Yale students can have a lot of trouble articulating their political priorities.
No doubt, our campus seethes with opinions — capital-D discourse. A glance at Overheard should be enough to remind us that Yalies are more than happy to oblige when the time comes for a spirited debate.
But having opinions is not the same as wanting to enact them. Although the student body’s overwhelming response to Trump’s refugee ban was heartening, we do not have a great track record of showing up en masse for what we care about. A spark, such as the sexual harassment allegations against Thomas Pogge published last spring may prompt an initial outburst but that energy can all too quickly fade. Other columnists have made a similar point about the race protests that swept campus last fall. And for movements for which progress can be incremental and halting, such as the push to eliminate the student income contribution, the problem of apathy is even more pronounced.
There is no grand unified solution to this issue. But we can begin to dismantle our indifference by identifying root causes common to us as Yale students. Now more than ever — in an era where sustained, widespread dissent will be essential to holding our university and government accountable — this task is vital.
One cause, I would argue, is a particularly strong neoliberal ethic that pervades Yale’s academic and extracurricular life. To a greater extent than most universities (or at least those outside the Ivy League), Yale encourages us to approach our pursuits with all-consuming ambition. We balance genuine passion with a yearning for success, awards and titles. Usually, that’s a balance we’re able to maintain, but at this critical moment in our nation’s history, a concentration on personal advancement can only hinder us.
Some of the most essential work being done being done right now, to resist Trump and to change Yale for the better, is mundane: calling your congressperson, knocking on doors, being a nameless body in a crowd. Yale does not teach us to respect the mundane. It teaches us that we are exceptional: that our place is in the congressional office, managing the campaign, standing up in front of the crowd and giving a speech. That is, if we’re even interested in politics at all. When you prioritize success over your principles, organizing and policy work become just one path to glory among many.
We must unlearn this lesson.
But we must also reject an intellectually and ethically bankrupt brand of centrism that holds much of the student body in its grip.
Our disregard for “mundane” labor comes from an institutionally encouraged ivory-tower mentality. This mentality also prompts us to conceive of Yale as a place for capital-D Discourse, uncorrupted by how ideas play out in practice.
As an organizer for Students Unite Now, I’ve run up against this problem more than once. When challenged to translate belief into action, it’s easy for Yalies to retreat into a castle of ideas. We justify noninvolvement as philosophically realistic (“what can one person do?”), we cite political theorists out of context and we make pseudo-ethical arguments about what causes we have a “right” to support.
Almost invariably, I’ve found, such arguments are leveled by people with little to no grassroots experience. They rely on the assumption that political action can be theorized wholly in the abstract. That you can fully understand a protest without ever having participated in one.
I call this “centrism,” but perhaps a more appropriate term would be “neutrality.” Ideas untethered from action have a nasty habit of drifting into complacency — wherever you fall on the political spectrum. We must not mistake idea-castles for critical thinking. Responsible, nuanced political thought cannot be separated from urgent, committed political activity.
What I am calling for is a cultural shift. It requires an individual willingness to question our assumptions and be honest about our motives. And it cannot take place in a vacuum; it requires that we develop strategies at every step of the way to put our ideas into practice.
No one said it was going to be easy.
Henry Robinson is a sophomore in Silliman College. He is a committee member of Students Unite Now at Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .