Moral concerns and claims play a central role in student activism to promote economic and social justice. For decades, students in many countries have protested rising tuition fees and cuts to state subsidies, while recent years have seen a marked upsurge in student mobilization against the systematic marginalization or discrimination of certain bodies and voices within higher education and in wider society. Students not only target specific institutional policies and practices but also challenge dominant moral orders for appropriate and desirable conduct, including what constitutes unethical and unacceptable forms of speech—in relation to teaching and learning activities, as well as to the academic and societal debate culture.

These movements have given rise to experiments in democratic forms of organizing, as well as discussions about (im)proper public debate and democratic deliberation. Some activists, for example, have endorsed an ideal of the university, and society more generally, as a ‘safe space’, that is, a place free from harassment and oppression where participants can feel safe, seen and heard. They request the use of ‘trigger warnings’ in the classroom and engage in ‘no-platforming’ actions, where student activists prevent individuals whose messages they perceive to be offensive or threatening from speaking at public events on campus.

These student activists argue that their actions to increase social justice allow hitherto marginalized and silenced groups to gain a voice and thereby strengthen the possibility for dialogue across difference, which is vital for democracy and critical academic thinking (cf. Ben-Porath, 2017). Critics, by contrast, have maintained that activists’ use of the moral criteria of social justice and diversity to privilege certain kinds of bodies, speech and knowledge over others presents a fundamental threat to core Western values of free speech and democratic deliberation (George & West, 2017; Mason 2016; Slater, 2016) and risks leading the wider (student) population into increasingly fractious identity politics (cf. Zheng, 2017).

In the Global North, student activism to dismantle economic and social injustice has intersected and overlapped with wider social movements including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, which, in different ways, are centred on moral concerns regarding how to create more just and equal societies. In student activism, as in these wider social movements, personal testimony and experience play a central role in the moral shaping of social and political ambitions, visions and conversations—but also in the frictions emerging within and between left-wing student activist networks.

This article focuses on student activism as a site for the formulation and exploration of ethical dilemmas around how to engage with others across difference. By connecting theoretical discussions of deliberative democracy with the question of ethics in activism, the article investigates how two left-wing student activist groups at the University of Auckland, in different ways, balance inclusion against exclusion, and universal moral claims against sensitivity to situated ethical complexities and locally embedded experiences and values. Communicative procedures and ideals in these groups’ activist ‘free spaces’, differences in personal experiences of marginality, and the cultivation of activist virtues through the labour of organizing and collaborating across difference mediate and shape the student activists’ ethical engagement. With inspiration from Mansbridge (1996), the article proposes that radical student activism as an ethical practice revolves around the ability to act as certain kinds of (subaltern) counter publics, namely, counter publics that not only ‘nag’ or haunt dominant moralities from the margins, but also allow for the continuous cultivation of internal spaces and identities that can ‘nag’ their own moral frames and virtues, goading them into action and to conduct important democratic experiments.

Deliberation, Counter Publics and Free Spaces: Ethical Dilemmas

In my analysis of the ethnographic material from New Zealand, I draw upon two interconnected strands of theories: theories and debates concerning deliberative democracy, including questions of universal accessibility and inclusion/exclusion, and theories exploring ethics as a question of living up to universal moral imperatives (deontology) or as embedded in everyday negotiations and cultivations of virtues (virtue ethics). Accordingly, my discussion of the role of ethics in student activism is centred on the ethical paradoxes related to processes of deliberation within and across different forms of counter publics and free spaces.

The question of whether contemporary pro-equality student activism endangers or enlarges the democratic space and public debate within the university and in wider society clearly resonates with the debates surrounding Habermas’ model of free deliberative democracy that first emerged in the 1990s. In the following, I will therefore briefly outline some central theoretical positions in this debate and link them to methodological approaches to studying and understanding ethics.

In his historical-sociological analysis, Habermas (1989) argued that the newly established cafés and salons in eighteenth-century France, England and Germany provided the foundation for the emergence of a new form of bourgeois public sphere. Ideally, in this sphere, everyone could engage in unrestricted rational deliberation of topics of so-called common concern and conjure a ‘public opinion’ in society that could render the state accountable to the citizenry. The emergence of this new ‘public sphere’ was conditional on three interconnected ‘institutional criteria’ or ideas, namely, a disregard for status, the development of a domain of common concern and inclusivity in the sense that everyone had to be able to participate (Habermas, 1989, pp. 36f). In principle, therefore, the public sphere was a sphere of rational and universalistic politics where everyone could engage in deliberation as part of one single community. As indicated above, similar ideals of a public sphere that enables everyone in a liberal democracy to freely engage and speak, no matter their status, opinions or background, are at the centre of the critique raised against student activism in pursuit of greater equality and social justice.

However, important feminist critique has been directed at Habermas’ deliberative model. The political scientist Iris M. Young (1996) has argued that the model’s reliance on a notion of universal reason and rational argumentation renders emotional or experiential expressions illegitimate and privileges styles of speaking that are dispassionate, disembodied and general. Such norms of rational deliberation, Young argues, not only create a problematic distinction between reason and emotion, mind and body; they are ‘culturally specific and often operate as forms of power that silence or devalue the speech of some people’ (1996, p. 123). Accordingly, changes in the communicative and procedural norms for deliberation—for example, the introduction of certain forms of greeting or the inclusion of personal storytelling—can allow different kinds of bodies, arguments and styles of speech to appear, be heard and taken seriously.

In a similar vein, the feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser (1990) has argued that the ideal of a bourgeois public sphere, open to all, requires a momentary bracketing of social inequalities, which, instead of securing equal access and deliberation, can mask various forms of domination. The ideal of free and unrestricted deliberation was never realized in practice, with a number of marginalized groups, including women, de facto excluded from the conversation. The public sphere of the eighteenth-century cafés and salons was limited to upper-class male actors ‘who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class”, Fraser maintained (Fraser, 1990, p. 60). She criticized Habermas for idealizing the public sphere and failing to recognize how excluded groups form (subaltern) counter publics, such as women-only voluntary associations. Rather than being bracketed in the public sphere, Fraser argued, inequalities should be thematized explicitly to draw attention to the ongoing contestations of what should be considered ‘public’ or ‘common concerns’.

For Fraser, counter publics become spaces of ‘withdrawal and regroupment’, as well as ‘bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics’ (Fraser, 1990, p. 68). In this sense, the concept overlaps with the notion of ‘free spaces’ (Polletta, 1999; Evans & Boyte, 1986) in the literature on social movements. Free spaces are ‘small-scale settings within a community or movement that are removed from the direct control of dominant groups, are voluntarily participated in, and generate the cultural challenge that precedes or accompanies political mobilization’ (Polletta, 1999, p. 1). Allowing marginalized people to develop a voice and a vision, Evans and Boyte (1986) argue that such spaces are central to democracy:

Put simply, free spaces are settings between private lives and large-scale institutions where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence, and vision. (…) Democratic action depends upon these free spaces, where people experience a schooling in citizenship and learn a vision of the common good in the course of struggling for change (Evans & Boyte, 1986, p. 16–17).

Interestingly, some social movement scholars have called these spaces ‘safe spaces’ (see, e.g. Polletta, 1999), and as we shall see later, contemporary ‘free spaces’ in student activist networks sometimes explicitly connect to the quest to make higher education and wider society ‘safe(r) spaces’. The dual dimension of counter publics and free/safe spaces of withdrawal and engagement in wider public activities is not without challenges. As Jane Mansbridge puts it (1996: 58), the dilemma is that ‘the enclaves, which produce insights that less protected spaces would have prevented, also protect those insights from reasonable criticism’. In other words, on the one hand, free/safe spaces appear to be necessary in order for counter publics to emerge and formulate common concerns and visions. On the other hand, they risk closing in on themselves, developing a language not heard or understood by others and failing to engage in conversation across difference.

This, I argue, is fundamentally an ethical dilemma. It not only revolves around ideals for a well-functioning democracy but also relates to theoretical discussions about how to understand and promote ethical conduct. In social theory, there are at least two central approaches to such questions of morality and ethics. Durkheimian researchers understand ethics and morality as external normative constraints on behaviour. More recently, a growing number of scholars have, by contrast, explored the ethical and the moral as emerging in situated practices, unconscious habits and reflective deliberations and, as such, strongly tied to the cultivation of virtues and personal character (see, e.g. Boltanski & Thevenot, 2000; Fassin, 2012, 2015; Klenk, 2019; Mattingly & Throop, 2018).

This difference, focusing on ethical conduct as either a question of living up to normative rules and moral imperatives or as emerging in the situated negotiation and cultivation of virtues, resonates with the distinction between deontological/duty ethics (with Kant as a main protagonist) and virtue ethics (developed from Aristotle, among others) in moral philosophy. While the former emphasizes ethics as a question of doing one’s duty and living up to a moral absolute, the latter focuses on the kinds of desirable virtues and characteristics that a moral/virtuous person possesses. In the former, ethics are about obeying universal moral laws, discerned through reason and thereafter translated into practice. In the latter, ethics are cultivated and embedded in local practice and therefore contingent on the community in which they are generated and practiced. Ethics hereby become ‘the subjective work produced by agents to conduct themselves in accordance with their inquiry about what a good life is’ (Fassin, 2012: 7).

The ideal of the bourgeois public sphere is built on a universal moral claim, discerned through ‘reason’, in which citizens are to live up to normative ideals of free, rational and inclusive participation in the public sphere. By contrast, the above-mentioned feminist critiques of this kind of universal politics seem to resonate with traditions of virtue ethics that understand ethics as embedded in everyday negotiations and contingent on the particular community involved.

In an analysis of the role of ethics in specific student activists’ lives and actions, the two approaches to ethics—and the contrasting views of deliberative democracy—are useful as analytical heuristics to tease out how various forms of ethical and moral claims and practices intersect influence and shape student activist spaces. Understood as ethical work, radical student activism is about both contentious politics based on universalizing moral claims of social justice and the cultivation of collective and individual subjectivities and sensibilities, including a moral responsibility to act, that are embedded in particular forms of organizing, styles of speech and reflective deliberations.

In the sections below, I use the theoretical debates surrounding deliberative democracy and ethics to analyse empirical case material from New Zealand. I pay attention to the ways that universalizing moral claims are balanced and negotiated with a sensitivity towards diversity and plurality. Furthermore, I examine the different ways that activists negotiate and enact the connections between knowledge, action and virtue in order to create a better world. First, however, I will briefly introduce the fieldwork that forms the basis for the analysis.

Fieldwork with Student Activists in Auckland

In 2012, I conducted 4 months of ethnographic fieldwork with left-wing student activists at the University of Auckland who had been mobilizing against budget cutbacks and tuition fee increases, among other things. Over the past year, they had mobilized hundreds of students at various rallies and protest occupations. They had edited the student magazine and developed a number of workshops (on topics including facilitating meetings, the legal issues related to their activism and how best to deal with the media). They held regular meetings where they discussed and planned actions, had debriefings after actions and continuously set up reading groups reflecting different activist interests and needs.

As I will elaborate later, they worked from an ideal of ‘dissensus’ and the creation of plural but equal spaces for conversation. They experimented with organic, non-hierarchical forms of meetings and continuously discussed to what extent they should present themselves as a group/unity with a specific name in order to better mobilize others and be recognizable, or whether to refuse this stabilization and categorization in favour of more diffuse, organic and fluid identities (see Nielsen 2019). In order to explore their political aims and ways of organizing, I participated in different protest actions (including a ‘street party’ and protests against fee hikes), followed their writings in the student magazine and on their Facebook page, conducted formal interviews with seven students who were involved in the actions (from organizers to more ad hoc activists) and had informal conversations with them and other activists and scholars at various academic and social events.

In 2015, I returned for a shorter 3-week stay. I reinterviewed three of the activists from 2012, who were still involved in student activism. They told me that a new group of activists, primarily from a queer background, had become visible on campus. I interviewed three students who were actively involved in this queer activist network. Whereas in 2012, the activist group strived to create spaces for the cultivation of dissensus , the queer activists worked from an ideal of turning their meetings, the university and wider society into safe(r) spaces. Among other things, they had pushed for gender-neutral toilets at the university and introduced pronoun rounds at meetings. They ran a reading group on queer literature and theory, were active in different debates on social media but were not involved in as many public actions as the students in 2012. As one of them said, there was not the same ‘political momentum for protests’ now as previously, where protests around tuition fees and the budget had mobilized hundreds of students. In this article, for the sake of clarity, I will refer to activists who were involved in 2012 (and in some cases were still active in 2015) as the older activists, and students engaged in the queer activist network as the newer student activists. To ensure anonymity, all names of student activists have been changed.

‘Framing’ a Common Moral Problem? Radicality, Solidarity and Deliberation

In my interviews with both older and newer student activists in 2012 and 2015, they all, in different ways, conjured a wider moral frame revolving around economic inequality and social injustice through which they understood their own situation, specific actions and the general problems or afflictions in society. As Yasmin, a student activist whom I interviewed in both 2012 and 2015 explained, ‘to me it’s the question of inequality; that’s what ties it all together’.

Many of the student activists I talked to in 2012 and 2015, including Yasmin, were involved in activist networks both on campus, focusing on university-related issues, and off campus, such as anti-gentrification activism or broader anti-capitalist, socialist movements. Therefore, in their framing – that is, the ‘active, process-driven, contestation-ridden reality construction’ (Snow & Benford, 1992: 136) that organizes experience and guides action in a social movement – they attempted to articulate and connect various struggles and experiences in a meaningful and unified way. The shared moral framework revolving around economic inequality and social injustice made solidarity and interconnections between different struggles a central issue for the core group of student activists I talked to in 2012. As Nina, who was active in both 2012 and 2015, said:

Once you’ve done a lot of practical organizing, you just realize that we’re all talking about the same problem. I mean, different iterations (…) We need to focus on the connections between different issues. People call it intersectionality (…) you can’t really separate patriarchy from capitalism from racism from colonialism (…) Working out how to have solidarity with groups that you’re not necessarily that central to, but you, like, entirely support, is really one of the most important things (Nina, student activist, 2015).

For Nina, solidarity as an ethical engagement became a question of extending the student activist framework to incorporate values and fights that were not initially at the centre of their struggle. Solidarity, as she put it, is about:

Fighting one’s own fight and fighting alongside others in their fight, which at a more general level is also your fight (Nina, student activist, 2015).

A given fight for equality, in this sense, is not merely to be understood as belonging to a specific interest group. It is both universal and particular—belonging to everyone, yet a greater focus for certain groups who, for example, have personal experiences with that specific form of inequality. Therefore, it is not simply a question of engaging as if it was your own struggle, but of realizing that, on a more profound moral level, it is your struggle—namely, a common and universal struggle against inequality, discrimination and oppression.

In light of the discussion around ideals of free deliberation in the public sphere, the students’ quest for solidarity can be understood as an attempt to turn concerns that are otherwise deemed particular, subjective or private into common or public moral concerns (cf. Fraser, 1990). However, solidarity work and the conjuring up of a common moral absolute are both challenging and potentially risky. As Yasmin formulated it, the ideals of solidarity are not always compatible with a desire to be radical:

There’s always tension in activism between solidarity, where you work across different groups without being exclusive, but also without compromising a stance of, like, radicality. (…) it’s a tension between, like, being radical and exclusive or being inclusive and potentially, like, ending up being absorbed. If you’re trying to be like completely inclusive, then you end up becoming part of the mechanisms that you’re trying to oppose (Yasmin, student activist, 2015).

The continuous balancing between radicality and solidarity, described by Yasmin, can be understood in terms of what Barnett (2004) has referred to as a constant negotiation in activism between an urgent sense of a ‘responsibility to act’ and a more patient sense of a ‘responsibility to otherness’. Whereas the former can be understood as an ethical call to act here and now to change the world, the latter urges caution and a sensitivity for and engagement with people and viewpoints that are different from one’s own. The sense of an urgent need to do and to act seems conditional on a political standpoint characterized by unity/common identity. By contrast, the patient sense of a responsibility to otherness combines features of learning and knowledge production across difference and a stretching of one’s ‘self’ (as an individual and/or group) to accommodate an otherness that opens up for alternative values and viewpoints, as well as for solidary engagement. Based on a clear identity and standpoint, the first form of moral responsibility can be exclusive, whereas the second strives towards greater inclusivity and comes with the risk of diluting the focus, identity and framing of the struggle—and ultimately being absorbed into and thereby reinforcing the mainstream political system that one sought to change.

As noted, the two student activist networks with whom I engaged in 2012 and 2015 had a shared moral frame of fighting social and economic injustice and promoting the emancipation of marginalized people. However, they emphasized slightly different ethical virtues and values, in terms of the balance between inclusivity and exclusivity, unity and difference, and solidarity and radicality. As we shall see in the following, student activism can generate powerful counter publics, but the degree to which the activists speak from and emphasize a subaltern positionality varies greatly.

Balancing Dissensus and Safety: A Sense of Kaupapa

The student activist networks in 2012 and 2015 continuously balanced and negotiated the degree to which they included and excluded other activist groups, as well as the broader student body. Tellingly, the older and the newer student activists evoked different organizational metaphors, signalling their different positions in society and at university. Their ‘free spaces’, accordingly, served slightly different purposes.

In 2012, the group of activist students were inspired by, among others, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s notion of ‘dissensus’ (see, e.g. Rancière, 2010). As Jim explained:

We are working from the ideal of dissensus, understood as the possibility for diversity and the constant challenging of established hierarchies. We aim to create a dissent academia (Jim, student activist, 2012).

Inspired by Occupy Wall Street and similar movements, these student activists worked with the ideal of a non-hierarchical, organic and horizontal structure, with no leaders. In order to create more inclusive, diverse and socially just meeting spaces, they also experimented with progressive stacking and having older activists sit with newcomers, helping them to engage and explaining what was going on. They encouraged all interested parties to participate in their meetings and hoped for greater diversity in their group. Jim and the other core activists were mainly white (upper-) middle-class students, and many of them studied social science subjects.

Even though they continuously worked and hoped to attract activist students from more diverse backgrounds, they did not succeed in earnest. Minority students, one of them said, often have other networks where they work with like-minded students and target specific minority-related issues. Nevertheless, Jim and his fellow activists seemed to feel a strong sense of ‘responsibility to otherness’ (Barnett, 2004)—an obligation to learn more about other ways of viewing and experiencing the world, especially those of marginalized and minoritized others, in order to better include such positions in what they saw as a common struggle against inequality (see also Nielsen 2019). At one point during a big open activist meeting, a white male participant criticized progressive stacking for discrimination and censorship because he was asked by a female student of colour to stop talking and start listening a bit more. Jim and some of the other core student activists disagreed with the male activist and his critique of progressive stacking. After the meeting, they decided to set up a reading group on gender and postcolonial theory to learn more about what it means to engage from a marginalized position (which was not their own position and experience as such). Thereby, they hoped to qualify their efforts to counter what they felt were problematic forms of race and gender discrimination within the activist network.

As mentioned, when I returned to Auckland in 2015, a new group of students had become central within the activist environment on campus. In contrast to the older students, this new network emerged around experiences of marginalization. One of the newer activists, Simon, explained that these activists:

Tend to be from a queer background, so very much identity politics background, but still have the same sense of politics of kind of emancipatory politics [as the older activists] (Simon, student activist, 2015).

Whereas in 2012, the student activists worked from an ideal of dissensus , Simon talked about safe spaces and explained that they organized their meetings in ways that reduced the threat of violence:

We do a pronoun round at meetings. It’s basically a recognition of the fact that we want to make this world a … safe space (…) say if I called a drag trans-woman, like, he or him, it could make them feel incredibly unsafe, because there is that threat of violence, so basically making it a safe space (Simon, student activist, 2015).

The ‘threat of violence’, here, is both physical and verbal. These newer activists shared personal experiences with discrimination, read relevant literature and discussed how to make the university and wider society more inclusive and just. As explained by Mark, another student activist, who did not identify as queer himself, but who was part of this new network of student activists, ‘the pronoun round is about creating a more inclusive environment for organizing political action’. In this way, the meetings also helped to create a safe (free) space in the sense found in social movement theories.

The notion of ‘safe space’ first became prominent with the emergence of women’s and gay and lesbian movements in the 1960s and 1970s. It points to the necessity for the members of marginalized groups of obtaining a ‘room of one’s own’ (cf. Woolf, 1929) where one can confidently find one’s own voice and engage in wider public debate and potentially plan social or political events with the aim of improving one’s life as a minority. However, in recent years, the notion of safe spaces has proliferated to such an extent that it has been described as an ‘overused but undertheorized metaphor’ (Barrett, 2010: 1).

In addition to referring to an activist space in a movement or a dedicated physical place allocated to a group of minority students, the term ‘safe space’ is now also used as a teaching and learning metaphor to address appropriate communication and interaction in the classroom and on campus in a more general sense.Footnote 1 This proliferation testifies to the emergence of a stronger counter public around questions of equality in public spaces as well as in teaching and learning. In the USA, for example, a growing number of students are now sympathetic to the concerns raised by minorities and recognize them as ‘public’ or ‘common’ rather than merely ‘private’ or ‘particular’ concerns (see, e.g. Palfrey, 2017, Ben-Porath, 2017).

The queer students’ arguments for introducing pronoun rounds and their more general efforts to create a safe space resonate with the critique of Habermas’ model of deliberative democracy raised by the political scientist Iris M. Young (1996). As mentioned, Young argues that the emphasis on universal reason and rational argumentation in Habermas’ model privileges culturally specific styles of speaking that appear ‘objective’ because they are dispassionate, disembodied and general. When the newer activist students introduce pronoun rounds, share personal experiences and advocate for safe spaces, they engage in activities that Young argues can open up the space of public deliberation. The use of certain kinds of greetings or the inclusion of personal storytelling can allow hitherto marginalized bodies, arguments and styles of speech to appear and be heard (ibid).

However, the ideal of safe spaces and the introduction of pronoun rounds also involve certain forms of exclusion. In these spaces, as Mark explained, they deal with sensitive topics and people, so there is always a concern as to whether or not they will be welcoming of people with diverse backgrounds:

There’s an air of suspicion, and it’s something that we need to work on—how do you verify that someone’s not going to be, you know, prejudiced or bigoted towards anyone else that’s already in the group helping out. You don’t want someone who’s racist kind of coming in and, you know, dismantling some of the group there or causing a ruckus, or an issue (Mark, student activist, 2015).

Whereas most of the older student activists were not from a minority background in terms of race or sexuality, the newer queer group clearly spoke from a position of marginalization. In order to create a space for conversation that is free of discrimination and harassment, they felt they had to be somewhat exclusive and, on occasion, establish separatist spaces. Nevertheless, they also wanted to be inclusive and to engage with other groups. When I asked Simon if he knew about the older activists’ ideal of ‘dissensus’, he nodded and said:

I think that still happens—like this [the pronouns] is just a prerequisite. In order for this [dissensus] to happen, we need firstly, these are the ground rules and then I think that that [dissensus] happens anyway (Simon, student activist, 2015).

In order to create a genuinely inclusive and diverse environment where difference is acknowledged without reproducing existing hierarchies of people or knowledges, Simon argues that there is a need to set some new ground rules for how to engage with each other. Put differently, a certain ethics of conduct or virtue ethics needs to be developed. Simon used the Maori word ‘kaupapa’ to describe it:

Kaupapa (is) a general sense or purpose behind a movement or behind a group. Or like even just ground rules. And so, even in a situation of dissensus, I think there’s still a kaupapa where certain things are acceptable. It’s not acceptable to say racist things, you know. Sometimes it [kaupapa] is not said out loud, but you know there’s a sense of it (Simon, student activist, 2015).

Kaupapa can be more or less explicit, but, in any group, there will always be some kind of kaupapa—a sense of purpose guiding their activities—enabling it to function, Simon argued. The sense of purpose that guided the queer group seemed to revolve around an understanding of ethical conduct as a question of emancipation. Simon described how he really liked the queer reading group he was part of at the university.

There’s a good sense of kaupapa. I like that word. A good sense of how to treat each other. Not speaking over each other, letting each other talk. It’s a very good flow. Very, like, emancipatory space.

Kaupapa connects virtue ethics with a sense of purpose and collective aspiration. Due to the kaupapa, in this case the establishment of a safe space, the participants experience a sense of emancipation, of being recognized as equal and being free from the control of dominant groups or what they experience as dominant norms and values that they do not adhere to or live up to. And it is because of the safe space kaupapa that they are able to cultivate dissensus, but a dissensus within a certain frame and with people who agree on fundamental moral values, codes of conduct and styles of speech. The question, therefore, is to what extent such values and styles of speech also enable them to engage with activist groups beyond their own. Here, their mode of organizing and differences in their practical experiences when organizing with other groups also seemed to play an important role.

A Virtue Ethics of Labour: Cultivation of Sensibilities Within the Everyday

At one point in 2015, friction emerged between some of the newer queer activists and some of the older activists who had been active since 2011. Some of the newer activists accused some of the older male activists of homophobia and anti-Semitism. The disagreement and accusations developed and blew up on Twitter, which the older activist Nina described as ‘a forum where you can flag off people without having to face them’. Yasmin, also an older activist, explained that the whole process had been:

Like making people out to be bad, and I mean there were some Twitter posts about the student movement (…) like a public shaming thing around particular people that had been involved for a while. It would probably have been resolved if it hadn’t happened over Twitter (Nina, student activist, 2015).

Twitter functioned as vehicle for conjuring up a public moral evaluation of specific people, judging them to be unethical or ‘bad people’ who discriminate against certain minorities. The older activists I talked to in 2015 felt that the friction was largely caused by a misunderstanding and the huge role Twitter and other social media played for the newer activists. Penny described it as being ‘interested in politics the Twitter way’ and argued that there is a huge difference between ‘just posting on Twitter as opposed to, like, actually like being involved in organizing, doing the hard labor of organizing’. She felt that the newer student activists were involved more as a ‘hobby’ and that there was no ‘discipline’. For the newer activists, she said, discipline had become an ‘ugly word’. The newer activists did not hold regular meetings and had no ongoing activities; they did not organize or think about politics more generally, she complained.

People are not interested in committing to the labor … people thought of themselves as political but not in the active, laboring way (Penny, student activist, 2015).

The cultivation of a ‘committed’ and ‘disciplined’ self, who is willing to and capable of doing the ‘hard labor of organizing’, was at the core of Penny’s activist virtue ethics. She also complained that, because the newer activists were not ‘committed to the labor’, there was a lack of skills and a lack of sensibility towards diversity in activism. They did not know how to make posters, talk to the media or organize a rally, and did not collaborate with other networks on the practical organization of actions. Comparing them to her own activist trajectory, she felt that the newer students were not ‘subjectivated’ into activism in the same way as she had been:

When I first got involved, I didn’t know anyone at all. So it was definitely not based on friendship, which I feel like somehow it seems to be transformed into this. (…) as opposed to how we used to be, where if, like, people came together and they, we would spend hours in meetings just like (…) trying to work through things, like, and it took time, and it took work and a lot of, a lot of, like, energy went into things. And I feel like people perhaps have transformed politics into just theory or, like, and a group identity as opposed to something that you really have to work at and actions (…) But now it’s like people are not organizing and activism is like something that you join. Not something that you get subjectivated into, I guess (Penny, student activist, 2015).

The development of a collective identity, common theoretical framing and friendship had also been important in Penny’s own activist trajectory, but it was not the starting point. Rather, it was something that gradually emerged in and through the practical activist labour. Through long conversations and the tedious work of organizing, they developed particular virtues, both in terms of practical skills and for engaging across difference. Activist virtue, in other words, became a question of hard work and the acquisition of skills (cf. Widlok, 2012).

Importantly, the changing ‘cycle of protest’ (Snow & Benford, 1992; Tarrow, 1998) also seemed to play a role. Yasmin said that the friction between the newer and older activists had emerged in what she called an ‘interim period between organizing’ and argued that in activist circles you often get more conflict and theoretical disagreements during such periods: ‘If you are organizing, like, this is an issue, deal with this, deal on the spot’, she said. Several of the older activists, like Yasmin, argued that a difference in age and experience with activism could also play a role:

… They’re very young students and I was talking to my friend who’s been involved in a lot of queer politics groups for a very long time. She was saying it does start off like when you organize around a particular, organize around identity, it very much starts off in that setting and it takes realizing that you actually have to organize with groups that might make you feel uncomfortable (…) it takes organizing with lots of groups of people to realize that sometimes you can’t always be in a safe space or can’t always be … your oppression can’t always be the center of it, I guess (Yasmin, student activist, 2015).

In a similar vein, Penny argued that when you engage in practical organizing with others:

You realize that you have to compromise. You can’t just tell people they’re problematic (…) the language and practices you’ve incorporated in your meeting structures isn’t as intuitive or necessary or appropriate in other spaces (Penny, student activist, 2015).

The focus on practical organizing and collaboration or solidary work with other groups who also promote greater equality seems to emphasize the kind of virtue ethics that the anthropologist Veena Das has described as ‘ordinary ethics’ (Das, 2012; Lambek, 2010). In ‘ordinary ethics’, Das says, the ethical

work is done not by orienting oneself to transcendental, objectively agreed upon value but rather through the cultivation of sensibilities within the everyday (…) Ethics and morality on the register of the ordinary are more like threads woven into the weave of life rather than notions that stand out and call attention to themselves through dramatic enactments and heroic struggles of good versus evil (Das, 2012: 134).

One could argue that the practical organizing across difference, described by Penny and Yasmin, cultivates pragmatic sensibilities towards others—an ethical sense of ‘responsibility to otherness’ (Barnett, 2004), which locates ethics within everyday activities that constantly challenge the universal moral imperatives around which radical student activism also revolves. The kind of practical labour that activists engage in therefore also affects the balance between ‘radicality’ and ‘solidarity’, exclusion and inclusion and the particular versus the universal in politics.

Yasmin considered the causes the newer students were fighting for extremely important. However, she felt that they often lacked a more general structural and class-focused analysis and that they had little experience with or desire to organize actions with other groups. Therefore, she argued, they risked becoming too insular. So even though Yasmin, Nina and Penny were sympathetic to the newer students’ ambitions and causes, they felt that the ideal of ‘safe spaces’, when combined with a lack of ‘labor’, ‘discipline’ and practical organizing, was potentially problematic. Nina said that the safe space ideal sometimes, but certainly not always, led to what she felt was a ‘culture of inwardness’ and an overemphasis on personal experience.

Yeah, I think it may be a tendency in certain groups that focus on identity politics to focus, kind of, to really emphasize individual subjectivity. And also that’s in the, in the service of affirmation of an identity, but [a] marginalized [one], and so it’s really important, but I guess it can slip into a kind of almost neoliberal kind of motive of complaint where, you know, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion and their own grievances. You can’t really critique one another because if you are, you’re, like, disrupting the safe space (…) But I think, I mean, I don’t think that necessarily has to result in a sort of culture of, yeah, inwardness and things. But the thing is, it’s really hard to make that critique, because it does come across as though you’re, you don’t really understand what other people are going through (Nina, student activist, 2015).

In addition to the reduced focus on class and the potential individualization and neoliberalization of grievances, Nina points to a central dilemma in contemporary student activism for social justice. On the one hand, the emphasis on experience, individual subjectivity and certain styles of speech is important in order to allow otherwise marginalized voices and positions to appear and take shape (cf. Young, 1996). On the other hand, however, ideals of ‘safety’ needs to be balanced against the risk of closing down conversation across difference and silencing people with alternative experiences and opinions. Here, the cultivation of activist virtues and forms of moral reasoning are also dependent on practical labour, the role of friendship and identity, and the ways of organizing within and across different activist networks.


In recent years, the upsurge in student activism for social justice has increasingly been criticized for promoting a moral absolute that shuts down debate and threatens democratic values of free speech and critical thinking. In this article, I have shown how different groups of left-wing student activists at the University of Auckland continuously and reflexively negotiate central ethical dilemmas and attempt to balance between solidarity and radicality, inclusion and exclusion and the evocation of universal moral claims and the development of a sensitivity towards particularity and otherness.

On a general moral level, fighting for ‘equality’ is a common denominator in the students’ activism. However, different activist groups focus on different aspects of this problem—or ‘iterations’ as one student activist called it. In doing so, they constantly modify and balance common or universal moral quests against other forms of ethics that emerge from and are embedded in situated practices, experiences and negotiations. Based on their varied personal experiences with marginalization, different ways of organizing and shifting engagement with activist solidary work across difference, they create different (free/safe) spaces for the cultivation of ethical ideals, subjectivities and virtues.

In 2012, the student activist network worked from the ideal of ‘dissensus’, whereas the group of queer activists that were present during my fieldwork in 2015 worked from the metaphor of creating ‘safe spaces’. Even though they shared an overall ambition of fighting inequality and creating emancipatory spaces, their choice of metaphors reflected their own experiences and positions within the university and wider society. The older group of activists were predominantly white, heterosexual, (upper-) middle-class students, while the newer group came from more marginalized backgrounds in terms of gender and sexuality. More than simply being strategic spaces for maximizing political influence, the different ‘free spaces’ they provided were framed by moral and ethical questions and desires for creating a better and more just world. They therefore experimented with new democratic forms of organizing, new ground rules for meetings and new styles of speech.

These activist free/safe spaces are characterized by constant and paradoxical tensions between creating unity and recognizing diversity; between being radical and exclusive in thought and action and being more inclusive, solidary and engaging across difference. Importantly, an ‘ordinary’ ethics and cultivation of virtues and sensibilities through practical organizing also created a difference between the groups. For some of the older activists, the tedious labour of practical organizing, where you discuss and work with different people to act on the world, was a central virtue that enabled and compelled engagement with different viewpoints, making activists modify their own goals to accommodate associated struggles.

Both the older and newer student activists recognized not only the necessity but also the danger of working with relatively separatist (safe) spaces. On the one hand, such spaces are needed to allow marginalized people to find a voice of their own, thereby enabling them to engage in wider public discussions and turning what were hitherto perceived as personal or private issues into common concerns. On the other hand, there is a danger that such spaces become overly insular, with activists avoiding or shutting down conversations with people that have different opinions and experiences from themselves.

The students’ continuous efforts to navigate these complex ethical dilemmas reflect wider moral contestations about what characterizes legitimate (counter) publics and democratic deliberation. How can we best create democratic spaces that allow marginalized people to develop a voice but also encourage a wider conversation with majority positions? To borrow a phrase from the political scientist Jane Mansbridge, the dilemma is that ‘the enclaves, which produce insights that less protected spaces would have prevented, also protect those insights from reasonable criticism’ (Mansbridge, 1996, p. 58). Mansbridge argues, however, that the risk of groups closing in on themselves, becoming unwilling to hear anyone else and speaking a language that outsiders do not hear or understand, should not lead to the abolition of safe spaces or enclaves of deliberation. Such spaces are necessary for subaltern counter publics to take shape and gain confidence. Her point is that we can never achieve full justice since shifting power balances always create new forms of subordination. Therefore, she proposes:

We must design our lives and our institutions so that the justice that is compromised remains nagging, in the margin somewhere, in a bracket that does not go away, to pique our souls and goad us into future action (Mansbridge, 1996, p. 59).

One could argue that the shifting networks of student activists, acting as (subaltern) counter publics, have this function of continuously ‘nagging’ or haunting the morality of established institutions. However, as amorphous networks and movements, they also have margins themselves, which, if allowed to continue to nag, can play a central role in the shaping of their own moral frame and virtues and goad them into action.

At the heart of student activism as an ethical practice, therefore, is the difficult and constant task of balancing universal moral claims with situated ethical concerns. A one-sided critique of contemporary student activism for engaging in extreme moralism that shuts down debate seems to ignore important dimensions of the students’ engagement. Rather than merely being a site for the promotion of certain universal moral claims, student activism also functions as a site for the continuous exploration and negotiation of profound moral and ethical dilemmas concerning how to conceive of and engage with others across difference.

These dilemmas are not only of importance to the internal organizing and success of a given student movement but are intrinsic to democratic deliberation and organizing more generally. In this way, student activists’ efforts to formulate and promote new moral orders and principles can be understood as a window onto core conflicts regarding value and morality in wider society that are related to processes of deliberation within and across different forms of (counter) publics and free spaces (see also McAdam, 1988). Their attempts to navigate these profound dilemmas—however tentative they may be—can offer important insights into how best to combine the cultivation of inclusive spaces for engagement across difference with the establishment of more exclusive learning spaces to secure the continuous development of critical voices and experimental democratic practices within higher education and in wider society.