A Few Thoughts on Activism and Stanford Culture

A version of this post originally appeared on the Occupy Art blog.

by Lizzie Quinlan, ’13


Over the past few months I have found myself wondering why it is so hard to mobilize Stanford students to direct action. There is a general perception that activism is a lost art on this campus, and it’s hard to say why this is the case. You would think that with all of the injustices in our world becoming ever more visible as technology makes them easier to broadcast, we would barely have time to breathe for all the marches, boycotts, and rallies we would be organizing. After all, we’re energetic college students, aren’t we? But the reality is that problem after problem gets ignored, or at best halfheartedly discussed by a few people before being swept aside as just another project we don’t have time for in between essays and problem sets.

(* I should preface this blog post with an acknowledgement of all the fantastic service that Stanford students do. I am speaking specifically about activism, which I see as a public critical engagement with issues of social justice and the systems of oppression that create these problems. *)

Given my puzzlement over the current state of affairs, I’ve tried to brainstorm a few possible reasons why so few of us consider ourselves activists, and why public, collective, rage is such an infrequent visitor to this campus. Here’s what I came up with:

(1) Stanford students believe in the system.

This is one of the most common explanations I’ve heard for why the intelligent, creative, ethical people on this campus hear words like “revolution” and want to lock their double-lock our doors at night. Each one of us has successfully navigated elementary school, high school, college admissions, and classes at Stanford- achievements which have required us to follow instructions and work well with people in authority. These are fantastic skills for resume-building, but not necessarily conducive to deconstructing systems of oppression. Furthermore, no matter how we might feel during week six midterms, we are for the most part very good at participating in classes and taking the kinds of tests that our society requires of ‘successful’ students. Because we have succeeded at demonstrating our proficiency in a particular type of education system, many of us simply lack the intellectual bandwidth to understand why some students are at a supreme disadvantage in this system. I do not say this to minimize the genuine diversity of perspectives among the student body- many of us do come from communities for whom faith in our economy, politicians, law enforcement, public schools, etc. is laughable. But far too many of us fail to see our complicity in systems of oppression, as well as the ways in which we are actually victims of the system. We have trouble envisioning what freedom would look like because we don’t take the time to look around and see the extent to which we are not free now.

(2) Stanford students like results.

None of us wants to get arrested or pepper sprayed by police. But I think we are even more averse to standing around in the cold with a bunch of strangers, feeling uninspired, or falling behind on homework. We would rather wait until success feels attainable to join a movement. Or at the very least, we would prefer to wait until the cameras show up and make us feel edgy and interesting. We do not want to commit to anything that will not achieve a tangible objective in a set amount of time. Our maximum-efficiency schedules cannot accommodate the kind of unglamorous work it takes to build a movement, or so we have come to believe. But it’s important to remember that sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off right away. Sometimes you have to go to a couple of boring meetings or a whole lot of poorly attended protests in order to build momentum for transformation. A lifetime struggle for social justice might be precisely the type of risky venture we have become ‘successful’ by avoiding, but we need to remind ourselves that the ability to reduce a goal to a list of quickly checked-off boxes is not a good thing. Rome, as the saying goes, was not built in a day. Neither was the neocolonial American empire. And as reluctant as we might feel to admit it, the most important achievements of our lives will not happen overnight.

(3) Our society’s love affair with social media makes us less appreciative of physical presence.

I like facebook. I enjoy being able to see what my friends are up to when they’re not around. And I won’t jump on the bandwagon of people claiming that the internet has turned our generation into illiterate, youtube-addicted, attention-deficit porn fiends. What I do believe is that the ability to instantaneously access information and virtually interact with people who are physically distant has caused us to devalue face-to-face connections. For many of us, the idea of leaving our rooms and going to a rally where we might not know anyone is about as attractive as scrubbing the bathroom floor in Synergy. We can hardly be bothered to pick up the phone and have a conversation because texting is so much more convenient. Our comfort in virtual reality, which has connected us in ways that were inconceivable ten years ago, has also made us more reluctant to put our bodies in unfamiliar spaces. But I believe that there is something vitally important about intentionally occupying space with others, and that the energy shared in that space cannot be replicated in remote interaction. We need to avoid what Jeff Chang calls the “premature cynicism” that allows us to diss and dismiss social movements from a safe distance so that we don’t have to get involved. Say what you will about hippies and their effectiveness as social organizers, but they certainly did know the value of getting people together to celebrate their humanity and protest the systems that undermined it. We need to unplug every once in a while and remind ourselves that presence matters. Tweeting about current events can be a fantastic way to draw attention to important issues, but feet on the pavement, not fingers on a computer keyboard, are what make revolution happen.

I do not intend for this reflection to sound condescending or overly accusatory. After all, I am writing it from the comfort of my room, not boldly shouting it from a megaphone on a streetcorner. On any given day, I am guilty of abusing my privilege and ignoring injustice. My motivation for writing is my sense that even though so many of us care so much about what our society looks like now and the direction in which it is headed, we are still having all the wrong conversations about social justice. We ask how we could possibly fit activism into our schedules when we should be asking what the consequences will be if we do not. We criticize protesters’ flawed tactics when we should be concerned about the sort of people we are becoming when we consistently fail to act in response to injustice. We cannot sit at our computer screens passively judging the people around us and then expect that when ‘The Revolution’ (whatever that might mean) comes, we will be ready to lead it.

Luckily, another way of doing things is not only possible, but currently being put into practice by various communities. There are so many passionate people already organizing successfully around issues that matter to them. Talking to these people about how their consciousness developed, their visions for a better global community, and their strategies for getting there can be extremely enlightening. We are living in a mind-blowingly dynamic historical moment when people are building new worlds based on shared visions of justice and freedom. Let’s join them! I want to look back and see my time at Stanford as the beginning of a lifetime of revolutionary action, not the four years I spent waiting for my Career to start.

Why are Stanford students reluctant to be revolutionaries? Because we are terrified that we just might have to get up from behind our desks and do something risky. I think it’s about time we all woke up from our long collective nap of complacency, because we wield tremendous power when our eyes are open.


Lizzie is a junior majoring in Comparative Literature. She is inspired by feminism and groovy music. Contact her at ejhq09@stanford.edu

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21 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Activism and Stanford Culture

  1. […] A Few Thoughts on Activism and Stanford Culture by Lizzie Quinlan, ‘13 […]

  2. Haydn Dufrene says:

    @Legion really sums it up I think…
    People just don’t really care and don’t connect with anyone outside of their immediate situation. If someone has not directly influenced your wellbeing, then they do not deserve anything, much less your appreciation. If someone has, then they merely deserve your reimbursement, and maybe if they are lucky enough, you will consider investing in them.

    Society has conditioned us to value immediate superficial gratification over any amount of empathy.

    ‘Suppose in 10 years I make it rich. When it’s time to give some of that wealth back, I’m going to give it to STANFORD, not some Haiti fund. Again, sorry for being honest. I’m a black student who was given no legs up, no scholarship money, etc. Give me a good reason why I should provide support to anything other than Stanford, who provided me with such a great education. I’m indebted to this university to that extent.’

    You have the privilege to be as ‘successful’ as you desire.
    You also have the privilege to help others be as successful.
    You do not deserve either of these things, any more than a starving child deserves his next bowl of rice, or does not.

    It’s not about what we have to do or what other people deserve.
    Do what is right. And if ‘right’ is to climb the never-ending ladder of societally defined success, then so be it. We will all continue on this rat race, alone, until the day we die.
    But, perchance, the ‘right’ is closer to determining a solution for all beings on this earth to cohabit this space and strive as a whole to redefine ‘success’ and work together to achieve it.

    Have a child; talk to old people; do some drugs; fuck, just buy some empathy with all that success you guys have.

    Next time I see you, you just better have a smile on your face. A smile that you would be willing to share with someone you actively chose not to help in a time of need. Until you can do that, I would reassess what you find to be right.

  3. Anonymous says:

    we’re not in a city. who would hear us?

  4. jc says:

    You mention we all benefited from the system to get here, we’re goal-oriented/results-driven, and that online realities indulge and perpetuate slacktivism, but what about Stanford itself, the physical space. We live in a hyper-tolerant, affluent, utopian paradise (to a first approximation…) People here are so far removed from struggle that it’s natural to be complacent. If it weren’t for online social media, imagine how apathetic most of us would be. Either we have to bring the real world to us or join them, because otherwise it’s just too damn comfortable to do nothing.

  5. Legion says:

    “Why are Stanford students reluctant to be revolutionaries?”

    Isn’t it obvious?

    *NO INCENTIVE*

    Kevin is right on the money – I admire the *idea* of activism, but most activism I see on campus is laughable, at best. Being at Stanford in and of itself makes us much more likely to land high-paying, high-powered jobs; seeing a bunch of students we don’t know yelling about some issue happening in Anytown, Any3rdWorldCountry isn’t going to attract other students – lets be honest.

    If anything, activism is probably seen as a waste of time for students.

    Why spend an hour yelling through a megaphone on white plaza when you could spend that hour smashing beers, Code (for the CS-minded), ideas for a new iPhone App, or your respective social scene?

    And most protestors on campus seem to be yelling just for for the sake of yelling, anyways. It’s hard for me to really consider what a protestor is saying when he or she comes from an upper-middle class background (sorry bro, as much as I love Sperry’s, they dont do much for your cause) and is arguing something irrelevant.

    Furthermore, let’s strip away some of the fluff and be brutally honest – most of us don’t owe SOCIETY anything.

    We owe alumni (who subsidized some of our education, and paved the way for future students), we owe our educators, we owe our PARENTS for providing the support that brought us here. While I can’t speak for other students, to this extent, I personally am more indebted to the Arrilaga Family than my kin in the 99% who are struggling for policy change.

    I’m arguably part of the 99%, but I’m at Stanford to GET OUT of the 99%. Aren’t most of us here to be successful?

    Suppose in 10 years I make it rich. When it’s time to give some of that wealth back, I’m going to give it to STANFORD, not some Haiti fund. Again, sorry for being honest. I’m a black student who was given no legs up, no scholarship money, etc. Give me a good reason why I should provide support to anything other than Stanford, who provided me with such a great education. I’m indebted to this university to that extent.

    Why do you expect us to owe the Kony 2012 cause anything? I think Jeremy makes a solid point in that we really don’t have the passion excited in us like a Berkeley student would.

    Lizzie, your heartfelt argument is great – you make many good points and there IS a major problem with the lack of activism in our culture. But do know that activism is quite irrelevant to the average student, when most of us are coming from at-least-decently well off families, and, given the direction many of us are headed, will still remain decently well off after graduation.

    People UNDERSTAND many of the problems going on in society, but dealing with these problems are as irrelevant to a Stanford student as air is to a fish.

    • esqg says:

      This is a lot of writing to defend the status quo, so I doubt you’re actually that apathetic. Just because you can only do a little at a time, just because the problems of society are overwhelming, and just because you struggled to make it to the top yourself, doesn’t mean you should look for excuses not to fix the system.

      Anyway, it doesn’t matter how and when it is done, there will always be people laughing at visible activists, pushing back out of sheer cynicism and arguing “it will never change”, or pushing back out of idealism and arguing “it will get better if you will just wait”. That’s part of the job, though I think your idea of what activism is may be too narrow. Can’t you do better?

    • “Suppose in 10 years I make it rich. When it’s time to give some of that wealth back, I’m going to give it to STANFORD, not some Haiti fund. Again, sorry for being honest. I’m a black student who was given no legs up, no scholarship money, etc. Give me a good reason why I should provide support to anything other than Stanford, who provided me with such a great education. I’m indebted to this university to that extent.”

      It’s this sense of “indebtedness” that prevents us from critically analyzing the institution of which we are a part, even as it remains complicit in perpetuating many of the great problems of the world. The Hoover Institution is America’s favorite pro-war think tank. The Econ department practically invented neoliberal vampire capitalism. Stanford straight up conducted nuclear weapons research for a time (though this is a hard one to verify). Last time I checked, they accepted you. You don’t “owe” them anything. Even if you are thousands of dollars in debt, that’s not an ideological debt. (And please don’t make this about “blackness.” That’s not fair to us black folks.)

  6. who wants to be a follower? says:

    “We cannot sit at our computer screens passively judging the people around us and then expect that when ‘The Revolution’ (whatever that might mean) comes, we will be ready to lead it.” As an alum, I think there’s an underlying assumption here that also tears at the small activist community on campus. The assumption is that being a Stanford student makes you a leader (in this case of oppressed communities). For example, Stanford students love to start their own club, but how many love to join another’s club? How organized and campaign-driven are the activists on campus? Of course they are up against high turn-over and summer break where the school re-writes the history of the year prior, but this very reason is why Static is such a fundamentally important and necessary idea. How are we organizing together and coming together around issues that matter to some of us for the benefit of all of us? This requires taking a back seat, following directions, and playing your role (which may not be leader). Sometimes Stanford exceptionalism can backfire into inaction. I think we have an example of this here.

    • lclamont says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Stanford is full of leaders – its one of the many characteristics that makes it so great, but it’s also one of the reasons why large scale activism is so difficult to achieve. Convincing students to join a movement, rather than to lead one is incredibly more difficult.

      I think this also plays into what other people have been writing about incentives and resume boosting. President/ Director looks a hell of a lot better than “volunteer”, but being a president of nothing means nothing unless you can gain followers, support, a base.

  7. Eric says:

    I think you picked out some great reasons why Stanford in particular lacks an activist spirit. However, not only is the problem more general than that (there hasn’t been any large student protest movement in the U.S. in decades) but it is also historically contingent: Stanford has had large student protest movements in the past that forced the administration to create ethnic studies programs, build community centers, increase the number of students and faculty who are women, queer, and of color, and generally establish the (incomplete) diversity that Stanford has today.

    I’m not sure why the U.S. has had such a lack of student activism since the 70s, but I think it has something to do with the cynicism that pervades today’s ideology. Everyone knows the system is corrupt, but instead of critiquing or resisting it, they simply accept its evils as fodder for their cynical jokes. This cynicism, then, functions as a kind of permission for the systemic injustice. In this way, the neoliberal ideology has distorted the negative urge to resist into a vague cynicism that permits the injustices to continue and expand.

  8. Hey Lizzie, “THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE,” he yells through his bullhorn! Another thought occurred to me that is implicit in a couple of your ideas and that is that Stanford and our privilege teaches us that the way we get things done in the world is by a top-down paradigm of power and change whereas protest and organizing is a bottom-up paradigm that is harder and more foreign. As you say, it takes longer and it is more about building relationships and working together to achieve change. Thanks so much!

  9. Jeremy Lai '13 says:

    I once posed the question to a bunch of my Stanford peers, “Do you believe in free speech?” Everyone said yes, as expected.

    Then I asked, “What if the government suddenly said you couldn’t criticize the President anymore? Would you be willing to go to jail to defend your free speech?” Again, most everyone said yes except for the international Chinese student who has obviously dealt with that question in his own life.

    Then I asked, “Would you be willing to get shot for free speech? Would you pick up a gun and fight for free speech?” Again, most everyone said yes. Then the Chinese student said something, that really changed how I viewed activism. He brought up that many Chinese people are okay without free speech. They much prefer to live in their homes, with a stable income, and enough money to enjoy oneself on the weekends. Just because they are inconvenienced by not being allowed to criticize Hu Jintao, doesn’t mean they’re ready to get shot at. He called it an “inconvenience.”

    I, like other idealistic Stanford students raised in this la-la land of excellent education, subscribed to the notion that free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. It’s something the founding fathers fought and died for. Of course I would also die for it! But then I got to thinking. Would I really rally in the streets and spend a night in jail because I couldn’t make Obama jokes in public anymore? Would I really leave my nicely air-conditioned room with my big TV to go scream at people? I don’t think I would. I don’t think I actually believe in free speech. I think I like the notion of free speech, but the reality is I don’t think I’m going to picking up my rifle and risking my life for free speech.

    This brings me back to my Chinese friend. “Inconvenience?” I asked. He replied, “I think I can resist talking shit about the government to avoid jail. It’s not that hard. I just don’t talk shit.” Then I got to thinking more. I could easily just stop making jokes about the government. Jail doesn’t sound very fun. But, I had also never been truly wronged by the government (outside of the DMV anyways). I had nothing that I really wanted to speak out against. I hadn’t been hurt. There’s no inner need to scream out against the injustices in my life. Because there really are none. I realize that not everyone has that luxury, but it’s really hard to bring myself to go to jail or get shot for them. I think here-in lies why it’s so hard to get Stanford students to be real activists. They just haven’t felt the pain enough to enlighten their passion. To many, it’s still a “community service project” like they did in high school to write on their college application. Well, there are no more college apps to fill out (*cough* *cough* pre-meds) and the only thing left to motivate people to act is passion. Of which we have very little unless of course you’re talking about our passion for career advancement, recognition, and money.

    I always wonder if they enacted a draft tomorrow and started shipping our idealistic asses off to Afghanistan, how much activism we’d see then. I think I’d rather go to jail then to Afghanistan.

  10. Kevin says:

    The largest problems in this world cannot be fixed as their root cause is human nature itself. Sometimes you can only treat the symptoms.

    On a more specific note, most of the “activists” I know simply speak change and never create it, I have a difficult time respecting and following such persons.

    • esqg says:

      Social change does happen, but not without effort. If you don’t think “activists” will have any effect, for what reason do you care enough to tell the rest of us to be as hopeless as you feel?

  11. An Observor says:

    You’re talking about “revolution” in the context of a democracy–a system of government explicitly “of the people, by the people, for the people”. What would you see put in its place?

    True, congressional approval is abysmal (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/congressional_job_approval-903.html), but people are generally happy with THEIR OWN congressman (http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php). It’s just the OTHER party that’s the source of stagnation, injustice, and inefficiency.

    Your beef isn’t with the monolithic and perpetually scorned “system”, which allows regular, frequent opportunities to change the agenda of the fellow citizens we as a country choose to lead us–your problem is with us. If you want a revolution, it’s not because you’re one of a privileged few that are enlightened enough to see beyond the system, patient enough to put hard work into creating real social change, and more in touch with your fellow man by scorning social media as a means of socializing. It’s because you don’t approve of the agenda that the majority approved of when it elected the current officeholders, and feel like making noise about it in the hopes that people see the legitimacy of your desires.

  12. Lukek says:

    C’mon Stanford take the wool off your eyes, stretch your legs, grab a bullhorn. Find something truly meaningful to you – a community, a collective vision, a place that feels like home – and dedicate your time to it. Put that theory into practice, and trust, you won’t regret it. — Lizzie, awesome work!

  13. T says:

    This (http://27.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m20vxi86Id1rt8obko1_500.jpg) is how it is. How are you going to convince any non-negligible number of those people in the middle to give up their comfort? Not by shouting through a megaphone, that’s for sure.

  14. esqg says:

    I think the “Stanford students like results” bit is a point worth great emphasis, and similar to attitudes at Harvard (where I did undergrad). When we study, and later when we pursue careers, we often expect to be able to apply our best talents and skills directly to our work, within systems that fit us reasonably well. When we consider doing things like standing in the street and yelling, calling officials to try to change their positions, spreading news in media, or direct social work, these seem like a waste of our time because they’re unglamorous as you say, and because they don’t fit our niches of specialization. For example when I aimed to tutor children in a high-risk school and had to mentor them instead, I felt both out of my depth socially and as if my math skills were not being used well at all.

    That feeling, that expectation that we should have the proper training already for everything we do, and that we should be able to use all of our time to greatest effect: hate to say it, but that is arrogance born of privilege. We should use our skills to the best effect we can, but we may have to create our own projects, our own communities, seek out our own causes, and seek training in unexpected places, to do it. I don’t know for sure about anyone else, but I find that very difficult.

  15. Co-op resident says:

    “…the idea of leaving our rooms and going to a rally where we might not know anyone is about as attractive as scrubbing the bathroom floor in Synergy.”

    I, for one, love doing my bathroom cleans…

    • Anonymous says:

      Hey fellow co-oper, the Synergy comment was intended mostly as a joke. I, too, love doing house jobs and I didn’t mean to hate on Synergy at all! I think we should all be much more open to activities that appear time-consuming and unpleasant but can end up having a lot of value as tools for building community.

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