The upcoming protest march in Washington, D.C. with sister protests around the country is falling victim to the same problems that befell the Women’s March on D.C., at least with respect to liberal infighting.
The stated aim of this march was to protest the specific anti-science policies of the Trump administration and the Republican-led legislature. Their policy was that participation was desired from “anyone who values science.”
However, some who want to ally with the group find that social justice issues aren’t getting enough attention from the organizers. They also point out that because of the underrepresentation of historically-oppressed minorities in STEM fields, the organization should reflect more diversity and inclusion.
— Dr Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology) March 18, 2017
The organizers did not have an artful response to these concerns, especially when they seemingly used the term “political” to mean “partisan.” Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, an adjunct research fellow at Swinburne University in Australia, thoroughly details the issue. They first published a statement that “strongly supported intersectionality” and then revised it for one “significantly watered-down,” focusing less on the importance of social justice issues in an attempt to not appear divisive.
Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne told The New Republic he’d be skipping the march because the inclusion of these issues might alienate those they are trying to reach. “Science cannot adjudicate issues of morality,” he said. Other scientists have expressed similar concerns, such as science journalist Alex Berezow and Harvard bigwig Professor Steven Pinker.
However, many scientists think that these issues aren’t matters of morality, but ones settled with empirical research.
As Dr. Zevallos writes for Latino Rebels:
Science has been used to reinforce social inequalities, from slavery and other forms of racism to genocide by the Nazi regime. Science also recreates present-day inequalities. While women make up half of all undergraduate students in science and engineering, they represent only one third (28%) of senior researchers, and 3% of Nobel Prize laureates. This is an outcome of the Matilda Effect, the systematic repression of women’s contribution in research.
Beyond gender, the lack of diversity in science is what happens when we ignore access and inclusion. From negative stereotypes; to teacher biases of racial minorities; to being devalued; to inadequate career support; to a lack of science mentors, science careers further marginalize underrepresented groups. Indigenous scientists face additional barriers, despite their high aptitude for science.
Black, Latin and Asian women are doubly impacted by gender and racial inequality in science careers. LGBTQ researchers face high levels of workplace harassment, especially women. Minority scientists with disabilities face multiple misconceptions about their physical and mental abilities. These co-occurring experiences of inequality affect the daily work and recognition of underrepresented scientists.
The March for Science groups in other places in America, such as Pennslyvania, are not dealing with these problems. The Philadelphia march is being organized in part by students at the University of Pennsylvania and is making these social issues a core part of the message they’re trying to send that day.
Despite what many advocates for the under-represented seem to believe, it’s not that these scientists are against the idea of diversity or support historically-oppressed minorities. Rather they follow the school of thought supported by politicians and not effectively copied by protest movements (modified for this circumstance): Keep It Simple Scientists.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was one of the most remarkable moments of activism in the 2010s. It swept the nation and was an act of civil disobedience that made it impossible for those they were protesting to ignore them. Yet, while they started with a simple goal: get money out of politics, they quickly got lost in the weeds of protesting everything.
As the editors of Adbusters noted after the Arab Spring in the first Occupy Wall Street call to action:
The beauty of this new [mass protest] formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future … and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.
Part of this novel tactic was the idea of doing away with a traditional leadership structure, trying to create as an inclusive a ruling council as possible. While a noble aim, it led to the movement’s simple goal being complicated with the addition of dozens of other aims, including eventually 9/11 truther garbage.
“While the organizers prided themselves on the fact that they had no real agenda other than to vent the nation’s collective anger over the economic divide and injustices on Wall Street, this lack of clear, stated demands was a huge mistake,” the Huffington Post reported in 2013. Unlike the Tea Party, who channeled their anger into electing Republicans in opposition to Obama, liberal movements seem to spend their time attacking people who mostly or somewhat agree with them rather than translating their activism into leverageable political capital.
This is what’s starting to happen to the March for Science. Instead of a simple demand for the government to support scientific research and adopt evidence-based policy, the group now has some 20-plus demands.
This message confusion can lead to a dilution or discouragement of those who might be called into political activism during these divisive times. Some on the left scoff at these folks, because they only care when the problems affect them personally, but if the goal is to change human nature it’s even more likely to fail than if its goals are simply politically broad. Bringing them in on an issue as simple as “Science is good and should be supported” is much easier than encouraging them to read a manifesto and calling them part of the problem if they don’t agree with 100 percent of it.
However, those on the side of intersectionality have a valid point to make, as well. If the attitude towards issues affecting scientists from historically oppressed minorities make them feel unwelcome or even threatened in this protest environment, it’s a different version of the same problem. The coalition the group needs to affect change will simply not be large enough to result in actual policy change.
Despite this infighting, the Women’s Marches across the world were an unqualified success. People showed up. They marched. They chanted. They listened. And then, they went home. If the groups who brought all of those people together aren’t able to take that activist spirit and translate it into direct political action, from lobbying the government to electing people to office, then it’s just like Occupy: a notable moment of political outrage that fizzled out before it could change anything.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Note: This post was updated to correct a typo.