To the Editors of The Crimson
In an editorial entitled "More Than Quiescence," Paul Barrell discusses the current state of student activism on the Harvard campus. What he fails to make clear however, is the basis for assuming that examples of student activism must be examples of something posinve happening--something of real value. It is an assumption which deserves consideration.
Most of us agree that activism of some sort on some occasions at least, is both worth while and admirable. We sympathize with our revolutionary forefathers when they complained about unfair taxes, but we admire them when they acted on their grievances improvement comes with changes stemming from action.
Yet on campus, even when the student body is of on general opinion, most don't get involved. Likely there is no single explanation for that fact: behavior rarely lends itself to sweeping cause and effect explanations. For some it is lack of time, for others lack of information, and for too many lack of concern.
But whatever one's estimation of the inactive, it is naive and simplistic to assume that action alone is something positive and praiseworthy, or that inaction must translate into laziness, cowardice, or some equally negative descriptive. One must account for those who are turned--off by experiences in organized activities. They see too many leaders whose motives are unclear, whose techniques are questionable, whose concern seems insincere and whose understanding of the issues is severely limited. They see followers who are fed simplistic answers to a few selected questions: followers for whom actions not only speak louder than words, but have relegated words and the thoughts behind them to a servile role. They see not thinking people, but programmed automations and they see them on both sides. Just how valuable can actions performed by such non-people possibly be?
Many problems facing us today have followed humanity throughout history. Questions of prejudice and morality and fairness and justice that today are known as El Salvador and South Africa and the arms race have been familiar before under many guises. But realizing that El Salvador may be another victnam can lead either to a resolve to "mobilize the forces of protest again," or to a resolve to learn why no long-term progress has been made--why the same dilemmas keep arising. The latter resolve necessities serious questioning of our most basic beliefs and assumptions as individuals. It necessitates active use of our own minds.
Though it often goes unnoticed, there is a huge difference between the sight carrier who has tried to think through both sides of the issue, who face doubts and uncertainties, and the sign carrier who does not: who holds the sign with the firmness of a concrete support, and with just as much intelligence.
It is the difference between the student sleeping unaware in bed as a rally marches past the window, and the student who knows about the rally, but whose questioning and considering have led to a decision to defer or have perhaps frozen him or her in uncertainty.
In each case the two look the same, but differ in the most crucial aspect--the mindless people. Whether active or inactive have denied the value of their own intelligence. The mindful people, in facing doubts and in leaving themselves open to change and re-evaluation and learning, are making use of the only abilities we really possess to deal with the worst problems facing us.
But so much of activism discourages those very abilities. Rallies seeking to attract numbers of people. Petitions requiring numbers of signatures. Politicians working for numbers of votes. Too often such activities belie a genuine concern for people as people: they dehumanize de-personalize, and in the end depress.
Dehumanized, numbered, lobotomized people will improve neither themselves nor society. Real changes must start at a more individual level--at people looking within themselves to identify their most basic assumptions. Why are we doing what we're doing? Do we like our motives? If not, can we change them? From such questioning will come honest desire to change, both at the personal level and, crucially, at the social level. They will be changes that reflect whatever capacities we as humans have: perhaps changes of values, of methods, or priorities, and so on. But to make any difference they must start at the most individual, and most personal level.
As a student I have been involved with many dedicated others in the growing protest movement against nuclear arms. If any cause matters. I reasoned it's the cause of keeping life going--Armaggedon means the end of all causes, all hopes, and all of whatever, is valuable. Even so, I questioned my own sincerity: Why am I really getting involved? On a gut level, how much do I care? Why are these posters in my hands? Ultimately I told myself; "action is better than inaction's--I seem to believe in the cause, so I'll act."
The most striking thing one learns about the arms race is how little "thinking" has to do with anything or anybody involved. "If their missiles can reach us in 10 seconds: we need missiles to reach them in 9." "If they've not 10,000 bombs, we need 11,000." So little time for questioning for pausing and considering: simple explanations have been committed to memory--who needs anything more?
The real threat to humanity becomes clear--not the thousand gleaming missiles in their silos, but the sort of acting and non-thinking that put and keep them there. Rest assured that, in the absence of nuclear weapons, some nation would appear with a deadly virus, poisonous gas, or other awful weapon to threaten civilization. The real danger is humanity itself when the individual and his or her mind and its potential are devalued into nothingness.
The answer to the "you destroy my half of the world. I'll destroy yours" mentality lies in confronting and questioning ourselves with honesty. It's a vague alternative; it outlines no course of action other than thought--promises no changes other than greater understanding.
But it certainly a justification for in action. One can act while questioning and doubting: hard as it may be to keep the two tracks constantly yet separately in motion, it must be tried. With the two tracks one can listen question and learn even while carrying a sign and being counted at a rally. Only in that way can we use our intelligence and humanity to determine our actions.
For no matter what the quality of activism might be, its the inner quality of those active people that will lead to real and valuable changes in society at large. Robert Slate '83