Liberty University Students Speak Out! And then what?

On HuffPo this morning:  “Liberty University Students Denounce Trump”

My first reaction to the piece was to be really impressed with students who circulated a petition that rejects Trump, and even criticizes university President Jerry Falwell Jr for continuing to support a candidate whose values run counter to the articulated values of the school and church Falwell leads.

“So often we run into people that say, ‘Oh you go to Liberty, that’s that Trump school, right?’ When when you walk around campus, the students, we don’t embody anything that Trump advocates for,” [student Caleb] Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post. “We’re not taught to value the things that Trump values. And so when the tapes came out last week, we felt like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

So far so good. Speaking out against the president of a university isn’t easy, especially a university which works so hard to enforce dogmatic loyalty to the leader of both the school and the church that powers it. The students deserve kudos for that.

Two points, though, refract that sense just a bit. First (if you’ve taken a writing class from me you’ll recognize this), is with the idea of “just informing people” and making our voices heard.

The group doesn’t plan to take further steps against Falwell or the Trump campaign.

“We’re kind of moving on, because we believe we’ve done our job. That the world has seen and heard us raise our voices,” [Fitzpatrick] said. “That was our endgame, was just informing people. There’s no candidate that we want to endorse.”

The notion that anyone is “just informing people” makes me queasy as both an activist and rhetorician because it ducks claiming any real purpose. Nobody “just informs people” as an act of generosity. Giving people information isn’t the same as giving them money for food, or donating clothes to families that can’t afford  them. You inform people to change their thinking and their behavior (h/t Karl Marx, “The point is to change it.”), and not to claim what your real goal is makes you disingenuous. Or, you’re just not thinking through the implications of winning your own argument, and that’s not very responsible.

Yes, these students are students, not professional activists, and are likely invoking the “make your voice heard” trope because they know it. My point is the one I wish Malcolm Gladwell had made in his infamous “Small Change” piece (New Yorker, 2010). Rather than demeaning social media’s use in activism, I wish he’d emphasized the safety-valve effect instead, i.e., doing something simple but low-impact makes people less likely to do something more difficult and high-impact because they think they’ve done their part. These students made a strong statement against Trump, and Falwell for violating their  trust. And then… what happens next? Nothing really changes. Jerry Falwell, Jr still campaigns for Trump, and still–the students correctly note–uses the Liberty brand as a source of ethos, while he also says he doesn’t represent the institution when he uses its name. Huh?

[A side note: imagine a Liberty faculty member campaigning for Clinton or Stein and using their title as a Liberty faculty member while they’re doing it. “Professor Smith, YOU’RE FIRED!”]

The second point that made me think hard is a passing mention of thefaculty response to the petition.

About 2,500 people, including some faculty members, have signed the petition since it went up Wednesday afternoon …. Some faculty members have privately encouraged the group, Fitzpatrick said, but were hesitant to sign the statement. He believes they might be afraid of retribution.

Faculty members won’t sign a petition that students wrote and circulated because they’re afraid of retribution. They encourage students to take a principled stand that they themselves are afraid to take. My reactions to this are several and all over the place.

  • Thank goodness for my union that makes retribution nearly impossible [knock wood].
  • Those jerks are hanging students out to dry and hiding behind them while they do it.
  • Some faculty probably did help the students’ process and efforts and warrant some praise for that even if they were afraid to be public about it.
  • When APSCUF President Ken Mash, spoke to students here at WCU a couple of weeks ago and told them that they have some kinds of power the faculty don’t, he was right.

The question is what students do with that power. We hear you. Now you have to make that count for something.

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One Response to Liberty University Students Speak Out! And then what?

  1. […] October I wrote a post praising Liberty University students for circulating a petition denouncing their university president’s support of the Trump […]

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