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Caring Isn't Enough

Caring Isn't Enough

In contrast to the civil rights movement, today’s campus protests are about loud demonstrations of virtue and social media virality.

Jeremiah Johnson

Over the past few weeks, campus protests focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have received an inordinate amount of media attention. Images of the protests, news of university actions (or lack of action) against the protests, and debates about their legitimacy have been front-page news. And yet for all the breathless coverage, one thing seems to be missing: an explanation why any of this matters at all.

You may say that these events matter to the colleges impacted or to America’s domestic politics. But the protests are nominally about what’s happening in Gaza. And there’s very little reporting on how any of the protestors plan to make a difference there.

The truth is that they’re not going to make any difference to those enduring the conflict whatsoever. Furthermore, it’s not even clear whether the protestors realize that is supposed to be the goal. Helping Palestinians in Gaza no longer seems to be the point. It’s certainly worthwhile for college students to care about injustice in the world. But caring isn’t enough.

It seems ridiculous to have to spell this out explicitly, but the point of a protest is to enact concrete change related to the thing you’re protesting against. That requires planning, strategy, and discipline. Protesting without a plan to make an impact in the real world is just political self-gratification.

Protests used to follow this principle. Consider the civil rights movement, the gold standard that every modern protest movement compares itself to. Civil rights leaders were laser-focused on the practical consequences of their actions. They were disciplined and strategic. Rosa Parks didn’t sit on that bus by accident—she was specifically chosen because she was respectable and sympathetic.

Civil rights leaders prioritized media strategy, public image, and appealing to the median voter. They realized that by putting the brutal reality of Jim Crow racism before people’s eyes, they could change hearts and minds. Activists would voluntarily show up to risk getting arrested and brutalized by racist police for trying to do basic things—ride a bus, eat at a restaurant, drink from a White water fountain. They often organized protests in areas where they knew the police were the most violent. Protests were specifically scheduled for mornings in locations near regional airports, so that physical news reels of police assaulting activists could be flown to New York in time for the evening news. They developed tactics in line with a strategic plan and they stuck to them.

Academics of many stripes have noted that protest movements have become less effective over time. Erica Chenoweth has noted that post-2010 nonviolent protest movements are successful only 8 percent of the time, compared to a 66 percent success rate in previous decades. Other researchers have found that of fourteen modern protest movements, thirteen had no impact at all on policy or public opinion, with Black Lives Matter as the sole exception. 

Why are modern protests movements failing? Most of them have little formal leadership and seemingly no plan. They’re undisciplined in the extreme, constantly being sidetracked and allowing violent or extremist slogans to be broadcast from their encampments. Where civil rights protestors wore their Sunday best and marched toward repression with dignity, today’s protestors wear keffiyehs to hide their faces, make a show of anti-American activity, and whine that it’s too hard to get food in the buildings they storm. Today’s student activists denouncing Israel’s war in Gaza don’t seem to realize that they are losing the PR battle among average Americans; polling indicates Americans are more likely to oppose these protests than support them.

Not only are the protestors failing to win public support, they still don’t have a cohesive theory of how to make a difference in Gaza. Civil rights activists were arrested while directly addressing the causes of injustice by resisting segregation on buses and White-only establishments. Protestors on college campuses are setting up tents in the quad and occasionally taking over a building or two. How does that relate to civilian suffering in Gaza?

The central demand for most student protests is “divestment.” It’s not clear what this would mean in practice—the percentage of university endowments directly invested in Israeli companies is almost certainly microscopic. It’s often a demand to divest from a specific list of companies who do business in Israel, such as McDonald’s or Amazon. And it’s sometimes based on pure imagination, like the campaign against Starbucks, which has precisely zero stores in Israel. In some cases it appears to be a protest against universities merely owning index funds with these companies included. At this point, we’re something like four layers of abstraction away from anything that could help Palestinians in Gaza.

A handful of campus protestors have successfully negotiated with the administrations at their schools. But even these victories are mostly symbolic. At Brown University, protestors won the right to have a meeting with administrators, and for a university committee to explore the question of divestment. That was the whole gain—a set of meetings with no promise of action. At Trinity College in Dublin, protestors did successfully convince the college to divest from Israel. But the school’s endowment only had three small investments in Israeli companies. Even in the best-case scenario, the impact of student protests might be a couple million dollars in stock being sold. It remains unclear how this helps displaced families in Gaza.

This situation raises a question: If protestors aren’t winning the public relations battle, and if they aren’t even close to making a difference about the conditions in Gaza, then what exactly are they doing?

The fact is that modern protests have become disconnected from the idea that they need to accomplish concrete goals related to their cause. The point isn’t to help Gazans, it turns out. The point is to show how much protestors care, to communicate their anger, to “raise awareness,” to go viral. 

Social media plays a key role here. Given two actions—one quiet but effective, and one loud but ineffective—the latter will be a thousand times more viral than the former. Loud but ineffective actions, like throwing soup on a famous painting in the name of climate change, often dominate social media discussion of activism. And once the attention flywheel has gained momentum, it’s hard to stop. 

Social media is designed for big, showy demonstrations, and that’s what college students have come to believe protests are. While attention is certainly valuable when you’re trying to change the world, modern protest movements seem to treat attention as an end in and of itself—rather than a means toward enacting change.

Today’s protests are optimized not to accomplish a specific strategic goal, they’re optimized toward loud demonstrations of virtue. This is why you see chaotic behavior, dramatic property damage, and controversial violent chants. These are great for getting press attention and proving how deeply you care. Campus protests either have no formal leadership to stop these things from happening, or their leaders are fully captured by the doom loop of social media virality and so they eagerly prioritize chaos.

It’s telling that virtually all of the press has focused on the campus protests themselves, not on the cause they supposedly champion. It’s also telling that Palestinians in Gaza are publicly pleading with campus protestors that they’re hurting the Palestinian cause. There are two conflicts—the conflict where Palestinians are suffering in Gaza, and the conflict where student activists are fighting what is essentially a Western culture war battle against insufficiently radical university administrators. And it seems clear which conflict protestors are more focused on.

We should all care when normal people are subjected to the horrors of war, anywhere in the world. But caring and protesting for the sake of protesting aren’t enough. If you don’t have a plan, you’re not going to make a difference to what you profess to be concerned about. And if you’re not making a difference, all you’re doing is using someone else’s plight to get attention for yourself. 

Jeremiah Johnson is co-founder of the Center for New Liberalism and author of the Substack newsletter, Infinite Scroll.

Image: A protest sign from a Labor/Gaza solidarity protest on May 1, 2024, New York City. (Flickr: Pamela Drew, CC BY-NC 2.0)

DemocracyMiddle EastPolitical PhilosophyUnited States