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The Problems with Student Protests at U of M

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

By: Cameron Keuning


Protesting the works of the government, and political activism in general, is imperative in the political processes of a democratic society, especially in a nation in which the God-given right to exercise free speech is protected by the government. In fact, the politically active student population at the University of Michigan turns to protest quite often, but a protest is not always the best way to raise awareness of an issue, let alone incite change.


Protesting in an Echo Chamber

Travel back in time with me to Tuesday, November 8, 2016, Election Day. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and in the following days, people around the country erupted into protest of the controversial new President-elect. U of M students were no exception. I remember looking out of a Mason Hall second story window in the middle of my Calculus class and seeing hundreds of students filing out of the Mason Hall doors towards the Diag, chanting, “no KKK, no Fascist USA.” It was a spectacle of students banding together in their mutual disgust at the election of a Donald Trump that was, in many aspects, quite respectable.


The problem is that Michigan is a political echo chamber, and this is not exclusive to students. Each of my professors commented negatively about the election of Trump the following day, and one spent nearly half the class discussing how it could have possibly happened. The point I’m trying to make is that the University of Michigan is a place where both students and faculty openly discuss politics–politics that are on the left the vast majority of the time. Protesters of the election of an unpopular President are merely echoing one another. And in the political bubble that is the University of Michigan campus, it becomes a sort of meta-protest. This type of protesting has no real purpose other than to make the protesters feel a sense of accomplishment. In such a situation, contacting Senators and Representatives to voice desire that they not vote in line with the new President would be far more effective.


Pick Your Battles

Just before Thanksgiving Break gave us all the much-needed reprieve from schoolwork and an excuse to eat more than we should, University President Mark Schlissel announced in an e-mail that Richard Spencer had requested a space on campus to speak. Keep in mind that, as a public university, the University was legally obligated to provide the space his people requested. Like clockwork, U of M students began to speak out against the controversial figure, planning a full week of protest activities in early December, which culminated in a march of protest.


I find Spencer’s platform as menacing as the next person, but the student protests only added fuel to the fire. In light of protests at UC Berkeley the previous year resulting in the cancellation of a speech by Ann Coulter, the idea of protests (not necessarily by students) leading to the cancellation of a talk is not wholly unbelievable. Considering that the topic of Spencer’s talk was “Free Speech,” it is as if he were seeking to incite a protest of his speech.

Furthermore, protesting Richard Spencer only gives him attention. I recognize the merits of fighting against such controversial ideas, but being such a small minority of an ideology, it is my opinion that the best way to shut down people like Spencer is to ignore them and give them no audience. Speakers like Spencer thrive on attention because so few share their ideas in actuality.


At the end of the day, when enough students feel strongly enough about certain issues, some sort of demonstration will arise. But protesting, when used excessively, can become a problem. Protests and political demonstrations can easily become distracting to other students. But on a larger level, protesting too much weakens the meaning of the protest. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked on the Diag and seen a group of people demonstrating politically, and thought to myself, “ugh, another protest.” The state of the campus, and by extension, the nation, should be at a point where, when people are protesting, it must be a highly critical issue.

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