A few weeks ago, I was discussing a column in the News with some friends. A sophomore overheard us and began to complain about how terrible the author was. Curious, I asked her whether she had met, spoken or interacted with the author. She replied that she hadn’t, but many people she knew in her service group disliked him, and she trusted their judgment.
As I’ve written before, Yalies pick teams and stick with them. That is, we define our identities by the clubs and activities that we participate in. And the most virtuous teams we can be a part of are the student activist groups across campus. Over the past four years, Yale’s been seeing a wave of protests that have spanned everything from fossil fuel divestment to gender inclusion in fraternities to the student income contribution. At the forefront of these protests have been activist groups such as Fossil Free Yale, Engender and Students Unite Now — all of which are well-intentioned institutions that serve as perfectly valid answers to the question, “What do you do around campus?” But if members of these groups are as hesitant to make their own judgments as this sophomore was, we’re in trouble. Since activism is an identity at Yale, I worry that single-issue groups mean well but often act in ways that are counterproductive to their own ends because of this myopia.
To see what I mean, consider Trump’s recent ban of transgender troops in the military. As Eli Massey and Yasmin Nair pointed out in Current Affairs last week, it’s obviously unfair to deny transgender people the right to serve on the basis of their gender identity, but LGBTQ+ activist organizations like the Human Rights Campaign often waste their limited political capital framing this issue in terms of “‘inclusion’ versus ‘discrimination’” instead of grappling with bigger issues first. The military still faces massive issues with racism, sexism and mental health concerns. Why, Massey and Nair argue, would anyone fight for the “equal right to be mistreated and subjugated”? Why not first push the military to address the structural injustices that make trans soldiers, who are already vulnerable, “even more susceptible to social, cultural, and mental crises”?
It seems to me that the Human Rights Campaign missed the forest for the trees here, and I think that’s in large part because it’s a single-issue group. It’s only natural for an LGBTQ+ advocacy group to react instinctively to the immediate injustice of a transgender troop ban instead of considering whether transgender individuals should actually want to be in the military today. Similarly, single-issue activism at Yale runs the risk of fighting the wrong battles.
For example, activists at Yale have pointed out that fraternities create toxic climates for women and are trying to reform them by getting them to admit women. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been met with resistance, and I’d be surprised if Yale frat boys suddenly became more enlightened. If fraternities are so bad, wouldn’t it make more sense to advocate banning them outright rather than spending a decade and a half trying to reform them from the inside?
I’m genuinely not sure what the answer to this question is, but I’m not sure anyone else does either. And if students base our identities around our activism, I fear that we’re prone to take criticism of our tactics as an indictment of our character. Indeed, if the recent vicious rhetoric between student activists and Chief Investment Officer David Swensen over divestment concerns was any indication, we already do.
Political scientist Robert Putnam once wrote about two types of social groups: bonding groups, which “sustain particularized (in-group)” characteristics, and bridging groups, which connect heterogeneous groups of people. Both are important, but it seems that social activism at Yale often fosters more bonding between the like-minded than bridging between activists and those who disagree with them. The public spat between the News, Swensen and the activists was regrettable and unlikely to have convinced anyone of very much — and it likely got as personal as it did because of how much identity and activism have become intertwined.
This isn’t to say that we should separate the personal from the political. It’s hard for anyone to criticize students who feel as though there is some injustice in the world for trying to organize and address it. Some of the most meaningful debates we can have involve deeply personal issues. But when activism as an identity hampers activism as a task, there’s a problem. However virtuous our intentions may be, virtue in a vacuum has no value at all.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.