Political protest and dissent have become pervasive sentiments on campus lately. Between the email blasts that flood our inboxes, the ongoing demonstrations and the subsequent debates about whether those protests are serving their purpose, activism on campus feels unavoidable. But the conversations so far (particularly regarding the Stanford 68) have felt very one-sided, allocating blame for political tensions to protesters. But if we take a step back, perhaps a more valid concern is that our criticisms of the protests have actually fueled those political divides.
I want to be clear: This isn’t an article on behalf of the protesters, but I’m not speaking against them either. After interviewing people who support the Silicon Shutdown movement and others who doubt that their tactics are effective, my question has become broader than the protests themselves. Beyond criticizing or endorsing the demonstrations, we have to ask ourselves, how is it possible that we have become so vehemently divided if the majority of students agree that the cause itself (42 million black people being systematically discriminated against by the judicial system) is valid?
There is an easy explanation. It’s been used time and time again by authors in The Stanford Daily because it appeals to the majority of students who are tired of being plagued by “political correctness.” We’ve heard that the protesters on the San Mateo-Hayward bridge are to blame for the “growing wariness” of political activism on campus. But labeling these demonstrations “reckless” disruptions that are “at best […] only irritating” is overly simplistic. These caricatured presentations of this complex conversation only serve to divide the campus further in half.
We can do better, Stanford.
Even if you don’t agree with the activists’ tactics, adamantly dismissing any protest and allocating blame only widens the gap further. There is a temptation when groups are divided to identify with the side you more easily relate to — in this case the people who were inconvenienced by the protests. But blindly following that temptation makes it even harder to hear what people on the other side are saying and makes productive discussions impossible. So I want to clear the air.
No one group or demonstration is responsible for the wariness of political activism on campus, so doling out blame is counterproductive. Consider your own role for a moment. At the heart of the current divide is a selective awareness of what’s actually going on around us. We write articles demanding that activists “make a legitimate effort to initiate nuanced dialogue instead of name-calling” without first recognizing the fact that these conversations and peaceful demonstrations are already happening. In the week leading up to the now infamous “Reclaim MLK” protest, for instance, there were several other notable demonstrations — Stanford’s Asian Pacific Islander community demonstrated in the Main Quad in solidarity with Ferguson, other students staged a die-in at the Stanford Medical School in recognition of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and still another group knelt collectively at Century Theaters in Redwood City where Selma was showing, as part of “Selma Sound Off.” At each of these demonstrations, a list of demands was made, and the causes were spoken for peacefully and at length. And yet, the demonstrations that garner the most attention, pervade student conversations and finally claim on-campus media attention are the ones people can’t avoid. So it makes sense that those trying to be heard should uphold these protests as the most effective way of getting their point across.
I’m not saying that the concerns of students missing midterms or a three-year-old incurring brain damage as a possible result of protests are justified consequences. They aren’t — no individual’s well-being takes precedence over that of any other. That’s the whole reason people are standing up in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle of this entire conversation is that people tend to side with people like themselves and tune out the rest. And as both sides get more frustrated, hearing becomes even more selective, leaving those fighting for their causes feeling like the only way to be heard is through escalation.
Of course, a very valid concern is that these protests are alienating the very people they’re trying to win over. But to those calling on “the issue of civility” and “the common decency we extend to our fellow human beings because they are human” as reasons that protesters are currently at fault, I would ask: What has your role been so far? Have you taken time to consider or even join the conversations taking place outside of these escalated spaces? When yet another peaceful protest or dining hall demonstration is taking place around you, do you stop to listen to what they’re saying, or have you already tuned them out?
The answer here is not fewer protests or more conversations. And the question isn’t to what extent the Silicon Shut-Down protesters are to blame for on-campus political fatigue. In the context of this escalation, I would urge you to take a step back and consider what you can do individually to facilitate collective awareness. Dialogue is a two-way street. If we really want to demand more effective communication, both sides have the power to bridge the gap and initiate a more productive conversation.
Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.