Remember, the medium is the message

OSLA RallyThe student rally at Olympia last week was great. We all met with legislators and their assistants and appeared to make generally positive impressions. They seemed to agree with us about the importance of putting more money into colleges and universities, or at least not making any additional cuts. We made lots of noise, we endured the cold, windy weather and most importantly, enjoyed some great boxed lunches together. One of our most important tasks, however, was to send a solid, coherent and true message to the people in charge of our state’s budget, and while Bellevue College and the rest of the schools present didn’t do a terrible job, we certainly could have done better.

First and most importantly, choosing your friends is as important a job in lobbying as it is in the realm of the more mundane social sphere. Note to lobbyists, anarchists are not your friends. Nothing sends the message, “Money spent on us is money wasted,” stronger than dressing up as and acting like the Irish Republican Army on the steps of the state capital. Even if BC students weren’t wearing the black bandanas and balaclavas themselves, waving black flags and distributing literature advocating “plundering” from the establishment, accompanied with sinister lines about how “cops aren’t invincible in the street,” standing in solidarity with this kind of company is bad. Very bad. To give you an idea, the website of the group that was distributing this literature was bragging just last week about the number of security cameras they destroyed. Associations with groups like this not only empowers them, but also undermines the agenda and goals of the more high-minded students trying to make good things happen. Taking part in a parade led by these people is something BC should avoid repeating in the future, for both pragmatic and moral reasons.

Secondly, metaphors and   symbols are an important part of communication. The Princeton psychology professor and famed author Julian Jaynes even went so far as to say that metaphor “is the very constitutive ground of language.” According to Jaynes, even basic words like “is,” and “to be,” are metaphors derived from Sanskrit: asmi, “to breathe,” and bhu, “to grow,” respectively. So what kind of message was a parade of students marching around with a 10 foot tall ball and chain supposed to send? Or a giant sign that read, “EDUCATION IS A HUMAN RIGHT?”  As it turns out, the enormous black ball was supposed to represent student debt, and the sign was supposed to represent a kind of obligation on the part of the legislators that they weren’t fulfilling.

Unfortunately, there are three problems with this image. Most obviously, education is not a human right, and even if it were, there are plenty of ways to educate oneself without going to school. Going to a library or surfing the more educational parts of the web doesn’t require any money from Olympia. As for the debt, hauling around the giant inflated black ball doesn’t do anything. Legislators didn’t put students in debt—students put students in debt. No one forces college students to take out loans. Trying to pass the burden of responsibility from the people who took out the loans to a group of dedicated public servants who are desperately trying to dig our state out of a budget deficit is not merely counter-productive; it’s reprehensible.

The final issue is what all of this together is trying to convey. At the first rally, on Feb. 8, the crystalline message was, “We are the future, don’t cut the future!” College is an investment in the future of not only the citizens of the state, but the state itself—culture, economy, businesses, society and everything else. It was a message of mutual benefit and argumentation: “here’s why this is important, and it’s in everyone’s interest to put money into our education.” By contrast, the message of the rally on Feb. 18 was one of coercion and entitlement: “we deserve this money, it’s our right, and we’re going to dress up in a threatening manner and play Rage Against the Machine to prove it.” The Canadian philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan famously said that, “the medium is the message,” that the metaphors and symbols we use define how the message is perceived. If you were a legislator, what sort of message would these kinds of demonstrations send? Would it really seem like something positive to invest more money in?