November 26, 2013

Hacktivism is not activism

Freenters hack shows how radicalism is self-defeating.

Dissent is something of a legacy on college campuses. Even with the famous protests of the ’60s a half-century behind us, colleges remain the most liberal areas of American life, with only a few notable exceptions (I’m looking at you, Brigham Young University). The concentration of youthful zeal—a certain distance from vested society—and intellectual coming-of-age combines into rallies, sit-ins, marches, and political legwork—in short, activism. But whether in the bombings of the Weathermen or the hacking scandals of Anonymous, activism is only a short leap from radicalism. In the dialogue following the Freenters debacle, blame has been laid on everyone from the actual perpetrators to the Freenters staff to the college administration. But with an eye to the long term, this event speaks to a trend of radicalism on any college campus, something worrying in its mechanics and saddening in its application.

On November 14, a group calling itself the UChicago Electronic Army hacked into the servers of a free printing service on campus and posted its users’ information online. The group criticized the service’s lax security and the decision of students to use it, going so far as to call users Freentards. While this event does, of course, bring up the issue of security, that’s not the most important aspect of the situation. The conditions that created this group and justified their actions remain prevalent on campus, undermining both trust and positive change.

The Freenters situation is an extreme case, but it’s nevertheless an outgrowth of a certain outlook. It stems from the assumption that the majority of students share certain beliefs—for example, liberalism, religious ambivalence, or ambition. These values themselves are neither positive nor negative (regardless of personal opinion), but a perception of oneself as the representation of a majority can have a dangerous effect. It becomes a form of groupthink, and individual responsibility takes a backseat to group attitudes and actions. For example, during the tornadoes a few weeks ago, sirens were blaring, weather alerts were going off on our phones, and e-mails were appearing in our inboxes; yet, those in my house’s fifth-floor lounge stayed there, watching the wind throw rain against the floor-to-ceiling windows. The group considered itself to be safe, so individuals set aside their personal responsibility.

That case is innocuous enough. But take it a step further, and individual passivity transforms into group activity. At some point during the first few weeks of the quarter, I heard a group of people joking about an upcoming meeting of the College Republicans. “We should go and just troll,” one suggested, to broad agreement. I’m fairly certain that nothing came of this—and, again, it’s nowhere close to radical. But the idea that a group with opposing views somehow doesn’t deserve respect is a dangerous one. As honest discussion is pushed aside in favor of righteous aggression, radicalism replaces activism. Suddenly, hacking an uncontroversial printing service because its security left something to be desired is a logical next step.

In the dialogue following this debacle, activism must stand apart from radicalism. Activism, whether in picketing the hospital over trauma center controversy or in canvassing for a political campaign, introduces dialogue to create specific change. Radicalism, as with the Freenters case, ignores discussion in favor of dramatic action—and ultimately undermines its own position. Radical movements contain considerable and even admirable amounts of motivated energy, incorporating the recognition of a wrong with the capacity to defy set systems. But by excluding any sort of respect, it forfeits its claim on legitimacy and undermines its own efforts. Yes, Freenters will probably overhaul its security systems. But the fact that a beneficial communal service was attacked and its users’ privacy compromised is a blow to any sense of trust on campus, a sacrifice that outweighs the hypothetical gain.

In the end, radicalism isn’t brave. It isn’t mature, critical, or world-changing. It’s a lazy refusal of discussion, setting aside legitimate approaches to a problem in favor of reactionary aggression. It damages our community and ourselves, and it undermines the legitimacy of positive activism. The Freenters situation is deeply saddening, not only because it reflects the radical immaturity of a miniscule minority of the student body, but also because it portrays the conditions that allow such a group to develop. Conversation, even with those you find utterly mistaken, is the only means by which such radicalism can be prevented—and as things now stand, honest discussion is less important than “being right.”

Ellen Wiese is a first-year in the College.