In middle school, I went through a phase when I collected anything with (and sometimes things without) sentimental value and taped them to the wall of my bedroom – ticket stubs, photos, newspaper clippings, fortune cookie slips, bumper stickers, etc. Today, as I was staring blankly into the distance, my eyes focused on a New York Times column from October 10, 2007 that I had taped on my wall, right next to my pillow. The column was an opinion piece written by Thomas L. Friedman titled “Generation Q.”
In “Generation Q” (Q for quiet), Friedman argues that although the current generation of twenty-somethings is more optimistic and idealistic than ever (a good thing), at the same time we are less radical and politically engaged (a bad thing). Granted, this was years before the Occupy Wall Street movement, but what he wrote still got me thinking.
“America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.”
Reflecting on my own activism (or lack of) in the past year, I’ve signed a handful of online petitions that were presented to me, donated money to a friend’s AIDS Ride for Life fundraising, and nodded my head in agreement with some opinion page articles I was reading. I even watched the entirety of the Kony 2012 video when a friend sent the link to me. But I never followed up with any of the petitions, or asked where my donated money was going (I assumed for some vague “good cause”). So did my signature or my money change anything or help anyone? If I care about these issues should I be doing more?
There are issues that I personally hold a strong opinion on – abortion rights, physician-assisted suicide, comprehensive sex-education in schools – but really none for which I feel strongly enough to drive to DC to picket politicians, or to organize a rally here at Cornell. To me it just seems like so much effort and such a disruption in my daily life and education. So does thinking this way make me too passive?
I would argue no. I believe individuals can make a difference just by opening up discussion and setting an example. And also by being open-minded and willing to listen. Growing up in liberal Ithaca, I always considered myself a social moderate, but then coming to Cornell, I realized that I held this view of myself was only because I had met so few people whose upbringings and views were so different from mine. A moderate to Ithacans is a liberal to most people elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve tried to indoctrinate every conservative friend I’ve made. After I present my arguments, I’m always ready to hear good counter-arguments – and sometimes those counter-arguments have been good enough to sway me or make me think twice about my former opinions, while other times they only serve to further ground me in my existing stance.
And of course talk is talk, but when it comes time to vote, in a democratic system each vote can make a difference. Or when a younger sibling or family friend asks me about a current event or issue, I’ll be ready to make an educated and hopefully convincing argument. I might not be broadcasting my opinion with a catchy slogan on an 8-foot banner, but honestly even if I tried, I probably wouldn’t be very good at it. My advice is, don’t commit to a movement unless you truly believe in its message. There’s nothing more harmful to a social or political movement than tag-alongs who don’t really know why they’re there other than to “have a good time” or to “be part of something.” Just look at all the obvious dumbasses that were part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
We may seem like a more quiet generation, but we are hardly passive or dead inside. Activism occurs at many levels. There are some who will spark the great movements of our time, but most of us still make a difference every day in our own subtle, but nonetheless important way.