Passive activism

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

I look around me and I see a campus haunted by apathy. I see 2100 young men and women of promise, with sturdy heads on their shoulders and reserves of determination waiting to be unleashed … later.

There is a small group of people on campus involved in activist organizations, such as Students for Social Justice, the Thursday Night Group and the Black Student Union (BSU), who are frustrated with this apathy. They truly want to get things done and put some feet on the ground toward their goals.

However, the members of these groups and other potential activists on campus are held back by two forces: the will of the apathetic who do whatever suits their shallow self-interest and the persuasion of postmodern thought, which holds that all ideas are relative and should be honored without scrutiny. These two impediments cripple the young activists’ will to make change.

While postmodern relativism and apathy are not novel to our generation, they do appear to be our zeitgeist. One could almost construe that activism has been reduced to this: refusing to take a stance for fear of ostracizing others and of being wrong, and appeasing the masses with convenient protests that do not tax the mind, the soul or the heart. We give everyone a pat on the back for having good intentions, regardless of whether or not they follow through. Look at the recent BSU sit-in. It suggested that we commemorate past activists by holding a sit-in in which every individual considers his or her own issue, silently, without trying create dialogue with anyone else. We’re supposed to feel proud of ourselves for such minimal acts.

The postmodernism that dominates this campus poses a problem to activism because it threatems conviction. It may possess the virtue of open-mindedness, but postmodernism dissuades its adherents from taking a clear, resolute stance on an issue. According to the most prevalent strand of postmodernism, relativism, every idea is as valuable as any other, which produces stalemate. Scrutiny is banished and feeble ideas hold as firmly as righteous ones. But the problems that plague our world – gender inequality, poor access to health care, extreme poverty and others – cannot be whisked away by a postmodern wand wielded by a vacillating relativist. Universal tolerance and inclusiveness are meaningless white noise, the true marks of a mindset fundamentally lacking conviction, opting instead to hide behind moral and intellectual relativism. While open-mindedness is necessary to develop new ideas, it can preclude activism when that open-mindedness is not checked by reason and conviction.

Because the activists on campus are a minority, they must placate the apathetic to get anything done. Compromises are made that weaken the activist cause. We want to make it easy for students to be activists. We say, “Go to this dinner and you’re being an activist. Think about an issue and you’re an activist.” We do what is convenient. It is a private, marginal, secondary attempt at activism, but it is not enough. We raise funds. We spread awareness. We hold Claiming Williams Day. We throw our minds and money at problems but rarely invest ourselves as a collective community. We do nothing to change people’s attitudes, either here or elsewhere, to affect greater change. We have not even succeeded in convincing most of our student body that marginalized segments of society deserve a day to discuss their unique issues. Ultimately, many of us want to make change painless; but being an activist should be just as onerous as bearing a child and just as beautiful when the cause comes to fruition.

I’ve been presented with the idea that, though these convenient forms of activism are small, they contribute to worthy causes all the same. I am inclined to believe that every little bit helps – but it is possible that because Williams is capable of doing so much more, the activism we have on campus now is so imperfectly and minimally good that it is in fact bad. All these small activist efforts could damage our overall projects by diffusing our activist spirit. We satisfy our obligations and aspirations towards activism bit by bit. We console ourselves and assuage our guilt by going to Greylock for a fundraising dinner or by listening to a lecture. We feel we’ve done our civic duty and return to our apathetic existence. Our activism, when there is any, is a drizzle, not the torrent it should be – the forceful, a hot summer rain we need.

Past activists used conviction and collectivism to effect real change and bring people together. Let us honor their memory. They initiated activism that did not cater to the apathetic masses, that did not diffuse energy with well-intentioned, regular acts of lukewarm recognition of issues, that did not make itself scarce. We could learn a lesson or two from these brave men and women of former days.

Mariah Clegg ’12 is from Weare, N.H. She lives in Mark Hopkins.

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  1. Pingback: Passive Apathy? : EphBlog

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