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How to write an anti-activist op-ed

So, Stanford student: You’re unhappy about activism. Pissed, even. Given the flurry of protests, shut-downs and teach-ins that happened last year around BlackLivesMatter, ASSU endorsements, divestment from companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine and other pressing issues, it’s no surprise there is plenty of leftover resentment boiling on campus from students who want nothing more than a return to peace and quiet. For conversations to go back to PSets and parties, pleasant trivialities, mundane coffee dates and the occasional opportunity to wear that “Buck Ferkeley” shirt and pretend to have school spirit.

But the political landscape of Stanford has changed. Activism and social justice movements in America and elsewhere have jerked this campus into rusty action, and the grim realities of the world outside the bubble have seeped in to hang like a thundercloud above us all. I see a greater acknowledgement of police brutality and mass incarceration in my classes. I see a huge influx of theme programming from dorms and houses across campus focusing on issues of social justice. I see people who have never had to talk about oppression and marginalization taking their first steps into rough conversations.

Not everyone has been happy with the recent changes on campus. To many people, activism at Stanford is a threat that needs to be addressed, a challenge to the pleasantly mundane status quo. And so, just as there are now frequent calls for change, resistance and liberation, so too are there calls for moderation, desistance and silence. I’ve decided this week to write about the most common mechanisms of these arguments, and so, Buzzfeed-style: Here are three easy steps on how to write an anti-activist op-ed.

1. Identify coded rhetoric that appeals to your target demographic.

During the Civil Rights Era, the go-to phrase was “Law and Order.” Those who opposed the sit-ins, marches and demonstrations of the time used this rhetoric to paint activists as dangerous, violent and criminal; to stir up fear and hostility along historical lines of racism, threat and anti-blackness. There are other examples: “Traditional/family values” is rhetoric that has been used to great effect against queer and trans activists and their communities. And the rhetoric of patriotism, of “America” and “Americans,” is an oft-used mask for xenophobia and racism that continues to fuel violence against Latinxs, Asian-Americans, Muslims and other marginalized communities. Not to be outdone, we at Stanford have our own home-grown variety of this kind of rhetoric – “dialogue.” Somehow, the mythical idea of a Stanford where every student smiles and shares their experiences to all grow together overwhelms the reality that students here are defensive against any conversation that makes them feel the least bit guilty or privileged, and that “dialogue” often means “let me insult you in the name of free speech” and not “let me learn.”

2. Identify lived experiences that you do not have. Then represent them.

We each perceive the reality around us in subtly different ways compared to people of different identities, as a result of our differing experiences growing up. But our focus on the self often leads to a belief that as individuals, we experience the world as it really is, and that all who disagree with us must be biased or wrong. Add in a history of injustice, power inequities and erasure and you get the present day, where privileged people hold the false belief that they can understand what it means to live with identities or experiences they themselves do not have. Yes, it’s funny when cis men underestimate how much childbirth hurts in YouTube videos. It is slightly less funny when white people purport to speak for Black people, when the rich try to speak for the poor, when cis people claim to represent trans people.

3. Be smug.

Call it paternalism, call it internalized oppression – no anti-activist sentiment could be complete without an attitude suggesting that some aspect of activism or identity is immature, ineffective, unreasonable or illogical. Often, privileged people use an aggressive Political Rationalism and a fervent belief that social issues can all be objectively analyzed to justify their complete and utter disregard for lived experiences and identities. The language of privilege and oppression, prejudice and bias, is useless, but the logic of opinions and logic is absolute, many believe. And logic can’t be prejudiced.

This triumvirate of tactics is widespread and effective – and an easy formula to get the hang of. Some examples:

Campus activism is unproductive because it is not articulate, respectful or civilized. We must be committed to dialogue and discussion.

This experience of racism is not really racism. By focusing on these instances, we ignore the real racism elsewhere.

Activism is ineffective when the majority doesn’t like it. Campus activism is ineffective because it doesn’t make space for dialogue.  

I wrote this column because responding to increasingly similar op-eds feels redundant after a while. And maybe those kinds of responses just aren’t worth it. Liberation is something that marginalized people will struggle towards whether or not the privileged majority grants us their blessings. There will be more teach-ins. There will be more protests. There will be more rage and joy and survival as we move forward. Activism could use more collaborators and colluders committed to justice, make no mistake – but why waste our time convincing people who don’t want to be convinced?    

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!