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Student Activism and The War of Ideas

Student Activism and The War of Ideas

I wrote this piece for my school's online newspaper. It didn't get published before the student-led protest, but I revised it to be published afterwards. I thought i'd put it here as well.

Student Activism and The War of Ideas

We teens are slimy, sensitive, impulsive, hypocritical, self-conscious, sentimental, rebellious, solipsistic, insecure pricks. We enjoy edgy memes and crying ourselves to sleep. But so imagine how seducible we are, we voracious observers of culture. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few products that satisfy my needs to feel cool, or escape boredom, or appear au courant. Spotify, Snapchat, mint oreos, sunglasses, Youtube. . . you could probably think of infinitely more ideas than I can. Undoubtedly, companies have observed and taken advantage of this marketability, but I’m really not here to preach to you about how unethical or manipulative it is, because I, like you, have much better things to do than regurgitate the same old vapid platitudes.

Here’s a snippet from an interesting article I found on advertisement and teen psychology:

According to this research, all children go through what is called the “Age of Assertion” around ten years of age. . . . At this point, the brain is developed enough where the child wants to assert control and make [their] own decisions. Parents and children often have conflicts at this age because kids want to start making their own decisions and parents are unwilling to relinquish this decision-making authority. The tobacco industry therefore concluded that 10- to 12-year-olds were the perfect targets for their advertising.
— (Favat presentation, Senior Conference 51)

In 1999, ~26% of all U.S. teens smoked cigarettes™. One in four of all of your friends. The action heros on TV smoked coolly after blowing up a tank. Hot couples on TV smoked . . . in bed. All the cool kids at school smoked back behind the gym. Imagine how dismal the odds were that the small-nonprofit-anti-smoking “Truth Campaign” would succeed, even remotely. None of this is new, or much interesting…

So why, merely 14 years later, has that percentage dropped from 26% to 6%? The answer is in a beautifully constructed ad campaign that helped reverse teen perception of autonomy in smoking. It did this by taking advantage of the psychological desires that all teens (at some point) feel, and feel intensely: the desire to rebel, to express oneself, to feel empowered, to feel significant. In one ad, “1,200 students wearing white shirts numbered 1 to 1,200 marched outside another major tobacco company headquarters in Kentucky. At a predetermined time, all 1,200 fell down “dead” simultaneously.” Another ad “featured teenagers dumping 1,200 paper-filled body bags outside the headquarters of a major tobacco company in New York City representing one day of the annual death toll.” The ads were wildly successful.

            None of this is about the smoking itself. It’s about the perception of smoking, the consumer habits, the concept of “The War of Ideas.” A decade later, the Truth Campaign ran another ad hoping to achieve the same goal.

It crashed and burned . . . and in my opinion, it kinda deserved it. Why did it crash? It was poorly done, and as one anon Galloway friend puts it: “It was obvious [the ad] was designed by a bunch of old guys sitting in a room throwing darts at a spinning board asking themselves what do the kids do these days.” The ad actually subverted itself—it stopped engaging and empowering its audience into taking social action. It made it uncool. It made it cool to mock.

            The War of Ideas stretches far beyond advertising and political rhetoric and social change and television. It is, by nature, present in every interaction we have with one another. I’m not alone in noticing a sort-of self-conscious defeatist attitude towards social change among us teens. An attitude that says “I know, deep down, that these issues are important” but “unfortunately I’m too busy or bored to attempt to make any meaningful change” so “the cycle remains, and will probably continue to remain, that something bad happens and people notice it and try to make change and get shut down.” So I was surprised to hear that many of my peers are trying to break that cycle and protest and be heard and talk sincerely.

When I first heard about the Galloway Student Protest in my Tuesday morning ceramics class, my eyes instinctually began to roll in their sockets. “No one really cares about making a stand—” I thought, “And how could they? It’s just another school. Someone else’s problem. Too futile to care.” For 30 minutes I steeped in this frame of mind, sitting there molding my small ceramic pot. Near the end of class, I tuned into something my peers were talking about and the sudden epiphany nearly blindsided me. For the past 10 months I’ve been obsessed with David Foster Wallace and this movement of New Sincerity, and then I act like this hypocritical ass when in my own community many people are demonstrating the same virtues my literary heroes praise and uphold and admire. That’s hypocritical. At the end of E Unibus Pluram, Wallace says, “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’ . . . who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue . . . The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.” (E Unibus Pluram; Conclusion) I feel strangely and intensely embarrassed by the fact that my automatic response—when confronted with the knowledge that people in my community who have been deeply moved for maybe the first time in any of our young lives into taking any sort of real, meaningful social action—is to kick back and yawn and roll my eyes, oblique.

I believe the notion of teenage marketability applies greatly to our conversation of self-conscious rhetoric in student activism. We teens are usually slimy, and rebellious, and solipsistic, and ironic, and eye-rolley, and insecure. We enjoy edgy memes and crying ourselves to sleep. It is natural for us, we’ve had it marketed to us our entire lives. Right now, communities in Florida—teenage communities—have begun breaking the cycle of defeatism and neglect. And their movement is now nationwide. Perhaps, excitingly, we may see teenagers inhabit the catalyst role for substantial social change.

Editor’s Note: I’m revising this essay a week after the student-led protest. I remember being especially struck by the power of the words of Jesse Spolan, a kid who, before this, I had never gotten to meet, and feeling a strange mix of sadness and communal pride. I think of Charlie Pike saying that the protest isn’t about any one of us, or about Galloway, or about making some profound social change—that it was about taking time to come together as a community and for 17 minutes to stand or sit there and remember the victims of a school shooting. I think it’s necessary to remember that even when we feel deeply cynical about society, and politics, and whatever the future holds for us precarious group of teens, that we are capable of coming together. That’s sincere. That’s important.

Clever Bots

Clever Bots

Overdue Thoughts from my Florida Trip

Overdue Thoughts from my Florida Trip