The Engagés: Are activism and the “life of the mind” contradictory?

When I stumbled across the protest against the Common Application during fall quarter, I was overjoyed. Although the validity of that protest was questionable–after all, the change in the application was not going to be that substantive, and it may help us attract more low-income applicants–it was a sign that students at the University of Chicago had some scrap of activism in them. The students stood in the ankle-deep slush demanding that the administration recognize that they ought to have a say in these type of decisions; that they not only have high SAT scores, but that they are also critical thinkers who question the circumstances of their lives. The campaign to save the Uncommon Application was a clear message that if this University wanted to maintain its reputation of fostering students who thought critically about the world, they would have to deal with the repercussions when that critical thought was directed at the administration.

The glimmer of hope I felt on that gloomy, cold afternoon was soon extinguished. It became clear that not only was there a very small group of activists on this campus, but also that many students were openly hostile towards activism. Perhaps the best manifestations of this unfortunate truth are a series of opinion pieces from the Chicago Maroon, the undergraduate student newspaper at the University of Chicago. The first of these, written–ironically–on May 1 was titled, “We Cannot Tolerate UCCID’s Tactics” and criticized the non-violent, direct-action methods recently adopted by the University of Chicago Campaign for Immediate Divestment, an organization dedicated to prompting the University’s divestment from international companies involved with the ethnic violence in Darfur. The author Reynold Strossen writes, “While earlier in the year pro-divestment groups used dialogue to seek change, they have now turned to pure coercion and obstruction–not to mention illegal acts–in an attempt to force the University to take actions it has decided are not in its best interest.” Clearly Strossen was not familiar with the long and rich tradition of non-violent action. Rarely are the activists that employ direct action trying to avoid dialogue. More often than not, they feel that their viewpoint is not being heard or properly represented, and so resort to direct action in order to bring that viewpoint to the fore. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argues in his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Indeed, this seems to be the end that UCCID has in mind. Their discontent with not being allowed to bring a student-faculty delegation before the Board of Trustees to discuss divestment is what caused the group to resort to protests and sit-ins. What Strossen and other critics of activism seem to forget is why direct action is employed. The students waited for months to engage the administration in dialogue, but when there proved to be nothing but the administration’s monologue, UCCID adopted different tactics.

Another anti-activist opinion piece published in the Maroon criticized the tactics of the “Kick Coke Off Campus” campaign. Ryan McCarl’s article “Want My Coke? Then pry it from my Cold, Dead Fingers” argues that the Coke campaign is attempting to force students to be responsible consumers. He states, “I’m not making the ‘right’ choice by drinking Coke. And so my self-appointed progressive nannies must step in to intervene.” McCarl fails to understand that the Coke campaign is not interested in individual consumer decisions. Rather, what they hope to achieve is a symbolic gesture. The University of Chicago, one of the leading research institutions in the world, does not support the use of violence to suppress union activity or the pollution of ground water sources in underdeveloped nations. Yet, the critics of activism do not think in these symbolic terms. As far as they’re concerned, either there will be Coke in Bartlett or there won’t, and that is all there is to it. In the face of simplistic practical consequences, theory–normally fetishized by the student body at the UofC–is overlooked.

Perhaps the most worrisome of all these polemics was the editorial “Speak Softly and Carry a Green Stick.” In this article, the editors argue the Green Campus Initiative is the most effective activist group on campus. This is perturbing for a number of reasons. First, while the Green Campus Initiative pursues worthwhile projects, they can hardly be considered an activist group. Establishing recycling programs or purchasing a minimum of sustainable energy is hardly an act of resistance, particularly in this day and age. They are a group designed to help the administration do things they are already inclined to do. Such projects do not fall under even the broadest definition of activism. Second, the May 8 editorial cites the creation of the Sustainability Council as one of GCI’s biggest victories. Any true activist knows that being put on a council or a committee is a defeat. Councils are ways for the administration to feign hearing student voice while still not being forced to respond. The Maroon’s enthusiasm for the demure pursuit of miniscule change is an indication that they have failed to understand the purpose and methods of most activists on this campus. When one is dealing with issues much more contentious than recycling, such as divestment, the activism that surrounds it is necessarily more radical.

It is in this atmosphere, which lacks an understanding of the fundamental nature and motivations behind activism, that I find myself faced with the task of being an activist. Everyday students here revel in the “life of the mind,” fearing anything that cannot happen in a classroom or around a conference table. This settled, albeit cerebral, character clashes harshly with my own understanding of activism as the only means of fighting for the beautiful ideals I have constructed in my mind. I understand myself as a part of long tradition of nonviolent resistance to injustice, but that is not how my activities are viewed by the majority of this campus. UCCID and the Coke campaign fight to keep economic and practical considerations from transcending ethical ones. But the same students that hail those ethical considerations in humanities class rail against them on the editorial page. So what are activists to do?

The fight must proceed, and the protests must continue. But, in the wise words of Dr. King, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.” In my own activism on behalf of low-income housing I have found that at a certain point, I must celebrate. Thus, this spring I am engaged in the planning of two events, Midway Free City and Art in Action, both designed as celebrations of radical ideals and the fight for a more just society. The first of these will be one night on the Midway, in which we can behave as though injustice has already been defeated. With everything from vegan cookies to huge art installations to a University of Post-Capitalism, we will spend the evening pretending as though the activists have already won. The next morning, we will all head down to 65th and Kimbark to join in a day long arts and activism festival with South Side residents..We hope the music, the barbeque, and the issue-based discussions will raise awareness that, despite the often-intimidating difference in culture between the UofC and its neighbors, our lives are intertwined. We hope that these events will give students and community members, radicals and moderates, activists and newspaper editors, a chance to engage one another in meaningful dialogue. Activism is the expansion of the horizons of one’s critical inquiry to encompass the circumstances of one’s life–including life at this University, whether fighting for the Uncommon App, sitting in the President’s office, or building a community where the interests of the University and the residents are not opposed.