Illustration by Sara Nettle

People in power will go to any rhetorical lengths to keep their authority.

In the final months of 2015, a wave of campus protests around the country caught the attention of national media outlets. Yale and the Halloween costumes; Mizzou and the football team; Wesleyan and its student newspaper. And trailing behind, breathless and red-faced, were the op-eds and think pieces there to process it all into pure, crystalline outrage.  

Writers from all across the media landscape took great pains to conjure an image of the modern student activist, throwing around descriptions like the “extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche,” “vindictive protectiveness” and “flagrant intolerance” that “bears no relationship to the real world of politics (or, for that matter, of business, technology, art or culture). Their collective tone hovered between sage and authoritarian, the kind of indulgent frustration recalling an older family member — tipsy, perhaps, or settling in after a large meal — launching into dreaded holiday political talk. You know, “OK, kid, you say this now, but wait until you’re in the Real World.”

Student activism, they argued, has become somehow both oversensitive and rigidly dictatorial; campus activists are demanding to be coddled under threat of collective action. They wrote that students were “turning common events into nightmarish trials” and “claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear.” They brought up safe spaces, microaggressions and trigger warnings — concepts students were trying to bring into public discussion — with contempt and frustration. They were outraged that students were “seeking punishment for things that made them feel uncomfortable.”

And then, having found students’ demands inappropriate, they proceeded to deem them censorial: a misguided attempt to do good, sure, but effectively anti-free speech.

Looking over 28 of these opinion articles and think-pieces (purposefully avoiding explicitly conservative blogs), all but two of the writers are white (the other two are white-passing Hispanic); all but four are male. This, of course, is a simple reflection of the lack of diversity in the media, where newsrooms employ, for example, only 5 percent black men and women. But it also gives a better idea where the dismissive and patronizing, instructional tone comes from. How many of these writers have had to experience the microaggressions they’ve decided are innocuous, common, easily bearable? On a larger scale, how many have had to experience the structural racism that puts so few people of color into the newsrooms in which they work?

The students were fighting for legitimate things: racial sensitivity; awareness of how language and day-to-day actions can be oppressive and harmful; an overall higher standard of safe and respectful behavior on campus. It’s hard to believe that the writers of these pieces — academics, journalists, psychiatrists — don’t understand the politics of language; that they could not see how calling out casual racism and insensitivity is important to dismantling the unspoken systems that make people of color feel unwelcome or “other.” And how these kinds of environments have had, and continue to have, real consequences — for example, by influencing students of colors’ academic success — that keeps inequality alive.

But maybe they don’t get it. After all, they’re mostly white men, and this is outside the realm of their experience. (Which raises the question: Why should we give credence to people with power disclaiming the complaints of people with less power?) Maybe they were simply myopic and uninterested in recalibrating their perspective. But the language they all used took on a certain tone. The writers called students’ demands immature, trivial, an “emotional stampede.” The words they used to describe them — “coddled,” “oversensitive,” “fragile” — were infantilizing (why else would you use the word “whining?”), reducing the protesters’ grievances and actions to hysteria. It’s a tactic that’s been used by authority of all stripes.

Asbestos is a good example. Even after the material was found in the 1930s to shed lethal, cancer-causing dust, manufacturers and industry officials encouraged its use until the late 1970s. They attacked the campaign groups that fought against the continued manufacture and use of asbestos, and they did so with similarly dismissive language. The Asbestos Information Committee — a publicity and lobbying firm established by leading asbestos companies — responded to a booklet published in 1976 called “Asbestos Kills” with a critical commentary of its own, lambasting the writer for her “extremist” views. Hill+Knowlton, the same PR company that represented the tobacco industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s, issued a memo on the industry’s behalf calling for reason and a “proper perspective,” claiming, “The point is that nearly everything we use or create in our increasingly complex society has been suspected, by someone, of being a potential hazard.” The CEO of CSR Limited, an Australian industrial company, referred to asbestos claimants as “malingerers” in the late ‘80s.

Australian academics Susan Engel and Brian Martin described this phenomenon in a 2006 paper for the journal “Global Society.” They wrote that sources of authority and power commonly use this rhetorical tactic, which they called “devaluing.” Corporations, or anyone seeking to preserve dominance and power, can devalue victims by the way they frame them.

“They can label victims as misguided, as ignorant, as complainers, as self-seeking, as vindictive, as pawns in the hands of anti-corporate manipulators, or even as criminals,” they wrote. “Devaluation is made easier by many people’s belief that the world is just, so that if bad things happen to someone, they are assumed to have done something to deserve it.”

When people with power and relative institutional safety feel that change is on the horizon — that they risk losing some of what gives them authority — they fight to keep it around. That could mean keeping a deadly but profitable industry alive; it could mean preserving the kind of language and unspoken othering that hurts minorities but maintains your cultural status.

“Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses,” writer and activist Audre Lorde wrote. “Nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism, that false sense of security fed by a myth of individual solutions.”