When we talk about political activism, we often frame these conversations quantitatively. We urge each other to vote more, to protest more, to care more.
What we are less eager to address is the quality of our engagement. What are our political goals, and how can we achieve them? Are our actions performative or productive? Are we working to change people’s minds, or are we shouting into the void?
On Monday, we saw an example of quality political activism. In response to a talk by historian and American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Michael Rubin entitled “America’s Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,” Bowdoin Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organized a sit-in outside the lecture hall where he was presenting.
Upon the announcement of Rubin’s campus visit, SJP released a statement condemning the rhetoric he has used in his writing on the Israel-Palestine conflict—specifically concerning Palestinians—as violent and racist. In dissent, the group invited the community to sit quietly outside Smith Auditorium in Sills Hall, where Rubin was presenting, and hold signs calling for a ceasefire as attendees filed in. When the talk commenced, protesters took turns standing up to express their perspectives and share their knowledge.
SJP’s presence on Monday night serves as a productive example of how to engage in political discourse and is a credit to the College community.
The protest was thorough and intentional. It was respectful yet still forceful. We admire the group’s commitment to spreading its knowledge. The first floor of Sills Hall was flooded with protestors, and SJP welcomed anyone who wanted to join the protest. Political activism can be daunting; we praise SJP for embracing those with diverse entry points to the issue.
Additionally, protesters were able to craft a platform that did not simply hinge on a disagreement with Rubin but focused instead on their own goals: a ceasefire, an end to the blockade and an end to the occupation. Subsequently, much of the campus discussion about SJP’s protest and message was decoupled from Rubin and the content of his presentation. The group avoided a pitfall that student protests on other college campuses can fall into—drawing more attention to the speaker than to the protest itself.
Perhaps the most artful part of the protest effort against Rubin’s presentation was that it ardently dissented without attempting to stifle. In interviews with the Orient, SJP members expressed adamantly that they did not aim to curtail Rubin’s—or anyone’s—right to express themselves. Rather, their goal was to fight ideas they found to be violent and dehumanizing with ideas and knowledge of their own. This is what effective discursive engagement looks like. Rubin’s presence was a call to engage, and protesters answered.
Rubin’s coming to campus posed a question to those who oppose his rhetoric and beliefs: How can one respond to ideas they find disturbing without trying to suppress them? It is impossible to approach political discourse without contending with this question. While the answer is elusive in an increasingly polarized America, SJP’s effort is reassuring for the future of discourse at Bowdoin.
We hope other student groups will feel inspired by SJP’s protest. We hope that thoughtful, impassioned and respectful organizing will become an enduring part of Bowdoin culture.
This editorial represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board, which is composed of Andrew Cohen, Nikki Harris, Emma Kilbride, Kristen Kinzler, Campbell Zeigler, Sam Pausman and Juliana Vandermark.