Herbst: A Study in Agonism

by Robert Herbst | 5/4/15 6:18pm

A popular Martin Luther King Jr. quotation that has been floating around Facebook reads, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Without much explanation, most students will understand that the relevant riot is the recent social unrest in Baltimore. Moreover, that these actions constitute “the language of the unheard” implies a message that can only be gleaned through rioting. That message could read, “Oppressive institutions rely on the illusion of social stability to perpetrate themselves. By undermining social stability, we expose the pernicious nature of oppression and subvert it.” We may be tempted to understand this as denizens of a world defined by social media activism with a blurred relevance to local contexts.

Some students want to be more than the floating observer — to speak that message themselves. Yet what message are students conveying when they undermine social stability in Hanover?

I see two possible viewpoints that may have motivated the protests at Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity’s Pigstick party and Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority’s Derby event this past weekend. The first is that these markers of Dartmouth social life are manifestations of oppressive structures identical or similar to the ones protested in Baltimore. For this argument to hold true, students would need to equate their personal oppression with larger protest movements. Specifically, these explicitly anti-Greek groups would be advancing a claim that the oppression stemming from the Greek system is analogous to that of police brutality, housing segregation and predatory economic policy. I reject this out of hand. I trust that all students, including those involved in the protests, know that inner-city police brutality has no parallel at the College.

I therefore must assume a second inspiration for the protests. By protesting events with large public visibility and an innately controversial bent, students are able to garner more attention for themselves and their cause. While this line of thought is certainly appealing, it is both flawed and troubling. It misidentifies what makes different types of activism successful. Real Talk Dartmouth, for example, succeeded after the April 2013 Dimensions protest because of the subsequent sustained, echo-chamber-like conversation about Dartmouth issues — issues under the College’s jurisdiction. Like it or not, administrators have little power to alter the oppressive apparatus targeting urban black communities across America. There is no “Moving Dartmouth Forward” plan for police brutality. As such, the aim of a sympathetic protest movement should not be notoriety, but support. Stirring the beehive is not productive in this instance — especially when our particular hive is willing to help when it isn’t incensed.

As a brother of Alpha Chi, the die was cast for me the morning of Pigstick. My house knew that protests were going to happen. We had invited students intending to protest to take the stage at their chosen time to spread awareness of issues that we as a house cared about. They rejected this option. For those students, it was out of the question that our house might align itself with their cause. In this constructed scenario, Pigstick is arbitrarily chosen as mutually exclusive with supporting the movement in Baltimore.

The problem here stems from an old strain of political philosophy called agonism, which posits that the best results come from the clashing of ideas. This isn’t to say that the protestors are agonists. Rather, their insistence on a binary between the demonstrators and the partygoers — the revelers, who became a proxy for the ignorant white masses — is an agonist position. Whether or not that dichotomy accurately conveys the reality of the situation is beyond the point. Implicit is a series of false choices — you can only be on one side of the picket line. This thinking precludes the notion of coalition building or allyship because the good guy-bad guy trope generates maximum attention. I hate to use the civil rights movement clichés that the MLK quotation plays up, but I would argue that white student allies at sit-ins and marches did not inhibit the movement’s successes.

It’s disappointing that the chance to galvanize a coalition of students in solidarity against police brutality was lost. Though in our present age of all-or-nothing social justice — where compromise is co-optation and diversity of opinion is a poison to ideological purity — it’s hard to expect anything else.