Limitations of identity activism

March 10, 2015, 9:46 p.m.

Activist is a dirty word around here.

Stanford activists are criticized for being too exclusive. Their rhetoric is derided as unsubtle, their actions myopic and their characters hyperemotional. But I have never heard anyone accuse an activist of lacking virtue. The sad truth is that history has been a bad friend to solitary virtue.

Twenty years ago, the political scientist Robert Putnam famously argued that American communities were degenerating, and that the health of our democracy was not far behind. Putnam lamented the steady disappearance of America’s once-robust “social capital,” already three decades in decline. “Social capital is closely related to what some have called ‘civic virtue,’” Putnam wrote. “The difference is that ‘social capital’ calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.”

What activism at Stanford really boils down to is strong civic virtue — pockets of it — and a shortage of social capital. Our selective experiences might belie this reality. Without a doubt, Stanford (even without its episodic activism) would perform well above average in levels of trust and participation, which compose Putnam’s notion of social capital. By such strict measures, our campus might have outperformed America at its peak.

But maybe our social capital can be better harnessed, and to greater ends. It’s possible that Stanford’s social fabric is feebler than we care to admit. Take Putnam’s distinction between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital. Whereas “bonding” capital inwardly reinforces shared identities through exclusion (e.g. church groups, country clubs, Boy Scouts), “bridging” capital is outwardly oriented, uniting diverse social cleavages (e.g. youth service groups). Because they have distinct advantages, many groups in the real world span both.

At Stanford, there’s an imbalance of the two. We are more eager to form social organizations whose primary function is to bond (e.g. ethno-cultural organizations), rather than to bridge (e.g. FLIP). Since the urge to “bolster our narrower selves” (Putnam’s words) appears to be rooted in more than our human impulses, it would be regressive to trivialize the emotional and psychological benefits of identity-based groups.

But these tendencies might incur some collateral costs. Bonding behaviors can (in their worst form) antagonize out-groups or simply spurn further opportunities for unifying networks. At a certain point then, the cost of segmenting ourselves into increasingly restrictive identities (e.g., black feminism) may outweigh the substantive benefits of these groups. These are difficult calculations.

Over the weekend, a bipartisan coalition converged on Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma, reminding us of the amazing productivity — and fallibility — of social ties toward civil rights. One of the movement’s last major interracial efforts, Freedom Summer, was bolstered by the support of white baby-boomer activists. But by the mid-1960s, the movement’s broad coalitions had begun to crack — and in lockstep, its fortunes reversed.

Activists today may contend that the social cleavages they face today are harder to bridge. They might further allege that the dominant classes were never as apathetic or complacent as they are now. But the latter part of the civil rights movement proved similar divisions existed back then. It took the right kind of social engineering to enact change.

Challenges lie ahead for today’s activists, who still balk at the possibility of initiating unexpected alliances. The sectionalistic few who prefer to lob slogans like “check your privilege” instead of making sincere attempts to ally with their opponents could benefit from a nugget of Putnam’s wisdom: “A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.” In striving towards a truly ebullient civic society, we must frankly accept (as have our wisest leaders) that virtue is powerless alone.


Contact Jamie Kim at jbkim1 ‘at’

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