Sunday, March 8, 2015

Virtual Politics

Life is not a video game

As you may have read, a student government group at the University of California, Irvine, voted to ban the American flag from being displayed in the lobby of the student government office, and then a higher-raking student government group vetoed the ban. Personally I have no problem with the American flag being displayed. As long as there are nation-states (and they do not seem to be going anywhere) there will be flags and other symbols that connote nationalism. That’s humanity, that’s the world.

Also, since this is a state university, at least much of its funding is coming from that big bad government some students hate so much. And if the school is making a profit, the tuition money these students pay goes right back to the same government. Just like taxpayers pay for many policies and salaries they may personally wish would go away. Perhaps as these anti-flag students get older, they will realize these kinds of connections that zealous young people often miss.

Yet I bring up this incident not to take sides but rather to take no side. Because what bothers me more than whether someone is pro- or anti-U.S. policy is the increasingly trivial way they go about expressing it. Yes, there are many injustices in our history up to this present moment. But in my opinion taking away a flag from a lobby is the wimpiest of symbolic gestures. In concrete terms, it changes nothing that these anti-flag people wish to change.

Part of my training as a college professor in the social sciences was learning the importance of symbolic acts. But increasingly I get the impression that the younger generation in particular thinks that symbolic gestures are more than what they are. Getting rid of a flag in a lobby is seen as interchangeable with accomplishing something of merit to make the U.S. or the world a better place.

It isn’t just about the flag, either. I have no problem with refraining from using certain words that offend a group of people. It costs me nothing not to use these words. But again, I think that some (not all, but some) words one is not supposed to ever use is like some collective form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Some folks may not know this, but if you want to be up to date you never call, say, a female teenager a girl. She is a young woman. In fact, “male” and “female” should not be used, and a woman should never be called a “lady.” I understand the ideology behind these sorts of things, having first been exposed to it many moons ago when I was a teenager myself—and yes, in California. But when we’re done busting people for referring to members of a particular gender by this word and not that word, has anything been accomplished? Are we living our lives with mutual regard for other people? Are we making personal choices that reflect self-respect or self-loathing?

There has been concern expressed for the current generation of young people. Some older folks worry that kids anymore spend too much time in virtual reality via the Internet, video games, smart phones, texting, and so forth. I am on the Internet a lot myself, and I believe the good it offers outweighs the bad. But I wonder if some people (mostly young but not always) have come to believe that virtual activism—don’t say this, don’t think that, don’t display this other thing—is the same thing as actual, lived activism. Who are you giving your money and time to? Do you dialogue only with people who agree with you? Do you have a sense of history? That change takes time and is often difficult and requires patience? That fighting for freedom comes at a cost, up to and including people losing their lives? That you may have to deal with unpleasantness from people who disagree with you?  You may even, yes, be called a name. 

I recently read a critique of a book written thirty or more years ago. The young critic was quite smug in noting that the book did not mention certain terminologies or concepts that had not yet been coined. But obviously this young person had no sense of history or perspective—and perhaps no interest in correcting this. I once heard a student say he did not vote because the only thing he cared about was being able to afford college. Hello, anyone home?

While some people obsess over their mental masturbation, literally billions of others are starving to death or dying of incurable diseases. Last time I checked, people keep killing each other, too. Sometimes they are gunned down in their youth, or left to rot in prisons for expressing an opinion. But I guess that’s too icky and gross to talk about. Let’s stick to what’s safe and abstract.


  1. As always, astute and on-the-nailhead. All of this pseudo-sensivitity-social-pollitics would be hysterically funny if it weren't so hysterically tragic.