A phenomenon is occurring at Columbia that interests me for the fact that it is happening at all. Columbia over the last semester as had a series of protests. The first occurred over Ahmadinejad’s visit to the campus. The next began after a noose was found on a African-American professor’s door at Teacher’s College. And, finally, a group of Columbia undergraduates has begun a hunger strike over several demands, including reforming the core curriculum to include more minority writers, creating an ethnic studies department, and expanding ethically into Manhattanville.
As an observer of these events, I perceive them as unified by the response they have received from the students I have spoken to on campus. If the response is not outright hostility towards the hunger strikers in particular – arguments that view the protesters as displacing the voices of the more moderate majority or as a privileged elite with the arrogance to assume that core reform is a significant enough issue to deserve a hunger strike – then it typically dismisses the protests that have occurred as forms of nostalgia. Similarly, when I asked the students in my class who they were protesting when they attended the Ahmadinejad rally, many said they did not know. Although parties formed to protest both the president and Columbia, these students attended because they wanted to experience a protest during their college careers. A friend of mine affiliated with the hunger strikes made their connections to the past more explicit. When searching for a way to express their discontent, they turned to forms that Columbia students used in past decades to successfully cause reforms. Perhaps surprisingly, very few people on campus disagree that the issues are important. They simply dispute the idea that protest is an appropriate form of response.
I don’t wish to judge any of these protests or protesters or comment on the particular issues at stake. However, I am deeply interested in asking what it means that many people now view protest as a nostalgic form whose moment is past. More explicitly, if our culture no longer values protest as a form of action, have we found new models? Or, do we feel that action is no longer worth taking? Do we view actions like protests more as modes of self-therapy for a privileged elite than as activities that can cause impact? Do we have faith that the systems we live within will promote good-enough forms of social justice? Or, is it simply too difficult to articulate a form of action worth pursuing?
I have no memory of the protests concerning gender and race that divided our church. As a younger member, the protests I have witnessed have only been private. The people engaged in these private protests probably feel no less deeply than those who were publicly ex-communicated for their cause, but yet I see no sign of public, member-lead protests against the church recurring in the near future. (Oh, yeah, they just occur in blogs!) Outside of our church, events occur daily that seem to demand our attention: the environment and Darfur to name a few. And, yet, the movement to save Darfur has essentially died. More and more people are now buying green, but we are still left with the glaring problem that the biggest threat to the environment is the global desire to define success as matching the US’s consumer lifestyle.
As I blog, I make sure to carefully guard my rhetoric to censor out any thoughts that might seem less than faithful or polite. When I fail at this task, feelings of shame follow. Despite the fact that I often feel thwarted by institutions, church-run or otherwise, that attempt to prescribe my gender role in society, I find that with every year I inure to the situation more. Content with the knowledge that 75% of my friends share the same liberal opinion on gender roles with me, I morbidly exercise faith that the church and workplace culture surrounding gender will change as this generation of leaders dies off. But, does this mean that I have given up action? And, if I have, does it ethically matter? Would any action I could have taken made a difference within a system?
If protest is no longer a form of action that we find effective, then what other models might we use (if we want to act at all)? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the contradictions in a liberal society and in a Christian church that make our relationship to taking action so difficult?