As I went through every Argus from 1993-2003 in the library archives, I noticed something peculiar in the headlines: Many of them could be in today’s Argus and no one would be the wiser. There were a few articles about students’ anger toward the alcohol policy and parties being shut down, another with a headline that read, “Women: Fraternities Are Not Just for Men, Rush Fraternities,” and several more articles about sexual assault on campus and how the administration is failing in that respect.
There were patterns in these issues that were impossible to ignore. Every one to two years, there was usually some strife between Wesleyan and the MPD. Every semester, and at times every week, there would be problems between the student body and the fraternities. Issues concerning racism, feminism, environmentalism, and police brutality popped up at regular intervals as well.
The headlines and cycles I saw in The Argus in the ’90s and early 2000s were shocking to say the least. As I sat in the library, I felt like I had entered The Twilight Zone. We are talking about many of the same exact issues today, and in many circumstances, the rhetoric hasn’t changed at all. The Wesleyan Experience began to seem more and more like a pre-programmed list of topics and debates that each cohort of students goes through, without significant differences from one generation to the next. I started to question whether these activist groups are really that organic, or are a designed structure into which we are all indoctrinated when we first arrive on campus, where we walk down well-trodden paths until we graduate. I started to think that we are actually getting a Wesleyan McSperience, with each of us leaving with the same identical activist “Big Mac” as previous generations of students.
But whose fault is that? Is it the culture of Wesleyan set up by tradition, or because Wesleyan’s particular brand of activism is largely ineffective, and thus the same issues repeat because they have not been resolved? Can we do something about this? I decided to look at each of the activist groups from the ’90s to figure it out.
Without a doubt, the group that has advanced the figurative football the most are the activists of the gay rights movement. From the ’90s to today, the movement has scored success after success as states ratify gay marriage laws, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional, and slurs were re-appropriated.
Why were the gay rights activists so successful? It was because they didn’t simply rely on the intellectually barren strategy of “awareness” as their sole form of activism. Sure, awareness was a significant portion of the movement initially, but they used that awareness to promote a few, specific goals they wanted to accomplish. They wanted the right to marry; they wanted equal recognition under federal law. And because they had specific goals, they were able to work toward them and accomplish them.
But even more impressively, they were very vocal in speaking out against the extremists in their own movement. When a gay activist chalked a very offensive statement on the sidewalks in front of the fraternities, the gay rights movement publicly condemned it.
The gay rights movement is the case study as to why an activist movement works. The activists were leveraged into different components: acceptance (whenever a gay slur was found on a bathroom wall they rallied the campus to condemn it), specific goals (they had a clear direction), and moderation (they publicly condemned extreme activists in their ranks).
But how about movements that haven’t had as much success?
If we look at Occupy Wall Street, the activists originally had a lot of momentum, which was due to the awareness they generated. They had a great trademark, “the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent,” which is now part of the daily discussion about big corporations. But they failed to capitalize on that awareness, and as a result had a decreased lasting impact. They suffered from image problems: sexual assault and other crimes in their camp, the disgusting conditions in Zuccotti Park, and no clear-cut goals. Their counterpart, the Tea Party, had much more success because it was determined to place some of its leaders in Congress. They had a specific goal.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which opposes police brutality and racism, has had many of the same problems as Occupy. The march at the end of last semester did nothing more than piss off the people and government of Middletown. Why? Because awareness as the basis of a protest is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Everyone has a smart phone. Many issues go viral. People are aware. I would be hard-pressed to find a resident in Middletown who wasn’t aware of the Michael Brown or Eric Garner incidents before the protest, so what did the march achieve? Not much. The Black Lives Matter movement locked down the city to tell people things they already knew. Are you really that surprised that they were upset?
Even one of the officers of the Middletown Police Department with whom I talked during a ride along told me that he didn’t know what the march was trying to achieve. He was there at the march, and kept listening and trying to find what the message was. I had to tell the officer that the only demand that I could find was requiring body cameras on officers. You might be surprised to know that many officers whom I’ve talked to, including a few in the NYPD, are fully in support of these body cameras. They want the country to see what they put up with on a day-to-day basis.
The feminist movement on campus has specific goals, such as stopping sexual assaults on campus, but the frequent misinformation dissemination and some actions by its radical leaders are a liability. If you are a moderate feminist on campus, you need to take a page from the gay right activists book: Speak up and speak out against the extreme elements. You need to weather their intimidation and attempts to silence you. Take control of your movement and sideline the extremists.
Not only do movements need clear goals, but the goals have to be realistic. When the gay right activists wanted the right to marry, they raised awareness, generated support, and got the votes—all of which were realistic objectives. People realized that the person others want to marry doesn’t impact their own lives in any way, and the religious/cultural objections are seeing their support erode.
When the goal isn’t realistic, the activist movement stagnates. Case in point: the environmentalist movement here on campus. When the environmentalists want to achieve something realistic, such as increasing energy efficiency on campus, growing gardens, putting up solar panels, they see success. But when it isn’t realistic, such as stopping the production, sale, and use of fossil fuels, their gains are marginal. Here is a cold, hard fact: Energy underpins everything in our society. High costs of energy will significantly impact the poor and middle class. Removing fossil fuels from our society without having a replacement equivalent in both availability and cost will destroy the poor and middle classes. Wes, Divest: You are wasting your time until there is a legitimate alternative to fossil fuels. As long as we use tons of fossil fuels to run Wesleyan, divestment is not only incredibly hypocritical, but also potentially classist; some might be able to afford the higher energy costs if you eliminate or severely hamper the oil companies, but most of us can’t. Figure out a way to run Wesleyan without fossil fuels and without a subsequent increase in tuition. Then we can go after the dirty energy companies.
Rewrite your activism script, Wesleyan. Because our current form of activism is a tired meme, and an increasingly irrelevant joke.
Stascavage is a member of the Class of 2018.