Departure Weakens Arguments of Sachs Protesters

Jesse Docter and Ethan Aronson

To the Editors:

Fifteen minutes into last Wednesday’s convocation, the activists had exited, the banners had been removed and the last vestiges of neoliberal criticism were absent from Finney Chapel. For those unfamiliar with the events of Wednesday night, here’s a brief synopsis: Jeffrey Sachs, world-renowned economist, aid worker and proponent of neoliberal economic policy, gave a convocation lecture. Criticism of Mr. Sachs targets his neoliberal perspective, his radical restructuring of developing economies and the problematic nature of his work in foreign aid. These criticisms were voiced by Oberlin activists who distributed flyers critical of Mr. Sachs and performed a banner drop and “mic check” at the beginning of his talk. The action ended with a call for the audience to join the activists in leaving the chapel and attending events “better worth [their] time.”

Ultimately, the demonstrators’ decision to walk out of the chapel significantly weakened their argument. After the last echoes of their chants had died away, Sachs was still there, and unsurprisingly, one man with a microphone and an hour and a half-long presentation will argue his case more compellingly than two minutes of unintelligible shouts and name-calling. Sachs maintained his composure, defended himself articulately from the half-heard critiques and successfully (albeit condescendingly) made the protesters look immature, unknowledgeable and disrespectful. People who entered the lecture uninformed (as many did) were unlikely to reject Sachs’s argument without hearing it first, and by leaving, the protesters ensured that Sachs’s argument would be their primary source of information.

Events like this leave room for dissenting opinions; the Q&A section, specifically, could have been an opportunity for the presentation of a counter-narrative. Refusal to engage in dialogue threatens the legitimacy of activism. When the activist community is unwilling to engage with other arguments, their critiques appear uninformed and subjectively researched.

Furthermore, a group that refuses to stand behind its views tacitly admits those views to be indefensible. A civil interchange between the activists and Mr. Sachs would have more effectively conveyed the intellectual merits of neoliberal critique.

The banners did not have to be removed. The activists could have remained seated behind their ideas, making sure that they remained visible to everyone in the chapel. They could have swarmed the microphone in the Q&A section, articulately voicing specific criticisms which Mr. Sachs may have been hard-pressed to counter. Activism is more powerful when it is present than when it is absent.

–Jesse Docter and Ethan Aronson

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