Activists must ask questions

By Letter to the Editor

In his September 15 column, Matt Barnum takes issue with what he sees as the self-righteousness of activist causes. His article, however, fails to engage with any of the crucial questions upon which these causes are based. I propose that activist causes should take on Socrates’ gadfly role, pressuring the community including—yes—activists themselves, to question the rightness of their decisions, not affirming these decisions based on blind self-confidence.

The same rigorous standards we use to analyze Plato should be applied to analyze the University’s role as a landlord, an employer, and an investor: What kind of society is the University creating? What society is it failing to let thrive?

“…[A] good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.”

I wish I could take credit for this gem, but credit belongs to the drafters of the Kalven Report, that precedent-setting document addressing how the University should act regarding social and political issues. The same report that was erroneously interpreted to justify the University’s decision not to divest from companies supporting the Sudanese government’s propagation of genocide conveniently articulates the rationale of the divestment campaign: If we, as members of the University community, were truly engaging the questions surrounding divestment, we would upset many of our assumptions and, in all likelihood, become upset ourselves.

If we truly adhered to the values of the Kalven Report, which states that the University’s “domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society,” we would question the University itself. In the case of the University’s decision to invest in companies doing deadly business in the Sudan, we must ask ourselves what values of society the University is upholding. The Kalven Report itself says that in the exceptional instance when “the corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values” there must be a “careful assessment of the consequences.” If genocide, one of the three “unforgivable curses,” fails to meet the threshold of the exceptional clause, what does meet it?

Furthermore, how can we even question social values in the case of genocide when it is defined, by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”: in other words, society?

The University has already published its decision on divestment. But the great thing about this community of scholars is that the line of questioning surrounding divestment has only begun to be explored. I do hope the University makes decisions that are righteous—a word that derives from the Old English “rightwise”—decisions based not on our certainty, but on our doubt. I know that all of the wisdom that this University holds can make the room for interrogating and, ultimately, executing, what is right.

Aliza Levine

Class of 2009