(Fearing the) power of the peopleBy Matthew Gillham | 11/16/2015 8:01am
The protests at Mizzou this past week have begun to usher in new accountability for college administrations by using the tremendous power of the public to bring about progress – and progress they have made. But what are the dangers?
In 458 B.C., as legend has it, with the armies of the Aequie and Sabines approaching, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was appointed from his life of simplicity on a farm to become the dictator of the Roman army. He obliged. Fifteen days later, the enemy was conquered and the mission complete.
Certainly, the protests at Mizzou have begun a new wave of emphasis on the rights and experiences of marginalized peoples on college campuses – and what a promising emphasis that is. And Mizzou has struck a chord familiar to campuses everywhere, as students throughout the country have expressed their solidarity with the movement, demanding the acknowledgement from their administration of racial issues on their campuses.
And how proud would Thomas Jefferson be of a group of students demanding from their authoritative head to be heard and to be represented.
Yet with such immense power, one that can remove a president and a chancellor in a matter of days, comes danger, too.
Because it’s not difficult, as humans, as people who care, to passionately become entangled in outrage and frustration to retrospectively realize that, somewhere along the way, we missed the point.
That maybe, for example, we can get so caught up in taking down Confederate flags that we overlook larger systemic issues beyond a symbol. That we get so carried away with a movement to take down the leader of an army of child soldiers that we fail to realize we’re advocating for the American global police force to enter foreign issues we don’t understand (#Kony2012, anyone?). The mob mentality, no matter how noble it begins, can become a dangerous one.
And I fear that amidst the progress of protests, we can lose sight of vision and goals and, instead, get caught up in outrage and emotion. Take the video circulating of Mizzou protesters harassing a fellow student for taking pictures on Mizzou’s quad, where anger and frustration look to find scapegoats as objects of their wrath – when, of course, that student has as much of a First Amendment right to be there as the protesters.
It’s these side issues that begin to derail movements, where a failure to focus and channel public outrage to true progress leads to the dangers of the mob.
Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the forms that have been tried from time to time.” Churchill knew that though tyranny in dictatorship is often most feared, tyranny of the people should be, too.
So let’s unite in advocating for the inclusion of marginalized populations in our communities. Let’s have conversations about the racial and gender issues on our campus and on campuses nationally. Let’s protest, if need be. But let’s move forward, resisting the urge to instead translate outrage into finding symbolic scapegoats for our anger.
A campus predicated solely on the fear of public outrage is a campus shackled by the well-intentioned stronghold of the mob. Let’s demand change, but let’s allow it to happen, too.
And Cincinnatus, his mission complete, returned to the humble fields to pick up the plow he had left behind, relinquishing the authority that had been given him for fear of the tyrannical temptations of power. I hope that, with the tremendous power of the people, we would do the same.
Matthew Gillham is a senior majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly.