In my beautifully sleepy hometown in Connecticut, two Protestant churches stand squarely on opposite sides of our town green. One of these churches holds an annual Apple Festival on the green during the fall, the other a Strawberry Festival in the beginning of the summer. This summer, as my friend and I walked into the Strawberry Festival towards the white tents where local artists sell homemade handiwork, two middle-aged women approached us with a clipboard.
In January 2019, Edward “Ned” Lamont Jr. ’76 became the 89th Governor of Connecticut after a contentious race; Lamont garnered 49.2 percent of the popular vote, with his opponent falling just shy with 46.2 percent. Some of Lamont’s new proposals, especially his plan to bring highway tolls to the state, have been met with opposition, including among these women at the Strawberry Festival.
“Would you be willing to sign a petition opposing Lamont’s proposal to add tolls to Connecticut highways?”
Having been away at school for the year, my friend and I were not caught up on our state politics. Curious, we asked if they knew what the toll revenue would be funding. We’d rather not have to pay to drive on I-95, but if we knew that the money would positively impact our schools, for example, we could get on board.
The two women scoffed at us, replying something along the lines of, “I don’t know, probably whatever Lamont feels like spending it on.” Seeing that we were unamused with their answer and thus increasingly unwilling to sign their petition, they then said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, you’re young. One day you will understand the importance of getting involved.”
Before I begin my critique, let me make this clear: Activism and civic participation are extremely important. Our world, our country, and our campus need people who are willing to fight for something bigger than themselves, who are dedicated to combating oppression and injustice, and who are brave enough to take on institutions and individuals of power. Engaging in activism is an action that I almost always consider to be selfless, even noble, whether or not I personally agree with the cause.
I will not, however, bestow that distinction upon these two ladies.
While activism is absolutely essential, it must be informed, and it must not be patronizing. To ask me to sign a petition to protest a toll without knowing where the money is going is much more likely to turn me away from your cause than to get me to join it. It’s basic argumentation 101: understand the counterargument, concede when appropriate, and then refute. Had the two women told me something along the lines of: “While the toll revenue would be earmarked for fixing roads and bridges around Connecticut, the state has tried to do this before with a gas tax with little to no noticeable improvement,” (a defensible argument) they would have made an infinitely stronger case for themselves.
At Harvard, I’ve had similar experiences with this “blind activism;” one of which was a fellow student asking me to stand with them against Harvard’s ethically questionable land holdings without a clue of where these land holdings were located or how they were acquired. I think it’s common sense that an activist should understand the details of their own cause, but it is also never beneath an activist, or any citizen for that matter, to understand the arguments, plans, and details of those whom they disagree with.
I’m not suggesting that activists become all-knowing before asking me to agree with them; that would be impossible. However, when asked a question they can’t answer about their position or their opponents’, activists should lose the patronizing tone. Don’t laugh it off, look it up.
When activists choose to patronize instead of educate, they run the larger risk of alienation. People lose interest in the cause. It’s self-defeating. Before even looking at the merits of the women’s cause, my friend and I felt as though we already sided against it based off of their arrogant yet uneducated patronization.
And what bothered me most of all was that the two women laughed off Lamont’s plan as if it was beneath them to even understand the policies of a politician they dislike, and I fear that this may be reflective of politics in this country at a larger scale. We seem to assume that the people on the other side of the aisle are wrong before we even read their proposals. We exist in silos of ideology with no effort to consider or understand other ideas, close-minded to the point of blindness.
Maybe you noticed that I never mentioned the two women’s or Ned Lamont’s party affiliation: That was intentional. It’s because I know this problem of blind activism is equally present in both parties. Perhaps the two women were a particularly egregious example — two bad strawberries if you will — but they are not alone, and Harvard students are not exempt from the trap they embody.
And to the women at the Strawberry Festival: You did inspire me to get involved. Just not in the way you intended.
Chloe A. Shawah ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Cabot House.