Students should broaden view of political activism

In light of the impassioned protests and sit-ins here on campus these last few weeks, I feel it is my duty to articulate an alternative viewpoint to the one that most of this paper’s coverage has featured.

The Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, as I understand it, wants USC to cancel its contract with JanSport. JanSport is owned by the VF Corporation, a global clothing conglomerate. The VF Corporation owns factories and sweatshops in Bangladesh, a country with low worker protection standards, and every month brings news of new fatalities in factory fires and other accidents. Hundreds if not thousands have died, and USC apparel is stained with the blood of the Bangladeshi poor. SCALE believes it is wrong for USC to be a part of this brutal system and, therefore, is encouraging its divestment from JanSport. This is why they have been especially active in recent weeks, staging rallies, marches and sit-ins and making it onto the local news. They want to generate enough passion among students to coerce President C. L. Max Nikias into meeting with them and, from there, to negotiate an end to USC’s business with JanSport.

Assuming I have interpreted them correctly, I have several critiques of the protestors. The first is what I like to call “The Kony Effect.” Well-to-do and idealistic first-world kids hear of dramatic injustice somewhere in the third world and see it as their duty to resolve it. In this age of social media and democratic ideology, they reason that Mahatma Gandhi’s immortal quip, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” applies to them, and they wed empowerment with justice. They see a corrupt system infected by greed and hatred, and desire to build a better world through virtuous activism. Though I think they would be loath to admit it, this is a classically American view of the world.

And it is a view of the world that discounts most of reality. Brutal as conditions in Bangladesh might be, the factories at least provide the urban poor of the Ganges Delta with bread for their tables. The alternative — jobless poverty — can be witnessed en masse throughout Bangladesh and its neighbors. And the status quo is not a system that necessarily must continue indefinitely — every nation on Earth which has successfully industrialized, from the states of Western Europe to the Soviet Union to China to Japan to our own United States of America — went through a period of low labor protection standards and frequent deaths. That is simply an unfortunate part of capitalist and state capitalist development. But as those nations grew (or in China and Russia’s case, grow), the combination of improved industrial technology and empowered civil society dramatically reduced factory deaths far more efficiently than any 21st-century Non-Governmental Organization could ever hope to do.

I, too, am appalled by the dismal statistics coming out of South Asia. But it seems to me that having USC divest from the VF Corporation would be an entirely symbolic gesture — no doubt some other university would immediately fill our place. And even if such action forced the VF Corporation to cease its work in Bangladesh and move to more socially just countries, you can bet that other companies would move to fill its place.

Moreover, if factory deaths are a reason to divest ourselves into cleanliness, what else is drenched in the gore of the innocent? Must we give up, too, our laptops and smart phones, which contain minerals that are brutally fought over in Africa? Should we cease to travel anywhere because the gasoline in our tanks comes from oppressive regimes? How much food do we have to stop buying because the people picking it aren’t paid enough?

Injustice is a natural part of human life, a part that so completely bathes all reality that it is impossible to fight it without partaking in it and revealing one’s own hypocrisy. Great change tends to be caused either by great injustice, or terribly slow evolution. The activist will never find satisfaction, for he or she desires a quick and just solution to a problem too complex to have one. Though they might be noble, their worldview does not fit the reality of this world.

This is not to suggest that we ought to simply accept the world’s imperfection and stay silent in the face of evil. To do so would go against our very nature, as the moral law is written on our hearts. It is to say, however, that the wise and just must acknowledge that there will never be anything like true justice, yet strive forever towards the best possible ends, with the most practical possible means. Justice is worth nothing less.

The Occupy Bovard protestors, with their immensely diverse array of interests, do make one very legitimate point — our administration pays little heed to student voices. Ignoring constituent concerns is never good policy.

As the director of the Political Student Assembly, the primary advocacy group for student political action in Undergraduate Student Government, I fully support the protestors in their action and would like to see many more protests and rallies on campus. We should not be hearing about social justice issues from annoying NGO volunteers — we should be hearing them from our own peers and colleagues. Were the administration to open itself to legitimate dialogue with its student population, the stage would be set for positive student political involvement and a greater legitimacy among the student body for the administration. Here’s to hoping.

Luke Phillips

Executive Director, Political Student Assembly


Editor’s note: This post has been updated. 

1 reply
  1. Jaspar
    Jaspar says:

    I feel that the relevance is that you portray this activism as a kind of white savior complex, that these students are working because of a feeling of ‘duty’ to help those worse off. This kind of ‘charity’ is unrelated to the work SCALE has done because it is done at the request of workers in Bangladesh who are organizing on their own and have asked that college students do this type of work. Hence, ‘solidarity.’

    Also, SCALE is a member of the PSA. As you are the director of PSA, I’m frankly shocked that you have not spoken with any of those involved after an entire school year. It seems like basic respect for those involved in the activism to talk with them before writing a public piece discrediting their campaign.

Comments are closed.