Comment & Analysis
Feb 28, 2018

Becoming an Effective Activist

Ciannait Khan argues that students need to be ambitious in their activism and not shy away from the big issues.

Ciannait KhanOpinion Editor
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Dominic McGrath for The University Times

In 1952, students at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, organised a march to protest the government’s marginalisation of the Bengali language. The day, which was marred by violence against the student protesters, instigated a long period of civil unrest in the country. Decades later, what began that day finally led to Bengali being recognised as a national language – an achievement that is celebrated globally every year on February 21st, International Mother Language Day.

Student activists around the world have a long and impressive history. The Language Movement above is just one of countless examples. Students have not only weighed in on almost every momentous struggle throughout history, they’ve often been the driving force behind them.

Today, however, there’s a sense that students lack real awareness and appreciation of these accomplishments, meaning that they underestimate themselves and the great power that they wield.

The student population today is far from politically idle – Repeal and Boycott Aramark are two current examples of student activism at its best – but, given the world we live in, it’s sometimes surprising that student politics aren’t characterised by greater urgency.

Given the world we live in, it’s sometimes surprising that student politics aren’t characterised by greater urgency

One common piece of wisdom goes that maybe things are better for us than they were for our parents, for the rebellious punks and hippies of previous generations, people often denied basic rights. Perhaps we’re simply better off, and that’s why we don’t need to complain so much.

But this mindset is at best questionable and, at worst, dangerous. Some groups of people may be better off than before, but it’s certainly not an all-inclusive reality. As well as that, oppression and inequality, like everything else, must evolve to survive.

Repeal is an extremely worthy cause, and it’s heartening to see students rallying behind it. But we also need to look beyond the easy targets. When denied something – whether it’s contraception, divorce, gay marriage, or abortion – the path of rebellion is clear. But in our current climate, amid globalisation and changing styles of governance, a lot of problems are manifesting in very different, more insidious ways.

In today’s world, bad things are often simply better concealed than before. It rests largely on the shoulders of young people – generally less blind to convention than older generations, with a fresh perspective to offer – to recognise this and usher change in the right direction.

It’s 2018 and we’re facing some grave problems. There really is no end of things to be concerned about, whether it’s close-to-home issues like homelessness and direct provision, the political volatility of Trump and Brexit, or glaring global crises like climate change and the risks of rapid technological advancement.

Before I’m accused of serious whataboutery – of course there’s always something else we can be worried about – a lot of these issues are systemic and linked, and unearth severe shortcomings in the bedrock of society. And if students – our future politicians and decision-makers – aren’t about to stand up and do something about that, who is?

If students – our future politicians and decision-makers – aren’t about to stand up and do something about that, who is?

There’s a creeping feeling that perhaps students are reticent to fight back, not because they don’t see a problem, but because, in fact, the problems seem insurmountable. Indeed, the reality is often so overwhelming it is, at times, incapacitating. But there’s also an abundance of evidence that suggests students can and do effect real change, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

The recent campaign against Aramark sets a great example for others. At a glance, railing against a powerful multinational like Aramark seemed highly ambitious, but quickly the efforts of a small few spiralled. The company has been forced to acknowledge the movement. Other colleges have stood up and taken note, with University College Dublin (UCD) launching their own campaign. It’s also been noted that, in similar campaigns in other colleges, these kinds of student-led movements often have a ripple effect, for example by spurring unhappy employees to unionise and fight back, too.

In 2014, a boycott of Coca-Cola in college during the Russian Olympics was derided by many. After all, why bother not selling Coca-Cola on campus when people can walk five minutes to Spar to get one? Later, when Trinity signed a contract to sell only drinks made by the Coca-Cola company on campus, they were met with little resistance by students.

There’s no end of reasons to avoid the further funding of Coca-Cola and its immense empire. But the lack of response is hardly surprising. Against a capitalist kingpin like Coca-Cola, it may feel as if there’s very little that Trinity students can do to take them down.

But this defeatist attitude gets us nowhere, and shouldn’t be encouraged. What’s more, though, is that immediate and practical impart should not be the only end for student activism.

Some might dismiss “awareness-raising” as hollow and ineffectual, but students making their voices heard is never without worth. Even if students may seem naive and relatively powerless, the values they develop in college are those that will carry them through their lives and bring about change for future generations.

Of course, activism itself is evolving, too, and the future of protesting doesn’t need to be consigned to feet on the streets. There are new and clever ways to fight back, digital activism and “hacktivism”, to name but two examples. But I’m not convinced that the new tools at our disposal are yet being explored to their fullest potential.

Student activists are often caricatured as angry, idealistic and radical. Hardly a shoe that fits Irish students today, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. Still, it feels like maybe we’re not quite setting our sights high enough. A lack of hope can be paralysing, which is why there’s really never been a better time for young people to pipe up with new alternatives that we can rally behind and aspire towards. College is a rich environment filled with great ideas and a fervour rarely matched elsewhere, so, especially in our current day and age, we should strive to make the most of it.

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