The Illusion of Consensus: The Recent Effects of Activism at Milton Academy

Sometime around 8:10 AM, Monday morning, the entire upper school (or the vast majority of it, at least) walked out of an assembly in the middle of a speech by Mr. Ball. They did so in response to a simple call to action: “We invite anyone who wants more action from the administration to walk out with us.”

But did every student walking out of those doors actually agree with that sentiment? Certainly not. In fact, the two girls whose actions set everything into motion walked out with everyone else. In the first survey we sent out, 14.6% of respondents said they participated in the sit-in and walk-out “because they wanted to fit in/didn't want to be one of the only ones not participating,” and not because they wanted to make a statement. Given that our survey was self selecting, it’s likely that the actual percentage of the student body that feels that way is even higher, as such people likely do not care enough to complete a survey, whereas those more committed to the cause are more likely willing to put in the time. Regardless, for now we can use 14.6% as a minimum. So why did they walk out for something they didn’t believe in? Many were motivated by a desire to not be labeled as racist, and so simply went along with the pack for fear of standing out. And it seems that their fears were well-founded: an email sent out to the whole school called anyone who didn’t participate in the sit-in racist. While an apology was sent out shortly after, the email still is representative of the hostility that was present in the community. A survey respondent said that “[he] was yelled at and judged for not participating in [Monday’s protests] when [he] had other business that [he] needed to take care of.” It wasn’t exactly an atmosphere that encouraged dissent.

So, nearly the entire community participated in the protests, whether out of genuine support for the movement or fear of backlash. And this sent a powerful message to the administration: it essentially created an illusion of consensus. And this illusion, of course, helped the movement substantially. The administration has to respond, and can’t simply crack down on the protests by punishing class cuts if every single student cuts. The sight of the entire student body, sitting down in solidarity, simply can’t be ignored. And of course the same message went to potential dissenters: they felt like they couldn’t stand up and be the only ones to disagree. Peer pressure is a powerful force.

Whether by accident or not, galvanizing the entire community into supporting one goal was effective activism that certainly advanced the cause. But isn’t it misleading, perhaps even a little morally questionable, to force people into supporting a cause they don’t necessarily believe in? Activism shouldn’t be about coercion, it should be about education. The past few days have created an atmosphere that is ultimately counterproductive for the community. Throughout the year, we have all stressed the importance of civil discourse, and agreed that it is necessary for a healthy community. How is civil discourse possible when those who disagree with a protest join it anyways out of fear, and those who do have the courage to speak up find themselves labeled as racist? Silencing opposing perspectives certainly helps further a movement, but it’s hardly a healthy way to go about advocating for a cause.

There are other problems with the way the protest has been handled as well. The entire movement was set off by the actions of two students, but much of the rhetoric used at the protests apply to racism at Milton as a whole. That’s not necessarily an issue, but when the two get intertwined and emotions cross over, things become problematic. All the anger over the problems at the school has been for the most part directed at these two girls. In effect, they have had to bear the brunt of the backlash against months if not years of racism at the school. Even worse, people have been calling for further punishment of these two students, with little to no knowledge of what actually happened. 11.9% of students responding to our survey either considered the actions to not count as harassment under the student handbook definition or were unsure. Once again, given that the survey was self-selecting, that number likely over-represents those most passionate about the protests. But far less than even 11.9% of students chose not to walk out (I believe exactly six stayed) of the assembly, a walk-out that was prompted, let’s not forget, by a call for “more action” by the administration. And, while this evidence is purely anecdotal, I have heard many call for the DC of the students in question. The complete story, however, is not known. To this day, at least as far as I can tell, nobody knows how the snapchats got leaked, which, given the definition of harassment, is relevant to whether or not disciplinary action is required. How can the two girls, who made mistakes in misguided attempts to try to be funny, be treated fairly when the facts of the case are not known, and anyone who attempts to see the other side is labeled racist? We have been reminded time and time again to remember that everyone is human. All the anger over racism as a whole has been directed at these two human beings, people with thoughts and feelings of their own, who are essentially defenseless. It seems much of the school has lost its compassion. The apologies at least, I was relieved to see, were met with applause instead of boos. However, a large portion of the community still uses them as scapegoats for a multitude of things they had nothing to do with.

So what happens now? The administration has responded to the questions and the perpetrators have given their apologies. Have things been resolved? Here is what the student body seems to think:

As you can see, only 58.4% believe that protests should continue. That number is a lot lower than the support the protests received on Monday, so why did it change? The answer is simple: people have short attention spans. Those who joined in the protests either to fit in or simply because activism was trendy have moved on. Most people (70.8% of respondents, at least) want to go back to normal school. So as the social pressure to participate fades away, and fewer and fewer people take the effort to wear black (or red), the illusion of consensus will quickly disappear. There has always been the stereotype of the social justice warrior as a crybaby who can’t let anything go, and, if things go as I predict, that image will be what people remember going into the summer. Some of the more committed protesters have furthered that image and projected it onto the movement as a whole through controversial emails to the school. If protests continue, then all the student body will see is children unable to let something go. And, frankly, it’s not difficult to see the basis for that image, in my opinion. The apologies have been given, and the demands have been responded to, at least to an extent. That’s really enough for most of the participants to feel like their job is done. At this point there is nothing more the administration can do, short of reopening the disciplinary case. And if they do decide to go back on their earlier decision, a dangerous precedent of mob rule would be set. The student body should not determine punishments. I imagine many share this view, and so the radicals who continue protesting will make themselves seem ridiculous. And if they continue to cut classes without consequence, resentment will set in against the perceived (and, to be frank, actual) unfairness.

The organizers need to recognize that if they want their movement to succeed long term, they need to maintain the support of the general student body. Even if they think it’s still worth fighting, doing so now, with dwindling numbers, will achieve the opposite of the intended effect. Nobody likes a drawn out war. What people want is a quick, one-and-done victory. Extending the fight over, say, a couple unclear answers by the administration serves only to demonstrate an unwillingness to compromise, a quality that only furthers the stereotypical image of the social justice warrior as a child. Realistically, the administration has done all it can be expected to do. At this point, I believe the best move for the organizers going forward is simple: self-congratulations mixed with threats for next year if change is not effected. It would make all those who participated mainly to fit in or to see what activism is like feel good about themselves, and end the entire thing on a positive note. It will also maintain the illusion of the entire student body as unified with a common purpose, whereas continued protest will dispel that image rather quickly. Perhaps the final lesson to be learned here is what makes activism effective. It’s not about persistence. It’s not about passion. Those are only stepping stones towards achieving something far more important. Ultimately, public support is the primary catalyst for change in a democratic society.