Can Cambridge shed its cynicism?

20 November 2008

ambridge students are often caricatured as blithely certain that they are a gift to the world. They carry themselves

with a confidence that can only be garnered through an excessive familiarity with obscure facts and a verbosity shared with anyone who wanders into earshot. Often overlooked by this caricature is the fact that Cambridge students do have the potential to be gifts to the world: with some of the worlds’ best minds and libraries at their disposal,

and a future cushioned considerably

by a Cambridge degree to their name, our ability to have an impact on the world is vast.

But what kind of impact will we choose? A casual survey of Cambridge graduates doesn’t seem promising: I see before me an array of consultants, bankers, managers. Certainly not all are City Scrooges working only for the most soulless companies and regularly purging their lives of any warmth or generosity.

But nor does your average graduate harness the considerable potential of their qualifications, connections and passion and use it to address the injustices and inequalities

rife in our world.

So despite the ripeness of the Cambridge atmosphere for political

engagement and social action, the Cambridge activist is not only a rare animal, but a much scorned one as well.

I would be the first to agree that the struggle for environmental responsibility

and social justice must be responsible and aware of its consequences

so that the outcomes are consistent with the intentions. Yet I see very few of these critics actually

expending any energy towards such movements; their determination

to be “disillusioned” reinforces an apathy which whittles away any legitimacy from their criticism.

In last week’s TCS Jack Nugent made it clear that he was anything but impressed by environmental activists, painting them as self-indulgent,

inconsistent, violent and obsessed with image. Having been present at the camp for climate action,

I cannot stress enough how every single one of his allegations is false. The campers were wonderfully

diverse: from primary school teachers to solicitors to individuals

involved in local government to families to an impressive contingent of Cambridge students and staff.

The opinions held by this several-

hundred-strong group of people were diverse as well, but they were certainly not confused. Cambridge norms generally prize unapologetic adherence to an argument, yet there seems to be a special allowance of scorn for opinions that stray away from the purely academic into the territory of action. Even presenting

the most coldly rational arguments

an activist will most often find their arguments overlooked in favour of a fascistic examination of their personal integrity (is that shirt fair-trade? How many leaflets did you print?) I strongly believe that we should be as consistent as financially and practically possible in our lifestyles and ideologies, but I also do not think that this is the most important aspect of political action.

We need to be doing more than shopping ethically. We need to be campaigning: as individuals, as institutions,

and as constituents of a government. This is particularly difficult:

in our society disempowerment

runs deep, reinforced by cynicism,

a consumerist culture and by a political system whose democracy is tempered by inaccessibility. Our desire to see a better system often translates into a refusal to confront the harsh realities dealt to us by the current system, such as class and gender inequalities. These realities disturb us, but we cannot change them by pretending they do not exist.

But both within Cambridge and nationally we see individuals shaking

off their apathy and making change happen: through demonstrations,

getting involved in local government, direct action, setting up alternative energy and changing

their lifestyles. Often labelled as “hippies”, “radicals” and “extremists”,

these people have simply

taken steps which are possible for all of us, even those jaded by over-exposure to academic theories which neglect reality.

Cynicism is indeed easier than actually trying to make a difference. Campaigning for a cause not only entails effort but also the risk of failure,

of appearing over-sincere or unrealistic.

But our world desperately needs this boldness now. It is true that we should choose our battles carefully, but we must choose them rather than ignore them.