Student activism: Productive or reckless?

Opinion by Ben Kaufman
Feb. 9, 2015, 9:32 p.m.

Sure, activism can be annoying, individual protesters can go too far and nobody likes feeling surrounded by warriors of political correctness. But to roll our eyes and argue that students should simply give up all efforts at activism is weak at best and cowardly at worst.

Of course, there’s really no argument to be made that the Silicon Shut-Down protesters weren’t acting recklessly when they closed down the San Mateo- Hayward Bridge. I certainly understand (or, okay, I conceptually understand as much as I can within the bounds of being white) how important it is to actively bring the issue of black lives mattering into the mainstream. We simply can’t allow those in places of privilege to think about racial inequity only when it’s convenient for them to do so; I’m a white man, and it’s easy for these issues to be distant and only conceptual to me and those in my demographic. But that doesn’t mean that demonstrators should be immune from the repercussions of their actions, and, if a court of law finds that the Stanford 68 are liable for a three-year-old girl’s permanent brain damage (as they’ve been accused of being), they should and will face appropriate consequences.

I also don’t dispute that the backlash against the bridge protesters has unfortunately lent substance to anti-protest sentiment on campus. It simply isn’t enough to say only that Stanford is politically apathetic, as it also houses a sizable faction (likely born out of the often wholly anti-governmental sentiment of the tech world and its leaders, such as Peter Thiel) that sees activism and politics in general as frivolous.

That group now (again, unfortunately) has a much larger claim to the hearts and minds of our campus than those looking to initiate social progress do. It’s just a fact. If YikYak is any barometer, Stanford students are becoming increasingly convinced not just that the cups at Coupa are small and that Netflix is a fun way to spend a weekend, but that protesters are nothing more than overzealous, quixotic and thoroughly irritating college kids who are protesting only for the sake of their own self-righteousness. Activists know nothing about the issues, this narrative insists and their goal is simply to earn back-pats through yelling and sign making.

That point in our cultural conversation, though, is where things get dangerous. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Stanford 68 took it too far, but the extent to which campus has been willing to dive into a knee-jerk reaction against any form of social dissent is deeply troubling. Just like how Princeton’s Tal Fortgang famously complained that his opinions were being written off at sight because of his European ancestry, I worry that any on-campus push for social progress may soon come to be dismissed as childish, bleeding-heart liberal nonsense. Look at what people are saying on social media and at lunch tables about SOOP, Fossil Free Stanford and anyone else with a political agenda. The discussion isn’t about whether these groups are right or wrong (and I don’t mean to comment on my stance on any of the issues they raise); it’s about whether they should just pack up and go home, and why it is that demonstrators feel such a need to bring their issues to campus.

Of course, the protesters arrested on the bridge shoulder a fair share of the blame for this growing wariness of critical thinking about society. Among all the activists at Stanford, the 68 were the ones who actually broke the law, and it was their action that truly amped up the flame under what was previously only a simmering sense that protesters should quit their complaining. But are we so apathetic and easily manipulated as a school (and, truly, as a collection of human beings) that we could let the misstep of 68 (even if a grave one) undermine the fact that 42 million black Americans remain systemically disadvantaged? Are we not intelligent enough to know we should divorce the tactical error of a small group from the broader need for reform, or the action of one socially interested group from the realm of political advocacy as a whole? Because right now we’re concluding not just that those speaking out messed up, but that this necessarily means the issues they care about should fall off with them. That’s a surprisingly simple-minded conclusion for such a cerebral school to make and a troubling one to begin with.

Stanford, speak out against stupidity and the presence of tunnel vision among the politically active. Speak out against demonstrations that put human lives at risk and events that distract us from issues that demand attention. Insist that club leaders look to be more collaborative and constructive, and demand that they make a legitimate effort to initiative nuanced dialogue instead of name-calling. But take a long look in the mirror before you go so far as to protest political activism — to, as the expression goes, “protest protesting”– as a whole.

It may be tiring to live on a politically active campus, but the alternative isn’t one where social problems don’t exist. It’s one where they’re swept under the rug. The presence of a lively political discourse at Stanford is inherently valuable, and, even if it can be tiresome and individual actors can sometimes go too far, we have a duty to defend it from those who directly advocate inaction. To do otherwise is to defend the status quo. And for some people, that isn’t an option.

Contact Ben Kaufman at bkauf614 ‘at’

Activism is apparently on the rise at Stanford. These days you can’t go anywhere without finding a group of young fresh-faced revolutionaries in political confederation, marching or holding panels or creating symbols of belief. Last quarter it was Michael Brown, two weeks ago it was the Right To Life memorial and now the issue of Israeli divestment is on everyone’s mind. In a week it will be vaccines (more on that later). And since democracy dictates that Activism cannot exist without its twin brother Dissent we also have anti-protests, outraged articles in the Daily and debates between the SPER and the SCP.

And this is a good thing! There are a lot of things people will say our country is built upon, but one principle whose universality can hopefully be agreed on is that we as Americans strive for this kind of openness. The free exchange of ideas in an open, hospitable environment so that the good ones can be selected for development and the bad ones weeded out is tantamount to our democratic government and vital to our capitalistic state.

But there’s a certain rawness to the political climate here at Stanford. A kind of ragged disrespect, sometimes but not always one-sided, that with the increased frequency of sociopolitical events growing in campus-wide interest has itself grown more visible, more apparent. Or maybe it’s just that since we’re all so darn smart the other side must be really stupid. Or maybe it’s our thin skins. Whatever’s causing it, the current political vogue seems to be to yell your point across as loudly as possible and get in a few insults while you’re at it.

For example, the recent string of protests. Now, it’s one thing to bend or break commonwealth law during protests. In terms of defying the establishment that’s like two for the price of one, and if so I’ll say more power to you and then grab a sign. It’s another to put us—students biking to class, workers on their morning commute, parents visiting campus with their children—in a position of insecurity, or in some cases even danger. Hence the yelling.

Did the Shutdown Silicon crowd picture any of the workplace consequences (clients delayed, meetings missed) for the forty or fifty cars who were an hour or more late to work that morning? Did the Slow Down for Michael Brown organizers, in the heated excitement of making their voice be heard, envision the potential for a massive bicycle accident in the infamous “Circle of Death” due to their human traffic cones? Will either side of the current Israeli divestment debate up the ante by forcibly blocking Stanford bus lanes, or will they stop and consider firstly the student running late to his class midterm or the bus driver who can’t brake in time?

Such disruption is counterproductive. At best it’s only irritating and is thus met with a sarcastic look and a few barbs. At worst, it sparks dull antipathy towards the protestors and their cause no matter what they’re championing, and that’s perhaps the most disappointing thing of all. Because black lives do matter. The root truths of the conflict in Israel do matter. The good or bad of vaccinations do matter.

There is a wider issue at hand here, though. It’s the issue of civility, of the common decency we extend to our fellow humans because they are humans and especially of the dignity we ought to take extra care in displaying towards those with whom we do not agree. The political arena has a tendency towards the strongest of opinions because of the importance anything as simple as an idea can have in such an environment, but strong opinions don’t demand harsh words or alarming actions―even on a smaller scale. In CoHo last Saturday evening I asked two proponents of opposing vaccination beliefs to curb their very loud R-rated adjectives. They did so only in volume; the discussion grew no less heated.

Everyone at Stanford has an opinion on just about everything, particularly if that brand of everything deals with a political anything. Which makes sense; ours is an intelligent and aware student body that focuses its energy (for the most part) on issues we know and see as important ones. That’s why we’re all here. Articulate political discussion is not only important, but necessary, for democracies like ours to continue to thrive in a world full of ideology. Articulate, respectful, civilized discussion that conveys one’s message without ostracizing its intended recipients. Surely that’s not too difficult?

Contact Wyatt Smitherman at wtsmith ‘at’

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