Today’s conservative political climate has birthed an abundance of student activism on college campuses nationwide. This, in tandem with the 21st century’s surge in technological advances, has placed social media at center stage in a national conversation on the future of progressive politics. Most recently, this conversation involved former President Barack Obama, who criticized the prevalent “call-out culture” and “wokeness” for being ineffective and denounced social media’s perpetuation of both as destroying civil discourse and impeding social change.
Entrenched in an increasingly politicized society, social media has gained attention for exacerbating polarization by supporting the creation of networks for people with similar beliefs. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, controversial statements about conservative nationalism, immigrant rights, eugenics, and more have gone straight to social media, enabling activists to express their perspectives, gain supporters, and create social justice movements to fight these issues. On campuses and elsewhere, social media has shaped 21st-century activism for the better, and students should continue to use it to its fullest.
And yet, notwithstanding how successful this generation’s student activists have been in growing movements and bringing about change, moderate politicians like Obama have chastised us for being too judgmental and failing to accept people’s flaws. But silencing a generation by telling us to coddle people who express prejudice, instead of speaking out against them, is antithetical to cultivating change. Aiming this rhetoric toward youth-led progressive movements and slamming these activists for their radicalism is not only counterproductive, but also ironic considering our beloved first black president has done little to reduce race-related disparities.
To support what he touts — nonviolent, nonradical civil rights activism — Obama points to the extreme patience civil rights activists exhibited while their lives were being threatened. But his omission of the radical evolution, which both Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks underwent, misrepresents history. In selectively painting such civil rights activists as people who were able to achieve their progressive agenda solely through forbearance, Obama neglects the uprisings that pressured the government to address ongoing racial subordination.
Similarly, Obama’s patronization of social media-created activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter — mocking their goals as ones of “purity” and “perfection,” and admonishing them for their “harsh tone” — undermines their legacy of successfully fighting state-sanctioned violence and anti-black racism and negates the tremendous effect that social media has had on increasing political and civic engagement. In addition to #BlackLivesMatter, numerous other groups such as #LoveWins, #MeToo, and #Resist, which started as Twitter hashtags, have morphed into social and political revolutions that have reached billions of people worldwide.
Student activists around the nation have embraced hashtags both to form political groups on campus and to work with local community organizations to fight for policy changes in response to events at their universities. In the past year alone, Penn students have utilized social media to speak out against invited guests, such as self-proclaimed secular conservative Heather Mac Donald, anti-leftist Candace Owens, former ICE Director Thomas Homan, as well as our own highly problematic Penn Law professor, Amy Wax and new associate PPE Director Thomas Anomaly, invigorated by what they saw as Penn’s disregard for its students of marginalized identities. Penn student protests contributed to the canceling of Homan’s event, as he could not get a word in over the roar of the zealous protesters.
We must see the efforts of student activists — at Penn and elsewhere — as success stories that disprove Obama’s disingenuous and moderate approach to cultivating change. Perhaps Obama should look at his own track record, which in large part failed to benefit the marginalized groups he had campaigned for, before he criticizes the way our generation’s progressive movements attempt to institute social and political change.
HADRIANA LOWENKRON is a College sophomore studying Urban Studies. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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