On Monday, November 28, a group of 20 to 30 Occupy Harvard protesters attempted to disrupt a Goldman Sachs recruiting session being hosted by Harvard’s Office of Career Services (not to be confused with the law school’s office of the same name). The demonstration did not amount to much. The Crimson reported that the protesters gathered outside OCS’s On-Campus Interview Facility on Massachusetts Avenue, where the Goldman event was taking place, and attempted to gain entry. They were blocked by HUPD officers and OCS officials, who appear to have told the students that, among other things, they could not enter without resumes. The protest eventually disbursed, and Goldman’s recruiting event concluded without incident.
Three days later, the Crimson ran an editorial reprimanding the protesters’ behavior on two grounds, the first of which was that the Occupiers’ choice of target reflected an underlying naivety:
Occupy Harvard’s targeting of a Goldman Sachs recruiting event presents a facile and trivializing interpretation of the root causes of the economic catastrophe and debases our national conversation on the issue. . . . Obviously, Goldman Sachs is not without blame in the financial crisis. . . . However, to single out Goldman Sachs as a single target of opprobrium for causing the financial crisis is myopic and unoriginal . . . .
If anything is unoriginal, it is the Crimson’s fatherly rebuke. Indeed, there’s something more than just a little familiar about the way the editorial scolds the protesters’ alleged simplemindedness. The logic underlying the Crimson’s argument is one we’ve seen countless times, and one we’ll continue to see in the months ahead: (1) The economic crisis is the result of a confluence of various factors. (2) Many if not most of the Occupy protesters don’t seem to understand all of the aforesaid factors, for they tend to direct their indignation only at big-name targets like Goldman Sachs. (3) Therefore, many if not most of the Occupy protesters are uninformed. Q.E.D.
The logic sketched above constitutes something of a cheap shot, for it is itself guilty of presenting a “facile and trivializing interpretation” of the dynamics at work in a protest like Occupy Harvard. Any protest of a sufficiently large scale will organize itself around easily recognizable symbols, symbols that, by definition, will have the effect of simplifying and personifying debates about economic or social policy. To berate a protest movement for demonstrating against highly visible and emblematic targets—or for having the effect of removing subtlety from the discourse—is not unlike scolding a fish for living in water. Faced with the elementary question of how best to allocate scarce resources, nearly any protest movement that aims to attract attention will opt to target institutions that the public has come to associate, psychologically speaking, with the phenomena to which the movement is opposed.
To protest a Goldman recruiting event is not to suggest that the firm is somehow “the evil enemy of the 99 percent,” the conception of Goldman Sachs that the Crimson incorrectly ascribes to Occupy Harvard. It is highly unlikely that the protesters were aiming to “single out” Goldman; nor, for that matter, did their strategic decision to target the firm necessarily express any sort of unwillingness to think carefully about the many determinants of our present (socio)economic state of affairs. There are principled ways to criticize both the form and substance of Occupy Harvard. But it is irresponsible to attack the protesters on the ground that they made the tactical choice to picket a firm that happens to have assumed a symbolic resonance in the popular imagination.
The Crimson offered a second and equally underhanded criticism of the Goldman protest:
More unsavory, the protest carried with it a strong sentiment against Harvard undergraduates seeking careers in the financial services industry. Perhaps it is not ideal that so many of us go on to Wall Street, but targeting individuals looking at career options in this way is hardly the appropriate remedy. Many students who enter these fields are not the scions of banking families but rather hard-working students looking for a challenging job that lets them experience a newfound financial prosperity. To exhort students to consider their contribution to society when choosing a career is one thing but to target those who want to work for Goldman Sachs misses the point; whatever negative impact the company has on our economy is due to structural issues rather than questions of individual morality.
Note the cautious, euphemistic wording (“newfound financial prosperity”?). Note also the second half of the last sentence, which makes the bizarre claim that “individual morality” has nothing to do with the “negative impact” of certain American corporations. More to the point, however, the Crimson attributes to the Occupiers “a strong sentiment” against Harvard students who hope to work in finance. It is by no means clear that the Goldman protest “carried with it” any such sentiment. That the protesters meant to convey a general criticism of Goldman Sachs is a fact; that their criticism extended to students looking to work for the firm is a presumptuous inference. From the fact that the Occupiers marched on a Goldman recruiting event, it does not follow that they sought to pass judgment on Harvard students who aspire to join the firm. Again, there may be good reasons to take issue with the Goldman protest, but they’re certainly not the ones the Crimson has provided.
Now suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Occupiers did intend to sway students who aim to work in fields like finance and law. Why, exactly, does the Crimson think that it would be “unsavory” to do so? To put the question another way, what is wrong with one student challenging the career choices of another? The Crimson does not provide an answer. The paper notes, vaguely, that it’s somehow not “appropriate” to critique students’ career choices, but it doesn’t explain why doing so is supposed to be wrong. Ultimately, the Crimson contents itself with the vacuous conclusion that challenging fellow students’ career choices “misses the point.” But what is that supposed to mean? And isn’t the Crimson forgetting the obvious fact that there’s something to be gained from pressuring students to account for the decisions they make in the job market?
It’s noteworthy that, instead of confronting the claims that Occupy Harvard has been putting forward, the Crimson felt the need to come to the preemptive defense of students who opt for corporate careers. The Crimson’s position seems to be that, as a general matter, it is wrong for Harvard students to take issue with the career choices of their peers. Such a position is simply irresponsible.