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Comfort versus courage: Bowdoin’s culture promotes lazy activism

September 22, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Last week, the Bowdoin community was in shock upon learning that President Trump would terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). As usual, Bowdoin students rallied together in solidarity for a week to support those who would be affected, yet somehow ignored the gravity of the situation the following week. I understand that posters and rallies serve as important reminders that those affected by DACA’s termination are not alone. Still, while watching swarms of students get in line to sign the big “We Do Not Tolerate Hate” poster in Smith Union, I felt uneasy about their focus on signing rather than on the real issue at hand. One of my friends voiced similar concerns, wondering if students sign these posters “because it’s the trendy thing to do.”

Bowdoin’s political climate has typically given students license to engage in what I call “apathetic activism.” I have watched many Bowdoin students display hollow acts of activism in light of a social or political tragedy, let the tremor of anxiety die down and spontaneously forget how to advocate for others until the next devastating event occurs. This pattern is unproductive as well as self-satisfying. The liberal arts college environment tends to entice students to become activists yet sometimes for the wrong reasons.  To me, many Bowdoin students appear to be complacent about their political views, believing that being a “left-wing liberal arts student who voted for Hillary Clinton” is enough to get by. This attitude is not exclusive to Bowdoin; some of my friends on other college campuses remark that their peers are so self-celebratory about their actions that they fail to consider the little substantial change that results from their efforts.

On the day of Trump’s announcement to eliminate DACA, President Rose sent an email out to Bowdoin’s campus, encouraging students to reach out to senators and other policymakers to ask them to fight for DACA’s preservation. I may sound pessimistic, but I doubt that most students took the president’s advice. During my time at Bowdoin, there have been a handful of student activists losing sleep and emotional energy in an effort to seek justice for marginalized students on campus. I have watched far more lazy “activists” sacrifice nothing more than a few seconds of their day signing a poster or posting a brief status on Facebook. Much of these acts can start to look like a means of acquiring social capital in a millennial world where internet activism is the new trend of the 21st century. Only five months ago, there was major outcry over the Pepsi commercial that featured Kendall Jenner because she seemed to be appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement for personal branding, thus belittling the significance of the movement’s demands. Her intentions may have been pure— but Kendall Jenner engaged in an act of self-flattery by agreeing to an ad that portrayed her as the one who could end police brutality in America by offering a policeman a can of Pepsi.

I am not asking for all Bowdoin students to be fearless activists. I just have one request: stay woke. Bowdoin students should pursue knowledge about challenging issues and engage in the current debates of our time. Most importantly, students should engage with empathy in mind. One should not think so much about the elimination of intangible, abstract programs like DACA but instead imagine thousands of students—including Bowdoin students—having to leave the homes they have known, despite being some of the most productive, law-abiding members of our society. At the very least, raising awareness about social or political issues in one’s classrooms, student clubs and sports teams is productive work that does not require much time. These conversations should not only happen during the week of devastating news, but also weeks or months afterward. Being an activist is not a requirement to fit in at Bowdoin, but if one truly wants to promote progressive change, integrity is a necessity. For every student I see putting his or her name or face on a poster for a cause, I hope that just as many students are doing personal research to educate themselves about whatever cause they wish to support.

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