In his column “Activism is inefficient way to make change” (2/21), Jeff Mankoff employed a suspiciously convenient definition of activism. Almost everyone at last week’s IP debate “Resolved: Activism is a better use of students’ time than debate” did the same thing.
Throughout the debate, it was posited that activists — presumed to be liberal — fail to challenge their own ideas or “take up the other side.” Many individuals arguing in the negative used a paradigm of “rightness” or “wrongness” to bolster their case against activism. They implied that the fact that activists can act, in any way at all, clearly demonstrates that they haven’t sufficiently considered the possibility that they may be wrong.
However, speaking in terms of rightness is a luxury in itself, one which activism does not necessarily prioritize. Activism does not always aim to convince the “other” side of anything, but often mobilizes those who are already inclined to support the cause but have not been actively involved for a variety of reasons. The construction of a clear distinction between activism and debate only perpetuates the illusions that the incitement of dialogue cannot be a quintessentially activist technique or that activist endeavors are by definition not self-critical.
Discourse is, in fact, crucial to activism — without it one resorts to oversimplifications that could negate or even render counterproductive an activist endeavor. Here I am thinking of an essentialist feminist movement that attempts to promote women’s rights without challenging stereotypes of women that restrict them to their bodies, for example. Clearly, many people have neither access to formal debate nor the privilege to spend their time engaging in extensive deconstruction. It is the obligation of those of us with the ability to do so to inform our activism with critical examination and to infuse our debate with a sober sense of material realities beyond us but not unaffected by us.
Similar questions apply to any politically aware and invested senior nearing graduation and contemplating whether to sell his or her soul or enter the not-so-lucrative field of activism and nonprofit work. It can be fun to dress up and play intellectual when I can ditch the suit and tie whenever I get sick of them, when I am conscious of sporting what could be called academic drag. But I was crestfallen when it recently dawned on me that despite my individual ability to bridge the divide between academia and activism, the Academy is not exactly making the same concerted effort to do so.
In weighing my post-graduation options and contemplating my “future,” it is extremely tempting to capitalize on the opportunity to work within an established institutional “system” — for example, as a professor — and make strides against those established patriarchal hubs by using the very resources they provide. After all, not everyone has the privilege or option to access such institutions, and it seems as though any activist movement needs both parties: those who externally rebel against the institution and those who chip away at it from within.
However, it quickly becomes clear that the point at which one begins to qualify as having been “bought” by the system — as opposed to working within it — is shady and relatively arbitrary. If one decides to enter the academic world, at what point and at what times is he or she obligated to take off the suit and tie before it becomes too late? Should one refuse even temporary affiliation with any institution whose fundamental premises he or she does not agree with? Is that even possible?
There is, without a doubt, something to be said for those activists in disguise who successfully wean resources from powerful institutions in order to offer them to grass-roots or nonprofit organizers and advocates. However, activism contained within the parameters of an influential institution such as Yale and directed towards improving the status of individuals within that institution without challenging its foundations is arguably doomed to reinforce the authority of the institution. For an example, the attainment of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer advisory board to conduct an internal critique of LGBTQ resources on campus appears offhand to be a huge step in the right direction. But Yale arguably needs the existence of that advisory board to prevent a full-scale riot by LGBTQ individuals and allies who, without such a committee, would recognize and be outraged by the University’s fundamental indifference to their needs.
Instead of trying to improve an institution such as Yale, should one spend more energy acquiring the skills of criticality and strategy in order to apply them elsewhere? Perhaps I should stop defending problematic institutions, stop attempting to change their infrastructure, and begin considering that every hegemonic, patriarchal institution — yes, Yale included — needs a limited amount of radical activists such as myself in order to maintain itself and its own power and leverage. Or, though there is a limited amount of space for activism within a system, perhaps I should be more hopeful. Perhaps if that activist work immediately benefits real people, such as LGBTQ individuals at Yale who would possibly be miserable without any resources whatsoever, that is all that matters.
Loren Krywanczyk is a senior in Silliman College.