Activate the ‘Quiet’ Generation

by Harsha Nahata

Ann Arbor is a city that’s considered to be fairly activist, and yet it’s still easy to fall into the comfort of the dominant narrative. It’s not that we don’t have causes we’re passionate about, but between balancing about classes, preparing for next steps, and long extracurricular to-do lists, there’s only so much brain space left to focus on other information. It becomes easier and easier to defer activism to the social-justice organizations, or the human-rights clubs or the Community Action and Social Change minors. To those whose job it is to-do “activism.”

In a 2007 column, Thomas Friedman referred to us as Generation “Q” — Q for quiet — saying, “…the more I am around this generation of college students, the more I am both baffled and impressed … I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be.”

While it may be inevitable for us to be cautious, it’s not sustainable. Whether it’s climate change, the national debt or something as local as homelessness in Ann Arbor, the choice and ability to avoid engaging in these issues is a position statement in of itself.

This column has been a long time coming. I just needed the right catalyst. That catalyst came April 6 at the Midwest Asian American Student Union conference.

StudioAPA founders Steve Nguyen and Choz Belen put on a workshop, Hibakusha, a documentary that tells the story of Kaz, one of the survivors of Hiroshima. It is a film that has stuck with me ever since.

Now in her 80s, Kaz was 18 years old when the bombing took place. Through the medium of animation, we see how one event can destroy not just a physical city, but hundreds of thousands of human lives.

In the last scene of the film, years after the attacks on Hiroshima, Kaz is invited to be a guest on Channel Four news. She’s on air alongside one of the pilots who dropped a bomb — juxtaposing two drastically opposite sides of this debate. The pilot is asked if he would go back and do anything differently. His answer: “No — militarily, this was needed to end the war, and save more lives in the long run.”

In every issue, for every cause, there’s a strategic aspect. There’s the ability to weigh out pros and cons, gauge what is best in the long run, understand the costs and benefits outside of the context of sheer human impact. Not everyone has this luxury though. Not everyone is able to be removed enough from the very real implications of these decisions to debate the pros and cons.

And yet, those whose lives are at risk of being transformed, whose livelihoods are destroyed in the process, are rarely the voices that are considered throughout the process. Whether it is the decision to go to war, draft economic plans for the revitalization of a city, or restructure schools, somehow those most directly affected are most often overlooked.

At its very base, activism is needed to give these voices a platform and force attention to angles of a debate that aren’t always heard.

Policy caters to public opinion. It’s not enough for one person to be aware — we all need to engage.

In the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Whether it’s as big as overseas attacks or as small as a discriminatory comment, there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander.

Nguyen’s hope from this documentary is to provide a way for people to learn from Kaz’s story.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned through this production, it’s that history tends to repeat itself. We should use what we’ve learned in a positive way to spread awareness to those who might not be familiar with it.”

It’s common to hear the term social justice and get intimidated. But social justice is just another way of caring about something beyond our individual experience.

Becoming aware doesn’t mean having to change the whole world. It’s as simple as taking small steps to change your world — raising awareness among your friends, organizations and community.

We’re living in a time of not one, but many, great moral crises. From drone strikes overseas to economic inequality at home, there are countless injustices demanding our attention. Neutrality is the safe option, but keeping quiet doesn’t bring about change.

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