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Stop co-opting social justice language: A response to “Hypocrisy of campus protesters”

Guest contributor Jacob Berman ’20 voiced strong opposition to Linda Sarsour in his recent column for The Daily Princetonian, highlighting what he saw as an inconsistency in the reaction of students who usually protest against the invitation of speakers preaching hate. Yet, at the time of writing, Berman does not appear to have any plans of his own to protest Sarsour’s appearance on the panel hosted by the Women*s Center and Department of African American Studies. Despite his personal reluctance to protest on the grounds of engaging in “rigorous discourse,” Berman has no problem insinuating that the University’s “campus protesters” ought to do so. But Berman’s use of Islamophobic and racist dog whistles rescinds his right to offer “advice” to leftist protesters. Furthermore, his article represents a troubling trend wherein certain individuals co-opt social justice language and attempt to shame the oppressed and their allies into doing activist work that has reactionary purposes. 

Berman’s article features a critique of Sarsour that is unnuanced, which is interesting because intellectual discourse should aim to nuance controversial figures. In terms of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, it would be wrong to characterize all supporters of BDS and BDS itself as inherently anti-Semitic. Such characterization does little to consider the concerns for the liberty and livelihood of Palestinians suffering under Zionism. What is most salient in Berman’s work, however, is his intent and consistent use of language to describe Sarsour and her actions, as well as his paternalistic “advice” to progressive student protesters. 


To deride Sarsour’s viewpoints, Berman manages to use the Islamophobic dog-whistle of “terrorist” and “terrorist sympathizer” to describe both Sarsour and Rasmea Odeh. He also casually posits Ayaan Hirsi Ali as the moral foil to Sarsour, who in addition to advocating against female mutilation, also makes statements that veer towards Islamophobia. I argue that these crass characterizations of Sarsour and Odeh would not be employed by someone who is a genuine advocate of the morals of free speech and protest. Employing Islamophobic dog whistles to undercut Muslims like Sarsour is not only a tactic used by controversial figures like President Trump, but also serves to expose Berman’s article for what it is: a personal attack on Sarsour rather than an expression of deep concern for the state of protest on Princeton’s campus. 

In addition, Berman’s provocative mention of Assata Shakur ignores the fact that she was a revolutionary member of the Black Panther Party who, according to Shakur herself as well as scholars such Manning Marable and Howard Zinn, was repeatedly harassed by organizations such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO until her arrest in 1973. This is the same FBI that harassed several members of resistance groups, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, for their roles in disrupting and questioning the hypocrisy of American values. 

Perhaps most striking in Berman’s piece is his almost oblivious employment of a paternalistic tone towards student protesters. It is at first difficult to assess who Berman is even referring to — which protesters and why? He refers to students who protest against hate, and highlights the walkout and sit-in led by the Black Justice League, as well as a walkout planned by the Alliance of Jewish Progressives to protest a talk by Charles Murray. He neglects to mention that the BJL and its supporters spent hours and days planning and protesting against the racist legacy of the University (which is most iconically symbolized by the pervasive name of the racist former University president Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879). It is also important to note that Murray, in addition to being a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is also an advocate for racist pseudoscience, and is responsible for such wonderful theories as the Bell Curve, which threaten to usher neo-eugenics into our 21st century. Instead, Berman offers a watered-down assessment of the reasons behind the latter protest, and uses this assessment to draw an equivalence to that which Sarsour espouses. 

It is not lost on me that Berman expects left-wing protesters to take up the cause that has him so obviously impassioned. Ostensibly requesting that a predominantly black group like the BJL take up his cause has racist undertones. It is not the responsibility of black people to do the bidding of someone who makes Islamophobic and ahistorical arguments (and who manages to demonize a revolutionary figure in the African-American canon). It is not the job of black people to fulfill Berman’s free speech purism. Rather than think of Berman’s article as a critique of hypocrisy in campus protests, we can reasonably understand it as an appeal to conservative ideals while hiding behind social justice language and employing Islamophobic and racist rhetoric.  

Imani Thornton is a politics major from Matteson, Ill. She can be contacted at