When oppression is the punchline: A response to The Stanford Review

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 3, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Okay, I’ll bite.

On March 31, The Stanford Review published an article that mocked demands made by Who’s Teaching Us (WTU), a student coalition formed around issues of faculty diversity and support for marginalized students on campus. It was the cusp of April Fools’ Day, and the ambiguity of the timing lent itself to a number of conclusions. Was it a coincidence, a straight-up attempt to belittle WTU in response to the week of campaigning after WTU demands were released on the 27th? Was the article itself an April Fools’ joke, a poorly-executed display of ignorance that was intended to reflect actual feelings of ambivalence or perhaps even support towards WTU? Or maybe it was some combination of both, an honest attack on activists, activism and social justice shielded by ehe flimsy excuse of “April Fools, we didn’t really mean it!” just in case any repercussions come their way.

The actual attack on (an outdated, leaked working draft of) the Who’s Teaching Us demands already took place: Elliot Kaufman and Harry Elliott concluded, after calling the demands “the list of a child who used his first wish from a genie on ‘unlimited wishes,’” that “WTU cannot be taken seriously.” This sort of piece, a staple of The Review’s writings on activism, draws on a set of core tenets that shows up again and again.

One: Activists are fragile and easily hurt (“offended”). Two: Activists are quick to attack, restrict and punish language/actions/behaviors they deem offensive, i.e. microaggressions (“PC culture”). Three: Microaggressions cannot be defined, are not important or may not even exist. And four: Activists demand change that is unreasonable (which is true by definition, since people opposed to much of student activism are the ones who do the reasoning).

But, aside from the aggressive reference to Donald Trump’s repeated claims to “build a wall” at the US-Mexico border (using El Centro as a target of the “joke,” which, satire or not, is blatantly inappropriate), it’s the satire piece that’s more interesting. The list of fifteen demands, clearly meant to parody those made by WTU, is a bizarre hodgepodge of misunderstandings, ignorance and humor that borders, strangely, on being self-aware.

“4. We DEMAND that Stanford recognizes that half-lives matter…”

Review translation: It’s funny because it’s a reference to Black Lives Matter (BLM), and by suggesting that this iteration is ridiculous, we suggest that BLM is as well!  

“6. We DEMAND that swimming pools be abolished at Stanford, since their blueness shows implicit support for the Israeli flag…”

Review translation: It’s funny because a random aspect of a random thing is described as representative of a real global issue, which is what we think student activism does!

“8. We DEMAND that Stanford’s Applied Quantitative Reasoning requirement not be fulfilled by cis-linear algebra…”

Review translation: It’s funny because having “cis” in a name has nothing to do with the actual problems of cisnormativity and transphobia!

The funny thing is that I – and many other activists – often make this last type of joke. We make them occasionally to draw the boundaries of our activism, to recognize that yes, cisnormativity and transphobia are real problems but no, those problems have no causal relationship to the usage of “cis” in STEM contexts. Yet, when The Review and other conservative organizations make these jokes, it is almost always to suggest that our activism has no boundaries – that we are unable to recognize, for example, that ageism exists without wildly attacking the “ageism” of calling Old Union “old.”

Simply put, conservative organizations consistently create a straw man of activists as petty, privileged and helpless students who see problems where no problems exist. The activists that I know are no strangers to nuance, however surprising that may be to The Review – in fact, activists constantly seek to define and redefine the boundaries of our activism, to establish which issues are important and why, to understand the historical and social causality behind existing inequalities and how differing actions can lead to differing realizations of the outcomes we want to see.

Why attack this straw man so heavily? One commenter on The Stanford Review’s Facebook post on this satire piece remarked, “the regressive left is in charge of US college campuses;” another wrote, “the radical left has now taken over all of the colleges.”

And that’s really it. Recent pushes towards racial justice, consent culture, diversity, decolonization and divestment on college campuses, especially over the last few years, have put issues of social justice into the spotlight. For people who benefited enough from the old status quo to not care about it, this constitutes an alarming threat; as administrators have begun taking heed, people privileged by the existing state of affairs find themselves on increasingly shaky ground.

This is not a ringing endorsement of every action radical activists or activism have taken on campus – rather, it’s a call to have the hard conversations about identity politics, punitive justice, policy and implementation, intentions and impacts that need to happen in response to existing injustices. The society we live in perpetuates inequity and harm through myths that oppression does not exist. The Stanford Review must decide whether or wants to be part of that problem or help solve it.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

Login or create an account