Principled student activism is more than just the stereotypes

And who cares, anyway? That was the question posed by an article that appeared in this paper last Friday (“Eli activists: boxed in by apathy?,” 11/3). The story raised the question of why more students don’t seem to want to be involved in activism. The perplexing suggestion of this article is that the problem lies with some flaw in the activists themselves and their methods. “Many students outside of activist circles,” the author wrote, “have a perception of these agitators as loud-for-no-reason, Yale-is-evil hypocrites.” This stereotype of activists as whiny, indulgent troublemakers is unfounded. I argue that people participate in activism with conviction, seriousness and, above all, a sense of civic responsibility that is at the very core of the values that Yale University aims to instill in its students.

Let’s look first at the suggestion that activism is loud. This is certainly true of certain forms of activism, but not of others. Never mind those other forms of activism — writing letters, campaigning for votes, silent demonstrations, vigils — it’s the noisy manifestation of activism that seem to bother people. Yet this too is puzzling. Lots of things are noisy, like the construction on Cross Campus that wakes me up every morning, or the music that blares out the door of Toad’s Place most nights. The key is the second half of the phrase “loud-for-no-reason,” the perception that activists are raising a ruckus about issues that are no big deal or not worth the effort. There is also an inherent double meaning, an insinuation that activists are “without reason,” meaning crazy or irrational. This was precisely the allegation that Nick Shalek made in last year’s aldermanic debates.

This charge of unreasonableness conflicts with reality. The world is far from being a perfect place. There are today more people dying and living in poverty and misery than ever before. If you’ll pardon my jargon, we might say that activism by its very presence denaturalizes the current state of affairs. It challenges the notion that things like war and poverty are inevitable, as natural as the passing of the seasons. But these ills are human-made, and we therefore bear the responsibility to address them. Activism in this context becomes not only reasonable, but imperative.

The “noisy hypocrites” charge has a flip side. Some of our parents would chide us for failing to be more militant in the face of escalating crisis. Reality reflects this; in reaction to our own war and our own problems of racism and injustice, we are downright apathetic compared to our parents. This sort of rebuke is, like the charge in the activism article, based on false assumptions. It first of all assumes that the student uprisings of 1968 were not exceptional and that we should expect to see militancy from every generation born after World War II, whereas the evidence suggests that the activism of the late ’60s and early ’70s was unique in its scale. It also overlooks the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Today’s students have to spend more time working and worrying about paying off their loans and have less time and energy for activism.

This condemnation is also unfair to the many students who are mobilizing for social change. Last weekend, over 100 Yale students traveled across Connecticut to canvass for progressive Democratic congressional candidates and another 100 or so Yalies attended the Darfur rally in New York last month. Eighty percent of Yale undergraduates participate in Dwight Hall service and activism before they graduate. The potential, if not the reality, of civic and political engagement exists among our generation. The supposed “widespread hostility” to activism is odd considering that most students participate in some form of it. At bottom, the vast majority of us believe in the notions of agency, responsibility and the need for student voices to be heard.

And when we do act on these principles, there is a slight risk that we will be loud. This is not a new problem. I believe it was best dealt with by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1857 when he said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation … want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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