Having spent much of this fall organizing with the Occupy movement in California, I occasionally forget that my world is populated largely by people who don’t share my particular line of leftist politics. I’ve been reminded of my friends’ political diversity during conversations about the open letter that a group of ­alumni, including me, wrote in support of Occupy Prince­ton (Inbox, PAW, Feb. 8). Caveats within the letter’s message that were clear in my activist brain are, understandably, not ­obvious to others. 

I have written this to respond to some criticisms that could be and have been made about the open letter — criticisms that appear in response to almost any activism that appears outside the usual confines of political action at Princeton. 

“Investment bankers are not bad people; why are you attacking them?” Princeton graduates working in finance — like Princeton graduates who go on to law school, become fellows at Teach for America, or work elsewhere in the private sector — are not good or bad people; they’re just people. Students go into finance for all sorts of reasons: Some do it because they like the challenge, others for money, and still others because they see the industry as playing a valuable role in our society. I don’t think I am “better” than my friends who work in finance: After all, reading social theory in graduate school isn’t exactly saving the world, either. But institutions matter, and there is now ample evidence that the milieu of Wall Street has created cultures of excessive risk-taking and hypercompetitiveness that are harmful both to society and the people taking part in them.

“What Occupy Princeton did was really rude!” As Michael Lewis ’82 points out in his recent column on Occupy Princeton (posted at PAW Online, Feb. 8), an easy way to ignore the substance of a message is to criticize the way it is delivered. I have some misgivings about how Occupy groups are using “mic checks” to shut down events, but let’s keep some perspective: We live in a society where millions of dollars from anonymous donors are poured into nasty attack ads and protesters are being beaten, gassed, and shot while peaceably assembling. The fact that Occupy Princeton’s three-minute interruption at an investment-banking recruiting event might have made some people uncomfortable is not a good reason to ignore it. Princeton students ought to be made of sterner stuff.

“Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a debate about finance?” No, it wouldn’t have. In my time at Princeton, I helped organize a number of debates and lectures on vegetarianism, nearly all of which were poorly attended. Why? Because people generally don’t seek out situations where they’re going to be told they’re doing something wrong. Certainly, I doubt that stressed Princeton seniors would be interested in hearing about how they should not take jobs in one of the few industries still hiring. But sometimes people do need to be shown the implications of their decisions, and at times the only way to do so is through confrontation.

“Why try to kick JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs off campus? Shouldn’t we be trying to engage with them more constructively?” Bankers are well aware that many Americans loathe their industry. Rather than make a public case for the value of finance, though, institutions like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have used back-door influence to thwart overwhelmingly popular efforts at financial regulation. When Occupy Wall Street started, these same institutions engaged in ad hominem attacks on protesters — deriding them as unwashed, lazy hippies — rather than countering the substance of the protesters’ message. Given the unwillingness of these institutions even to entertain the idea that they need to reform, the best course of action is to challenge their bottom line — by pinching their top source of employees — and force them to get serious about their obligations to society.

“But Princeton students have a right to work where they want!” In my time at Princeton, I was told that students have a “right” to have a tray (not just a plate!) in the dining hall, a “right” to be in a certain eating club, and a “right” to make six figures immediately after graduation. But what if I say I have a “right” to go to a school that does not offend my values by reinforcing income inequality? Throwing around the “r” word not only cheapens real rights — such as free speech and due process — but it also shuts down the possibility of debate or compromise. All of us have rights, but we also have responsibilities: Our conversation should be about what duties we have as Princeton graduates entering a world in which we are incredibly privileged and, as a result, poised to do much more than just make money.

“It’s not Princeton’s job to tell students what they should do after graduation.” Princeton offers its students a world-class education, which — even for students paying full tuition — is funded largely by others. In exchange, it imposes obligations on members of the community to behave in certain ways and to fulfill various requirements. There would therefore be nothing drastic or new about telling grossly misbehaving financial companies to take recruiting off campus; it simply would be an extension of existing standards that Princeton has about who gets access to and support from Princeton. This isn’t about where graduates are “allowed” to work, but which organizations and institutions get to receive Princeton’s institutional blessing.

“You’re not going to change anything, so why are you wasting your time?” Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our conviction that things are unchangeable is a big part of what prevents change from happening, because it provides easy cover for those of us who don’t want to act even when we know we should. Princeton obviously does change, albeit slowly. I recently was contacted by an alumnus who mentioned how, in the 1980s, people demanding that the University divest from apartheid South Africa were derided as wasting their time on a fool’s errand. History proved them wrong. 

My hope is that, in addressing these concerns, we can move past arguments about the form of Occupy Princeton’s message and begin discussing its substance: the appropriate role of finance on campus and Prince­ton’s response to growing economic inequality. 

Alex Barnard ’09
Alex Barnard ’09

Alex Barnard ’09, a Sachs scholar and co-winner of the Pyne Prize, recently completed a master’s degree in international development at the University of Oxford. He is working on a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.