Archive | May, 2017

When is a Hunger Strike Appropriate at Yale?: A Response to Amy Hungerford

11 May

Two days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale English Professor and Dean Amy Hungerford published an article titled “Why the Yale Hunger Strike is Misguided”. It is flawed on two counts: that a non-confrontational method of problem-solving exists for unionization at Yale and that a hunger strike is not an appropriate tactic in this circumstance.

Hungerford makes an appeal to dialogue, writing, “The process of respectful disagreement takes those in conflict from listening, to learning, to compromise. We learn to live with differences of opinion about what makes for a good society. The message of the Yale student refusing food in protest is this: Agree with us, or I will do violence to myself.” For this argument to hold weight, there must be an institutional mechanism for change to happen. It is clear that no longer exists. Following decades of organizing and debate, the union did everything by the book: it secured a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and won elections in select departments. Yale is legally obliged to negotiate, and yet the University stalls. This isn’t mere delaying. Yale is banking on a Trump appointee voiding the NLRB’s earlier ruling, which Hungerford fails to mention. There is no virtue in such a tactic.

Returning to the worth of dialogue, it can be simultaneously true that in general, intellectual debate is a cornerstone of academic life, and in specific cases, those in power can deviously deploy the concept of polite disagreement to stymie claim-making. Asking for rational debate here is an example of the latter; just a few months ago, Yale opposed all attempts at graduate student unionization, but now claim to be concerned at how democratic the process is. The hunger strike is not seeking to replace the role of rational debate. It is not seeking to impose a union on those departments that did not vote for one. Rational debate occurred, convincing those in some departments of the value of a union, and now the hunger strikers ask for Yale to follow through on its legally-mandated obligations.

A central part of Hungerford’s critique is the inappropriateness of a hunger strike at Yale. She writes the power of the hunger strike, “…belongs, by right, to the political prisoner, the victim of torture, the hero of an oppressed people in an occupied land.” In the context of Yale, a hunger strike, “…implies a false equivalence between these students at Yale and the millions on whose behalf Mohandas K. Gandhi, César E. Chávez, and others sacrificed their bodies to hunger.”

My question, however, is how does one come to own the hunger strike? A search of the term “hunger strike” in the Global Nonviolent Action Database (which, full disclosure, I contributed about a dozen entries to) returns 143 results. Journalists in Moldova went on hunger strike to protest censorship, students at Columbia used it to demand divestment from Apartheid, and demonstrators in Hong Kong fasted to protest the imposition of a Chinese curriculum in schools. None of these campaigns lived up to Gandhi or Chávez. Most social movements do not. This does not make them illegitimate. If the standard to use a nonviolent tactic is that one must face a situation as serious as Gandhi or Chávez, no movement could ever organize. The charge becomes a fundamentally regressive one: it de-legitimizes organization by judging goals as not worthy of struggle. Few would disagree with Hungerford’s characterization of Yale graduate students as privileged, but for many of the fasters, their grievances are deadly serious: the lack of availability of mental health care and how the University deals with sexual harassment.

It is not mistaken to ask whether a hunger strike is an appropriate tactic in this case. But I would counter that this is the moment for extreme tactics: if Yale succeeds in achieving an underhanded victory via a Trump nominee to the NLRB, the chances for redressing the union’s grievances vanish. In this specific instance, dialogue is a shield behind which to hide Yale’s dirty laundry. Therefore, it is not fasters attacking the “very foundation of…intellectual commitments”, but the University, in its cynical attempt to de-legitimize protests.