Much recent discussion on campus, sparked by a post by Lizzie Quinlan on the progressive blog Stanford STATIC entitled “A Few Thoughts on Activism and Stanford Culture,” has engaged with Stanford students’ political involvements, and in particular, the methods we employ to advance our causes of choice. Personally, the article challenged me in particular to wrestle with the question that Stanford activists often force me to confront: at what point must my political beliefs and values require me to disassociate from the system whose wrongheaded, ineffective, or even discriminatory policies I stand against?
For instance, should I espouse the stance of the National Marriage Boycott and refuse to participate in the institution of marriage as our laws currently understand it in protest of its discrimination against the LGBT community? Should I have stood against the return of ROTC on the principle of the program’s exclusion of transgender students, or should I acknowledge our military’s progress in its repeal of DADT and support its inclusion amongst our campus community, with an eye to empowering Stanford graduates to promulgate a more equal military culture in the future?
In the course of considering these and related issues, I have frequently turned to historical and current examples of activists who effected great change in their societies to inform my personal ideology of engendering social progress. First among them has always been Martin Luther King, Jr., the quintessential civil rights activist in our country’s long history, who arguably both embraced and rejected existing societal structures in pursuit of equality for all.
The two signature achievements of his brilliant, storied life as a champion of equality testify to this tension: the Montgomery bus boycott marked the emergence of MLK as a national figure in the civil rights movement, whereas Dr. King delivered the greatest American speech of the 20th century from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a place that could not be more at the heart, physically and spiritually, of American governance and history. Perhaps MLK’s approach could be construed as one of pragmatism, adapting its techniques as the moment required. In any case, his mixed methodology proved extraordinarily effective and directly led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
While revolutionary rhetoric naturally lends itself to causes for expanding civil rights and combating institutional discrimination, Camila Vallejo, the charismatic leader of the Chilean student movement, offers a current case study in radical thought applied to a different area of policy, education. Vallejo, voted Person of the Year 2011 by the Guardian’s readers and wielding a 90% approval rating in Chile at the age of 24, has crusaded for reduced tuition and greater accessibility to education for Chile’s youth, and led marches of up to 200,000 people in support of the movement.
Vallejo may be an avowed and affiliated communist who has praised the socialist leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador, but as the New York Times has noted, she has “little in common with Castro or Chávez”; instead, her and her cohort are “less ideological purists than change-seeking pragmatists, even if that means working within the existing political order.”
Ultimately, the Times concluded in a feature-length article on her in their Sunday Magazine, even if her movement didn’t yield every policy change for which it advocated, “Ms. Vallejo’s greatest contribution [may have been] to restore faith in a discredited system by showing a new generation that politics can be responsive to the people’s demands.”
Vallejo’s communist values and MLK’s disaffection at the inaction of the “white moderate” may be their more visible characteristics as activists, but their rhetoric belies their outcome-oriented approaches to inculcating societal change.
Stanford activists might note that their legacies may be ones of inspirational activism, but they affected people’s lives most in the tangible legislative victories they enabled.