The other day, I woke up from a dream about a student protest.
I don’t remember any details — like what the students were protesting against — but I opened up my laptop and started googling examples of campus activism.
Did you know the earliest recorded student protest happened at the University of Paris in 1229? Or that there was protest in 1766 at Harvard because the dining hall served the students rancid butter? Seriously. It was called the Butter Rebellion — you can look it up here.
I began to read some books about campus protests over the years, from the student protests in Czechoslovakia in ’89 that led to the Velvet Revolution, to the pro-democracy student activists that fomented the Tiananmen Square protests that same year.
I was interested in confirming a suspicion: it seemed as if most student protests over the years have had left-leaning ideologies.
That should come as no surprise. Most of us probably associate student protests with things like ending the Vietnam war, and more recently, we’ve seen campus activists focus on issues of income inequality, gun control, and climate change, all of which are firmly established in the left-wing platform.
I struggled to find any examples of right-wing student activism with the exception of a few pro-apartheid rallies in the 70’s and, more recently, a mock celebration of climate change called “global warming beach day,” which was mostly an excuse to party with beer and bikinis.
Why is that? In a country like the US where the ideological split between liberals and conservatives is mostly 50/50, why do we see virtually no student protests on the right?
I’m sure there are lots of theories that could explain this divide.
College campuses have historically been bastions of liberal thought, but that just begs the question of why campuses are liberal in the first place. Universities have thousands of students living in close quarters, so it makes sense that protests could form and spread more easily on campuses, but that doesn’t explain why they’re always ideologically left of center. I have yet to find a compelling theory that explains this phenomenon.
So I’d like to propose a new theory here, and I imagine some people won’t be happy about it! 😝
I hypothesize that campus protests are left-leaning affairs because young people are ethically superior to old people.
Is that an incendiary statement? Good! Let me explain myself.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone is convinced that the emperor’s robes will be invisible to those who are incompetent and immoral. No one speaks the truth out of fear for their reputations. The illusion is shattered when a young child shouts that the emperor is wearing no clothes, and everyone is given permission to drop the facade. For most people, their fear clouded their judgment of what is right and wrong.
Our moral compasses are influenced by many factors. We make ethically charged decisions based on principles of harm, fairness, loyalty, and other considerations, and sometimes those underlying motivations are not so easy to pin down. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is famous for analyzing these motivations, and while I think his conclusions are a bit narrow, I applaud his research and admire his curiosity.
In the vacuum of armchair philosophy, moral questions become easy to solve. We can think of the notorious trolley problem that asks us to kill one person in order to save five people. This is a morally clear choice, and yet if we were actually faced with the choice of killing someone to save five people in real life, it’s very doubtful that we would act in accordance with our moral values. (There was a great Vsauce video that simulated the trolley problem in real life and it’s worth watching.)
In real life, people tend to make moral compromises when they feel external pressures or obligations, especially towards other people they’re close to. We can imagine a father in a household who turns down a job at a non-profit that would undoubtedly be good for the world in favor of a job at a bank, and even though he acknowledges that the non-profit would be the more ethical choice, he has a family to support, and so he takes the higher paying job. Familial pressures don’t necessarily cloud our assessments of what is moral, but they may interfere with our acting accordingly.
This type of moral ambiguation doesn’t just happen with people we’re close to. For example, if I choose to enlist in the army because I want to fight terrorists, but then my commander asks me to issue a drone strike on a civilian building, the moral repugnance of attacking innocent people may be outweighed by my feeling of obligation to obey my commander.
There’s also the consideration of personal risk. While I may realize that protesting a corrupt government is the right thing to do, I’d be afraid of getting arrested if I took to the streets. That fear is only multiplied if there are people who are dependent on me for their livelihoods, even to the point where it may become morally irresponsible for me to protest, since the good of protesting is outweighed by the risk of tangible harm that could happen to my dependents if I were arrested.
And this brings us back to why old people are immoral scoundrels. 😂
It’s not that older folks are inconsiderate, unethical bastards, it’s that they are saddled with so many more factors to consider in the moral calculus. As we age, our responsibilities snowball, and the number of people who become dependent on us steadily increases. College students have relatively few obligations compared to their parents, so it’s no surprise that they find it easier to protest against perceived injustices. Meanwhile, people who are in positions of authority feel pushed and pulled by the competing interests around them to the point where they may make morally dubious decisions. This is why it’s so important to have strict anti-corruption laws: the moment personal interests enter politics, it becomes so much harder for elected officials to govern morally.
Younger folks are free to act in accordance with their values without as much fear for personal or political fallout. They have fewer considerations in the moral calculus, and so they can see what is right and what is wrong free from the biases of other factors. It’s like the child who pointed out that the emperor wore no clothes: the other townspeople realized he was naked, but their egos and fear of dissent held their tongues.
This doesn’t mean young people will always act righteously. Especially nowadays with the overwhelming careerism that dominates the university, students are less likely to protest for fear of damaging their job prospects. They’re becoming increasingly saddled with the pressures their parents face. I suspect that if job prospects dwindle and economic certainty wanes, we’ll begin to see more student protests since young people will feel less encumbered by the need to conform to the image their future employers expect of them.
Until then, we should look to the youngsters of society not as hippies or deadbeats or lazy hoodlums, but as as paragons of moral clarity. Looking at the history of student protests, they have quite an impressive track record after all. They had the moral high ground when it came to civil rights, the Vietnam war, Nazi occupation, gay rights, women’s rights, trans rights, climate action, democracy in China, democracy in Hong Kong, democracy in Taiwan, anti-austerity measures, the Biafran genocide, and so much more. As long as young people are free of the slings and arrows that corrupt their ethical steadfastness, we can expect them to remain firmly on the right side of history.
Youth is a moral advantage. We should recognize their vision for what it is, and feel doubly concerned if their critical ire falls on us.