Opinion: Liberating Skidmore: SGA's unilateral endorsement of Occupy Wall Street brings home our lack of intellectual diversity

Posted by Michael Kraines

In an email sent last Wednesday night titled "Occupy Skidmore" in bold green and yellow letters, student body President Jonathan Zeidan invited all students to participate in a "passive protest" to be held in Case Center the next day, in coordination with the Occupy Wall Street movement and nearly a hundred schools across the country. The protest has not yet taken place and according to Student Government representatives will be rescheduled for a date in the near future.

This endorsement of the so-called Occupy Wall Street movement by Student Government betrays a lack of intellectual diversity that is endemic to our college campus.

At first glance, the ideas behind this protest appear reasonable and universally appealing: across the nation the recession has left students swimming in a pool of debt and has mired our futures in uncertainty. Surely all of us want to close the achievement gap in education. But beneath the veneer of our common concerns the Student Government has endorsed and aligned itself with a movement that is ideologically progressive.

In a recent piece in the Washington Post, George Will summarized some of the demands posted in Occupy Wall Street's name. These include "guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment," a $20-an-hour minimum wage, ending the fossil fuel economy, and among other ideas, opening the borders so "anyone can travel anywhere to work and live."

Representing as it does all of the student body, and not merely those who endorse the movement, the Student Government should not have aligned itself with the Wall Street protests nor provided materials for picket signs with money that is funded by the college.

If we discuss these initiatives on their own terms, the titles "Occupy Wall Street" or "Occupy Skidmore" suggest ending deliberation about the issues and imposing ideas on the entire community. Why must ideas be imposed? Why must the call for change amount to an occupation? Such intolerance is characteristic of protests generally and antithetical to the notion of diversity that is dear to Skidmore and critical to attaining a genuine liberal education.

Thankfully, the protest intends to be "passive" and students have been told not to miss class to participate. President Zeidan cautiously reminds us that "this will not be a protest against Skidmore but rather a movement for a better future."

But what is unsettling about the Student Government's endorsement and extension of the Wall Street protests, suffused as they are with political ideology, is its implicit assumption that we all agree on what is good for us or on what is "better for our future."

I suspect that this article will come as a surprise to our student reps who undoubtedly have the best intentions. But their silence about the specific demands of the protest is curious. Either they are unaware of the politics motivating the Wall Street protests or are under the impression that the students all agree on the desired policy changes and therefore need not speak of them. The latter possibility would cast doubt on the existence of genuinely diverse opinions on campus. Diversity emerges, after all, not from a consensus regarding our afflictions but from our differing antidotes.

The email speaks to those who wish to "make their voices heard." Here is another indication that the protestors are not interested in debating the issues but are merely "making a statement." In the Politics, Aristotle argues that our uniquely human capacity for speech allows us to reason about the good and the bad — the just and the unjust — and distinguishes us from animals that can only voice pain and pleasure. Awareness of this distinction between speech and noise is what is missing from the Occupy Skidmore initiative.

If indeed we are most fully human when engaged in rational deliberation about politics as Aristotle says we are, then we ought to seriously engage one another rather than simply "make our voices heard" under the assumption that we alone know what it is best. This will be the beginning of moral and political seriousness. 

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