Activism and activist groups have an important role to play at universities: They push the envelope on important and contentious issues, from sexual assault to racial equality, when institutions and cultures are slow to change. By the very nature of challenging the status quo, activism is bound to create critics, skeptics and reactionaries. However, college activism faces a fundamental and self-corrupting challenge when it refuses to create inviting forums for dialogue and dissent. This is the problem that Stanford activism faces today and, ultimately, what prevents mass, campus-wide participation in movements for social change.
Often, a lack of civility in dialogue and a culture of rejecting new ideas alienate individuals from engaging in political conversations that build consensus and consciousness. The Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine movement, which considered Israel an illegitimate state, organized an Israel divestiture movement last year that drew strong opinions on both sides. The movement was polarizing, with some students afraid to voice their opinions for fear of backlash. The administration even sent a campus-wide email calling for openness in dialogue and conversation. The most vocal voices on campus tended to be the most extreme on both sides of the debate, and many students with moderate views did not express them in order to avoid explosive rhetoric and responses. This example demonstrates that, without room for compromise, dialogue among activist groups becomes hyper-partisan and alienates large portions of campus from engaging in important social issues.
In order to create an open dialogue with those who do not necessarily understand the experiences of the oppressed, activists should create an environment where individuals can engage in conversation without fear of being cast as ignorant, backwards or evil. Among some activists, dialogue is openly discouraged. Last year, when the administration requested open and civil dialogue, some activists became angry and offended even publicly emailing lists claiming “I’d rather commit to violent resistance before participating in dialogue.” When not completely shunned, dialogue is often treated by activists as a one-way street where previously ignorant individuals are informed about social issues. Meetings emphasize “teaching” rather than a conversation between equal peers. Entering these events and engaging in conversation can be intimidating and demeaning when activists treat dialogue in such ways, often preventing larger and more diverse attendance.
Some individuals believe that activism does not need civility because its purpose is not to convince or create dialogue, but rather to advocate for something already deemed to be true. There is no doubt that racism, sexism, transmisogny and other forms of oppression can be judged to be undesirable without debate; however, activism does not end at this. Rather, activism proposes a list of demands for how to change the system and combat oppression. As a result, if activism is not open to listening to other perspectives in which oppression manifests itself and about what productive solutions will be, then it risks advocating for solutions that are ineffectual and weak. The result of such an activism scheme is a movement based on principles that are sound (i.e., racism and sexism are bad) and that claim moral ground; however, such moral authority is undermined by the fact that alternate opinions regarding when these principles are violated and the solutions to such transgressions are not respected.
Even more, a lack of civility, before a certain degree of consensus is created, can transform the image of an activist movement from one of social justice to one of reckless abandon. Last year, the “Stanford 68” aimed to bring attention to the oppression of African Americans in the police system by shutting down the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. However, little work was done before this protest to create an inclusive conversation about race on campus, to enlist and recruit individuals outside the usual activist circles and to properly convince the larger public of the validity of the movement. The result was that the “Stanford 68” was widely attacked as a group of irresponsible, immature kids who did not care for the lives of the everyday working person.
Social movements must often enlist the participation or, at least, approval of the larger majority to be successful. The Civil Rights Movement was not successful because a group of activists decided racism was bad and chaotically stopped traffic on random highways. Rather, the movement demanded a specific goal — desegregation — and, by considering the point of view of the “silent majority,” strategically developed rhetoric of compassion and nonviolent protest that won the hearts and minds of Americans and allowed for rights to be gained. On the other hand, the counter-culture movement of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, while important in generating cultural confidence in marginalized communities, made little effort to open dialogue to wider society, resulting in a conservative resurgence. The unfortunate truth is that change, regardless of how justifiable it is, does not happen overnight. Activism requires mainstream acceptance to create meaningful reform and, in order for that to happen, activists must create an environment open to dialogue, different points of view and compromise.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.