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Harsha Nahata: Activate the 'quiet' generation

By Harsha Nahata, Columnist
Published April 10, 2013

Ann Arbor is a city that’s considered to be fairly activist-oriented, yet at times the lack of awareness surprises me. It’s not that we don’t have causes we’re passionate about, but the stress of going through college, getting into graduate school or finding a job makes it difficult to focus on much else. We defer activism to the social-justice organizations, or the human-rights clubs or the Community Action and Social Change minors. We leave it up to those who are on the career path of “activism.”

In a 2007 New York Times column, Thomas Friedman coined us Generation “Q” — Q for quiet. He wrote, “I can report that 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.”

He’s right. 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, we’re facing many serious issues and apathy isn’t an option.

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 screening their documentary, Hibakusha — a film telling the story of Kaz, one of the survivors of Hiroshima. That documentary 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 hear the story of her experience. It’s devastating to see how one event can destroy an entire city. The film’s closing was perhaps the most powerful scene. 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 that dropped a bomb — juxtaposing two drastically opposite sides of this debate. The pilot is asked if he would go back and do anything differently. The answer: No — militarily, this was needed to end the war, and to “save more lives in the long run.”

In every issue, for every cause, there’s the politically strategic aspect and the human aspect. When politicians, the media or pundits discuss an issue, most often the latter is the least of their priorities. In all the rhetoric, it’s the voices of the weak and disempowered that get lost first. It’s a luxury for us to be removed enough from a situation to debate the pros and cons of dropping an atomic bomb. Ask someone who lived it, whose life was forever transformed. And yet, they’re the ones we’ve rarely heard from. Activism is a way to give these voices a platform to spread awareness about the angles of a debate that aren’t heard.

Activism is misunderstood as just for those directly affected by an issue. Policy caters to public opinion. It’s not enough for one person to raise their voice — we all need to. A quote from Elie Wiesel comes to mind: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Standing by and letting injustices occur is as bad as committing injustice yourself. Whether it’s as big as overseas attacks or as small as a discriminatory comment, there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander.

I was able to sit down and talk with Nguyen. His hope was for people to learn from Kaz’s story. He said, “If there's anything I've learned through this production, it's that history generally tends to repeat itself. If we can take something from the lessons from the past, we should utilize what we've learned in a positive way and continue to spread the awareness to others that aren't familiar with what's going on.”

It’s common to hear the term social justice and get intimidated. But social justice is just another way of saying you care about something bigger than yourself. It’s a way of making an impact in your community and doing more than just what’s expected. 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. It’ even just reading the news.

I’ll close with a quote by Dante Alighieri: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

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. So step out of your comfort zone and find that cause that makes your blood boil. Think about what you want your community to look like and embody that change.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.