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In protest of passivity

(December 16, 1999, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

I overheard a conversation the other day between two people who were discussing the upcoming new millennium ... and promptly ran away, my head between my hands, screaming.

I tell you this to let you know that, like many, I am millenniumed-out. I’m not worried about a breakdown in civilization or the onset of Armageddon on Dec. 31; the boredom of hearing it talked about incessantly is going to kill me long before then.

So, rest assured that I won’t be dedicating this, the last Gazette Student View of the century, to apocalyptic prediction.

However, in spite of my obvious aversion to Y2K fever, I can’t help but recognize at least one good thing that has come from it: reflection. The media have latched on to the concept, running articles and airing programs that detail the important events and people of the past year, decade, century and millennium.

This climate of recollection and meditation got me to thinking about my position in society as a student. I wondered about the role students, as a group, have had in societal change over the past few decades.

What immediately came to mind was the student movement of the 1960s. For about a decade, students on campuses all over North America began rebelling against the status quo, staging demonstrations on everything from free speech to racism. Bras were burned and buildings were barricaded.

In one incident, a number of students at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) occupied the computer centre of the university. The actions of the students were in protest of what they considered unjust findings in an investigation of charges of racism by six black students against a faculty member.

From Simon Fraser to the University of Toronto, Canadian students demonstrated under the banner of social justice, often at the expense of being labelled communist sympathisers.

Many times, though, dissatisfaction with university administration was behind student activism. Seeking a larger role in decisions that affected the organization and curriculum of their institutions, students protested what was perceived to be the undemocratic structure of postsecondary schools.

I feel their dissent must have had some effect, as today we are able to enjoy the benefits of organized student representation. At Memorial we have the MUNSU and GSU, while at the provincial and federal levels, respectively, the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Students and the Canadian Federation of Students look out for our interests.
By now you’re wondering where I’m going with this.

Well, looking back on some of the changes that my fellow tuition-payers were so involved in bringing about in past decades, I began to feel a bit guilty. It seems as though I, along with many other students, have slipped into a state of complacency.

Sure, we occasionally get our backs up about student debt and proposed government cuts to post-secondary education funding.

But I didn’t draw up a placard and protest at Confederation Building when the tax payer-funded, Coast Guard-hosted, lobster tail dinner fiasco came to light. Although, when reading the story in the Telegram, all I found myself wondering, How much more money is being spent in that fashion while I’m looking at a $20,000 debt come April?

And, not that I don’t appreciate the need to commemorate Memorial’s upcoming multiple anniversaries, but I have a wristwatch – I don’t need a clock tower so that I can tell the time from anywhere on campus. What I, and many others, do need is cheaper tuition.

But again, I’m only an armchair activist. I don’t protest and I don’t petition. My greatest act of civil disobedience is sticking out my tongue at the campus enforcement people when I find them writing me a ticket just as I’m getting back to my car.

Where does this complacency come from?

Perhaps the need for most students to work while attending university leaves little time for them to become dedicated to a cause.

Maybe now that our society has reached a state of gender and racial equality – or at least we like to believe it has – we feel that the important issues have been addressed.

In truth, I don’t really believe that our complacency has so innocent a basis. As ashamed as I am to say it, I think that it’s probably selfishness which keeps us from voicing any discontent with the status quo.

Who cares if we have a little student debt problem? And it’s really not such a big deal that young people can’t seem to find work in their fields in this province. Me, I know that if worse came to worse I could depend on my family for help with my loan and I have no responsibilities tying me to Newfoundland; I can leave for greener pastures whenever I like.

But what about people who don’t have the financial safety net that some of us have? Many students declare bankruptcy within a few years of graduating. And not everyone can simply move to another province for work; familial and financial responsibilities can prevent relocation.
These concerns are easily swept under the rug by those of us who don’t have to contend with them. We have a tendency to ignore problems which do not affect us directly.

It’s one thing to gripe about the deplorable condition of the world from the living room couch; picking up a sign and standing in the road to protest human rights violations is another. Although, lately it seems that all you’ll get for your trouble is a shot of pepper spray.

So what’s the cure for this societal selfishness? It seems to me a bit of moral self-evaluation is in order. Evolution might promote survival of the fittest – and that’s fine for two dogs fighting over table scraps – but inherited privilege and circumstance are not excuses for ignoring the difficulties of others.

Seems to me I should take my own advise and get my head out of the sand. The students in decades before me engineered a small revolution despite all the sex, drugs and rock ’n roll; I’m sure I can manage something.