At the Intersection of Philosophy and Activism With Student Activist Aaliyah Pearl
Part of being a Columbia student is experiencing activism at work, either because we participate in it or at least because we witness it— though what exactly this might mean, especially in the virtual sphere, is something to question. And whether we participate or witness, we see that activism brings our attention to certain issues. Climate change, unionization, sexual assault policy, indigenous rights, foreign affairs—all these and more are subjects for activism, especially on Columbia’s campus. Here, rather than delve into these issues as objects for activism, activism itself will be an issue to discuss with someone who has activist experience. Aaliyah Triumph (CC ’19, Philosophy and Psychology double major) is an activist with No Red Tape, a Columbia University activist group concerned with sexual violence on campus. We had the pleasure of getting to chat with Aaliyah about the fascinating intersection of philosophy and activism.
The Gadfly: It seems tempting to presuppose a split between “doing” activism and “thinking” about activism—but this obviously flies in the face of the fact that activism requires thought and thought often is changed by activism. More generally, I’m interested to hear how you conceive of the difference between theory and practice. Is there a possible default way to be an activist, or are the means of activism somehow informed by the issue that the activist takes as a subject?
Aaliyah Triumph: In my opinion, theory and practice are different points on the same spectrum, the spectrum being one’s morals and beliefs. Theory is a set of schema that one uses to establish his or her own morality or views on how the world should be. Practice is demanding this theory and doing whatever is needed for the theory to be practiced on a widespread scale. I don’t think anyone is born an activist; even if you were raised in a very liberal or radical household I don’t think activism actually begins until you feel a passion or rage inside of you that forces you to do something about what’s bothering you and contradicting your theory. A lot of the activists that I know have dealt with the issues which they are organizing against and I think that says a lot about the difference between practice and theory—it’s a lot easier to be content with theory without practice if you’re not being directly affected by the theory. That’s not to say that activists are only those who are affected by traumatic and immoral events; just as important as these activists are the ones who organize because they are enraged by the injustice that they see others facings. With this definition of practice in mind, I think it is then obvious that the means of activism are determined by the issues that the activists are fighting against. Different issues require the attention of different forces of power; for example, No Red Tape’s actions aim to change the policies put in place by Columbia’s Title IX and gender-based misconduct administration. More importantly, not all activists have the same privileges. A small group of black activists who are generally targeted by police cannot take the same actions as a large group of white activists can. When activists plan actions, this is a major consideration taken into account—how to maximize effect while remaining safe.
G: On the issue of strategies of action and their relationship to activism, the internet, and social media in particular, have widened the possible scope of activist practice. Some claim that this opens the door for “slacktivism” while others argue that online representations are a significant means of activism. But beyond liking a page or making a post to represent to others one’s stance, we also saw last year that Facebook users far away from Standing Rock were able to “check in” to the protests and confuse local officials who were attempting to use the “check in” feature to gain information about the protesters. This seems to go beyond mere representation and into the realm of direct, albeit virtual, action. What do these virtual possibilities mean for modern activism, both in theory and practice?
AT: I think virtual, direct action is a semi-effective way of bridging the gap between theory and practice. Actions such as “checking in” to Standing Rock are definitely helpful; I think this is an example of activists with more privileges or abilities doing what they can to help activists with less of these things. However, it obviously didn’t take much to “check in” to Standing Rock on Facebook—on the days that people were doing that, it was so common that it didn’t feel like a radical action. That’s great in terms of spreading the word and assisting the activists who were at Standing Rock, but I’m not sure if it actually changes the commitment that the average non-activist feels to exercising practice. I think one could only say that virtual activism is actually converting those content with theory into those who exercise practice if it was found that people who normally would not participate in live, in-person actions started doing so. Besides this, the only major fault that I find in “slacktivism” is that it can impede the voice of activists who may be more knowledgeable and passionate about the issues from being heard. There is, of course, an easy solution to this: giving those who have been dedicated to a certain cause for a longer time priority in speaking, as they likely know more about the issue.
G: As you point out, activists generally aim to give those directly affected by what is organized against more power to define the ideology or desired ends of activism than those with less of a direct relation to the subject of activism. Sometimes this is even the case when the former group has less activism-experience than veteran organizers (sometimes because an experience being silenced is part of the former’s oppression). Two extremes seem equally treacherous here. A closed, rigid definition of the relevant narrative or identity to prioritize threatens to foreground the “wrong” voices by excluding those whose perspectives might have something to offer (as more intersectional approaches often point out). But a completely open understanding invites the possibility of co-option from the outside and potentially drowns out the voices of those who really are most directly affected. How should those within activist communities come to form and understand the relevant background narrative or identity to prioritize?
AT: The activist communities that I am involved in attempt to combat this problem by having an egalitarian environment. No one has more superiority than another member, and all decisions require a unanimous vote. Besides this, in meetings, every member is responsible for contributing and encouraged to do so. So, in my experience, this is how activists attempt to understand the relevant background narrative and prioritize whose voice needs to be heard. When issues arise over the appropriateness of these voices, there is always someone in the group who points out that there may be other groups who have more of a relevance voicing certain issues, and I think this is a very effective way of reconciling being open with making sure that those whose voices need to be heard are actually heard.
G: You refer to the aspect of “live, in-person action” in activism—I think this hits on the important relationship activism has to acting in public. While Facebook “slacktivism” is fairly public, even if in a relatively non-committal way, the protests on Low Steps, marches, walk-outs, and other direct, in-person actions are what more typically spring to mind. And activism seems aimed at changing what is related to the public (e.g. laws governing members of the general public; public norms and perceptions of persons and actions— as they are in both public and private settings). In this context, is it at all sensible to think of such a thing as “private activism”?
AT: Private activism seems a bit oxymoronic to me. Like you said, activism is aimed at changing what is related to the public. I think if you are aiming at changing something in your own private setting-like, for example, how you perceive a certain issue—then that is more so just growing as a person and fits into the "theory" aspect of activism. I do think that this personal form of activism and redefining your values is very important; every activist probably goes through a process like this before they become involved in or while they are participating in activist work.
G: In describing differences in how activism is practiced, you mentioned that the way the public is constructed itself can pose a threat to activists that limits the potential for activism. If activism is aimed at changing the public, how do activists manage to occupy the complex position of having to follow oppressive norms well enough to remain in the public to do activism, while still being sufficiently opposed to those problematic aspects to bring about change?
AT: I think this is still an issue that modern activists are dealing with. The Standing Rock protests did not have major coverage until Shailene Woodley was arrested in protests there, which is something that has been criticized on all sides of the aisle (by activists as well as conservatives). In the past, and maybe even presently, I think activists reconcile receiving attention without jeopardizing their values by organizing actions that command outside attention. Examples of this would be in the Students for a Democratic Society protests that occurred in 1968 here at Columbia over the Vietnam War and gentrification and even the occupation of Low that CDCJ organized last year. When actions are so radical, the focus really does shift from what individuals are doing to why they are doing it and risking so much for a certain cause.