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From the Executive Director: Protest Is as Normal a Part of College as Instant Ramen

By April 26, 2024July 8th, 2024No Comments

David Inoue

In the past year as my kids have taken a liking to Shin Ramyun and Cup Noodles, we have more instant ramen than I would care to admit in our pantry. The unfortunate side effect of this is that when I find myself up late at night, I get a craving for that instant ramen. I get out the old Revere ware copper-bottomed pot that my parents got me when I left for my freshman year of college and have a late-night snack that I probably should not at my age. This late-night ritual brings me back college memories.

And yet, now there is much more that brings me back to my college years. The news is flooded with campus protests from Columbia and Yale on the East Coast to USC and Berkeley on the West Coast and numerous campuses in between, including my alma mater, Cornell. Congressional hearings featuring the presidents of the very colleges where these protests are occurring have added to the news cycle and in some ways led to the protests. Speaker of the House Kevin Johnson took the time to visit the Columbia campus to admonish the student protesters.

Contrary to the gnashing of teeth about the current protests by folks like speaker Johnson, organized protest and takeovers have always been a part of the modern college experience. In my time at Cornell, there was a full takeover of the main administrative building on campus — although not once did the speaker of the house come to campus to mount a counterprotest. Does it say something to the power of the protest, or the relative weakness of Speaker Johnson right now that he would feel compelled to address a student protest in person?

Yet, there are some changes on college campuses since the eons ago when I was a college student. In recent years, the concern has been with ensuring college campuses are safe spaces. Unfortunately, the implementation of this concept has led to impairment on the discourse of contrasting views.

I want to be clear that no one should ever be made to feel unsafe or subject to harassing behavior. But what we should be willing to do is experience discomfort. When we settle into the protest group, we’re surrounded with strength in numbers with people who largely agree. What we see now with the campus conflicts around Israel-Palestine is that there are two opposing sides, both with valid and compelling arguments for their perspective, and it is not as simple as one side of the protest fully in the right and the other clearly in the wrong.

It is how we navigate these types of disagreements that validates, or perhaps reveals, the inadequacies of the modern university as a place to engage in intellectual discourse. This includes examining one’s own position for weaknesses as well as picking apart the opposing views. With both sides in this issue, with as much righteousness as each side might see in their position, there is just as much that can be revealed as flawed.

We have all heard of the challenges of misinformation and disinformation. If we are to find the truth in this conflict, we need to recognize when our own side is sometimes engaging in bad behavior, even as we point out the other side’s flaws. We need to also acknowledge the truths that the other side might bring, or even what are our shared truths, such as the preservation of life and when are actions counter to that value.

This brings us back to the idea of the late-night instant ramen. For pretty much any college student, the late-night instant ramen or maybe cereal for dinner is a common experience. It was also often a shared experience in the dorm community space where we might take a break from studies for a few minutes. And it is in that vulnerability of a late night, with serious sleep deprivation, that some of these difficult conversations can happen, outside the harshness of a public demonstration, but with the earnestness of students learning together, understanding that we might not have all the answers but can learn from one another and perhaps learn something new.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.