I admire political activism. It’s heroic to dedicate and risk personal resources in support of an external cause. But it is precisely because of this heroism that I question the prevalent concern that Williams students are not politically active enough.
I am not very politically active. But I would not consider this to be because of apathy or ignorance, or of really any of the other reasons that people usually ascribe to a lack of political activism. Indeed, I vote, I read the newspaper and I have opinions on political and social issues. But I do so with some tentativeness, and I do not invest myself fully in any cause or set of causes. I am not politically active in this way because there are too many things I am just not sure about, or rather that I want to learn more about, before I commit to a viewpoint to the degree that political activism seems to require.
If I am to be politically active, I don’t want to participate only cursorily, signing petitions after only glancing at them or espousing political opinions just because my parents or friends hold them. I want to be able to throw myself into the activism completely, with full confidence that can be observed in some of the more unsavory kind of radicals, except with my eyes open instead of closed and my mind buzzing with well-reasoned argument and relevant information.
At this point, there are very few issues in which I feel comfortable enough to do this – not because I’m unsure of the pragmatic details and value judgments immediately surrounding issues, or even what I think about them, though this is sometimes the case – but because of larger doubts about how politics work and should work, the value of opinions and how I can most effectively help the world to turn out the way I want it to turn out. In class, I often find myself making arguments that I don’t agree with, and it becomes excruciatingly clear how large of a role rhetoric plays in what we believe.
I don’t want my views and especially the actions that I have chosen to perform to both represent what I believe and make myself a symbol for a cause to be colored by rhetoric in any way. I admire those activists who are confident enough in the reasoning of their beliefs or are willing to make that leap of faith and put themselves behind them. But I don’t think that doing so should be something that a college student should be expected to do (as many stereotypes imply). In fact, I think it should be something surprising for college students to do, especially in a liberal arts setting.
As I see it, a liberal arts education is all about questioning and revising beliefs that you think you have, evaluating them against facts and opposing viewpoints and discovering their sources and implications. It’s about acquiring a deeper understanding of how the world works in a whole variety of ways. Being tied up with a set of opinions so strong that you are willing to act on them is not necessarily the best manner in which to accomplish this. It might be better to try to keep an open mind and absorb as much as possible, even if during the process little activism occurs and few beliefs are made concrete. Even if it takes longer to get started, this time allows us to figure out how we would be best able to really make a difference.
This also makes the activism that does occur in a place like Williams even more impressive – if everyone is supporting causes left and right, it can become meaningless and seem arbitrary and superficial. The juxtaposition of the few activists with the many who are less involved, and are, like me, still figuring some fundamental things out, is striking: It highlights the power of the activists’ dedication and choices. I applaud them. But I can’t be them, at least not yet, and I don’t think expectations should make me feel guilty for this.
Amy Levine ’14 is from Bethesda, Md. She lives in Williams Hall.