This piece began as a typical Seeing Double head-to-head about whether or not all students had an obligation to participate in activism. After finishing our respective takes, we realized that the two essays were more dueling reflections upon what it means to be an activist than claims in a rigid debate. Instead of a head-to-head, we offer this piece as a conversation on the role activism plays in our lives at Amherst.
My co-columnist and I agree on a lot of things. We both believe that people have a responsibility to better their community. We both believe that activism is a great way to achieve that end. However, my co-columnist believes that every student is obligated to participate in activism. My disagreement is twofold. First, I believe that there are legitimate reasons for a student to refrain from activism. Second, I believe that activism is only one of many ways a student can improve their community. Given these two points, it would be wrong to consider activism an obligation. In fact, calling activism an obligation, as my co-columnist does, diminishes its value and takes away the agency of activists. It is thus with the greatest admiration for the work that I say activism is a choice, not an obligation.
Let’s be clear what I mean when I say activism. Activism is much more substantive than holding your friends accountable, liking messages on social media, or even writing articles in the Amherst Student. According to Merriam-Webster, it means taking “direct vigorous action” fighting for social or political change. That usually means either picketing or striking, or the emotionally intense work of sharing your own experience on a platform like @amherstshareyourstory. Most people, however, rarely participate in direct activism. One of the most recent and successful Amherst movements, #ReclaimAmherst, did not even reach the notice of the vast majority of Amherst students.
The problem is that this kind of work comes at a huge cost. A recent study showed that intense student activism — particularly among students in marginalized communities — usually leads to reduced academic performance, feelings of isolation, and physical and emotional exhaustion. This is the case even if large sections of the community support their cause. The contributors on @amherstshareyourstory make it clear in their testimonials just how painful and difficult it is for them to publicly discuss their experiences. Meaningful activism, as it turns out, is painful and difficult.
We should support those who sacrifice their personal well-being to participate in serious activism, but is it fair to expect every student to follow their example? In particular, what about people who already have fragile mental health, or who are struggling in school? What about those who have reason to believe that speaking up would put them in danger? These people are doing nothing wrong if they avoid activism in certain times and places. Instead, they can do equally important, but less personally harmful things, like giving their activist friends emotional support.
Activism is an especially personal decision at a place like Amherst. Unlike the wider world, Amherst exists to fill a designated role. People come to Amherst to study and learn. Many students and their families sacrifice immense amounts of time, money, and energy in order to get an Amherst education. For many students, that education is crucial to support themselves and their loved ones, or to improve the world outside of college. I have lots of friends who hope to use their Amherst education to revitalize their gentrified hometown, treat life-theatening illnesses, or teach in struggling schools. If we believe that people have a right to use activism to support causes they believe in, we should also acknowledge that students have the right to do the same through learning.
Society depends upon activism, but activists also depend upon society. To achieve their aims, every activist relies upon a huge network of individuals who help their communities through non-activist means. These are people who feed them, broadcast their stories on the news, heal their wounds, represent them in court, or any of the thousand other ways that people better the world. I believe that we all have an obligation to help our community, but I also believe that we have the right to choose our form of participation. Activism is one way, but it is not the only way.
To be a member of our campus community is to be responsible for how it treats people. We are implicated in the misdeeds of others by sharing space with them, by drinking with them on the weekends, and by responding to them respectfully in class. Moreover, we are responsible when the structure of our community makes some people feel unwelcome or actively harms them.
Thankfully, that responsibility is accompanied by power. Some of this power is formal, exercised through the AAS in club budgets, college governance committees, and the like. And some of it involves pressuring the administration through open letters, like the laudable “A Better Amherst” series in this paper, protests, and pressure campaigns.
But the power that I find more compelling is our informal ability to change our community’s culture. Activism is not only attending committee meetings or picketing outside an administrative building; those acts would do nothing to solve some of our most egregious communal failures. The anonymous Instagram account @amherstshareyourstory has highlighted the pervasive and horrifying problem of rape and sexual abuse at Amherst College. It is entirely within students’ informal activist power to end rape culture at Amherst.
Our informal power flows from our everyday interactions. Seemingly little acts, like taking survivors seriously and calling out harmful jokes, compound on each other and define the campus climate. By changing what we condone and what we condemn, we can make this campus a safe and respectful place. By refusing to see a problem, continuing to joke about sexual assault, and covering for perpetrators, we do just the opposite.
My co-columnist points out how “intense activism” is exhausting, and he’s right. A basic ground rule of activism is that you can’t be effective without being healthy. My co-columnist presents a false dichotomy between working oneself to death and doing nothing, but there’s a healthy middle ground. And as I’ve pointed out, the most important activism consists of little acts, repeated again and again, rather than “direct vigorous action.” Don’t get me wrong — protests and picketing are extremely important, and we should join them when we can. But using our social power in everyday interactions is often far more impactful.
It isn’t okay for some people, like the anonymous survivors behind @amherstshareyourstory, to do all the heavy lifting. Maybe it wouldn’t be so exhausting to participate in activism if everyone shouldered the load.
Doing nothing is acquiescing to a status quo that makes this campus unlivable for some people. The very fact that we have informal power — which flows from interactions we can’t avoid — obligates us to use it. When we shirk our obligation to make our community better, we essentially pretend that there are no problems that we have the power to solve.
This isn’t only true for sexual assault. Recurring racist incidents are a product of our tolerance for racism, not a necessary result of college life. College policy plays a role, but so does our own reluctance to step up and make change.
My co-columnist might try to cast an “activism obligation” as some sort of fascist requirement to march and chant, but it’s really just an obligation to follow through on what it means to be a member of our campus community. He says that no Amherst student has an obligation to be anything but a student, but he ignores the fact that being a student — a member of this community — is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. Such is life as an Amherst student, and such is life as a human being.