Over the past few months I have found myself wondering why it is so hard to mobilize Stanford students to direct action. There is a general perception that activism is a lost art on this campus, and it’s hard to say why this is the case. You would think that with all of the injustices in our world becoming ever more visible as technology makes them easier to broadcast, we would barely have time to breathe for all the marches, boycotts, and rallies we would be organizing. After all, we’re energetic college students, aren’t we? But the reality is that problem after problem gets ignored, or at best halfheartedly discussed by a few people before being swept aside as just another project we don’t have time for in between essays and problem sets.
(* I should preface this blog post with an acknowledgement of all the fantastic service that Stanford students do. I am speaking specifically about activism, which I see as a public critical engagement with issues of social justice and the systems of oppression that create these problems. *)
Given my puzzlement over the current state of affairs, I’ve tried to brainstorm a few possible reasons why so few of us consider ourselves activists, and why public, collective, rage is such an infrequent visitor to this campus. Here’s what I came up with:
(1) Stanford students believe in the system.
This is one of the most common explanations I’ve heard for why the intelligent, creative, ethical people on this campus hear words like “revolution” and want to lock their double-lock our doors at night. Each one of us has successfully navigated elementary school, high school, college admissions, and classes at Stanford- achievements which have required us to follow instructions and work well with people in authority. These are fantastic skills for resume-building, but not necessarily conducive to deconstructing systems of oppression. Furthermore, no matter how we might feel during week six midterms, we are for the most part very good at participating in classes and taking the kinds of tests that our society requires of ‘successful’ students. Because we have succeeded at demonstrating our proficiency in a particular type of education system, many of us simply lack the intellectual bandwidth to understand why some students are at a supreme disadvantage in this system. I do not say this to minimize the genuine diversity of perspectives among the student body- many of us do come from communities for whom faith in our economy, politicians, law enforcement, public schools, etc. is laughable. But far too many of us fail to see our complicity in systems of oppression, as well as the ways in which we are actually victims of the system. We have trouble envisioning what freedom would look like because we don’t take the time to look around and see the extent to which we are not free now.
(2) Stanford students like results.
None of us wants to get arrested or pepper sprayed by police. But I think we are even more averse to standing around in the cold with a bunch of strangers, feeling uninspired, or falling behind on homework. We would rather wait until success feels attainable to join a movement. Or at the very least, we would prefer to wait until the cameras show up and make us feel edgy and interesting. We do not want to commit to anything that will not achieve a tangible objective in a set amount of time. Our maximum-efficiency schedules cannot accommodate the kind of unglamorous work it takes to build a movement, or so we have come to believe. But it’s important to remember that sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off right away. Sometimes you have to go to a couple of boring meetings or a whole lot of poorly attended protests in order to build momentum for transformation. A lifetime struggle for social justice might be precisely the type of risky venture we have become ‘successful’ by avoiding, but we need to remind ourselves that the ability to reduce a goal to a list of quickly checked-off boxes is not a good thing. Rome, as the saying goes, was not built in a day. Neither was the neocolonial American empire. And as reluctant as we might feel to admit it, the most important achievements of our lives will not happen overnight.
(3) Our society’s love affair with social media makes us less appreciative of physical presence.
I like facebook. I enjoy being able to see what my friends are up to when they’re not around. And I won’t jump on the bandwagon of people claiming that the internet has turned our generation into illiterate, youtube-addicted, attention-deficit porn fiends. What I do believe is that the ability to instantaneously access information and virtually interact with people who are physically distant has caused us to devalue face-to-face connections. For many of us, the idea of leaving our rooms and going to a rally where we might not know anyone is about as attractive as scrubbing the bathroom floor in Synergy. We can hardly be bothered to pick up the phone and have a conversation because texting is so much more convenient. Our comfort in virtual reality, which has connected us in ways that were inconceivable ten years ago, has also made us more reluctant to put our bodies in unfamiliar spaces. But I believe that there is something vitally important about intentionally occupying space with others, and that the energy shared in that space cannot be replicated in remote interaction. We need to avoid what Jeff Chang calls the “premature cynicism” that allows us to diss and dismiss social movements from a safe distance so that we don’t have to get involved. Say what you will about hippies and their effectiveness as social organizers, but they certainly did know the value of getting people together to celebrate their humanity and protest the systems that undermined it. We need to unplug every once in a while and remind ourselves that presence matters. Tweeting about current events can be a fantastic way to draw attention to important issues, but feet on the pavement, not fingers on a computer keyboard, are what make revolution happen.
I do not intend for this reflection to sound condescending or overly accusatory. After all, I am writing it from the comfort of my room, not boldly shouting it from a megaphone on a streetcorner. On any given day, I am guilty of abusing my privilege and ignoring injustice. My motivation for writing is my sense that even though so many of us care so much about what our society looks like now and the direction in which it is headed, we are still having all the wrong conversations about social justice. We ask how we could possibly fit activism into our schedules when we should be asking what the consequences will be if we do not. We criticize protesters’ flawed tactics when we should be concerned about the sort of people we are becoming when we consistently fail to act in response to injustice. We cannot sit at our computer screens passively judging the people around us and then expect that when ‘The Revolution’ (whatever that might mean) comes, we will be ready to lead it.
Luckily, different ways of doing things are not only possible, but currently being put into practice by various communities. There are so many passionate people already organizing successfully around issues that matter to them. Talking to these people about how their consciousness developed, their visions for a better global neighborhood, and their strategies for getting there can be extremely enlightening. (The community events of May Day, for example, will be a fabulous opportunity to see how people connect local struggles to the dreams of workers all over the planet.) And we are living in a mind-blowingly dynamic historical moment when people are building new worlds based on shared visions of justice and freedom. Let’s join them! I want to look back and see my time at Stanford as the beginning of a lifetime of revolutionary action, not the four years I spent waiting for my Career to start.
Why are Stanford students reluctant to be revolutionaries? Because we are terrified that we just might have to get up from behind our desks and do something risky. I think it’s about time we all woke up from our long collective nap of complacency, because once we get physical we will be unstoppable.