Stressing clarity in activism

Discussions about the role and presence of activism at the College have found a new focus following the “mic check” attempted by a handful of audience members at Larry Summers’ lecture on Thursday. This action was not only disruptive but also disrespectful, and it diminished the opportunity for meaningful discourse at the College. Moreover, the protest, which lacked a clear objective, was not conducive to furthering dialogue on any particular issue. This is not necessarily because the issues raised were not compelling, but because the form the protest took detracted from the protesters’ intended message. As a result, Thursday’s mic check has ignited frustration about the protesters’ methods and motives rather than sparking productive debate.

While activism can certainly be a valuable tool for change, its objectives should be clear and productive. Most importantly, these objectives should be carefully thought out so that they are communicable to the intended audience. Achieving this clarity requires participants and organizers to become deeply engaged in and informed on the issues that relate to their cause. This is not to say that only experts should express opinions – it is this attitude that facilitates political paralysis and apathy – but if a protest is worthwhile, it should be motivated by both passion and clear rationale. If grounds for action cannot be adequately communicated, perhaps a protest is not warranted, and alternative means of engagement might prove more worthwhile.

Our reluctance to support this particular brand of activism is grounded in several specific shortcomings of Thursday’s protest. First, the protesters involved in the mic check began formally planning the event only two days before Summers’ lecture. As a result, we think that the methods and motives of the protest were not as carefully considered as they would have been if more time had been allotted for preparation. Additionally, participants were recruited via an e-mail sent out to known campus “activists,” students who have engaged in protests on a number of issues in the past. We find it likely, then, that many of those involved in the Summers protest were not particularly knowledgeable about Summers’ work in economics or his relationship to the financial sector; for many, their interest is in activism itself. This mindset, which has become increasingly common amongst activist groups on campus, can give the impression that group action is lacking a sufficient understanding of the complex issues being targeted in any one protest.

It is therefore unsurprising that Thursday’s protest struggled with clarity. The flyers distributed before and after the lecture indicated that protesters were opposed to Summers’ actions and political views, but recent statements from organizers indicate that Summers was a figurehead meant to represent a broader culture of wealth-motivated success. Even if this notion were adequately communicated to the community, we still question its logic. Summers, a career academic and civil servant, appeared to be only tangentially related to the protesters’ apparent aims. While some of his decisions and actions may be controversial, it seems that protesters targeted Summers more as a symbol of finance than as a culprit in his own right. In choosing when to take a stand, activists should be more than opportunists. Summers was a weak focal point for the topic that the protesters wanted to highlight, a topic that may well have been worth discussing.

We recognize that Thursday’s protesters were following a precedent set by students on other campuses, many of whom have recently protested recruiting sessions for investment banks. However, protesting a recruiting event – where institutions rather than individuals are the target – is wholly distinct from protesting a speaker.

Those involved in the protest should have pursued alternative means of starting a discussion on this potentially important topic, such as organizing an open movie screening prior to the lecture to provide background information about Summers and the financial issues in question. While a movie screening may not grab attention in the same way as a protest, it has more potential to encourage people to listen to the group’s message – which is, after all, what the protesters wanted.

Another way of approaching the same issue more respectfully – and probably more successfully – would have been to stage the protest outside the auditorium rather than disrupting the event from within. This approach – which would have been more subdued and tactful than a mic check – could have interested even those who are firm in their support for Summers and who may have dismissed Thursday’s protest as unprofessional.

This past year, the College has been home to a variety of activist activities: Students have attended off-campus rallies, such as November’s Tar Sands protest, and have created space for activism on campus with the Slutwalk and the campus-wide events in the wake of the hate crime. The Record has been supportive of many of these endeavors, in part because of the historical tendency toward apathy on our campus. That being said, activism for activism’s sake is not valuable. It is productive, and indeed admirable, only in instances when those protesting have a clear understanding of both the issues  at stake and their own goals. The events of this fall succeeded because the methods and messages of the events were tailored to match objectives that were developed with thought and care. We are eager to see how activism on campus will evolve and to witness more examples of activism that are both impassioned and well-reasoned.