Widgets Magazine


The problem with Stanford activism

Activism and activist groups have an important role to play at universities: They push the envelope on important and contentious issues, from sexual assault to racial equality, when institutions and cultures are slow to change. By the very nature of challenging the status quo, activism is bound to create critics, skeptics and reactionaries. However, college activism faces a fundamental and self-corrupting challenge when it refuses to create inviting forums for dialogue and dissent. This is the problem that Stanford activism faces today and, ultimately, what prevents mass, campus-wide participation in movements for social change.

Often, a lack of civility in dialogue and a culture of rejecting new ideas alienate individuals from engaging in political conversations that build consensus and consciousness. The Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine movement, which considered Israel an illegitimate state, organized an Israel divestiture movement last year that drew strong opinions on both sides. The movement was polarizing, with some students afraid to voice their opinions for fear of backlash. The administration even sent a campus-wide email calling for openness in dialogue and conversation.  The most vocal voices on campus tended to be the most extreme on both sides of the debate, and many students with moderate views did not express them in order to avoid explosive rhetoric and responses. This example demonstrates that, without room for compromise, dialogue among activist groups becomes hyper-partisan and alienates large portions of campus from engaging in important social issues.

In order to create an open dialogue with those who do not necessarily understand the experiences of the oppressed, activists should create an environment where individuals can engage in conversation without fear of being cast as ignorant, backwards or evil. Among some activists, dialogue is openly discouraged. Last year, when the administration requested open and civil dialogue, some activists became angry and offended even publicly emailing lists claiming “I’d rather commit to violent resistance before participating in dialogue.” When not completely shunned, dialogue is often treated by activists as a one-way street where previously ignorant individuals are informed about social issues. Meetings emphasize “teaching” rather than a conversation between equal peers. Entering these events and engaging in conversation can be intimidating and demeaning when activists treat dialogue in such ways, often preventing larger and more diverse attendance.

Some individuals believe that activism does not need civility because its purpose is not to convince or create dialogue, but rather to advocate for something already deemed to be true. There is no doubt that racism, sexism, transmisogny and other forms of oppression can be judged to be undesirable without debate; however, activism does not end at this. Rather, activism proposes a list of demands for how to change the system and combat oppression. As a result, if activism is not open to listening to other perspectives in which oppression manifests itself and about what productive solutions will be, then it risks advocating for solutions that are ineffectual and weak. The result of such an activism scheme is a movement based on principles that are sound (i.e., racism and sexism are bad) and that claim moral ground; however, such moral authority is undermined by the fact that alternate opinions regarding when these principles are violated and the solutions to such transgressions are not respected.

Even more, a lack of civility, before a certain degree of consensus is created, can transform the image of an activist movement from one of social justice to one of reckless abandon. Last year, the “Stanford 68” aimed to bring attention to the oppression of African Americans in the police system by shutting down the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. However, little work was done before this protest to create an inclusive conversation about race on campus, to enlist and recruit individuals outside the usual activist circles and to properly convince the larger public of the validity of the movement. The result was that the “Stanford 68” was widely attacked as a group of irresponsible, immature kids who did not care for the lives of the everyday working person.

Social movements must often enlist the participation or, at least, approval of the larger majority to be successful. The Civil Rights Movement was not successful because a group of activists decided racism was bad and chaotically stopped traffic on random highways. Rather, the movement demanded a specific goal — desegregation — and, by considering the point of view of the “silent majority,” strategically developed rhetoric of compassion and nonviolent protest that won the hearts and minds of Americans and allowed for rights to be gained. On the other hand, the counter-culture movement of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, while important in generating cultural confidence in marginalized communities, made little effort to open dialogue to wider society, resulting in a conservative resurgence. The unfortunate truth is that change, regardless of how justifiable it is, does not happen overnight. Activism requires mainstream acceptance to create meaningful reform and, in order for that to happen, activists must create an environment open to dialogue, different points of view and compromise.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Bob

    If MLK himself appeared before Mr. Chaudhary, no doubt he would condemn him in similar terms. It’s no surprise that no activist wants to have a “conversation” with someone who, despite all that has happened, still mindlessly recycles the activist-baiting that rains down upon the heads of those who have the audacity to highlight injustice in the world. Letter From a Birmingham Jail reads like a response to this column.

    (I would point out how blaming Black Power for conservative resurgence is a very poor analysis — they happened a decade apart and there’s more convincing causes — or how the civil rights legislation he mentioned was passed partially to attempt to subdue urban riots taking place around the country, but those would be points made in a serious discussion. Which this is clearly not.)

  • Really?

    ” The Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine movement, which considered Israel an illegitimate state”

    So, being against human rights abuses is synonymous with being against Israel as a State? Are you trying to support Israel? Because you’re doing the opposite.

  • What?

    Read the article – that is what the movement is about. Neil doesn’t seem to be taking sides

  • mxm123

    “that is what the movement is about.” – Any link that proves this statement ? Or do we have to take Neils’ and your assertions about an organization as fact ?

  • Really really?

    The name of the movement is Stanford out of occupied Palestine – does that make it semi that they think Israel a legitimate state? Come on guys use your brains

  • Yup

    Way to go Neil! Voice of reason

  • mxm123

    I didn’t ask for the Hillel’s interpretation. Show me a link.

  • Prg234

    Voice of reason.

  • Bob, you’re better than this

    Hey Bob! MLK was a strategist and a pragmatist in addition to being an advocate for social justice. Rosa Parks was handpicked as the figurehead for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March to Birmingham was a strategic move with months of preparation before and, which, enlisted the widespread support of the majority of the country. MLK adopted the strategy of nonviolent resistance, especially in Birmingham, in part to televise the brutal response that protestors faced by police. This was an effort to win the hearts and minds. So, before you go off casting Neil’s analysis as false and something MLK would condemn, think about whether or not the Stanford 68 went really thought everything through before shutting down that bridge.

    As to the point about Black Power, I agree that that was not the only reason for the conservative resurgence but I believe that Neil believes that too as he cites the counterculture of the 60s as another possible region (which encompasses Vietnam War protests, hippie movement, etc.).

    Ultimately, your criticism, especially your mark that this is not a “serious discussion” just proves Neil’s point. Instead of truly engaging with his arguments you cast it aside as silly and not serious. This is the very problem Neil is highlighting. You have to be open to dialogue and open to discussing the alternative view. Having such a closed viewpoint will not result in change.

  • thanks

    thanks for proving his point.

  • thanks

    edit: i’m fine with passionate activism but christ do i hate fanaticism. and more often than not that what it devolves into.

  • facepalm

    By that logic, the National Police Accountability Project is explicitly anti-police, or any organization that is against the abuses of an aspect of an institution is against that institution.

    Taking such logic to the very extreme, any criticism of the government would be seen as sedition.

  • Please

    If a movement is called “Out of Occupied Palestine” the message is explicit and clear. Does the term “Occupied Palestine” acknowledge Israel as a state? Why is it not called Stanford Out of Israel?

    The movement sent a petition to protest to “stop investing in companies that profit from the occupation of Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967” (link: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/02/professors-divestment-occupation#sthash.t9ZrSlqj.dpuf). SOOP does not see a 2 state solution.

    Anyway, that is not the point of the article anyway, so maybe this discussion should be reserved for another forum

  • Sean

    I see where Neil is coming from calling for more dialogue and an idea that a movement has to gain mainstream support. Yet the Civil Rights movement did not gain mainstream support over night. An example being the Civil Rights Voting Act, a bill that still was not overwhelmingly received and had to be pushed through Congress even at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, the Civil Rights Movement in its initial actions were meant to stir the public out of complacency and was not at first taken seriously and was met with scathing criticism. The idea of protest is not to solely fall in line with the status quo but is to push the envelope for change. Neil in his writing talked about issues that many people could say was bad like segregation and racism but many would also say mass incarceration or police brutalization could also be commonly agreed on as bad. These issues however are not always addressed right off the back without a little discomfort. Moreover to say the Stanford 68 did not think over their actions is not necessarily a valid assumption. Maybe they saw this as a way to be heard and disrupting the order of the everyday. For what protest, what march through the streets has not disrupted the daily lives of people just going through the day?

    Moreover, I agree with the fact that shutting down dialogue and conversation can have a negative effect. Yet when people feel that they have had conversations on an issue and have tried to be open about their concerns and have been constantly left unheard or action is constantly postponed because it is not pressing enough, I can see how people might see the uselessness of conversation. The stagnation can also be seen in situations such as Sexual Assault reform where issues have been brought up for years and yet little has been done on changing policy until as of late when protestors pushed for more urgency on the issue these past two years and a changing climate in the United States where to not take action would make universities look bad. There can also be something said about the emphasis being put on activism and issues discussed last year by Stanford through the new year long program for this school year. Stanford has coopted these issues of pressing concern for the curriculum and is calling on student involvement to lead this initiative.

    I would also like to address the Black Power Movement argument. Neil did not truly mention the counter culture of the 60s and Vietnam, he stated “On the other hand, the counter-culture movement of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s” with an emphasis on the “of” a reader could see the train of thought as the Black Power movement as the creation of the counter culture not anything else and delegitimizing the movement because it was not picked up mainstream and in a way undercutting the strengthening of black culture and self worth along with the strengthening of community within urban black neighborhoods such as he creation of community centers in areas that were considered subpar because it did not hit the mainstream which at that time was predominately white America. While I do not agree with all the stances presented in the Black Power Movement, it still drew attention to issues of classism and racism that had not truly been fixed by law or the Civil Rights Movement and still garnered support of some in the black community at the time who saw it as benefitting and helping build underserved communities.

    While I can say I did not agree with every cause and every action taken by the activist community this past year, I don’t think they should be written off. Last year there were open forums and there were teach ins and conversations were had on issues but only because some people pressed for change. The very fact that the University decided to begin hosting more forums and adding issues of activism to its curriculum is a direct result of the activist community pushing Stanford and making a loud enough noise that they could not be ignored. Dialogue is important and I agree with Neil on that and informing the public of issues is also important but we cannot overlook the complacency and status quo and how hard it is to draw attention to issues and to fuel change. A consensus cannot always be reached and the mainstream may not always side with you but that does not always mean your issue is delegitimized. For while I agree alienation and super polarization does not always help an issue, the very notion of change at times can alienate.

    I appreciate that Neil raised his voice and I agree with some of his points but I think there are still things he missed and may have misrepresented like the Black Power and counterculture issue that could have been just simple wording. As I have stated before I think dialogue and conversations on issues are important, yet when dialogue has been had over the same issues for extended periods of time, people may feel the need to step away from the table and push for action through other forums to show that they are worthy of truly being heard. For we cannot forget that there is a power imbalance and Stanford has the power to help or crush movements that it deems dangerous to its image and Stanford can draw out any discussion with students for their is a time limit on all of our time here at Stanford. So while we might not agree with all the actions of the activist, I don’t think we should say that they are not having a discussion or not building dialogue especially based off of the words of a few in an email during a very stressful point in the Spring of last year. For there have been open forums, meetings, discussions with administration, and tons of dialogue among Stanford students about these issues and what should be done, even to the point of inspiring a new initiative for Stanford. Even now we are having a discussion brought on in part by the activist.

  • facepalm

    There is a difference between what is considered the State of Israel and what is considered Occupied Palestine. Occupied Palestine refers to the West Bank and Gaza, something that you already seem to know.

    Would you rather the name should have been Stanford Out of the Occupation of Palestine by Israel (SOOPI)? That would certainly acknowledge Israel as a state.

    Really though, legitimate states have been pursuing illegitimate ends for millennia. Calling a State out for it doesn’t mean that you want that state destroyed – else every grievance levied against a state would be sedition.

  • Lu

    “However, little work was done before this protest to create an inclusive conversation about race on campus, to enlist and recruit individuals outside the usual activist circles and to properly convince the larger public of the validity of the movement.”Ethnic communities consistently have programming about these issues- you should be seeking out this education. Do better.

  • Can we get back to the article

    Look, it’s possible that Neil’s articulation of SOOP’s views was inaccurate or a mischaracterization of their stance. By all means, clarify! But let’s not get sidetracked from the main substance of this article, which I personally believe articulates extremely well some frustrations that I as a pro Palestinian individual have with the SOOP movement’s methods.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Activism is necessarily going to be a rough and sloppy road, because you’e fighting against established viewpoints and entrenched positions of power, and don’t have certainty with what kind of reactions you will get, what kind of support you will get, and even who of your contemporaries will be willing and ready at any given moment to continue your cause. There’s no money or career-ladder in activism to help make it self sustaining for members. For these reasons, cordiality is preferred but not required in activism.