From College Protesters to Those Suffering From Addiction: Dealing With Groups in Need

Many judge and name-call. There is a better way to respond.

“When I was young I was grateful to have a job.”

These words were spoken last Saturday by my 50-year-old friend Terry. Terry owns a business with 25 employees and said the younger ones (in their early twenties) are becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy. Bonuses, rewards, and other morale boosters become entitlements — and their attitude is becoming a source of Terry’s frustrations.

As I listened to him, I thought of this picture I had seen two days earlier.

The two students in the photograph were demonstrating that Wednesday at Ithaca College in upstate New York.

(Note: I am not taking a position in this article to denigrate these students’ desire for racial equality. I agree with their message. I am observing their reaction.)

These two students — of the reported hundreds protesting — were demanding the resignation of the Ithaca college president, because two white men on a four-person panel had referred to another panel member (a black woman) as a “savage” after she had stated that she had a “savage hunger.”

That Tuesday November 10, student reactions at Claremont McKenna Collegedid force out a president — the class president — for appearing in a Halloween photo with two other white females dressed in sombreros, ponchos, and mustaches.

Then there’s Yale.

Following the allegation that a frat party turned away students of color and a staff member’s email about costumes that was interpreted as culturally-insensitive, students at the Ivy league school reacted.

They went after the staff member who wrote the email as well as her husband — both resident faculty. They ordered that the couple lose their jobs. They went after them in person. The November 5 YouTube video of a student screaming at the husband faculty member trying to speak with the crowd of angered undergrads has made its rounds on the internet.

“You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!” are two sentences from the conversation.

The same day, Yale minority student representatives met with university leadership. Jezebel quotes the president of Yale’s Black Student Alliance recalling the tension in the meeting:

“People were having breakdowns in this room,” she said of her peers while they expressed their concerns. “People were out of control of their bodies.”

I know that the protesters at these colleges argue that these specific racial incidences aren’t isolated. So one observing should consider protesters’ actions as reactions to a series of unjust treatment. But my conversations with people of all races sway toward seeing these students as acting unreasonably.

This doesn’t mean, however, that their needs are any less important. It just means we need to redefine the concern: a population in need of guidance.

Unfortunately, those who don’t agree with the students’ actions tend toward manifestations of anger: name-calling, cynicism, sarcasm, and shaking heads.

Some may try to be more analytical and offer any number of theories as to why these students are reacting in these ways: full-of-themselves-millennials, a generation of children who all received trophies, the momentum from city riots around the country, media fanning the flames, college campuses acting as incubators for this behavior and infantilizing young adults, and so on.

Finding the cause for their behavior may be helpful — particularly for trying to prevent future young adults from being as difficult.

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic writes of the Yale protesters:

“Everyone invested in how the elites of tomorrow are being acculturated should understand, as best they can, how so many cognitively privileged, ordinarily kind, seemingly well-intentioned young people could lash out with such flagrant intolerance.”

Friedersdorf goes on to analyze their mindset. It’s insightful, but it doesn’t address how to work with the protesters. My friend Terry shared how he is handling his employee issue, and this offered insight into how to work with any group in need.

“The important thing is to not change who I am,” he said.

Though frustrated, and tempted at times to express this frustration to his employees, he said he instead plans to use restraint and continue to be as generous and firm as he’s always been. Do all this and “hope I win out,” he concluded.

This reminds me of how people had dealt with me.

I went to rehab in my early twenties. The counselors suggested actions to take and attitudes to embody to help me with my substance abuse. But I resisted their suggestion of living in a sober facility. I resisted joining sober groups.

“Nope,” I said. “I’m going back to school and already have a place all set up with some guys on campus.”

I was difficult. But my counselors didn’t get angry. And if I did, they didn’t change who they were. They stayed true to suggesting what they knew to work. They didn’t offer me any special favors if I asked — or ordered — them. My leaders were generous and firm.

Eventually, I realized that moving into that house with those guys was a bad idea, and I called them from rehab to tell them I wouldn’t be able to take the room. Instead, I moved into the suggested sober facility. I made sober friends.

If I hadn’t listened to my counselors, I don’t think I would have graduated college. And I don’t think I ever would have listened if their anger surfaced in any of the number of ways in which people express theirs toward those with addiction — or the homeless or inner-city youth or any of the other groups under the thumb of mental, emotional, or behavioral concerns.

Driving home Monday night, traffic flowed freely on my southbound side of the freeway. On the northbound side, I looked ahead at an explosion of flashing lights and then traffic behind at a standstill. I assumed an accident, but I learned otherwise hours later when reading the news of the Black Lives Matter protest blocking the freeway and holding up traffic for over two hours. Almost invariably, the reactions to this disruption were negative.

Anger is easy — and it causes polarization between those siding with the protesters.

I think laziness is the main culprit. It’s simply easier to judge and complain than to try and understand. It’s also easier — in the short term — to ignore. But the struggles of various groups and the concerns of protesters in America today will remain…

…until properly addressed — by being generous and firm.

The solution resides in people like my friend Terry and my addiction counselors.

Terry reported some victories with his discontent employees, “Sometimes you win when they leave and come back three years later and realize how good they had it.”

Brainstorming the approach to this wave of college protesters, the first thing that comes to mind is that just because these students are overreacting doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. So be generous to address the ills they are pointing out. Much of what seems to be angering the students is that they feel they lack a voice; so hear theirs. This doesn’t necessarily mean to solve the ills in the ways they request. Their demands may be unreasonable, and to follow their orders and offer no resistance to their behavior may encourage it to continue, setting ourselves up for more problems down the road. So be firm.

This same combination of empathy and guidance, grace and discipline was needed for me. It is needed for the inner-city youth of Minneapolis under the guidance of mentoring organizations like MADDADS. And finally, I look back at what the Yale staff member did in the video, generously hearing the students out as they verbally abused him. Then he responded firmly to defend his point.

Polarized ideologies steeply divided on these issues leaves a razor’s edge middle-ground upon which one needs to balance to be most effective. We could all learn a lot and gain a lot if we addressed every group in need in this fashion.