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Why Occupy Duke scares us

Occupy Duke has resoundingly accomplished at least one of its goals, not so much in spite of as because of its critics. The Occupiers have succeeded in fostering a dialogue, and hecklers are a big part of the conversation.

The simple act of sleeping outside for a cause can apparently fire up even those who choose to stay indoors. It’s hard to pin down why Occupy Duke brings out such strong feelings in Duke students—especially among the Occupy-skeptics. What’s caused the offense? Do you think the Occupiers are hypocritical rich kids, or do you think they’re dirty hippies who don’t deserve to benefit from the work of the non-dirty non-hippies who founded/funded Duke? Both, if that’s possible?

Perhaps the funniest thing about the broader Occupy-mabob is that most of its critics claim to know precisely what Occupy’s members stand for, even while those same critics say that the protesters don’t have a specific enough agenda. When you figure out the logic behind that kind of attack, shoot me an email.

It’s clear enough, though, that most of us who have given Occupy Duke any thought have enjoyed the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on the thoroughgoing correctness of our values. Either we claim to be socially conscious and aware of the obligations that our privileges entail, or we call ourselves realists who see the basic silliness in camping out and talking about stuff that will never happen.

Or we call ourselves something else, but we’re a very right kind of something else. We know so because we know where we stand relative to Occupy Duke. Thinking about Occupy Duke gives us a quick moral high, just like thinking about how we feel about abortion or guns.

Oddly, that realization sheds light on why Occupy Duke stirs up strong feelings among at least one segment of Duke’s population. Seniors, I’m looking at you.

Occupy Duke wants to push us to talk about values, both personal and societal, at an inconvenient time. I don’t know a single senior, myself included, who isn’t shot through with anxiety about the immediate future. That this is a typical worry doesn’t make it any more fun for us, thanks.

If we think too hard about exactly what kind of people we want to be and what exactly we want to do, we feel like idle dreamers (dirty hippies, anyone?). We’ve had four years to realize that we can’t do everything we wanted to do when we were 18. We can only hope that the compromises we’re preparing to make are being made because we’ve gotten wiser and not because we’ve gotten cynical or because we’ve been beaten down.

And then there’s Occupy Duke, which wants us to ask difficult questions about contemporary society and our role in actively shaping it. That’s some pretty lofty stuff, which is why Occupy rhetoric is often derided as naive or patronizing or kooky.

But maybe it’s fairer to think of Occupy Duke as subtly scary, especially to seniors. It’s not easy to think about being the best human being you can be when, for the first time, you’re faced with the prospect of feeding yourself with the aid of neither food points nor your parents’ fridge. We’d rather be left alone to try to simply make ourselves (and our parents) as happy as we can.

Occupy Duke’s critics might say that I’m hinting at exactly the kind of pragmatic position they’re urging—there’s Occupy-world, there’s the real world, and the two just don’t match up. That’s not what I’m getting at. We could go on and on about whether Occupy Duke is right or wrong about this or that. But we’d probably be doing little more than congratulating ourselves on having neatly staked out our own identities, on knowing what kinds of people we are and what kinds of people we want to be. That cheap moral high, once again.

The takeaway here is that reassuring ourselves about how right we are about Occupy Duke—whether we’re for it or against it or some shade of gray—is really just a distraction. We might as well work on answering more pressing and important questions. This is especially true for seniors, who have to find some way of dealing with the spray of psychological shrapnel caused by college colliding with grownup-ness.

Why shy away from talking openly about how we should live, not just how we feel like we have to live now that we’re leaving college? “It’s scary” is the best reason I can come up with. Which is a better argument than some of the attacks that have been leveled against Occupy Duke, but still.

Connor Southard is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Monday.


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