On College Protests

Never underestimate what a 19-year-old thinks is a perfectly acceptable thing to do, but also never underestimate what a 19-year-old thinks is possible.

This is a close paraphrase of a quote by our local Mission President (the person in charge of the Latter-day Saint mission that includes our area). He was giving it specifically in reference to young Latter-day Saint missionaries, but as I walked up to campus this morning and found tents put up on the green outside my library, the quote seemed equally applicable to all 19-year-olds, and not just ones on missions.

I’m not around a whole ton of missionaries these days (just the two assigned to my local congregation), but I *am* around plenty of 19-year-olds at the university where I work. I interact with them almost every day, and I have tons of respect for who they are and what they’re setting out to accomplish in life. This protest was designed as a 24 hour event. The students stayed for one night, and then the green was tent-free by 11am.

It would be easy to dismiss this as nothing more than theatrics. My institution is part of a university system, and a small part at that. Protesting here likely won’t move the needle at the system level. Then again, I also believe there’s a place for doing something, even when the things you can do are very limited. (I mean, I’m growing my hair out to donate to cancer victims. That’s a very low bar for making an impact on cancer, but it’s also something tangible I can do, and it’s better than nothing.) The students here want the same things as the students at a larger institution, just as the citizens of my town have participated in other nationwide movements like MeToo protests. Yes, it’s a small place of less than 10,000. No, it doesn’t make much of a difference to people outside the town. But it still makes people feel connected in a very real, tangible way.

I am definitely in favor of peaceful protest that follows local laws. (Not a fan of people changing laws at the last minute to stop peaceful protests from happening.) At the same time, protesting in a way that makes people fear being harmed, or breaking into buildings, or getting progressively more extreme is something I really disagree with. I’m not down at Columbia, but what I’m seeing happening there is frightening and seems to be spiraling out of hand.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to the war in Gaza, it would really be helpful if people could recognize that both sides can be somewhat right and somewhat wrong. Trying to boil it all down into a black and white issue is impossible. There’s not one side to be blamed. Both have a share in it. This is all symptomatic of a broader problem. Somehow we’ve come to a place where people refuse to see a middle ground anywhere, and the middle ground is vital to problem solving and moving things forward. Take it away, and compromise is impossible.

It feels good to think you’re 100% right about something, but in my experience that’s almost never the case.

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