Widgets Magazine


Editorial: Not just apathy – activists undermine participation

Stanford is effective at producing many things, from paradigm-shifting research to groundbreaking patents. Yet in terms of on-campus conversation, Stanford is also a place that produces ideological echo chambers, to the detriment of campus conversation. The Stanford blog Static is one space that tries to break this trend, by providing a forum in which campus activists can share their ideas and projects with the broader campus and online communities. A recent post on Static by Lizzie Quinlan ’13, titled “A Few Thoughts on Activism and Stanford Culture,” examined why activism is not more prevalent on campus, pointing to student complacency, belief in the system and use of social media as primary drivers of apathy. While these are all valid critiques of Stanford culture, the Editorial Board would like to offer an additional explanation: the structure of activist collectives on campus provide a barrier to entry that deters interested individuals whose beliefs may not perfectly align with the dominant paradigm.

Stanford students do not join activist groups in part because they may not subscribe to the multiple, intersecting ideologies that they perceive as the foundation of campus activism. Is there a place in the Occupy movement for a student who supports income redistribution but opposes gay marriage? Would a student feel comfortable joining Stanford Says No to War if she does not support the divestment petition that the group has closely sponsored, or Stanford Students for Queer Liberation if she supports the return of ROTC to campus?

Stanford has built several extraordinarily effective activist collectives – witness, for example, the effective collaboration of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, MEChA, the Stanford Immigrant Rights Project, and others on the recent event “Undoing Borders and Queering the Undocumented Narrative” – but this comes at a cost. Students may feel unsure about where their place is in an activist collective if they support one part of the group’s ideology but strongly oppose another. Simply put, there appears to be little space for ideological frameworks that are not perfectly congruous with activism writ large. We do not mean to suggest that campus activists are a monolithic ideological entity; indeed, we know that members of the same group are likely to have nuanced, different views about their own cause. Rather, we believe that because activist groups on campus are often so closely tied together, interested students who are ‘outside’ feel unsure about whether or not there is a space for their dissenting views in the campus activist community. Even if it seems self-evident to group members that their group is a safe space, a student may feel uncomfortable joining without a more explicit acknowledgment that their opposing views on a topic won’t be seen to diminish their participation.

An added complication is that students may feel confused or alienated by the rhetoric of revolution that often accompanies discussions of social change. Quinlan’s article aptly pointed out that Stanford students generally feel validated by and comfortable working within a system. While most activist groups on campus have websites that state their mission and projects, students outside the activist community may still feel confused as to what the tangible end goals of campus activists are, particularly if it is couched in the politically fraught language of revolution. In this confusion, they may choose not to engage at all even on topics they fervently support. Here, students often draw a fuzzy line between “activist” groups and “service” groups, viewing the latter as defined by more concrete goals and the former with vaguer mission statements about how to enact change. The resulting skepticism facing these “activist” groups is undeserved but ought to be acknowledged and addressed with more productive engagement with the rest of campus.

There are ways, of course, to ameliorate this problem. The contributing reasons that Quinlan outlines for student apathy are accurate, and students should meet activism on campus with more of an open mind. At the same time, campus activists need to move beyond the mentality of “What’s wrong with other students?” and examine the structures within their own organizations that might alienate their peers. This is not to say that there is something wrong with activist collectives as they stand – on the contrary, the construction of successful cross-group coalitions has been instrumental to many of the successes of campus activism. However, if campus echo chambers are to be successfully dismantled, it would behoove Stanford activists to go beyond the Stanford culture as an explanation for student disinterest. Examining the culture of campus activism and its relationship with the rest of the student body is equally important when discussing why students don’t engage more with activist collectives at Stanford.

About Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Victor Xu '17, Executive Editor Will Ferrer '18, Managing Editor of Opinions Michael Gioia '17, Desk Editor of Opinions Jimmy Stephens '17, Senior Staff Writer Kylie Jue '17, Senior Staff Writer Olivia Hummer '17 and Senior Staff Writer Andrew Vogeley '17. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.
  • SomeStudent

    I love this article. It speaks to exactly how I feel about the many wonderful activist groups on campus.

  • Kindaquiet

    Thank you for this. I came to Stanford as a freshman seeking a sense of community, but I ended up feeling kind of alienated by the activist culture here. I was having a hard enough time embracing my identity, let alone mobilizing it. I was beginning to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with ME, but it’s good to see that other people are also seeing some of the same things I was seeing. I still think that our community groups on campus are fantastic and that they do a lot of good, but there is certainly room to make the space more discursive and open.

  • Eric

    So, you criticize campus activists because they make racists, sexists, classists, and homophobes uncomfortable in their groups? I would say that’s a good thing.

  • wrong

    Because people who support ROTC on campus are clearly homophobes, or those who don’t support divestment are racist.  C’mon Eric.   

  • Bob

    Whoever wrote this clearly has never been involved in activism.  You think everyone in, say, Stanford Says No to War is aligned on every issue?  Please.  There are as many opinions there, I’m sure, as there are people.

    By the way, the Daily Editorial Board does not seem to be in the best position to advocate for diversity of thought.

  • Alum

    Revolutionary action, regardless of ideology, is about two things primarily: 1) showing up and 2) sticking around. That’s what Occupy got right! One cannot expect to see any changes if they do not involve themselves, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in the struggles they claim to support AND then stick it out for the long-haul. You have to GO to the meetings, ORGANIZE the actions, and EDUCATE yourself constantly. And you have to do this over and over and over again!!! That’s what it takes. That’s what many once a week activists on campus fail to do…

  • Occupier against gay marriage

    Isn’t awesome how we treat Stanford students like delicate flowers who should never have their sensibilities offended, even if they’re ignorant, only to have those same students go on to run the world and not understand the racist/sexist/generally oppressive nature of the institutions they’re a part of? And feel no compelling interest to change them?

    Yes, what is needed is that the activist groups on the campus that is home to the Hoover Institution and one of the main engines for neoliberal economic policy be LESS radical. WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? Instead of defending the imaginary people that are scared away by these big scary ten-person groups, why don’t you just fucking own your complacency already?

    You either think the system is that fucked or you don’t. It’s not our job to educate you (even though we do it anyway).

  • Haydn Dufrene

    you don’t join a group because you are aligned with every idea of every person. that idea is more extreme than any activist group’s on campus. you join a group so that you can participate in conversation with interested people. a college campus may be the paramount opportunity in one’s life to bring diverse experiences to the table in an environment that should be open to learning.
    but not many people are trying to learn. they are trying to get told. cut the ego, be open to changethen come back to a group and try to participate in a conversation driven by reason rather than being bogged down by emotional baggage. if you empathize with a group but cannot reconcile certain ideas or actions, voice your concerns. if no one empathizes with your concerns, start a new group and try to motivate people to join you merely by demonstrating an interesting and divergent ideology. 

    stanford is not the truth, and it is sometimes hard to realize that when we have been told that our lives and success hinge on this institution. the knowledge transferred from curriculum to student is on the high holy altar lined by palm trees and fountains. obviously, this system is effective for academic knowledge, but leads to stagnation and extremism when this structure is applied to ideology.

    the truth is ever changing until we be we

  • Haydn Dufrene

    Don’t want to take away from your good points but if you are truly against gay marriage, how do you justify that being different than ‘racist/sexist/generally oppressive.’

  • Todd

    If there are lots of students who want to be activists but are uncomfortable with the present groups, why don’t they just start their own group? They could then join with existing groups on issues of common interest.

  • GetReal

    While I first agreed with this article, it is really quite misinformed. The only way to truly agree with this piece is to never have been to a meeting of the “activist organizations” that it describes. If you sit in on one of the meetings, you will see that the opinions within them are indeed quite diverse. Obviously they are not as diverse as the student body because they are directed toward specific policy goals, but they are not solely radical. 

    However, if you have not been to the meetings, you will only hear rumors and headlines about them. I suspect most of what you would hear comes straight from Stanford Daily pieces. The problem with that is that the Daily does only get the headlines. When an organization answers questions from the Daily, it gives the overarching decisions and general focuses, not the hours of debate and discussion that got them to that decision. 

    If you are truly worried about a more welcoming activist community, changing the way groups are reported on in the Daily is a good first step. Second, go sit in on a meeting of these organizations. Most of the people I have met within Stanford’s activist community are truly nice people that would love to discuss their opinions with you. They may try to convince you of their opinion, but (for the most part) they won’t turn you away for disagreeing.

    ~ Someone who has actually been to meetings and events of activist groups.