Bridging the Gap
It was Saturday afternoon. The sun was shining, it was in the 70's out, and I was watching my best friend get tear gas washed out of his eyes.
We were at the protest at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, and chlorine gas filled the air around us like cirrus clouds that had sunk to an unnatural depth. My throat had been burning for the past three hours, and I had taken out my contact lenses two hours previous, after a gas mask-clad medic informed me that contacts, if not removed, can react with tear gas and fuse to the eyes, causing permanent damage. As a result I was nearly blind, what with my bad eyesight, the continuous bursts of stinging smoke fired by the police, and the goggles I was wearing to protect my eyes.
I spent the rest of the day dodging tear gas containers and running from the police with the other 20,000 demonstrators -- most of them non-violent. The next day, I left my first "real" protest feeling more awed by the power of an organized demonstration than I had felt by anything else in a while. But I also returned home with more questions than I had left with. One of the biggest was how to reconcile my feelings of satisfaction with my parents disaproval. I asked myself, How did I end up here?
I am proud of my parents, and to a certain extent, I want to be like them. I want their drive, their ambition, their sense of direction and, most importantly, their honesty and moral sense. But I am not a Republican. I admire their hard work but I do not expect to ever live as they do.
My parents are conservative, comfortable, and corporation-bound. Like many Americans, they drink Starbucks coffee and purchase products from companies that are accused of testing on animals, like Proctor and Gamble. If either of my parents took up jogging they would have no problem buying Nike sneakers. But, like many people my age, I have read too much information about these companies to buy products from them without having a painfully guilty conscience.
To give my parents credit, they probably don't have all the information. Many people don't. Or if they do they seem to think that reacting in a way that actually changes your behavior is radical, paranoid, even Communist.
I still haven't told them that I attended the Quebec protest, mainly because I didn't want them to spend the weekend worried and huddled in front of CNN to watch me get tear-gassed. But I was also afraid of what they would say: that I was mis-aligned, that I didn't understand the benefits of free trade, that it was stupid to put my personal safety at risk when there was little or no a chance that the summit would be delayed.
Here's another example. My mother and I were driving home from dinner together recently, when I brought up the current protests at Harvard University. In this case the students have been against the administration's refusal to grant its custodians what they were calling a "living wage."
"What is a living wage, exactly?" my mother asked skeptically, her eyes on the road ahead of her.
"It's a wage you can live off of, Mom," I said with exasperation. "Northeastern University pays its custodians $15 an hour and Boston University pays $14.80, but Harvard will only pay $10.25. That's not enough to pay rent around Harvard."
"How do you think our ancestors made a life for themselves when they came over here, the Irish, Italian, and Lithuanian immigrants? They certainly didn't have a living wage," she retorted.
"I know, but I just feel that companies have a moral obligation to their workers," I explained. She was silent for a minute. I could tell she was planning her next statement carefully.
"Okay, well, why do you think that?" my mother finally responded. She was speaking slowly and clearly, as if I were a child who didn't quite get it. "Companies have a limited budget, within which they have to work. They can't pay everyone the same amount."
The conversation ended shortly after that. I am now able to handle an argument with my mother without seeing our exchanged words as personal attacks on each other. My mother is glad about this. Our exchange bothered me, though. It made me realize that one of the most crucial reasons why activism often does not accomplish what it aims to is that, more times than not, people refuse to listen to each other.
As we get older and begin to navigate the sticky morass of the world for ourselves, our own beliefs begin to sprout. Because many of these beliefs come from sources other than our parents, it can be hard to reconcile the differences. They say that families were the divided over Vietnam War in the 1960s. Well, similarly many of today's parents can't fathom why their children are interested in crusading against globalization.
After I returned from the protest in Quebec, I called up Mia Snow, the mother of one of the friends I went to Quebec with, to hear her take on the matter.
"I'm glad that she's socially aware," Snow said. "But I'm a little concerned about her safety, and about why she's involved in this particular cause, because it doesn't seem to have much to do with her personal life."
For example, she wonders why her daughter isn't more concerned about women's rights. "Abortion is going to disappear if people don't get involved," she said.
This may be an overstatement. However, I think my mother feels pretty much the same way. Then there's the safety factor.
"There's an aura of violence about these demonstrations that I find despicable, but that your whole generation seems to accept," my friend's mom said. "Back [in the 60's], the energy was the same, but the theme was much more of a peaceful one."
Snow also said that she feels that many young activists are interested in the globalization issue because it has been overly publicized and is now trendy or "sexy." She has a point. Ever since the November 1999 protest against the WTO in Seattle, the media has pounced on the concept of young activists and, in some senses, glamorized their experiences. I see this reflected within my circle of friends. For example, if you don't know what the FTAA is by now, it's assumed that you must have been in a coma for the past year.
And, truthfully, my own political, social beliefs are far from completely formed. I don't want to blindly memorize slogans. However, I do know that many of the things I've been hearing about working conditions in companies such as Nike and Starbucks feel wrong to me.
Many of the young people in this country are too complacent. But uneasily so. Teenagers and young adults know something they don't like is going on, but they're not sure what it is or what to do about it.
Some teens bury their heads beneath sofa cushions while Jenny Jones gushes about teen makeovers on television. Others claim to support causes they know almost nothing about, and end up protesting for the sake of protesting. But some do their own research, and begin to formulate mature ways to understand and deal with the world around them.
This last is the direction I hope I'm taking. And I hope that, eventually, my parents will be able to support my choice.
Jessica Barnett is a senior at Boston University's College of Communications.