By Mac Taylor
Over the last two months, Stanford has transitioned from a physical campus to a virtual one. With this shift, we have entered a new moment of advocacy — an advocacy in which physical presence is not only restricted by relevant authorities, but moreover poses a serious health threat to all those involved. In its stead, the online petition is rising as a signifier of wanted change.
In the last few months alone, a plethora of petitions have asked Stanford administrators to make school-wide adjustments — from protecting graduate student summer funding to ensuring an in-person commencement takes place to fighting for Stanford workers’ rights. These petitions, as well as the roughly 7,000 signatories they have collectively gathered, share something else in common: They have all occurred on virtual platforms of advocacy. Unlike other activism platforms, these platforms have been constructed and disseminated entirely online and through social media channels. This rise in virtual petitioning embodies a shift in how advocacy is happening in this moment of crisis. Unable to represent a cause through physical presence, virtual advocacy is serving as an analogue to the conventional public protest. In this new landscape, individuals have turned with force to writing as the key communicator in a digital sphere.
One might ask: Hasn’t petitioning always happened through writing? A petition is, after all, a declaration designed and drafted through the written word. What makes the petitions of this moment so different? The petition, as a public instrument of change used to achieve a desired result, has been met with varying success at Stanford. The petition has a past intertwined with non-violent, public protest. On Stanford’s campus, examples of this intertwining are abundant, such as Fossil Free Stanford’s divestment strategy, which embraces demonstrations in the form of in-person sit-ins and regular signage in White Plaza. The same could be said for the protest efforts of groups like the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035), which has led similar marches across campus to protest Stanford’s lawsuit against Santa Clara County’s housing ordinance. Rallies supporting the rights of campus workers are also near-frequent events at White Plaza.
It is not always the write-up of a march or chanting student sit-in that arguably functions as an instrument of change. Often, it seems to be the physical presence of individuals advocating with terrific energy on behalf of these movements that generates the power to induce change. Yet, in a viral age, online press has been able to create pressure on the Stanford administration that physical presence alone perhaps could not.
In the current activism landscape, the petition seems to walk a connecting line between physical and virtual advocacy. In past activist happenings, the petition itself could even serve as a physical prop, where the culminating act of a protest might be to land a fully printed petition upon an administrator’s desk. In today’s moment, the online petition is serving a different function: By signing a petition, one is able to join a virtual crowd pushing together for change.
Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) is one organization embodying this shift to virtual activism. One only needs to look to current SWR activist writing and recent press to be reminded of the force with which advocacy can occur online. As the current SWR campaign demonstrates, translating direct action into online advocacy has taken many forms and drawn on many voices from across the alumni strata. A key tool in their box? Their online petition — which, as of writing, has garnered 5,608 signatures.
The petition, in this context, serves as an important vehicle for substantiating support: It quantifies what support looks like for a given movement, in terms of signatures and dollars raised. In the virtual context, a petition’s number of signatories conceivably stands as a virtual marker for what a physical protest might look like. The petition is not alone in this, of course. A Zoom meeting aflush with purple SWR backgrounds certainly functions as another proxy for physical representation. Yet, where Zoom backgrounds emphasize recognition for a cause, a petition demands it: When there are over 500 signatories on a petition, the Faculty Senate is required by a University mandate to review its contents.
The power a petition brings with it is not always good. Some petitions, though written with good intent, are capable of inflicting unforeseen and perhaps hazardous or discriminatory consequences, a point that an op-ed on the dangers of community interventions into a medical emergency like coronavirus argues well. In this vein, seemingly good and thoughtful activism must, indeed, be good and thoughtful.
Regardless, there is much to celebrate about the power of the petition at Stanford today as a unifying factor for so many in our community. We can celebrate our peers’ advocacy on behalf of others. We can celebrate the commitment and care that this type of work demands. We can celebrate a narrative shift to include actors sometimes left out of the dialogue of physical advocacy, such as those who might be physically less able to attend activist gatherings and events.
Yet, for myself, as a humanities student through and through, this translation of direct advocacy to the virtual sphere has transfixed me for a specific reason: its reliance on the compelling nature of the written word.
There have been few moments in our University’s history, perhaps since the invention of the Internet — and following, social media — in which the written petition has been so relied upon to affect change. The petitions of today’s virtual advocacy must be precise, eloquent and convincing. They must retain a clarity of message that is not easy to dispute or ignore. There is a demand in these documents for accurate persuasion in a way that has rarely been so regularly needed before.
In a campus culture devoid of, well, campus, this type of written advocacy has taken center stage. Its main actors? Those who have spent time working to harness the power of the written word. In a classroom setting, such study by and large comes from humanities courses — those classes that encourage intellectual curiosity beyond the obviously practical, the classes devoted to intentional and passionate use of speech and intelligent reasoning. The individuals who utilize the skill sets emerging from this type of thinking come from all over our university, of course: They are not bound to one department or major track. They are all, however, joined in a singular cause: to raise the voices of the many through the engaged word.
This project is never one that should be taken for granted. It should always be valued and lauded. To this end, the next time you see a petition circulating — one that is carefully and deliberately written — think about it. Think about the authors, who have labored over this task of language. Think about the signatories, who have been persuaded by these authors’ presentations of their causes. And think, further, of the power of words.
If we take one thing from this moment’s shift to virtual advocacy, I hope it is this: that in times of uncertainty and of darkness, words still light the way to change.
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