On March 2, student protesters at Middlebury College shouted down a conservative speaker, Charles Murray. “Your message is hatred,” they chanted. The American Enterprise Club, the student group that invited Murray, structured the event as a debate, asking Allison Stanger, a progressive professor, to respond. When she implored the crowd to let him speak and let her challenge his views, they shouted her down as well. When Murray and Stanger tried to leave the room, a group mobbed them. Someone injured Stanger when she sought to protect Murray.
Whatever one’s views of Murray—I don’t agree with him on many grounds—the students’ actions recalled the mob violence across the South that I saw as a young man in the civil-rights movement working for Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I thought of King’s 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go from Here?” “Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate,” he said.
The students’ actions, like those at other campuses in recent months, show that intolerance for diverse views is growing in higher education. But the protests also illustrate the Manichean model of change-making that students have unfortunately learned from an earlier generation of activists—my generation: find an enemy to demonize, use a script that defines the issue in good-versus-evil terms, inflames emotion, and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue.
It’s a counterproductive strategy. But there is a different kind of politics, one that teaches ways to achieve change that engage others of different views and interests. It has proven successful on local levels and occasionally (as in the 2008 Obama campaign) on larger levels. The philosophy of nonviolence can enhance its moral, spiritual, and public power.
The Manichean formula for change-making was developed in 1974 by the environmental group Citizens for a Better Environment, who focused their actions on what is called the canvass. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door to promote support for an issue, to raise money, and to collect signatures. Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, including the Public Interest Research Group network on college campuses.
I defended the canvass method in Citizen Action and the New American Populism, a book I published in 1986 with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy training center, which became the central hub for spreading the method. We felt urgency in the face of massive mobilization by corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative-action, progressive-tax, and other legislation in the early 1970s and saw the canvass as a way to fight back. It found some success on environmental and other issues, even during the Reagan presidency.