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Meeting Society’s Challenge

Guest Column
Felix AuYeung

An overwhelming majority of people today will easily agree that racial equality is something our society must work at to achieve fully, that the oppression of women cannot be tolerated, and that the Vietnam War was unnecessary and created death and trauma on all sides.

But what makes these conclusions so obvious?

We would love to believe that we are intelligent, fair, and open-minded, and that we would strive for a world with justice and at peace. It is easy to look back at history and stand with the side that won, but it is much more difficult to live in a period of controversy, and to stand strong on beliefs and principles.

Sure, we agree with the movements, but had we lived during those times, how many would have marched down the street protesting what was then highly unpopular? How many would have been able to withstand the verbal and physical assaults by racists, sexists, and hawks? How many would have dared to risk arrest, abuse, and possibly death for ideas we believe as givens today?

But this majority is absent on contemporary issues. We live in a time of worldwide poverty, unnecessary deaths, and institutionalized resource inequity, not to mention that racism, sexism, war, and other classic problems persist. Are we merely spectators during difficult times but righteous sages when reflecting on history?

For good reasons, we packed the house when our friends performed at “Bad Taste”; but that same room was almost devoid of students when Lori Berenson’s parents came to speak about their daughter, jailed unjustly in Peru without a trial, or when experts spoke about the waste, fraud, and dangers behind the Star Wars national missile defense program.

Are you content with doing homework sets and going to parties, while others use their time and energy to make social changes? It seems like a guaranteed bet: if they succeed, you can claim to believe in their cause and that you would have supported their movement; if they failed, it wasn’t your fault and clearly, the people who caused the problems in the first place are to blame.

Or are your beliefs in justice compelling enough for you to actively take part in creating a better society, responding to Martin Luther King’s challenge, that the ultimate measure of a person is not where he or she stands in moments of comfort and convenience but in times of challenge and controversy?

Welcome to the struggle.

Felix AuYeung, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is a member of the MIT Social Justice Cooperative.