Will Black Lives Matter Be a Movement That Persuades?

Shutting down a college newspaper is no way to persuade critics.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

It was the best of activism and the worst of activism.

In August, activists associated with Black Lives Matter, the nationwide movement to end unjust police killings, distinguished themselves among grassroots protestors: They crafted and published an impressive package of specific policy solutions.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” declared Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, declared in his assessment, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts... And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

The Campaign Zero agenda draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

Details on each of the icons above can be found here, accompanied when appropriate by links to police departments that have already embraced a given reform.

Had Black Lives Matter merely raised awareness of unjust police killings with its street protests, the activist movement would’ve done its country a service: The fact that U.S. police officers kill orders of magnitude more people than their counterparts abroad is reason enough to regard policy changes as an urgent priority.

But awareness-raising often goes nowhere. In publishing Campaign Zero, the activists behind it have rendered two more services: for the country, they’ve injected themselves constructively into a hugely consequential policy debate; and for their allies, they’ve provided a plausible way to convert awareness and mobilization into real-world solutions that will help to save lives. Moreover, the reforms can be pressed locally by activists in almost every municipality in America.

These achievements arguably surpass anything that the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street managed. And whatever Americans think about Black Lives Matter activists, they can now assess this reform agenda independently, on the merits of its proposals.

Yet Campaign Zero is most likely to succeed if Black Lives Matter activists are effective going forward. As someone who favors the vast majority of the proposed reforms, I’m invested in the quality of the movement’s tactics. Thankfully, the subset behind Campaign Zero is quite skilled at the inherently persuasive effort it has undertaken. Another important subset will continue to raise awareness with protests.

But elsewhere in the geographically diverse, horizontally organized Black Lives Matter movement, a third subset is pursuing change ineffectively and objectionably. Rather than trying to persuade, they’re aiming to target skeptics, adversaries and even weak allies with shaming, verbal attacks, and attempts to silence them.

This will hurt their cause and do much harm besides.

The latest exemplars of this misguided faction are students at Wesleyan University, a highly selective liberal arts school with a student-to-faculty ration of 8 to 1. Simply put, these activists are unwittingly harming Black Lives Matter, undermining liberal values, and mistreating fellow students who’ve done nothing wrong. Their error is rooted in an increasingly common misunderstanding of power in America. And Wesleyan’s student newspaper, The Argus, is their primary target.

Last week, its opinion section published an op-ed that critiqued the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive?” the author asked. “Does it have the potential for positive change?” As he saw it, “They need to stand with police units that lose a member, decrying it with as much passion as they do when a police officer kills an unarmed civilian.”

He declared that insofar as the movement vilifies cops, “then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.”

The column provoked fury––and not because it had a few factual errors.

In response to it, scores of students began trying to strong-arm the newspaper. They began by seizing its issues and throwing them into recycling bins as soon as they were distributed on campus. Then, “during a Sunday night forum held by the university’s student government, the Wesleyan Student Assembly, a petition was introduced to boycott and revoke funding of the 147-year-old paper,” the Boston Globe reports.

The petition called for new limits on the newspaper’s autonomy and declared that student activists will keep “recycling” copies unless their demands are met. (The newspaper readily agreed to various racial-diversity demands, including the publication of an issue without any white writers, but is loath to surrender its editorial independence.)

As a frequent, public critic of law-enforcement abuses at the national, state, and local levels, I have particular contempt for the action of these censorious students: They are undermining the very norm that prevents police officers and their supporters from responding to articles of mine that they don’t like by stealing The Atlantic from newsstands or targeting its website with denial of service attacks. And of course, they are holding the newspaper to a bizarre standard. As a staffer put it, to penalize the paper for publishing an unpopular opinion “sets a dangerous precedent in which the difficult, messy work of having to argue against... points is set aside in favor of simply trying to make sure those points are not heard.”

The contradiction at the core of these activists’ behavior: they characterize themselves as marginalized voices even as they resort to force to achieve their ends.

In truth, they possess a degree of power at Wesleyan, they know it, and they are wielding it like bullies. They may succeed in shutting down the student newspaper through the student government, although Wesleyan President Michael Roth, Provost Joyce Jacobsen, and Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias have published an admirably strong defense of free speech and free-ranging debate.

If student leaders do defund the newspaper over this op-ed, it will not only embarrass the institution—it will prove a pyrrhic victory for the activists. On campus and on social media, leftist activists can remain inside a bubble that gives them an inflated sense of their own power and the efficacy of intimidation tactics.

Effecting change in the real world requires a far different tool kit.

The critique of Black Lives Matter in the controversial op-ed at Wesleyan is starkly at odds with my assessment of that movement. I strongly disagree with its arguments. But it was a perfectly legitimate article for a student newspaper to publish, especially a paper with an explicit policy of opening its opinion pages to any student who wants to write there, editing for style but not suppressing any viewpoints.

The op-ed exposed Wesleyan students to specific criticisms of Black Lives Matter that are shared by millions of Americans, affording them a chance to formulate rigorous, persuasive rebuttals in the relatively low-stakes environment of a college campus.

That is a service. The world is full of wrongheaded arguments about life or death issues. When encountering one, the ability to formulate a persuasive rebuttal is a vital skill.

Rather than cultivating it, these Wesleyan students are honing an approach to conflict that eschews persuasion. Any skills they gain as a result will be useless off campus. In the real world, they will never succeed in preemptively suppressing criticism of Black Lives Matter in the press or shutting down press outlets that upset them, and they will be arrested for trashing published material that they dislike.

Their success isn’t even assured inside the Wesleyan bubble.

President Roth’s statement appeared on his blog. He warned against student demands for ideological conformity. “We always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended,” he wrote. “We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.”

Through differences, he concluded, “we can learn from one another.”

Here’s the nonsense rebuttal one student offered in comments: “The biggest problem with treating this as a freedom of speech issue is that this speech actively silences other speech.” Activists are trashing whole issues of a newspaper, never mind the “collateral damage” to numerous writers and photographers who aren’t even accused of wrong-think, and it is the newspaper that is accused of silencing others!

Here’s another response:

Reading through these comments is enough to see that you have offended and hurt people who have faced violence through structural racism (including police brutality) and have opened up the floor for white supremacist rhetoric that vilifies and demonizes people who are fighting police brutality which by the way are often people who have been affected by it!

I ask you all to please take down this post.

It is as if the only rhetorical move these students know is trying to delegitimize critics by labeling them violent or insensitive. If their targets refuse to consent to their own stigmatization, the student activists are rendered powerless. How did anyone read the president’s statement and think those rebuttals would be effective? Empowering these young people requires showing them a better way, but so long as they’re eager to do away with a free press their ineffectiveness has its upsides.

The Wesleyan activists are hardly alone in undervaluing persuasion.

On the right, the rise of talk radio, Fox News and the right-wing blogosphere all encouraged conservatives to pitch content to fellow believers more often than engaging those who disagree. Plenty of progressive commentators are driven by the same perverse incentives. An atomized media landscape and the rise of social media has encouraged even writers at non-ideologically aligned publications to frame articles in a way that maximizes the number of fellow-travelers who’ll click “like.” Even folks posting to their own Facebook pages are influenced by these incentives.

I’ve often thought that conservatives would be better off participating in institutions that they want to change rather than withdrawing and lobbing rocks at them. Had they pursued that strategy, the press, the academy, and the entertainment industry might all be friendlier terrain for the right than they are now.

On the left, I constantly see activists and cultural critics trying to police public discourse by calling out people who run afoul of their preferred social norms, even when the vast majority of the public does not share a given social norm.  What if Americans all started hashing out our disagreements again instead? The social-justice movement in particular relies heavily on shaming and norm-policing, tactics responsible for a large part of its unpopularity and, I’d argue, its ineffectiveness. The left should start recognizing that its focus on policing social norms in enclaves where it wields unusual influence undermines its effectiveness everywhere else.

What have they achieved with this opinion policing?

Nothing as significant as the fruits of persuasion. Marriage equality, the most consequential civil rights movement of our time, was won with outreach and persuasion long before public opinion changed so overwhelmingly that opponents were stigmatized.

Jonathan Rauch, the longtime champion of gay equality, spells out the general lesson: “If a society is open to robust critical debate, you can look at a tape of its moral and intellectual development over time and know which way it is running: usually toward less social violence, more social participation, and a wider circle of dignity and toleration,” he wrote. “And if you see a society that is stuck and not making that kind of progress, you can guess that its intellectual system is not very liberal.”

He goes on to laud criticism, even when it is misguided, upsetting or ungodly:

America’s transformation on gay rights over the past few years is a triumph of the open society. Not long ago, gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. But in a society where free exchange is the rule, that was enough. We had the coercive power of truth.

History shows that the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do. We learn empirically that women are as intelligent and capable as men; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of gender equality. We learn from social experience that laws permitting religious pluralism make societies more governable; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of religious liberty. We learn from critical argument that the notion that some races are fit to be enslaved by others is impossible to defend without recourse to hypocrisy and mendacity; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of inherent human dignity. To make social learning possible, we need to criticize our adversaries, of course. But no less do we need them to criticize us.

Few norms are more important or helpful to marginalized people and voices than the one that says we should not suppress unpopular views or demonize those who utter them.

At colleges, progressive activists who hope to meaningfully participate in civic life after graduation should be grateful to the few dissenting voices on their campuses who challenge their assumptions, affording an opportunity to hone their arguments on individual matters and to improve their ability to rebut and persuade. The contrary impulse to eradicate wrong opinions from campus is authoritarian.

If they insist on continuing to press their agendas with social shaming, norm policing, and intimidation tactics, I wish that they would at least leave Black Lives Matter out of it. The vital subsets of the movement that are raising awareness and engaging in persuasion to win converts need not be undermined by privileged college students erroneously conflating concern for black lives with trashing newspapers.

I hope and suspect that proponents of persuasion in Black Lives Matter are far more numerous. Regardless, much of the Campaign Zero agenda is worthy of mass support.

Happily, one of the people behind it, DeRay Mckesson, has just gotten Hillary Clinton to agree to a meeting  in advance of releasing her criminal justice platform.

The Democratic frontrunner is a long way from embracing all the Campaign Zero reforms. Wesleyan activists might ponder if their energy is better spent urging politicians and policymakers to embrace those reforms... or crusading against the Argus newspaper. I suspect that the black residents of Middletown, Hartford, and New Haven would prefer the former approach, while its police unions would prefer the latter.

May the best of Black Lives Matter prosper.