A (not so) radical shift

Activism: The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

Last Friday, in an action characteristic of my late junior-year effort to finally take advantage of the resources available to us, I attended a talk by the keynote speaker for the opening of Kellogg House, the new home-base for the Center for Environmental Studies (CES). William Moomaw ’59, as it happens, is a pretty fascinating guy. Before earning the Nobel Peace Prize for his authorship of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, he spent 26 years teaching at the College from 1964 to 1990. During his time here, Moomaw taught an environmental chemistry class, which eventually coalesced into the beginning of CES itself. His students were the classes of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it showed. While describing his environmental chemistry class curriculum, Moomaw recalled an incident in which municipal pesticide trucks rolled down Route 2, spraying a row of elm trees that once stood outside West College. The spray, unfortunately, ended up not only on the trees but also through the open windows of West and all over the students’ dorm rooms. “So, of course,” Dr. Moomaw chuckled, “the students poured out and lay down in front of the trucks.”

Of course? Lay down in front of the trucks? I sat up in my Paresky auditorium seat, struck by his tone. Moomaw noted that by popular demand, the next day’s environmental chemistry class focused on pesticide use. He went on, “This was just a few months before the bombing in Cambodia, and of course,” (there was that “of course” again!) “the students just erupted. We had to cancel classes, have teach-ins.” It’s true; a quick search of the College’s history reveals that in 1970, then-President Sawyer canceled the last two weeks of classes in response to student outrage at the American bombings in Cambodia.

Moomaw’s accounts of student activism on the College’s campus in the 1960s and ’70s present a startling contrast to the College of today. Here in the purple bubble nowadays, when I hear the word “activist,” I expect the pronouncement to be tinged with annoyance, derision or even anger. The past year has been a turbulent one, both on and off of campus, and some students at the College have responded to the injustice they see with activism – that is, vigorous campaigning to bring about social or political change. Yet the most striking aspect of this campus activism for me has not involved those working to enact change, but has instead been the reactions of those who place themselves outside of this effort. Most bizarrely, perhaps, the word “activist” has been co-opted to mean something decidedly negative. Why? Why have we grown so far from the Class of ’70, who laid down on Route 2 in front of pesticide trucks and reacted so angrily to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia that the College canceled two entire weeks of classes? Why do students at the College view “activist” as a dirty word, when they were likely first introduced to the term with the words “civil rights” in front of it?

A large percentage of students at the College, it seems, react with apathy at best and anger at worst to what we perceive as “activist” movements on campus. Again, why? Do we think we’ve made it? That the status quo is A-ok? That really, any shaking up of the way things are will only bring discord and dysfunction? Not to be glib, but we’ve all taken high school U.S. history. (All of us that went to high school in the U.S. did, that is. I know this is the case because it’s national law.) Doesn’t this kind of thinking sound familiar?

A quick perusal of that barometer of sentiment at the College – YikYak – revealed the following “Yak,” dated two days ago: “When will activists realize the real way to achieve change is to work hard and put themselves in a position of power as opposed to wasting their’s [sic] and other people’s time crying and whining.” Though it is difficult to know where to begin with this, I’ll first point out that this Yak demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the definition of activist and the mechanics of oppression. Clearly, if “the activists” kept quiet and focused only on gaining wealth and power, they would cease to be activists. Furthermore, as we students of American history have learned, activism arises when a system of oppression prevents a marginalized group from gaining positions of power sufficient to changing the status quo.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose understanding of this principle helped drive the civil rights movement, told us that, “Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about things that matter.” South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu similarly argued that, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We have all heard these words before, or words very like them, because King and Tutu were only repeating a sentiment that has been expressed again and again throughout the centuries. Those of us who complain about the actions of “activists” at the College are placing ourselves on the side of what those students who have raised their voices in protest see as the oppressor. Is this where we want to be? If so, we should say so. If not, don’t we know better than to use the word “activist” as an insult?

Grace Weatherall ’16 is an environmental policy and English double major from Ipswich, Mass. She lives in Gladden.