Last spring, my high school shut down for three days in response to student protests. These protests arose after many members of the community felt that the administration failed to appropriately deal with instances of racism. Many, but not all, of the 750 students in my school filled the student center during the protests. However, some students were not in attendance. This did not settle well with many of those who attended.
Many of the student protesters’ reactions were vicious; most of them equated absence with bigotry. One schoolwide email described those not in attendance as “racist [pieces] of trash.” An apology later followed. A large number of today’s activists have an us-versus-them mentality that runs contrary to many goals that these activists espouse, including inclusivity and integration. This mindset leaves little room for people who are unready or unfit to take positions on these important issues. This is not to say that I am defending everyone who was not present. I just want to point out a problem with student activism.
One recent meme on the Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens Facebook group portrayed Yale activists as the Hulk, constantly angry and out of control. The meme was poking fun at liberal attitudes. It was satirical. However, it also highlighted a critical point: People often act on feelings rather than on logic. They have trouble distinguishing friend from foe.
On Sept. 5, President Trump moved to end the DACA program, which has allowed 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. Yale students immediately organized a rally. I had no idea what DACA was, yet I joined the march from Cross Campus to the First and Summerfield Methodist Church anyway.
After the rally, I reflected on what I had done by being there: nothing. I do not mean to say that the rally was pointless. On the contrary, I found the student testimonials, as well as the speeches from local activists, to be powerful examples of defiance and courage. However, I realized that I was not at the rally because of outrage over the DACA announcement itself. I was there because other students had decided to go, and I did not want to seem complicit in the policy’s change by not attending. I became a meaningless, thoughtless member of a school of liberal fish, following the crowd. How useful is it to blindly go along with the school? Is that real activism, or was I simply a prop for someone else’s agenda?
Modern activism moves fast. The Women’s Center and MEChA de Yale put together that DACA rally in a matter of hours, but not all students follow current events very closely. We need to work toward a mode of activism that is grounded in facts; our decision to join a movement should be the result of careful thought and consideration. We owe it to ourselves and to our society to approach controversies like the rescinding of DACA with the same intellectual rigor that it takes to write a research paper. Yale teaches us to think critically, so why don’t we think for ourselves when it comes to expressing political views? I do not want to be a flash-mob liberal, nor should anyone at Yale want to.
Issues at protests are extremely personal to a lot of people because the subjects hit close to home for them. Changes to immigration policy can profoundly alter people’s lives: People are at risk of deportation. Family members can be separated from one another. Yet for others who, like myself, have the privilege of being both white and a citizen, DACA’s end has little effect on my daily life. This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t care about its end. But my relationship with protests for immigrant rights can only grow as I become more informed. This process takes time. We should understand that we come from different backgrounds. Some of us can closely empathize with certain social issues while others can only hope to be well-read sympathizers. However, we can find common ground. Our activism will benefit from self-reflexivity and education about social movements. We shouldn’t succumb to groupthink.
In the coming school-year, Yale will undoubtedly see further opportunities for activism, but, before you clip on your Bernie pin and prepare to occupy Wall Street, meditate on what it means to be present both physically and mentally. Aspiring to become the Hulk helps no one.
Caleb Rhodes is a first year in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .