Eric R. Terzuolo
International affairs scholar and practitioner

Anonymity Cheapens Protest

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On the morning of April 30, I watched an appalling spectacle, as CNN reporter Sara Sidner interviewed, at length, someone identified as a Jewish student from Columbia University named Jared. Though I disagreed profoundly with his idealized portrait of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on his campus, he was rational, calm, and well-spoken. My problem was with CNN, which allowed him to hide his identity. Not only did we not get Jared’s surname, but he was masked. CNN, in sum, validated the unreasonable expectation of student protestors that they can act while dodging the risk of any consequences for those actions. The absence of a reasonable expectation of consequences, in my view, cheapens the act of protest. One cannot pretend they are being a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, or a Jan Palach without embracing the costs of dissidence. When people in positions of influence help the young disconnect actions and their potential consequences, they are providing very bad life lessons.

We are, blessedly, not living in Belarus, a highly authoritarian and repressive state, where protests literally mean putting your life on the line. And yet, when citizens of Belarus three years ago poured into the streets to protest the dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenko, they were maskless. They were straightforward in their demands. No abstruse academic theory or linguistic games to create some sort of plausible deniability. And they paid the price. The Department of State’s 2023 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Belarus begins with a long list of human rights abuses, including torture by security forces, arbitrary arrest and detention, life-threatening prison conditions, and “interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.” Protest in Belarus is deadly serious business.

Russians who courageously showed up to mourn the assassination in prison of dissident leader Alexey Navalny similarly appear to have been largely unmasked. They understood perfectly well that they were staging an act of protest, defined as unlawful by the dictatorial Putin regime.

Who are the heroes here? Who is running real risks? Certainly not the highly privileged students of Ivy League universities. Students who limit their protest to strong demands for policy changes and do not engage in destructive or violent acts and avoid physical intimidation of others have every expectation of avoiding problems with law enforcement and with university leaderships.

But students are not stupid. They are concerned about potential consequences of their actions. They no doubt are weighing the emotional and perhaps moral satisfaction they derive from protest versus the possibility that going fully public with their opinions could at some point lose them a job they really would like. Let’s be clear. The purpose of going to Ivy League universities and their few equivalents that are not on the East Coast is to accumulate social capital that will guarantee success in future life. Such social capital is extremely valuable, and families go to great lengths to secure openings for their children at the schools with the strongest brands. Given the structure of higher education in the US, this is perfectly reasonable. But it’s also reasonable to assume that those who hold the keys to desired future professional opportunities might prove unsympathetic to the current campus protesters.

How to square the circle? Visibly, a favored stratagem is to protest while masking one’s identity. But taking responsibility for one’s actions, and accepting their potential consequences, is a crucial dimension of growth and maturity. We say all that time that college is a time for growth. Let’s live up to that.

To the aforementioned Jared I would say: It sounds like we disagree on a lot, but you spoke well, clearly and properly. I accept that you feel deeply about the views you expressed. Don’t diminish the impact and credibility of your message by hiding your identity.

To CNN I would say: In these protests, you are dealing with people who are still very young. You need to be the so-called “adults in the room.” Don’t get caught up in the romance of student protest. There can be people whose identities you need to protect in your reporting, but that is not true for people speaking as Jared did, in a country with strong protections for free speech. Enabling anonymity in such cases sets a bad example.

About the Author
Eric Terzuolo is an international affairs scholar and practitioner based in Washington, DC. Among his assignments as a US Foreign Service officer, he served at the US embassies in Beirut and Damascus (1983-84) and represented the United States at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2001-03). He has taught international relations at universities in the US and Europe and published widely, including in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the National Interest, and The Hill.
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