Activism at Yale College is dead. Well, I should say activism that works outside the system is dead.
It is tempting to form expectations about the possibilities of radical activism by looking to the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Doing so, however, would be unwise: One should never draw standards based on a cultural or political high-water mark.
But even as recently as the 1980s we saw a fervor that is now gone. Consider the 1986 shantytowns erected on Beinecke Plaza to express solidarity with the squatter communities of apartheid South Africa. Yale responded by removing and demolishing the shantytowns and arresting 78 students for criminal trespass. We don’t even have to look past this century — we can point to the 16-day campout on Beinecke Plaza in 2000, staged by Students Against Sweatshops to call for a university-wide ethical licensing policy.
Regardless of how hard students try, it seems that the capacity to inspire outrage on campus and channel it into productive, non-institutionalized activism is gone. The problem is not that we are less creative than our predecessors, but rather that we are less willing to use Yale and its prestige to advance our own causes. We’re reluctant to work outside the system and push for justice. While institutions like Dwight Hall formerly served as incubators for activist efforts, they now channel theirv energy predominantly into community service work.
So what happened?
When I think of Yale’s activist heyday, individuals like William Sloane Coffin Jr. ‘49 DIV ‘56, the late Yale Chaplain, come to mind. His willingness to push against the Yale administration from within very much colored the campus activist culture of the period. He wasn’t satisfied with simply speaking his own mind to his colleagues behind closed doors; he leveraged the power of the student body to challenge the status quo. He traveled to the South to fight for civil rights, held rallies on campus to encourage students to fight the draft and fought for LGBT rights long before it was popular. He could always get students to show up when he needed them to.
But in Coffin’s time, Yale’s student body was remarkably homogenous. This is true if not with regard to ideology, certainly with regard to race, class and religion. Sloane was speaking to and leading a student body that mirrored him.
Leaders rarely match all the views and ideologies of their constituents. Rather, their strength comes from an ability to synthesize the views of a large subset of the population and compel them to act. Leading and mobilizing a crowd of students that looks like you, talks like you and (mostly) thinks like you is fairly easy. It’s much more difficult to inspire students on a campus as diverse as Yale College in 2014.
Risk aversion — a defining characteristic of the millennial generation — has a tight grip on how far we are willing to fight for what we believe in. While we may take risks with respect to our health, we are risk-averse with respect to our financial wellbeing, career prospects and future. The preservation of comfort weighs heavily on the minds of many. The results are seen not only in our career choices, as many have noted, but also in our unwillingness to publicly voice our opinions on issues unrelated to our future career goals. There is no need to even think about taking action that might jeopardize this idealized future of comfort.
Can you imagine any cause students on this campus purportedly care about enough for 78 of our peers to be arrested for it? The answer is most certainly no. There is a small minority of student activists, particularly those associated with Fossil Free Yale, who have proved willing to invest significant time and risk in their activities. However, even they have focused primarily on working with the Yale administration — with little success resulting.
Radical activism may be difficult in an age of risk aversion, particularly when few threads seem to tie together the disparate demographics on our campus. But that doesn’t justify inaction.
I admittedly spent the majority of my time here trying to lobby the administration through formal channels like the Yale College Council. And I’m not saying we should break down the door of Woodbridge Hall every time we spot an injustice. But let’s learn a lesson from the past. Sometimes, the most effective ways to enact change or bring awareness are not the ones with clear operating procedures. They are not the Dwight Hall Service Days or lengthy Facebook statuses. But ask yourself: Are our causes worth the risk?
Kyle Tramonte is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns run on Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.