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Yelling in the library

The proverbial falling tree. JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

Yelling in the library

An activist learns to speak up

In the fall, U of T will welcome hoards of eager frosh waiting for the university experience to turn their lives upside down. This summer series of personal essays delves into the minds of seasoned upper-year students, and everything they never expected to learn.

Try speaking loudly on the thirteenth floor of Robarts. The stillness hangs in the air around you, like thick smoke permeating your vocal cords. It takes a second to remember how to form words, a minute to work up the confidence to break the placid surface of the space. The disruption ripples through the rows of students immersed in their studies, like the small waves of a pebble dropped in water.

The halls of my high school were as loud as Robarts is quiet, but they had their own inertia of finely balanced cliques. I was afraid of intruding or offending, so I stayed quiet and largely isolated. I came to university determined not to recreate that silence. I made friends and found activist groups that helped me speak up for causes that matter to me.

[pullquote-default]There were things we could not say, tactics we could not use, histories we could not centre. As my political views shifted, I found myself back in the silence, simmering.[/pullquote-default]

It took a while before I saw the new silence surrounding me, partly because I was part of maintaining it. This silence was ideological. There were things we could not say, tactics we could not use, histories we could not centre. As my political views shifted, I found myself back in the silence, simmering.

I am sitting in lecture, the architecture of the room directing my attention towards the authoritative words of the professor, his words directing my anger towards his authority. From his stage, he informs us that — unlike in historical social movements — people suffering from environmental degradation have no power, so we must count on the elites’ moral restraint to solve climate change. He asks for comments, a semblance of openness, while still the atmosphere whispers, believe him, take notes for the exam.

Heart pounding, I raise my hand.

I politely tell him that before feminism, before civil rights, before unions, the people in question did not have power. Every bit they have now, they won through collective struggle, much as grassroots groups are resisting colonialism and environmental destruction today.

He acknowledges and swiftly discounts my comment and returns to his slides. Question period is for confusion, not challenges. The pebble I cast sinks to the invisibility at the bottom of the water, much as my stomach sinks when I remember my thoughts do not actually matter to the university.

This incident is not isolated, and it is certainly not unique to me. I have become familiar with these kinds of strategies: the polite sidestepping, confident overruling, subtle undermining, aggressive pushback. I know the disoriented, dizzy feeling of teetering on the edge of the chasm between perspectives, unsure of how to explain myself.

As much as I have lived this recently, I have gotten off easy. For me, activism is a choice. I could retreat behind my white privilege, my class privilege, and pretend that no matter how messed up the world is, I will be ok. For so many people, like those who are Indigenous or trans*, activism is a necessity. It is vital to fight against a system which challenges your very existence.

As oppressive systems create a million reasons to speak up, they must ensure there are a million reasons to stay silent. Nevertheless, there are brave people speaking everywhere. Are you too absorbed in your books to notice the break in the library quiet? Do you hear? Or merely glare at them for disturbing your peace? We cannot let each other be like the proverbial falling tree in the lonely forest. When someone speaks out against oppression, it sure as hell better make a sound.

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