August, 2016: additional reflections follow this post.
I am not, in a traditional sense, a religious person. However, on a cold December night in 1988, I discovered that I was in fact (and remain to this day) a spiritual person. Though the trappings, sanctuaries, and iconographies of traditional religions mean comparatively little to me, there are places of personal and historical significance that exert a powerful hold on my imagination and conscience.
The Place of Remembrance at Syracuse University is one of those places. Rarely has an experience matched the emotional intensity of watching dusk immerse the 37 names etched on the wall and center of the memorial in darkness. The simple act of feeling the outline of the stone letters under my fingers as I bid farewell, yet again, to those who perished on Pan Am 103 elicits the most powerful of emotions within me.
There are few places more dear, more moving, or more hallowed to those directly or indirectly affected by the tragedy. The Place of Remembrance is truly sacred ground, sanctified by ritual, memory, and the lives of those who perished on the evening of December 21, 1988.
I’ve been singularly impressed by the respect for, and veneration of, the students and residents murdered over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988. The Remembrance and Lockerbie scholars, as well as the general student population, are now well-removed from the tragedy, yet each year they carry forward the names, memories, and humanity of those so brutally silenced nearly 26 years ago. Each activity, each poem, each rose placed on the wall symbolizes a small triumph over amnesia and oblivion. Combined, these actions form a powerful bond between generations.
The students I’ve had the chance to interact with strike me as bright and inquisitive. Their willingness to engage the community and world around them is a welcome contrast to the apathy I witnessed as a college student in the late 1980s.
That a number of students would engage in acts of protest and dissent comes as no surprise. I’ve followed THE General Body’s (TGB) efforts with a mixture of curiosity, befuddlement, and at times, dismay, particularly at the group’s unintentionally ironic stance on free speech. THE General Body has often invoked the First Amendment in the face of administrative pressure, yet they seek to impose, among other things, the expansion of speech codes on a university with perhaps the finest school of journalism in the United States housed in a structure that incorporates the First Amendment into its design.
This latter fact has a direct bearing on my reaction to TGB’s recent activities, particularly last week’s protests, when my dismay turned to horror as I viewed images of TGB protesters carrying signs and placards at the Place of Remembrance during a recent protest. One month ago, I had the opportunity to witness this touching scene during the Rose Laying ceremony:
The view looked considerably different last week:
The protesters’ decision to mount the wall sparked a firestorm on the Daily Orange’s website, where students and employees shared their displeasure at TGB’s decision to use the memorial as prop for their banners (it was a damp day—several shots clearly show mud from the students’ boots on the top of the wall).
Perhaps, as some have suggested, the protesters were unaware of the wall’s significance, though this strikes me as odd, given the prominent inscription on the wall and the annual tradition of Remembrance Week. A number of faculty members attended the protest as well—in fact, the rally was said to be organized by professors who specifically chose that location. Like their younger peers, they seemed oblivious to the fact that the protest was skittering on the edge of sacrilege. THE General Body had consistently shown itself to be a media savvy organization—such a gaffe is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable, particularly given the involvement of faculty and staff members who should have anticipated a backlash.
Predictably, few have spoken out in defense of those who stood on the memorial, though one TGB supporter (who is not affiliated with the group) attempted to liken the protesters’ standing on the wall to MLK giving his “I have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. The analogy is ridiculous (and pretentious) for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that King never stood on Lincoln’s statue while giving his speech, an action that would be most analogous to the students’ actions.
In a later exchange, the same individual claimed that Syracuse University “belonged” to the current students, who are thus entitled to use the grounds, including the Place of Remembrance, as they see fit without interference from alumni and outsiders, yet this simply isn’t true. The wall “belongs” to the victims, their families, their friends, alumni, current students, and all of those affected by the bombing of Pan Am 103. Syracuse University’s Archives now contains materials pertaining to dozens of victims who weren’t among the 35 students enrolled in Syracuse University’s Department of International Programs Abroad who were lost in the tragedy. It hosts the annual meeting of the Victims of Pan Am 103 and serves as a focal point for commemoration, activism, and remembrance; these realities extend the memorial’s significance well beyond the confines of the campus (it should also be noted that the center of the circle bears the names of Glenn and Paula Boukley, Syracuse residents with no direct ties to the DIPA group). I would also add that this argument is significantly weakened by TGB’s willingness to court support from a number of unaffiliated groups and individuals—it’s disingenuous to be so selective.
Another of the group’s defenders claimed that a number of Remembrance Scholars were involved in the planning of the protest. A Remembrance Scholar who was once involved with the movement quickly pointed out that none of the scholars were involved in the decision to hold the protest at the Place of Remembrance; in fact, at least one other Scholar expressed his dismay in the same thread.
I can’t comment in detail about THE General Body’s aims, which fall outside of the scope of this site. Some, perhaps even many, of their grievances may be legitimate. Yet, as I noted above, the group’s endorsement of expanded speech codes to combat “microagressions” and acts of rhetorical violence would seemingly indicate a highly developed awareness of the ways in which symbolic acts affect others. The act of using the Memorial Wall in the Place of Remembrance as a stand, a prop, and a platform for their protest while leaving it drenched with mud is an affront to all of us who were, or are, deeply affected by the bombing of Pan Am 103. It displays the very sort of insensitivity that the group claims to oppose, and the photographs have left a bitter legacy even among those who ostensibly support the group’s demands.
This double standard is precisely the reason I abandoned my support for hate speech codes in the mid 1990s. Too often, the well-intention activist gradually begins to resemble that which she or he claims to oppose.
Thus, I can say that I support the rights of students and faculty to express their views in this venue even as I assert my own right to be offended by and to criticize their poor taste, insensitivity, and hypocrisy as they stood over the names of the victims of Pan Am 103. The actions of a few will haunt your movement and undermine your message in the coming months.
Protesters, I wish you had shown some respect; you were standing on the backs of giants.
Addendum: 2016. This post was written in the immediate aftermath of the protests held at Syracuse University in November, 2014; as such, it is the product of my powerful emotional reaction to the sights disseminated through social media that fall and lacks some of the context for the protests and my criticism of the protestors. Nearly 2 years later, such protests, demands, and inconsistencies have become commonplace on college campuses, and this event did much to shape my reactions to these protests.
In 2014, Syracuse University was in the midst of a significant change in Leadership. Chancellor Nancy Cantor had stepped down to take a position at Rutgers; Cantor’s leadership was characterized by efforts to connect the university to the local community and to foster greater diversity on campus. She largely succeeded in both efforts, but her emphasis on group identity over individualism, her lukewarm support for freedom of expression, her tendency to dismiss critics and skeptical allies as being opposed to diversity, and her disdain for college rankings fostered dissent. Syracuse University fell precipitously in a number of prominent rankings, and the university withdrew from the prestigious Association of American Universities in 2011 amid rumors that its membership was about to be revoked due to concerns about the quality and focus on faculty research.
I’d seen flyers expressing dismay at Syracuse’s flagging reputation around campus on my first visit to Remembrance Week in 2013, but that appeared to be the extent of the protest against the Cantor administration in the waning days of her administration .
The new chancellor, Kent Syverud, walked into a contentious environment; though Remembrance Week unfolded with its usual serenity and dignity, the weeks afterward saw mass protests sparked by an earlier incident off campus, by questions surrounding recently proposed policies, and by a fundamental shift in political tactics on the part of the protesters themselves.
That previous September, a member of the women’s soccer team was recorded uttering booze-sodden racist and homophobic remarks at a local bar. She was immediately suspended from the team, but a small, vocal group of campus activists saw the university’s unwillingness to expel her as evidence of systematic bias. This, coupled with the echoes of Ferguson and a number of controversial austerity measures on campus led to the formation of THE General Body.
In what would soon be a common occurrence in colleges the following year and using a peculiar language of post modern grievance, the group issued a lengthy list of injuries and demands to the college. Embedded in the document was a focus on microagressions, defined as “covert oppressions,” which were seen as “symptoms of a larger system of oppression, inequity and power that need to be addressed” because they created “an unsafe learning environment.” The students cited a number of examples of said microagressions, including the following:
“Stumbling across sororities who want to raise money to ‘cure’ autism. My neurology does not need a cure.” (able-bodied privilege and neurotypical privilege, Western savior complex, treating autism—and subsequently, people with disabilities—as a disease)
“When the Chancellor sends out an email discussing how nice it is that so many students are working. Excuse me, I work to pay off this tuition and room and board which has become increasingly difficult to do without financial aid, by the way” (assumption that work is voluntary for students and not a means of survival, also assumes that most students are middle-upper class and work because they want to, not because they need to.
Their proposed solution centered around a demand for prohibition of certain words and ideas, and presumably, for punitive actions to be taken against transgressors:
The student body demands that faculty, staff, students, and administrators acknowledge, learn about, and redress the oppressions, aggressions, violences, and discriminations faced by students with marginalized identities and experiences (race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, mental health status, religion, nationality, documentation status and socio-economic class).
Add “Hate Speech (speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation)” to the student code of conduct as words that are prohibited on this campus.
As a lover of precision in language, I was put off about the questionable use of words like “oppressions, aggressions, violences” in the context of the examples they cited (the superfluous use of “s” struck me as pretentious as well); some of their examples certainly reflected obnoxious or unprofessional word choice and/or conduct, but likening these things to violence seemed questionable at best, and certainly not enough to create a dangerous environment. This was an aggressive homage to fragility that would quickly become a hallmark of student protests.
More disturbing was the demand for hate speech codes. As a private university, Syracuse could implement such policies without violating the First Amendment, but the subjective nature of defining speech as “hate” has plagued universities for decades. I’d once supported such codes myself in my 20s, but introspection and a number of experiences with censors of all stripes led me to change my mind by the mid-1990s.
THE General Body eventually occupied an administrative building for 18 days; ironically, its members, who had no problems with imposing speech codes on fellow students and faculty, were quick to invoke freedom of speech when they believed the university’s administration was attempting to shield or silence their protests. Critics were understandably quick to point this out before the protests ended, and this shifted focus away from some of the group’s more legitimate concerns about transparency and budgetary decisions—though in truth, the Cantor administration wasn’t known for its transparency, and audits revealed that the administration, which had grown in size for some time, burgeoned during her tenure at Syracuse. Neither fact was a focus of student activism in 2014.
Shortly after the occupation ended, the students and a number of sympathetic faculty members staged a carefully orchestrated protest in the Place of Remembrance on the esplanade before the Hall of Languages. A number of them took to the Wall of Remembrance so the gathered photographers could better see their banners.
Sadly, the student protestors who demanded respect from their peers and professors showed none for the families and friends of the 35 victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing. Those who sought to pillory others for unintentional, subjectively defined slights never offered apologies to those affected by the bombing: people who had lost family and friends in 1988, people who had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school over the past 25 years.
I firmly believe in freedom of speech, especially on college campuses, so I do not believe that they should have been punished for their actions; however even today, nearly 2 years after that muddy afternoon in November, photos of students and faculty on the wall still fills me with contempt for their lack of respect—and their flagrant hypocrisy. Their actions were to many of us, particularly friends and family, at least as bad as the ugly ranting of a drunken soccer player (I would argue worse, due in part to the protest’s premeditated hypocrisy).
On a positive note, many saw fit to heavily criticize THE General Body for its actions, and perhaps the damage to their collective credibility contributed to their rapid slide into irrelevance the following spring. Speech countered speech, and the protestors came out on the losing end of the perception game.