At first I felt a nagging doubt, easily dismissed by the idea that every movement must go through growing pains. Then, the instances began to pile up. Certain types of speech or space were privileged over others again and again. The now infamous videos at Yale and Missouri are undoubtedly some of the worst, but they are also telling. Even here at U.Va., students were shouted offstage at a vigil in protest of the violent arrest of Martese Johnson because they were white. It has become clear that these incidents are not a flaw of a burgeoning protest movement, but a feature.

“We truly appreciate having our story told, but this movement isn't for you.” “If you have a problem with us wanting to have our spaces that we create respected, leave!” These are a few of the quotes from the Missouri protest Twitter, as if rights change based on where you’re standing. All defenders of rights must ask the classic question: what happens when my liberty impedes the liberty of someone else? In the cases of these protests, the assumption is that the liberty of the disenfranchised takes precedence over the liberty of the oppressor. That may be, but to me, there is a question of whether past injustices justify new distributions of liberty, and that question has been ignored.

But enough has been made of what has become of the right to free speech or freedom of the press. Even those issues are only peripheral. The activist students are young and they are still learning how to use their voices. They are not at fault. The real fault lies with those who taught the students this is what liberalism should look like.

Critical theorists, especially those concerned with the occupation of space and the issuance of demands, have created an intellectual climate with a contradiction at its heart. In the struggle for equality, what matters is that there is constant movement towards a more equal society. Rights, by nature, are secondary to that concern. But what if what matters is the equality of rights?

Freedom of speech does not work if there is not equal freedom of speech. What if what matters is some other right, like the right to privacy, that is infringed upon by protestation? When protesters march through the library during finals, someone’s rights are being infringed upon, and it is not enough to cry social justice as justification. Rights and equality are intertwined, but the movement has prioritized certain types of rights and certain types of equality over others without giving meaningful thought to why this is. The protest movement must confront these criticisms head on if it will become something more long-lasting than spontaneous discontent.

Even as I write this, I am consciously aware that part of me has no right to write this. I am not black, so I don’t know what it is like to be called the n-word. I occasionally overhear an errant joke about the similarity between Jews and pizzas, but I suspect this is not the same. I can walk down the street and not automatically be profiled as Jewish; the same is not true of blackness. To those who would use this article to attack protesters, there is real pain and real suffering behind these issues. They are not just something to talk about academically. Although I ask that the protest movement go forward differently, I still ask that it go forward.

We, as members of a privileged race, are often asked to “check” that privilege. I find this analogy imperfect. Instead, I imagine myself as someone less privileged, perhaps by way of color, and think about what it would be like to carry that weight every second of every day. We can debate about the size of that weight, but the fact that the weight exists at all means the protesters have real concerns. Maybe this is the only way — maybe the fight for equality is messy and justice should trump other concerns. But I don’t think so. Too many of the people leading these marches are people I know and respect, and I know they can think as deeply about the contradiction of rights and equality as I, or anyone else, can. Sometimes criticism can be a kind of a solidarity, too.

Drew’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. He can be reached at d.ricciardone@cavalierdaily.com.

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