Widgets Magazine


My problem with activism

I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with activism. I look at the divestment campaign and see a bunch of bitter, narrow-minded people trying to stick it to Israel, thinking this will help Palestine. I saw the people who did a one-day fast for Darfur, thinking this will help. Did they think about Darfur the next day? Two days after? Three? Will they ever be involved again?
For me, this is not service. Service is committing yourself to principles and habits that, in the long term, will positively affect the people you’re servicing. It is not jumping onto the bandwagon of popular causes. It is not angrily shouting about how the world is unfair, pretending you know how the world works. Wearing a Palestinian keffiyah doesn’t make you a humanitarian any more than running a stop sign on your bike makes you an anarchist.

Personally, I’ve been trying to do three things every day that I believe will foster service.

The first is one may surprise people. I pray before every meal. I pray to remember that there are billions of people in the world who will not be sitting down at a meal. The activists I’ve just offended will throw their hands up and lament how that accomplishes nothing. But if I think about those people every day, then when I am in a position of power, I will be empathetic enough to do something. If I ever become a policymaker, politician or community organizer, I won’t forget the hungry. I see so many people in my parents’ generation who never use their skills and expertise to help others. Lawyers, doctors, businessmen — many seem to forget the less fortunate because they neglected to foster an ethos of service.

Secondly, I always try to be involved with at least one service project at any given time. As of now, I’m co-leading an Alternative Spring Break trip about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Over spring break we’ll travel around and talk to a lot of organizations involved in combating the spread and stigma of HIV. We will even get a chance to assemble safe-sex kits, do some outreach and participate in a needle exchange. Will this make a difference in combating the epidemic? Statistically, of course not. That isn’t the point. The point is that when these participants are on the frontline of medicine, community planning and law, they’ll remember the HIV-positive world, and will look to alleviate the stress that community faces.

Finally, I always try to be a good person. Honesty, integrity, forthrightness, dependability, etc: These are creeds which all men can aspire to, but few do. We let obligations slide. We let other people carry our weight in groups, projects or teams. We abandon friends and flail at the sight of confrontation. We avert serious issues and steer our ships toward clear weather, even if that leads to the wrong destination. Now, I make as many mistakes as the next person and I’m certainly no saint. But I aspire to live in a way that treats people well and fairly. Taking care of the people near you is high aspiration, and a dependable form of service.

About Chris Herries

Chris Herries is a sophomore majoring in Latin. His interests include rugby, crossfit, weiqi, and public service. Please shoot him an email if you have an issues with his articles.
  • Could you be any more of a tool?

  • Could the author be any more of a tool?

  • R

    All three of the things that you do every day are great, but I don’t understand your criticism of activism as a form of service. You don’t have to know everything about how the world works to believe that something is morally unjust. Activism is service by raising awareness about these issues. Whether you agree with a particular cause or not is a different question. The activists taking part in the Darfur fast were also donating the money that they would have spent on food to a charity working on the ground in Darfur. But even if that was not the case, isn’t learning and thinking about the situation in Darfur for one day better than thinking about it for zero days?

  • bitter and narrow minded

    “Service is committing yourself to principles and habits that, in the long term, will positively affect the people you’re servicing.”

    For the record, Palestinian civil society has called on the rest of the world to pursue divestment as a tactic of change and service to human rights: http://www.bdsmovement.net/call

    Campaigning for divestment is also a tactic that certainly involves more time than a “one day fast” and does more than “shout about how the world is unfair.” It seeks results.

    There are other critiques one might bring against divestment, but none of the ones you raise here hold up to inspection.

  • Yeah, I appreciate your thoughts.

    I’m conflicted on things like the Darfur fast because, while it may raise awareness, I feel like lacks staying power. I think when we deal with awareness campaigns they need to funnel into things that are longer-lasting. I’m an elitist. Stanford students are in a position to make a much greater impact on the world than donating their lunch money, though the thought is admirable.

    For example, let’s say we have an awareness campaign about an issue where we screen a documentary and have the documentarian sit on a panel with professionals who discuss their role in the issue, and show the possible career paths a student can take. That’s one reason ASB is so meaningful, because it leads to a lot of different careers. It has staying power. People who have been on the HIV/AIDS trip have ended up in really important nonprofit, public health and medical positions combating the epidemic.

    If things like the Darfur fast are parleyed into student groups or organizations that seek a long term commitment to the region, and gets students involved with organizations who are actually doing something, then I’ll be more appreciative.

  • sigh

    “Things I do instead of activism. 1. I pray.”

    EYE-FUCKING-ROLL. Is this real life?

  • Disagree

    What’s wrong with praying? His reason seems perfectly legitimate. If you’re like most Stanford students, you probably just eat straight away without recognizing your privilege. If you are like most students, you’ll probably throw out a good chunk of your meal too.

    Ooh, I guess religion is so weird on a college campus. I mean how can anyone who is smart enough to get into Stanford be dumb enough to, God forbid, pray? Get over yourself.

  • M

    For the record, there is a student group that’s active year-round on Darfur – STAND, the group that put on the event. The point of their event is to raise awareness of the issue and the sustained movement, and to give people an opportunity to be a part of it – if only for a day. Why they don’t then join the student group would seem to me to be a different (and much discussed) problem of good-cause-ADD on the Stanford campus. The service goals in this article seem to promote good principles, but don’t necessarily provide an answer the Stanford problem of lack of long-term commitment to an issue, whether it’s through service or activism.

  • Why don’t you pray for the Jewish people of Israel?
    They have been under attack by Palestinian Arab terrorists for over 80 years. Both the Hamas and Fatah charters call for the destruction of the Jewish State! These terrorists sneak into Jewish homes and kill babies lying in cribs and children in beds, as recently happened to he Fogel family. Then the murderers are glorified by the Palestinan Arab leadership, with streets being named after them.
    There are 22 Arab States, plus many more Moslem States, Why can’t there be one Jewish State?

  • a friendly face

    I pray too……I pray that you get some common sense.

    Without those “bitter, narrow minded” activists there would be no HIV/AIDS clinics for you to pat yourself on the back for visiting.

    HIV would still be called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency,” HIV positive patients would still be shunned at hospitals, HIV would still be a death sentence for most people in the western world, and government officials would still be debating the merits of treatment and prevention.

    Thinking good thoughts and trying not to “forget the less fortunate” is a damn sight more than most Stanford students do, but I think you need to do a little more thinking about how the world works. Specifically, all that service stuff that looks good on your resume wouldn’t be possible without the sweat, tears, shouting, and sometimes blood that went into making the public aware of these issues in the first place. Friendliness and quiet prayer didn’t make queer, labor, and civil rights movements part of the history books. It was because of ordinary, upset people (aka activists) who took to the streets and made their voices heard.

    Maybe instead of basing your opinions on what you see in White Plaza, you should visit an activist collective on campus next quarter, like STAND or SSS or SLAC (if they’ll have you) and see what really goes on in these spaces.

  • 2014

    While some of your specific points may be up for debate, I agree with your overall point. MEChA, for example, rarely has any tangible in the communities that they claim to support. Annoying bikers headed to class by sitting on concrete or yelling stuff doesn’t do anything else.

  • Activisty

    Activism *is” service. Just ask the Haas Center: http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/haas/about/strategicplan/pathways

  • All activism is is not relying on the people in power to change situations you feel need changed. It is a very easy thing to criticize, due to its public nature. Everyone thinks they know how to run a social movement, just like everyone thinks they could be a Hollywood director or the head coach of a football team or whip Congress into shape. You’re allowed to have tactical disagreements, but that’s all they are. Tactical. And even then, most likely nobody asked you.

    Very few activists operate under the delusion that they are actually changing anything. They know what they’re doing, or not doing. They generally decide that whatever ineffectual thing they are doing is still better than doing nothing. I suppose William Lloyd Garrison was just a bitter narrow-minded person trying to stick it to America too right?

    Also, isn’t pride a sin? This op-ed sounds awful sanctimonious for a Christian. Does that sound like unfair criticism made in bad faith? Congratulations, now you know how it feels.

  • Wow! I sense a lot of anger here!

    Unfortunately, we agree on pretty much every point. Perhaps my admitted lack of eloquence is to blame!

    The movements you cited took sustained effort by people over a long period of time. Moreover, the movers of those projects were people dedicated to the goals almost as a profession. Surely, the people in these struggles thought about them every day- how else could they keep their commitment kindled? And when they were in positions of power they used that influence to ignite change. I would imagine they had plenty of silent moments contemplating the suffering of others. But they weren’t content to simply stand and shout, or enter a bandwagon cause just to fall away later. Stanford students are elite enough to be the leaders, not the shouters.

    That is, of course, the point of my article! These things happen over long periods of time, lifetimes in many cases. The most important people ended up going into these fields and were lifelong advocates. I would like to see people build up an ethos of service and be willing to help when their help matters most, as powerful professionals, in the future.

    If you’d like to register disqus on your facebook, or shoot me an email, I’d be happy to talk about your dedication and sustained work towards specific issues.

  • Student

    Interesting article. I like your article a lot actually. Just one thing you may want to rethink. I don’t think people who wear the Palestinian keffiyah think they are being humanitarian. I think it’s more of a cultural identity thing. There is nothing inherently good or bad about wearing cultural dress. It is not a service to anyone to do so. It just is. Some might even see it as a political statement in some way, but so is any sort of dress that is overtly aligned with a particular group of people. We signal an appreciation of this cultural group in some way I guess. But I think this has nothing to do with service and is irrelevant to your article. Actually, I think it undermines the rest of the article to talk about the kefiyyah in such a way because it suggests a degree of contempt for people who do wear the kefiyyah. And that is not a good thing.

  • Not a Christian 🙂 I said pray, I didn’t say to whom or what.

  • Esqg

    Why do you see the Students for Palestinian Equal Rights as “bitter, narrow-minded”? Have you tried talking to any of them, or hearing what they had to say? I’ve got a little involved recently, and I must say, I’ve really been impressed with how many humble and kind people are there, people dedicated to learning. But why should I have to say that, and do I really have to explain what the actual divestment campaign is? Do you feel no need to learn a few things about people before you criticize what you “see”?

    I’m glad you strive for kindness and understanding of others. Not enough people do that. But why should your “being a good person” extend only to those on whom you are focusing your service–rather than those people you see at less convenient times, those people you would like to write off as fitting into pre-conceived categories?

  • samo

    My stumbling on this article was accidental and happened to read it. I was shocked at the way you dismissed the activist. As one who has often sat and listened in silence for hours to the suffering of people in Bolivia or Palestine and other places only to hear them tearfully say, “you understand us,” it appears that you know little of what makes a difference in the world. At one time, I did not understand. I thought, I have done nothing. Taken a few vitamins or a “temporary fix”. It is nothing, I thought. What about tomorrow? The next day? Then one day, I realized that even if it is only listening or “wearing a keffiyah”, they were saying “At least someone knows we are here.” So keep hiding behind your prayers. Hide being your feeling of powerlessness (“…when I am in a position of power”) and use it as an excuse to do nothing. For me, I’ll take my loaves and fish and share it with those who are hungry and then, just maybe, when I have more, I will have learned how to give of myself. Serving does not occur in the cerebrum. Read the story of Rachel Cory and then tell me that divestment is nothing. It was worth her life. You can keep writing from your safe little space and your safe positions and find many who will agree with you. Or, you can step into the place of unpopular positions and experience the suffering that service brings. I do not mean to be harsh, but you write as one who has not experienced the realities of life but rather the realities of propaganda aka subjective journalism.

  • Just for reference, I spent a year of my life living in a township on the Cape Flats working with cerebral palsied children. I know a little bit about service and have met plenty of people who are suffering. I also spent a decent chunk of time in the Jordanian refugee districts and rural Tanzania. Let me assure you, I did my service when I was in a position to actually do something. In terms of sitting around in safe spaces, I’d saying walking around White Plaza is pretty safe. And frankly, the unpopular position to take is pro-Israel, not pro-Palestine.

  • And, as usual, you’re welcome to login with your facebook or send me an email so we can find a mutual safe place to talk about ‘hiding’ behind things like columns or anonymity.

  • Thanks,

    I’m more or less making a statement about popular causes and how a lot of people don’t understand the significance of what they’re wearing/doing, and what type of activities that supports. The keffiyah was just an example, and I overgeneralized without putting qualifiers, which was wrong of me. Thanks for the clarification.

  • no t no shade

    Wow! I sense a lot of condescension here!

  • Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman

    If I wasn’t sure of how sanctimonious you were before, wow, I am now.

  • I personally wouldn’t write an ad hominem diatribe without assigning my name and contact information to something. Call it sanctimony if you want.

  • Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman

    Well, if there’s anything I’ve learned through either service or activism, it’s the importance of listening to others. You’re not listening to the content of the comment, but instead you’re trying to discredit it just beacuse samo is anonymous. Moreover, as I said below, your article does show a tendency to look scornfully at people who are not just like you, in order to avoid any obligation to consider what they are actually saying; and this is ironic in someone who wants to do good. Your commenting style reinforces this impression.

  • Kendall

    Chris, truly prayer and meditation are extremely powerful, maybe that’s why so many “smart” people today are afraid of them. Yogi advice “If you don’t go within, you go without.” Also, many activists pour gas on the symbolic car and light it so everyone can notice the flames burning; instead they need to put the gas in the tank and drive the “car” to where they want to go, right? A little analogy I learned up at Humboldt State. Stay positive, and you will attract positive people. One more thing, you can be sure that when people complain and gripe, you are probably doing something right.