September 23, 2015

PALMER | The Legacy of Student Activism

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When I entered the college sphere, I had no grandiose plans. I just wanted to survive. It was only through friends that I was introduced to the world of rallies and die-ins: the grand tradition of student activism. There is an inexplicable rush that comes from standing up and questioning the status quo. With so many glorious causes that still need champions, answering their call seems like a virtuous path. As I became more involved on campus, I was forced to deal with the harsh realities of collegiate activism. There are two major pitfalls of being a student activist, which I will now lay before you.

First, there is often a contingency of activists — the Bolsheviks of every revolution, social or political, who get caught up in the movement itself. Activism should never occur simply for the sake of activism. Consumed by the cause, these extremists make their stand beneath their anarchy symbol and demand their justice or a complete dismantling of the system. Demanding freedom for everyone, they assert absolute control. This becomes totalitarianism under the guise of liberation, drowning out any other more moderate ideas. These are the feminists who claim female liberation can only come at the cost of men. The contingency of activists against the school hierarchy who expand certain problems in the infrastructure to the whole university and keep the destruction of Cornell as a viable solution. They perpetuate the legacy of “smash” activism, which focuses on destruction instead of correction and maintains that punishing is endemic to victory; as if the overthrowing of the Trustees can only end Paris Peace Conference style, with us all sitting down and demanding the Central Cornell Powers pay each student reparations for wrongs suffered.

Second, if these are the people standing up and shouting, then they are the only voices heard. This creates an image of activism that isn’t representative of the whole, which is comprised of many more liberal views. However, some find it easier to sit safe at home and criticize the path of student activism without contributing anything to the injustices they are also quick to comment on. The majority of people trolling social media react to activism badly, to use a generous term. The inconvenience of a delayed bus ride angers many to a point of irrationality. There are many extreme claims like, “Those who care enough about humanity to stand in front of a bus wouldn’t get out of the way for an ambulance.” The majority of the student body insists that these rabble-rousers are just making noise and don’t understand the system since it is easier to justify inaction than actually face the problems that these “rabble rousers” are addressing. Hiding behind mass ignorance, they only serve to promote the many issues on this campus. In the end, student activists are fighting for the rights of all students and their points deserve an intelligent conversation, not just a nasty comment on Facebook. After talking about the issue, if the solution still seems wrong, then fight to correct it. It is time for the blinders to come off and students to realize it is possible to love and hate an organization at the same time. That Cornell is not infallible and that questioning the system is our right as paying members of this institution.

When it comes to activism, the shape depends on who partakes in it. There are many activist movements on campus that are attempting to protect the students and push this university to uphold its progressive heritage. So before lumping extremists in with all activists and invalidating their claims with willful ignorance, investigate the reasons behind the picketing and traffic disruption, then decide for yourself.