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The Rulebooks in Our Heads

Oppressive systems operate invisibly and cause us to see an unjust world as inevitable

By Reed E. McConnell

My freshman year, I spent a couple of afternoons tabling at the Occupy Harvard tents, explaining some of our aims and qualms to passersby. Some students seemed vaguely interested, and others hurried past, seeming nervous about interacting with such a controversial group. But I was struck by the number of students who stopped by to tell us that we were impractical and irrational, fighting for something that would mess up the way the economic system was supposed to work. Who took time out of their day to fervently defend the status quo rather than consider the stories we had to share, or the relative smallness of the concessions for workers for which we were advocating. And for every student who told us of their opposition outright at those tables, I have encountered many, many more over the past couple of years who have expressed the same sort of disapproval of resistance on a more general scale.

This mindset, and this clash between activism and popular opinion, did not end with Occupy. Divest Harvard has been waging a powerful campaign to get Harvard to divest from fossil fuels, and though a significant majority of students voted in favor of divestment in a ballot referendum last year, The Crimson Staff lauded Drew Faust’s recent statement against divestment, as did an alarming number of my Facebook friends. The Crimson also published an editorial along similar lines about recent protests at Brown, suggesting that student activists who protested Ray Kelly were doing something reprehensible, and should have “engaged with him” rather than disrupting his talk.

I agree with The Crimson Staff that we, as students, should be listening to one another and fostering dialogue about contentious issues. But I do not agree with the way that The Crimson Staff seems to conceive of mutual listening. Mutual listening necessitates balanced scales: you cannot have a productive conversation if one voice holds an inordinate amount of power and social legitimacy over the other. Though the Staff seems to agree with this point, they misattribute the higher amount of power to the protestors. But as Neil Peterman and Sarah Benckart pointed out in their excellent letter to the editor, people in power are consistently given a platform for their points of view and are constantly listened to, while the people who they disempower are constantly deprived of a voice. Thus, in order to make up for this gulf between their power and the power of those who control them, the disempowered are generally forced to respond with more force than the situation seems to occasion to onlookers.

The influence of people in power is, by nature, invisible. We have so normalized the systems that accord these people power (capitalism, racism, militarism, imperialism) that we rarely can recognize the extremity, and the incredible violence, of their outcomes. But a protest is loud, and messy, and visible. It’s a spectacle, and through it we can see, hear, and otherwise physically experience power being exercised. And because the systems it fights against are—on the other hand—calm, polished, and regarded as rational and natural, it is hard to comprehend that they are actually the ones doing the silencing.

Our attachment to our existing social systems is a deep one. As exemplified by the American public’s fixation on whether Edward Snowden’s actions were legal (instead of whether they contributed to the greater good), often what seems to matter to us is not whether something is terrible or immoral, but whether it can be read as legal within the bounds of existing legislation. Beyond its use as a system of punishment for violations, we seem to have an attachment to the legal system as a fundamental legitimizer of our actions. And as seen in the popular reception of the Occupy movement, America is often uncomfortable with resistance to unfair laws.

This pattern extends into the way we interact with institutions in general. We do not stop to question the systems within which we function, and we learn to accept their rules, and the ways that they dole out power, as essential sources of legitimacy.

So what consequences does this have for change-making? We live in a world where idealism is routinely denigrated for being useless and unproductive. It does not produce practical or concrete results, etcetera. But it is the small, day-to-day concessions to “pragmatism” that gradually bring about our complicity with systems of violence, and routinely cause us to dismiss any possibility of change.

Radical actions of the sort that we saw in Occupy and at Brown, and radical, idealist aims of the sort that Divest Harvard is advancing, are not useless, or bad, or silencing. They challenge power at its roots, and thus force us to be uncomfortable, in a productive way, to realize that the things that we accept as fundamental to our everyday functioning might actually hinder progress toward concrete change. They are the rare events that, through resistance, manage to exist outside of the systems that restrain us, and thus serve as glimpses of a freer and more just world.

Reed E. McConnell ’15 is a Social Anthropology and Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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