Appropriate action and appropriate time

Eleven members of the University community are engaged in a hunger strike to pressure administration.

While most of us understand the power of symbolism and the virtue of sacrifice for a worthy political, social, environmental or even personal cause, we must be cautious not to employ particular rhetoric and symbolic action unduly, lest it diminish the power of such worthy and effective action.

Eleven members of the University community are currently engaged in a hunger strike, demanding the University enter peaceful negotiations with the striking American Federation of State, County and Municipal union members. Many of us are in full support of not only the right to strike but often the necessity to do so. When fair wages are not only needed practically, but as a sign of validation for our hard-working and relatively underpaid workers at the University and throughout the economy, it is crucial to stand up and speak out for economic fairness and recognition. That said, there is also a context in which even this struggle should be placed in an effort to identify proper and strategic responses.

Coming out of a century when hunger strikes and other forms of self-sacrifice were last options for violently oppressed groups all over the world, we must consider if the students on hunger strike here on campus are not diminishing the power of such as form of protest. While the struggles faced by the striking workers are real and dire in some cases, the issue at hand concerns the fair and just allocation and distribution of economic resources, not the abjectly brutal and totalizing forms of injustice and oppression that have, in the past, elicited such responses as hunger striking, as were the cases with Indian independence or self-incineration in protesting the war in Vietnam.

It is also fair to compare the strike here on campus with other labor disputes currently taking place all around the world, and we should take a moment to ask whether a hunger strike might be far and above the appropriate action to be taking in an otherwise routine and appropriately civil dispute in which lives nor long-term livelihoods are being ruthlessly destroyed.

University campuses foster intellectual and artistic creativity including new methods of pragmatic problem solving. Universities all over the United States and the world have also been prime loci for creative and pragmatic political and social action for change. Giving this rich history of dissent and innovation, this does not seem to be the time to employ the tactics practiced by people for centuries who themselves were in dire situations and faced with real hopelessness and struggle. In such cases, a hunger strike or similar violent action is both appropriate and expected. However, in this case, in this time, given these circumstances, these students, workers and faculty who are engaged in a hunger strike might be doing more harm than good to the legitimacy of long-term struggles and effective tactics.

Stefano Bloch is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at the University. Please send comments to [email protected]