What Hannah Arendt can teach us about today’s campus demonstrations


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May 3, 2024

What Hannah Arendt can teach us about today’s campus demonstrations

  • campus demonstrations
  • Hannah Arendt
  • Israel
  • Palestine
Photo: The IU-Bloomington student encampment calling for the University to divest from Israel and discontinue its cooperation with the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center (May 2, 2024). Credit: Jason Jackson (published with author’s permission).

Tomorrow marks the 54 years since the National Guard fired live ammunition on students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. For three incredibly tense days last week, my colleagues and students at Indiana University-Bloomington, had reason to worry that we might become “the next Kent State,” with Indiana State Police with high-precision assault rifles mounted on the roof of the Indiana Memorial Union (the central building on campus), loaded with live ammunition, and pointed directly at (or perhaps, apparently, over) the encampment on Dunn Meadow below.

How did this (almost) happen? At Indiana University, as the NY Times reported the other day, the past week has seen the construction of an encampment to protest the ongoing war in Gaza and to demand that the University divest from and cease to cooperate with institutions and corporations that contract with the Israeli Defense Forces. As tensions at the focal point of the current campus protest movement reach a boiling point, in the wake of the ill-conceived and executed occupation of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University and the brutal expulsion of protestors from that building, the NY Times also provided an analysis of how the very same building was at the center of events precisely 56 years ago to the day. This week we also saw (and to this I will not link) barbaric violence perpetrated against the encampment at UCLA by people I am told we are to think of as “counter protestors” but who clearly deserve to be called something else. 

At my campus, too, there is a sense that things are coming to a head, as Monday saw a large demonstration that called for University President Pamela Whitten and Provost Rahul Shrivastav to either resign or be removed from their posts. Yet, it is important to note, despite the 56 arrests on Thursday, April 25th and Saturday, April 27th, and despite the brutal ways in which the encampment was broken up both of those days, this entire week has (so far) passed with intense activity but no violence. Whence, then, the uncanny sense that history is repeating itself, sometimes with convergences like this “on this very day” coincidence we saw when Hamilton Hall was occupied precisely 56 years later to the day?

Asking this brings to mind how the Vietnam Era campus demonstrations have inspired not only much of this year’s political theater, but also one of Hannah Arendt’s most lasting contributions to our political lexicon. Namely, the unique distinction she makes between power and violence in On Violence, written from her home office five blocks south and one block west of Columbia University. For Arendt,

“The common treatment of these two words as synonyms is no less misleading and confusing than the current equation of obedience and support.”

I have seen the error Arendt identified in this passage made time and again both in campus administrators’ discourse about the protestors and in protestors’ messaging about the campus administrators. Protestors will say that university administrators are playing power politics when “cracking down” on the demonstrations; administrators will frame certain political speech, surely within constitutional limits, as inherently harmful or either incitement to violence or directly violent.

Arendt can help us get this right. For her:

“Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow. Legitimacy, when challenged, bases itself on an appeal to the past, while justification relates to an end that lies in the future.”

This means power is not the tool of those who rule, used to repress or cow those who are ruled; rather, it is that which makes action and freedom possible. When we use “power” in this erroneous way, we mistake violence and power for synonyms. This is important because while power is always justified but needs legitimacy, “violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate.” Power and violence are entwined in this chiasmic way: the one (power) needs legitimacy but is always justified; the other (violence) will never be legitimate, but can be justified. 

Arendt’s argument here is not just distinctive, it is also profoundly relevant. When Arendt writes: “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow,” she is sharing a message to us today. Justification aside, whatever legitimacy the “people power” the demonstrations will have is contingent on whether or not the wider university and American community recognize themselves in the initial “getting together” of the protestors on these campuses.  On the other side of the ledger, and as Arendt also argued, the violence that has been rained on my students and colleagues, and our sacred public spaces (in particular the iconic Dunn Meadow at Indiana University), “can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate.” The illegitimacy of the violence perpetrated by the Indiana State Police at the University, at the invitation of the University Administration is baldly obvious. The claims for justification made on behalf of the violence are, in my eyes, absurd, but Arendt argues, this will ultimately be decided by the judgment of community members and fellow citizens. 

Here we see why Arendt’s position is full of the complexities of the campus politics then and now. Surprisingly, at least to many of her readers today, Arendt is often seen to be on the wrong side of the debate, in that she wrote in opposition to both the campus demonstrations and the ongoing prosecution of the Vietnam War. If Arendt was out of sympathy with the campus demonstrations, we have to ask: why? She wrote:

“The student rebellion is a global phenomenon, but its manifestations vary, of course, greatly from country to country, often from university to university. This is especially true of the practice of violence.”

In 1968-69, as far as Arendt could see, the demonstrators went wrong precisely when they embraced the use of violence to achieve what appeared to them to be ends that justified the violence. 

Today, looking back at this text that I often teach to increasingly unsympathetic student audiences, and I wonder: how can we stay together today in support of power and against violence, without shouting each other deaf about our ideological differences about policy questions? The prospects look very mixed but the power to do better this time around than during the time that led from the “hot summer” of 1968 to infamous events at Kent State 54 years ago tomorrow is firmly in our hands.

Michael Weinman (Ph.D. in Philosophy, New School for Social Research, 2005), Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Indiana University at Bloomington, is an interdisciplinary scholar and teacher whose interests focus on ancient Greek thought, modern Jewish thought, and the history of political thought, as well as the intersections of these three fields.


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