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.