We must temper our activism

Since I arrived at Williams a little over a year ago, the community has expressed near constant concern over the lack of activism on campus. Williams students are apparently less active than other college students. We are apathetic, spending too much time on our own affairs and not enough time on the problems of the world. To most, this is a problem that needs to be fixed. To me, it is a sign of the maturity of Williams students.

In a recent opinion piece, Ainsley O’Connell ’06 related a story of a friend who joined other protestors in refusing to leave the office of Senator Rick Santorum. This protest is a perfect example of what is wrong with modern college activism. It did nothing to encourage debate on the issue or to illustrate a series of coherent points that might have helped Senator Santorum come to a better decision. It was simply a bunch of college students who knew they were right about an issue refusing to leave a Senator’s office until he admitted it.

That is a direct reflection of the motivation behind activism. Activists believe they know how to solve all of the world’s problems. There is no middle ground for them, their positions are simply right. And if the world will not listen to them, it must be made to listen.

This attitude creates more problems than just the extreme and violent protest tactics that have become all too common. When activists believe that they are completely right, they often assume that their opponents must have hidden motives behind the positions they take. To them, those who support taking action against Saddam Hussein do so not because they believe him to be a menace to his own people and the rest of the world. They do so because they want to take control of Iraqi oil and strengthen the American imperialist hegemony over the world.

Unfortunately, the complete and utter lack of diversity at colleges and universities across America, including Williams, serves only to support such an attitude. When I use the term diversity here, I do not mean the superficial diversity that college administrations seem solely concerned with. I mean a diversity of thought and opinions among the faculty, rather than a uniformity that suggests to students that there is only one acceptable position, and that the contrary positions should not even be taught. This only adds to the culture of campus activism that seeks to destroy, rather than support, debate.

As college students, we need to realize that we have a horrible ignorance about the world at large. We have never really lived out in the real world and so the majority of our knowledge of it comes not from firsthand experience but rather from a classroom or a textbook. In this environment, the world becomes a far less complicated place. That is the purpose of education, to give us a simplified view of the world from which we can develop a basic understanding of it. Then, once we get out into the real world we will be able to improve our theories with our own experience as to how they work in practice.

This process fails, however, if we ever allow arrogance to overtake humility as the guiding tenor of our lives. Once we assume that we have all the answers, we will be unwilling to temper our theoretical beliefs with pragmatic constraints, which will make those believes untenable out in the real world. Our activism will be little more than sound and fury and violence, and we will have failed in the fundamental cause that drove us to be activists: making the world a better place.

In all of this, I do not mean to suggest that activism is useless and should be completely abandoned. I merely wish to point out that our activism will only be useful if it is tempered with a strong degree of humility and a firm respect for our own fallibility. Rather than refusing to leave a Senator’s office until he admits that we are right, we should send him a well-reasoned letter explaining our beliefs. Above all, we should constantly challenge our own opinions and beliefs. We must be our own fiercest critics, constantly reminding ourselves that we could very well be wrong and the other guy could very well be right.

By and large, I believe that the student body here at Williams is very good at doing this. We are generally far more concerned with debate and learning than radical displays of how right we are. This is a great attitude, and rather than blindly advocating activism for activism’s sake we should try to further encourage it; by doing that we will produce a student body that is truly active in engaging and understanding the issues of the day.