In the wake of the tragic Las Vegas shooting, our country went on autopilot. Talk show hosts paid their routine respects, columnists did their denunciatory shticks and activists voiced their predictable laments. These reactions were justified — we were reeling. But now, a bit more than three weeks after the shooting, we’ve got dead air and no tangible changes.
More broadly, there is a growing movement that equates emotional outrage with effective activism. However, historically, most effective social movements have used outrage as a prerequisite for change, not as the conduit for change itself.
To be clear, we need to be angry. But we can’t confuse mutual commiseration with action. The difficulty of enacting change lies in translating that anger into influence. We seem to have forgotten this. Satisfaction cannot lie in sporadically injecting our emotion into the national narrative — leave it to Colbert and Kimmel to do that.
If we wish to be effective political activists, we must be willing to invest our time in the work that isn’t as sexy as holding up a handmade sign and chanting.
Here in the Elm City, there is a very different conception of what it means to be an effective activist. For Yalies, victory lies in changing the name Calhoun to Grace Hopper and “freshman” to “first year.” We celebrate marches of resilience to create a more inclusive Yale and champion apologies from the Christakises.
Now, I am not arguing about the legitimacy of these events. I wish to point out that the scale of victory at Yale is one that does real disservice to any attempts at broader national advocacy.
Undergraduate activism at Yale is strengthened by virtue of the fact that Yale College is the heart of the University. With a big enough and strong enough coalition, we can achieve change.
For example, the reinvigorated efforts to change Calhoun College’s name after the administration originally resisted led to University President Peter Salovey recanting and affirming that “the name of Calhoun College must change.” For the hundreds of Yale students who emoted, protested and advocated for the change, this change meant a job well done.
But we cannot forget that the Yale administration is concerned with our opinions and our feelings. After the 2015 March of Resilience, President Salovey reflected that in terms of inclusivity he was “inspired to create that kind of Yale.” Again, a job well done.
These victories via swaying administrative opinion are certainly fantastic accomplishments. They make us feel empowered and important. If the University values how we feel, then effective advocacy boils down to dogged and unyielding protests and marches.
Unfortunately, this empowerment comes at a very steep price in relation to broader national advocacy. College activism is essentially an incentive for group catharsis. But we must be sure not to apply the same activist approaches that win us victories with the top brass of Yale when it comes to national agendas.
Our emotions are meaningless compared with our political representation when changing calamitous legislation. Hence, effective activism — on a national scale — is far more difficult than our activism here in New Haven. Indeed, done right, activism is a coordinated effort to put people who can enact change in positions of power. Once this has been done, activism morphs into advocacy and levies political clout to resist ruinous regimes.
History largely agrees. Activism that is built on emotion but not motivated by it is the very kind of activism that won the civil rights movement its momentous legislative victories. And thanks to this kind of activism, marriage equality is now cemented as a constitutionally protected right.
Unfortunately, this activism hasn’t fully reached Yale’s campus.
Take Yale’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals march earlier this year. Chanting in protest and furiously throwing signs in the air, hundreds of students marched from Cross Campus to First and Summerfield Methodist Church. It was a crescendo of emotions and righteous anger, and it culminated with a few undocumented immigrants speaking to the massive crowd.
Ultimately, we got together and staged our own injection of emotion into our localized narrative. This type of advocacy has usually worked for us in the past. But the national political sphere is far less — if at all — receptive to our emotions than our university is. So, when we equate our emotions with activism on larger issues like immigration reform, we sacrifice our ability to enact real change.
So by all means, keep protesting, but I hope we don’t confuse university-specific advocacy, where emotions have currency, with national advocacy, where our anger simply isn’t weighted as much as our political influence.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .