Over the past few days, the University of Missouri (nicknamed “Mizzou”) made national headlines, first as its football team threatened not to play unless the university President stepped down, and then as, on Monday, both the President and Chancellor resigned. The seeming climax of the story is what made it national news. But how did all this happen?
A thorough timeline and description of events can be found here, though it’s easy enough to find numerous other sources. The short version goes something like this: when university President Tim Wolfe thought the best way to respond to racist incidents on campus was to ignore them, some students and faculty joined together in protest, hoping to effect change in the school system’s leadership. One of the key figures in this has been graduate student Jonathan Butler, who went on a hunger strike starting November 2nd. Butler became a focal point of the protests, not just because of his hunger strike, but because of the leadership and activism he had displayed going back to Ferguson-related protests last year.
In the end, Butler–and the protesters he represented, calling themselves ConcernedStudent1950–got what they wanted, at least in the short term. It’s still unclear who will succeed Wolfe as President, nor who will be the next Chancellor. Changes have been promised at the university, including numerous diversity-related initiatives.
Though Butler has been hailed as a hero–perhaps crafted into one by a media culture that thrives on generating heroes and villains–now that the Mizzou story has gone national and journalists have had an opportunity to feast upon it, Butler has not been quick to seek the spotlight. He has made some limited media appearances but, in the aftermath of Wolfe’s resignation, declined the chance to speak to the media on behalf of the protesters. His twitter feed (note: since deactivated) is full of messages of solidarity and reminders that this was a group effort, not the work of one man. Try as he might to widen the focus of the story beyond its hero and nominal villain, to more complex issues that can’t be encapsulated in sound bites, the media demands a good vs. evil narrative.
On Tuesday, however, another narrative began to emerge. This one involved photographer Tim Tai, another student at the university. Undertaking a freelance assignment for ESPN.com, Tai attempted to take photos of the protests, up close and personal. He was blocked from doing so. The situation did not escalate beyond some harsh words and shoving, but that didn’t stop Tai from being propelled into breathless headlines like “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’”. To be clear, the issue is not Tai himself, nor his behavior in general terms. He made a persistent effort to do his job without violence or attempting to worsen the situation. One could argue that he did not show the protesters sufficient respect, and one could argue that he had no right to encroach into a space where he wasn’t wanted. He had an absolute legal right to take his photos; that is not in dispute. But the position of ConcernedStudent1950 activists was also not altogether unreasonable. As their actions had drawn journalistic attention, some media personnel had behaved disrespectfully, resulting in the protesters attempting to keep reporters out of the area where ConcernedStudent1950 had set up tents and were, essentially, living for the duration of their campaign.
In short, there is a nuanced discussion to be had regarding the distinction between what one has a legal right to do, and what one may be ill-advised to do as a matter of respect and sensitivity for other human beings.
The journalists pushing Tim Tai as a hero have no interest in this discussion. Indeed, this story is another branch on the tree of political correctness concern trolling. Just about every day now, there’s one story or another about how young people–often university students–are “silencing” people over minor infractions or even nothing at all. Political analyst Jon Chait is largely responsible for blowing up the issue in its most recent iteration. Naturally, right now he is wringing his hands as hard as he can on behalf of Tim Tai. Almost all reporting on Tai–who has, for his part, asked not to be made the focus of a story–is breathlessly lamenting the campus language police. In a Bizarro America where all power structures are inverted, black people have white people living in fear, bigots are terrorized from speaking their minds while bloodthirsty Social Justice Warriors demand their heads on pikes. University students hound their professors to tears at the slightest linguistic error, leaving administrators paralyzed; innocuous Facebook posts and tweets go viral and the offender–usually some nobody who never expected an audience larger than 30–finds themselves standing in the unemployment line faster than you can say “check your privilege.”
A panic over moral panics has been generated out of a handful of incidents. Indeed, much of the drama blamed on “political correctness” comes from thinly-sourced anecdotes and anonymous letters. Tai’s story has the benefit of video evidence as well as Tai himself, who doesn’t come off as any kind of agent provocateur. If ConcernedStudent1950 gets Jonathan Butler as their hero, the Jon Chaits of the world have sought to claim Tim Tai as theirs. Both men have little interest in being so reduced–a desire that the media should respect–and we should not be so quick to accept a narrative focused on one or the other as a genuine representation of what happened over the past few days, weeks, and months at Mizzou.
In short, here we have a prime example of the ways in which media entities shape events into stories that present distorted caricatures of reality. All reporting is fundamentally subjective–all stories are. But when a chain of events as complex as what led to Monday’s leadership shakeup at the University of Missouri is boiled to the fates of a hunger-striking grad student, a photographer, a university President, and a Chancellor, we make a mockery of activism, journalism, and basic human respect all at once.
Indeed, the problem is not PC culture but media culture, where fans are flamed and stories are whipped up to generate clicks and eyeballs. Few seem to care right now what the students involved with the Mizzou protests really wanted. Hardly anyone paid attention to the protests and Butler’s hunger strike until the football team threatened to cost the school millions via a boycott. In fact, even fewer are placing Mizzou in the context where it belongs, as part of an ideological and cultural war that pits right-wing conservatives against (mostly minority) left-wing progressives. Students at the University of Missouri were not merely angered by inept administrative responses to racist incidents, the school had also been forced by state legislators to turn the screws on students by attempting to strip away students’ health insurance and deny access to reproductive health services. Though such efforts ultimately failed, they are part of the larger issues–issues that a media culture which prefers to chase outrage, to build up straw heroes and villains and smash them together on the national stage, would prefer to ignore.