the object of your appeal
Longtime readers know that while I think campus activism is a good thing (and was a campus activist myself), I think college politics suck up too much attention within the left. Structurally college students are not well suited to being activists: activism requires continuity of practice, and college students leave every four months for vacation and never stay longer than four or five years. This is why, for example, Oberlin activists could go from national attention and radical demands to silence in a year. The students who drove that activism left to go get jobs and start lives, which is inevitable.
But there's another layer that connects with what I've been saying lately about the failure of justice as a framework for left politics. In recent years, campus protesters have spent much more time petitioning college administrators for what they want than protesting them. It happens that I think this is a bad posture for campus activists to take purely on their own terms. But in a broader sense it's worse, as appealing to university authorities is a terrible model of political progress for young activists. Appealing to university administrators for what you want is a bad habit to get into because there are no administrators in political life. There is no authority to whom you can ask for justice. Pointing out that something is unfair doesn't work unless there is some conscious being who can assess that claim of unfairness, rule on it, and address it tangibly. A dean can potentially do this. But who fulfills that function off campus?
Liberals love complaining to HR at someone's employer when that someone has said something online they don't like, because HR is an entity that you can actually talk to, and can actually fire someone if you snitch on them. Same principle.
Some would likely say that the authority to whom you're appealing is the public, that appeals to justice are part of the democratic process. I certainly wouldn't deny that there are times when you can appeal to morals to move people to join your cause. But to defend your engagement by saying that you're appealing to the public you need to actually be doing that, and it's not clear to me that most liberals or leftists are in most situations. Certainly the kind of political engagement you typically see online is not at all pitched towards achieving communal adoption; almost all of it seems in fact to be geared towards the same narrow discourse communities. Conventional wisdom would seem to agitate towards framing political appeals to the masses in a way that reflects their own best interest; contemporary left norms would insist that it is disgraceful to seek to serve the interests of those who are already among the privileged classes.
And many people on the left these days are now dismissive of the notion that we have to appeal to the public writ large, frequently arguing that our task should be rallying those who are already on our side instead. To pick an example, most involved with BlackLivesMatter will tell you that the movement is very explicitly not interested in convincing the great mass of the country, which they (probably correctly) regard as racially unenlightened, to approve of them. Such a posture would reinforce the unjust positioning of the Black minority supplicating itself to the white majority, a particularly cruel dynamic. The difficult question becomes, who then are you saying "Black lives matter" to?
Some will no doubt take this as an argument for political moderation. This is one of my very least favorite things that the Democrats, and their political messaging, have done: they've convinced people that broadening your appeal necessarily means moderating what you're asking for. But there's no reason that has to be true. Ask Barry Goldwater: a radical appeal can be a mass message. But you have to know who you're talking to, you have to give a shit about what's likely to motivate them, and you have to get past repeating that something is unfair.