Confusing Ubiquity for Power


Today’s activists fight their battles in the public’s collective vocabulary more often than they fight in the streets. They are interested in “changing the conversation,” or “changing the culture,” and in having their voices “be heard.” The turn towards discourse in political activism means that agitation for social change now takes the form of struggles over particular words and phrases, especially on social media, where the fights over what can be said and by whom are magnified. This kind of politics has a long intellectual and theoretical genealogy. It is the product of a way of thinking that locates the roots of systemic oppression in language and culture. That way of thinking, particularly in the decades since it broke out of the esoteric academic settings in which it was born, emphasizes culture and discourse instead of institutions and structures of power.

But both culture and discourse are rarely sound or steady terrain for political struggle. Both are often amorphous, intangible, and immaterial. There is no singular political authority or institution responsible for a culture or a discourse. And unlike a state or a government, neither a culture nor a discourse has official positions of power that can be seized. If there is anything the past several decades of the left’s failures have shown, it is that activist campaigns that identify culture and discourse as their battlegrounds almost always fail.

The focus on culture and discourse pervades activist campaigns at universities, and Princeton is no exception. These campaigns capture the campus’ collective attention for a few brief moments. Students change their profile pictures, like so many did for the “Princeton Perspectives,” post statuses or tweet, and put up posters around campus. If the posters’ creators are lucky, their peers might even stop to read them. But most campaigns vanish from students’ memories after several weeks or, in the best case, a few months. The posters sometimes fall down; in many instances, belligerent drunks just tear them down. The buzz and conversation around them fade away or are drowned out by the next big campaign.

The recent Hose Bicker campaign, which aims for a USG referendum to facilitate the elimination of “bicker,” exemplifies the problems of campus activism campaigns that operate on the levels of culture and discourse. The Hose Bicker website’s FAQ section notes, “this referendum is not a dictate from the USG or the university: it is an opportunity to make [students’] opinion heard.” But whose voices exactly are meant to be heard, and by whom? Hose Bicker does not target any institution that can actually make the changes it calls for. It does not specify the culture or conversation it seeks to change. The eating clubs individually and the Interclub Council are not beholden to the USG’s referendums. Moreover, around 70 percent of this year’s sophomore class participated in bicker. And while there are undoubtedly students in bicker clubs who disapprove of the practice and who signed the petition, their participation in the system they profess to oppose means the school is unlikely to get rid of bicker anytime soon. This is the fatal flaw of activism that emphasizes culture and conversation instead of structures of power and institutions—hundreds of students in bicker clubs could sign the petition and voice their support for the referendum, but what difference does it make if they choose to remain in the clubs whose practices they claim to oppose?

All of this is to say that Hose Bicker fails on two important levels. First, like other campaigns that operate on a discursive level—looking to “change the conversation” or “be heard”—it does not pressure or target any institution, power, or authority that can actually implement the changes it demands. This is a kind of activism concerned more with venting, emoting, and expressing the frustrations of its organizers than with actually achieving its goal or winning. The second is that Hose Bicker presupposes the existence of a culture opposed to bicker not just in rhetoric but also in practice—a culture that, while present on campus, is not very large. Bicker is a dominant social practice, something that only around 30 percent of the students in a given class abstain from. And unless the Hose Bicker activists are prepared to commit for the long haul, to a several-year process of eroding bicker’s hegemony, fighting the practice on the cultural level means fighting a losing battle.

A simpler and more effective campaign would be to boycott bicker and the system of selective eating clubs. Students could refuse to both participate in the bicker process and, afterwards, refuse to go to the bicker clubs. A statement along the lines of, “As long as these practices continue I refuse to participate in this system” would directly put pressure on the institutions responsible for bicker: the clubs themselves.

Of course, a boycott of bicker and bicker clubs will never happen anytime soon. The different mansions on Prospect Street, whatever discontent or dissatisfaction some of their members may feel, are strong enough to guarantee that students want to join them every year. Club members and their friends will not stop going to the clubs because they don’t like the bicker process. And people’s feelings about bicker are far more complicated than either opposing or supporting it. Every year, many of those who bicker claim to hate the process, but they bicker anyway. Besides, bicker is no more unfair or discriminatory than the admissions process that landed all of us here in the first place, and other exclusive extra-curricular groups employ similar selection procedures.

This is not to lament “Princeton’s culture”—I’m hesitant to argue such a thing exists. One of the reasons why campus activist campaigns disappear so quickly is that they operate on the level of “campus culture,” when in truth it is nearly impossible to distill the different social words and practices that exist here into a unifying culture. Other than the University’s own events and traditions that bring together the disparate social groups that make up campus life, there isn’t much of a universal “Princeton culture” to speak of.

There is far more to a culture than an institution’s character and history. Culture is practiced; it is enacted. It encompasses the place on campus where you spend times with your friends. It is the clubs where you eat, and it is the beer you drink while you are there. It is manifested in what your friends do and where they see themselves going. For every generalization you possibly think of to describe your life and your friends’ lives, there is another generalization that describes a kind of life here that looks drastically, if not unrecognizably different from the one you live. This is partly why campaigns to “change culture” are unavoidably slippery. Which culture? Whose culture? A culture is not something created by decree from on high. A culture is not something that can be taken control of or ruled over. It is something individuals make and reproduce through their collective participation in it. It is something that we exist inside of.

The Hose Bicker campaign is not exceptional. It is representative of a larger phenomenon: the reduction of campus activism to cultural or discursive politics. To be sure, for historically marginalized groups, culture and discourse can be important battlegrounds, sites for raising consciousness to eventually gain the power necessary to address historic injustices. And this is why expressions that emphasize the politics of discourse can be instruments of resistance—of speaking truth to power. But without an identifiable power to address, these activist metaphors that locate the power for social change in the words people use in their everyday lives are meaningless. “Being heard” becomes nothing more than screaming into a void. And the demand to be heard, as voiced by the relatively (though certainly not uniformly) privileged students at Princeton frustrated with their system of selective eating clubs, turns the centuries-old call “to be heard” into a farce, an empty platitude.

Worthwhile and effective activism also tends to require some kind of sacrifice—a change in one’s political participation or even personal behavior. Too often, campus activism emphasizes culture and discourse while ignoring the steady political work social change requires. It is unsurprising that the Hose Bicker campaign has been able to garner signatures from bicker club members. But it does not ask them to make a commitment or a sacrifice. While appealing to a broad base often strengthens a campaign, in the case of Hose Bicker, it neutralizes the campaign. Bicker club members can sign the petition, vote for the eventual referendum, and feel good about themselves because they know they will never be forced to put their views ahead of their club affiliations.

There are plenty of powerful activist campaigns that operate on discursive and cultural levels, but they do so in tandem with concrete, well-articulated strategies for achieving their goals. Empowering the historically marginalized, amending narratives to recognize the previously unrecognized, and advocating for specific policy changes are all activist goals that entail an element of cultural activism but do not depend exclusively on it. They involve actually doing something, rather than merely talking about it. They identify the structures of power and authority capable of enacting the changes they demand. At a certain point, every campaign must ask people—both its supporters and the authority responsible for enacting its demands—to act.

Identifying the authority with the capacity to implement a campaign’s demands is rarely easy. At Princeton, like at most places today, navigating institutional bureaucracy to find whom exactly is responsible for what can be next to impossible. But perhaps out of humility or because of low expectations, campus activist campaigns often let administrators, donors, and boards of trustees off the hook too easily by making only modest and small demands of them. Instead of making the demands more appealing or manageable to those with power and authority, this makes them easier to dismiss. Student activists’ demands should be significant but specific. Faced with illegible and opaque bureaucracies and hierarchies, student activists must structure their campaigns to target the particular authorities or institutions with the ability to meet their demands. Campaigns that make no demand of those with power and authority damn themselves to inefficacy and failure.

Being part of “activist nation,” that broad and diverse group of people committed to building a better and more just future, often feels like being constantly on the losing side of politics. From climate change to campaign finance, and from income inequality to racialized police violence, it seems like those with the money and guns are winning, and that all we have to show for our efforts are retweets and blog-posts. I remember reading, after the destruction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment by the NYPD, in one of the many post-mortems written by those who were involved, that the movement had fatally confused ubiquity for power. At the time, Occupy tent cities were spread across the country. It seemed as though everyone from politicians to pundits was speaking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. But all of the media coverage and protests during the inspiring months of the Occupy movement’s peak culminated in few, if any, tangible political gains. Occupy was everywhere, in culture and discourse. It looked like we were winning. But when the campsites were cleared and the TV crews went away, the institutions and structures of power the movement sought to challenge and even topple stood as strong as ever.

Culture and discourse can be useful fronts in political battle, but without a theory of change that includes how to take power, or at least make significant and binding demands of it, what happens on the cultural and discursive fronts guarantees nothing. The number of people who adopt a campaign’s terms, framing, or language is meaningless until the people in power do the same. Thousands of students can sign a petition, but a handful of administrators, trustees, or student government representatives can choose to ignore it.

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