The politics of protest, power, and communication

"What are human rights? What is human dignity?..." And so began a panel discussion titled, "The Politics of Protest", hosted by the Women and Gender Studies Students' Union last Thursday at New College's William Doo Auditorium. I don't tend to gravitate in any particular way toward activist communities, but something about this event seemed like it had potential to address a constellation of uncertainties and conflicts I felt toward recent social movements. I like informed, politically-engaged citizens. I'm a big fan of giving a damn and not turning into a nihilist surrounded in empty bags of doritos while reruns of the Cosby Show play across the TV in the background. I am made uncomfortable, however, by groups that use social issues as a means to either gain power, shun personal responsibility, or decide that everyone that opposes an issue does so for the same set of reasons. As a result of this, I wondered - what exactly are "the politics of protest"? In a more general sense, how can communities ensure that privilege and barriers don't unreasonably limit the freedoms of everyone involved? The seven panellists addressed these concerns, and did so with vigour. Among the speakers were feminist scholars, the founder of SlutWalk, grassroots-level activists, and a law student. The diverse backgrounds of these speakers was a reminder in itself of necessarily varied social, economic, and educational privilege brought into discussions on social issues. We were shown, through case studies and personal stories, that groups confronting social issues need to open the floor to all people with an opinion to express, not simply those with the education or social justice background to lead. This is an important thing for ourselves, as university students, to be cognizant of: with our education, we carry the power of privilege as well as a weight of responsibility. In a bright light, this brings to mind notions like "leadership", which our educational culture is so keen to endow us with, while in a different light, we have also to consider very carefully the responsibility of influence. I think, even, of the little bit of power I carry by writing for campus publications, including Upbeat. Just in the way that news organizations need to be [or finally become, in some cases] aware of the ways in which they take sides in a story and change the fabric of our cultural narratives, the words that we present - in print, online, in conversation - also have the potential to alter the trajectory of the discourse that happens within our society. One of the speakers encouraged us to consider the ways in which the internet has changed our sense of reality. When you perform a google search, the results that you find are what google's search algorithm thinks are most relevant to you - not necessarily what actually is. Also, we must consider all of the silent histories that didn't end up online, the victories won that didn't make it into the newspapers, and the losses that can't get a slot on the evening news. One speaker, frustrated with the current obsession with social media as a protest tool, reminded us how meaningful discourse can be expressed in many forms: "The internet is a very powerful tool. So is inviting people into your kitchen and living room." And so, I wonder - how would our student life be different if we communicated in ways beyond essays and blogposts? How can we connect with each other in meaningful, yet unwritten ways? Last weekend I attended a poetry slam and felt like I could know people in a way that I am not usually privilege to. What would be the analogous case on campus? How would our learning change if we debated more, created hierarchies less, and opened our own ideas more freely to the critique of others? I still don't know, so I write about it on Upbeat. The irony of this is not lost on me. Jennifer

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