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Sundlee ’16: Empty gestures

We here on College Hill live in a bubble. It cannot be denied. Who among us has not ventured downtown and been startled by the vast humanity that exists beyond our gates?

This phenomenon is not inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with spending our young years in an academic oasis. But this cloistered environment also comes with its faults. We become removed from the pulse of the population. This is especially dangerous for a campus that prides itself on its social activism.

The atmosphere of quixotic academia has clouded our conceptions of reality. Some of us have lost sight of what is deemed reasonable by the American public and prefer to operate on a plane that simply dismisses those who think differently. This problem is exacerbated by a dearth of students who come from poor, conservative, rural communities. I am sure we can all agree that most of the people we know here came from socially liberal, reasonably wealthy neighborhoods in populous areas. Indeed, students from the coastal, population-dense states of California, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey make up half the class of 2018.

Given this homogeneity we forget that our campus in no way provides a good representation of the average American voter. This may not be of concern to many international students, but for those of us who intend to live in the United States after graduation and wish to correct social injustices here, it is critical.

We recently passed the anniversary of one such example of this blindness. The Ray Kelly protesters garnered widespread publicity and spurred heated discussion throughout our campus about privilege and free speech. I believe in the sentiment behind the protests. The anger was justified. Stop-and-frisk laws are based on racist underpinnings and they must be overturned. But beyond Brown’s walls, the protesters accomplished nothing besides pats on the back from liberal news outlets whose audiences already agree with the protesters’ opinions.

Though a proud progressive, I hail from a socially conservative community. When the story broke, several friends contacted me with raised eyebrows. Did we really think this was an appropriate response? Yes, a piece of racist rhetoric was banished from our bubble. But any socially conservative American — the ones who actually need convincing on this issue — would see disrespectful, pretentious, spoiled children.

It is not just that we need to tailor our ideological expressions to accommodate the perceptions of those who may harbor what we see as ignorant notions, but it is the only pragmatic solution. A statement was made with the Kelly protests, but that was it. And the mode of the statement probably hurt the cause.

Because we disregard the viewpoints of the rest of the population, we have developed a strong tendency to spurn what we do not agree with rather than engaging and changing it. It is almost as if we do not want to get our hands dirty. Or at least we imply that the effort isn’t worth it. Instead, we find it much easier to snub those who we disagree with, smug in the assurance that the statement is enough.

Brown’s relationship with American military student programs is another example. The major reasons for the continued prohibition of Navy and Air Force student programs include concerns regarding discriminatory policies and the legitimacy of recent foreign interventions.

Rather than sanctimoniously refusing to acknowledge programs like ROTC — while hypocritically accepting funding from the Department of Defense — Brown faculty and student organizations should take positive action. This could range from fundraising for nonprofit groups that fight military discrimination to inviting members of the military to take part in open campus forums. If you care enough to expel something from your presence, you should care enough to put in the work to change it.

This was also evident in the Brown Divest Coal campaign. Sure, divestment would have made a statement. But nothing more. There were no such high-profile efforts to change national or state legislation. It was all about keeping our hands clean and remaining on our high horse. Demonstrating outrage at something like Brown being involved in environmental degradation is important. But it is only one facet of making a difference, and a small one at that.

Is every social activism group at Brown guilty of this sort of self-righteousness? Certainly not. Many approach problems with a spirit of practicality while still staying true to their ideals. But many of the more high-profile campaigns at Brown have had this type of nose-in-the-air sentiment. Why can we not publicize groups who dive into the grit?

It’s just so easy to write conservatives off as nutcases who cannot be reasoned with. It’s so easy to shun rather than to engage. Finding common ground means thinking critically about differences and facing realities that make us uncomfortable.

We booed Kelly off the stage instead of organizing a group to volunteer at progressive lobbying organizations. We make gestures to banish the military rather than working to improve it. We want to divest coal before making our own campus green. Too much energy is spent distancing ourselves from that which offends our sensibilities, and not enough on that which can alter our world. Indeed, some sort of effort to right these social wrongs is better than none. But the social activism community at Brown can do better than ostentation.

I believe in Brown students’ capacity to concretely enact change and fight injustice. Reject the temptation to be dismissive. Don’t be satisfied with statements. Don’t fall back on that tired axiom — “the system’s f****d.” Dig your heels in and work for the reality you want.


Robyn Sundlee ’16 can be reached at


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