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Yes, the Great Oberlin Chicken Protest Is Silly. Most Demands From Campus Activists Are Not.

The latest subject of campus controversy.  

This week, the big news in campus protests comes to us from Oberlin College, where undergraduates have reportedly accused the company that runs their dining halls of crimes against cultural sensitivity (as well as good taste). According to the New York Times, the alleged transgressions include “a soggy, pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwich that tried to pass itself off as a traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwich,” inartfully prepared sushi, and some General Tso’s chicken “made with steamed instead of fried poultry.” By bastardizing classic ethnic dishes and serving them up as “authentic,” the campus caterer is, angry students argue, being disrespectful—or “appropriative,” like the kids say today.

It’s easy to mock General Tso’s activists. And for some, it’s also easy to despair over them as yet another a symbol of what’s wrong with campus progressivism today. Take Fredrik deBoer, the well-known lefty writer who lectures at Purdue University. After tweeting that Oberlin’s students were “living in a Portlandia sketch” (which, you know, is fair), he followed up with a blog post arguing that the “academic turn within the American left—the way in which the university system has replaced the labor movement as the primary incubator of left-wing ideas—has been an unmitigated disaster.”

I want to offer a slightly more positive take.

The rap against campus activists today, as expressed by liberal writers like deBoer and Jonathan Chait, is that they’re obsessed with policing language and enforcing a dogmatic code of political correctness that apparently encompasses everything from pronoun usage to proper culinary technique. At the same time, these arguments go, they’re intolerant of dissent, treat freedom of expression with disdain, want to be shielded from threatening ideas, and regard the notion of educating or winning over critics as self-evidently absurd, as if the way to succeed in politics is to simply shout down the other side. To top it off, they seem largely unconcerned with the economic and class issues that undergirded mainstream liberalism for decades, and sometimes seem to dismiss them as a distraction from their main goals of achieving racial and gender equity.

All of that may be true to some extent. When it comes to their tactics, campus activists typical aren’t “liberal” in the classical sense of welcoming all ideas. And at the very least, there is something inherently absurd about a political moment in which college kids feel comfortable cloaking their age-old gripes about crappy dining hall food in the language of social justice. Surely a shark has been jumped. But for all of student protesters’ occasional excesses, rhetorical and otherwise, it’s worth considering what college activists have actually asked for from their administrations as of late. Here’s a hint: Most of these students aren’t throwing fits over cafeteria food. Mostly, it boils down to more diversity on campus, a goal that most mainstream liberals have been on board with for years.

When FiveThirtyEight looked at the formal demands made by protesters at 51 campuses, the most common request was that the schools increase the diversity of their professors. Not too far down the list: more diverse student bodies. Even if activists sometimes articulate them in strident, divisive ways, these are ultimately reasonable goals that people have been talking about both inside and outside of academia for decades. And for good reason. Especially at elite institutions, the number of disadvantaged minority students is still relatively low, and while some of that problem has to do with the dearth of black and Hispanic students who graduate high school ready for a top university (sadly, we have yet to fix all the faults in American public education), it strains belief to think that colleges are really doing everything in their power to rectify it. The same goes for faculty, which is still disproportionately white and male. Meanwhile, you can question whether other protester demands like requiring students to undergo diversity training or take cultural studies courses will actually foster more tolerant campuses, but they’re not exactly beyond the pale. I mean, why not add some black feminist theory to a core curriculum?

Of course, all of this is very inward-looking, and that’s another criticism of today’s college left—that it’s myopically focused on creating safe spaces at schools rather than engaging with the wider world. But not so many years ago (certainly while I was in college), the line about students was that they were too career-oriented to engage in real activism whatsoever. Insofar as you’re invested in the idea of a vibrant campus protest movement, what’s going on now seems like an improvement over the recent past.

And is it really such a problem if student activists address the problems they see around them? Colleges and universities are important institutions that could do more to help minorities. At the same time, the American left seems to have lots of energy elsewhere. Bernie Sanders has rallied a huge chunk of the Democratic Party around the banner of “democratic socialism,” which would have been unthinkable not long ago. Fight for Fifteen and Black Lives Matter have changed the national conversations on wages and race and spurred important policy changes on the local level. The fact that those two movements, arguably the two most important progressive pushes of the late-Obama era, got their start outside of academia suggests that, contra deBoer, universities aren’t really the “primary incubator of left-wing ideas” at the moment, or if they are, there are still plenty other sources of intellectual and ideological ferment. The campus left might be a little prone to navel-gazing, but there are people picking up the slack on other causes.

While we chatted earlier on Twitter, deBoer did make one very compelling point about the General Tso’s imbroglio. Campus activists seem unable to prioritize the issues that really matter, and instead turn every issue—from faculty hiring to emails about Halloween costumes to cafeteria food (my list, not his)—into a public controversy. If you’ve ever actually read their lists of demands, which can get a bit elaborate, this rings true. “I just want these students to understand that you can’t ring the same bell over and over again and expect people to listen,” he tweeted.

There’s truth to that. But in the end, what we have now is an energetic campus protest movement that in its own bombastic, sometimes counterproductive, occasionally hilarious way is helping focus people on the issue of college diversity. But if it ultimately results in a few more black students getting accepted at Northwestern, or a few more female and minority professors getting hired on at Yale, there will have been worse uses of student energy. In the meantime, the rest of the left seems to be going about its business.

And come on, what kind of sociopath steams General Tso’s chicken anyway?