Commentary | The need for direct action

How our campus discourse is broken

Though there have been many nasty and untrue things said about the sixth floor occupiers, the most substantive and, at the same time, most off-base criticism is the critique of their tactic of direct action. Many students seem to be saying, “I agree with the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

The goal of direct action, in any context, is simple and straightforward: to directly effect change outside of traditional decision-making structures. For obvious reasons (no one wants to be stuck in an office with no food for days), activists usually resort to direct action only after authorities have proven themselves unwilling or unable to change.

While some complain that direct action inhibits “open dialogue,” this claim is fallacious for two reasons. First, because direct action rarely happens until dialogue has failed and, second, because there cannot be constructive discourse when there is an imbalance of power. Though the fetishization of dialogue for dialogue’s sake is as much a part of university culture as cheap beer and all-nighters, dialogue is always constricted by power. The idea that people in power will be won over and change their mind because of neat Powerpoints and balanced, well-thought-out arguments is nothing but a fantasy.

The problem, in short, is this: why should the administration ever listen to students? Our administration believes that McGill’s brand exists independent of its students, faculty, and staff. Like any privileged group, the primary concern of our administration is the maintenance of its position with all its attendant benefits. No matter how logical, well-reasoned, or just our demands are, the McGill bureaucracy has nothing to gain by granting them. There has been talk of McGill becoming a “consequence-free environment,” but it is the administration, not the student body, that does not face consequences for its actions – no matter how absurd, unjust, or capricious they are.

The need for direct action, then, becomes clear: to gain leverage and equalize the power imbalance. If the administration faces no costs or consequences for actions that hurt our community these actions will never stop.

Some may say that in a democracy we should not have to resort to direct action to solve problems. Perhaps they are correct and using established processes works in a democracy. However, while McGill is many things, it is not a democracy.

Change requires action, and change requires struggle. In the words of abolitionist and revolutionary Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Jon Booth is a U3 History and Economics student. He can be reached at jonathon.booth@mail.mcgill.ca


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