“When you see people starting to suck on lemons, it’s time to get out.”
This was the sage advice offered to my friends and me in an all too familiar manner as we approached a Chilean educational protest last fall in Valparaiso. The stranger on the metro could tell that we didn’t fully understand what we were getting ourselves into. But we were about to learn.
On September 11, 1973 the Chilean government under the Socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup d’etat and for the subsequent 17 years, the country was governed by a military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. This change of power had significant and largely unintended ramifications for the country socially, politically and economically.
The reverberations of this shocking system-level change are still being fully explored and are by no means rectified, even 40 years later.
One such implication can be seen all too clearly in the Chilean education system. Historically, education in Chile was largely public, provided by the government and free of charge.
To a large extent, this was true of college-level education as well. When Pinochet came to power, secondary education was largely defunded and, as a result, many students were forced to turn to privatized education. Now, after 30 some years of competition between public and private education, students feel that they have no choice but to pay the fortune requested by private schools if they have any hope of being considered for admission to the nation’s preeminent institutions—also private.
This system isn’t just and it certainly does not represent the traditional Chilean mentality regarding access to education; from their point of view, it should not be a marketable commodity. It should be free and equally accessible to all.
And so, starting in 2011, Chilean students around the nation began protesting, mobilizing and occupying their educational institutions. These students can all articulate with beautiful eloquence the cause that they represent and have made significant waves in the political realm, gaining attention from the legislature and largely setting the agenda for this year’s presidential election.
That man on the metro knew that he needed to warn us about the lemons. He knew that we wouldn’t understand that the lemons helped combat the burn produced by the tear gas. He knew that we would be oblivious to the tanks rolling through unleashing their contents on a group of frustrated activists.
And why would we understand? It has never been part of our political culture to learn those kinds of things. Because here in the U.S. we don’t stand up for anything.
Either through jus sanguine or jus soli, we Americans have the incredibly underrated right to free speech. And yet, we live in a society of tacit conformity and apathetic, albeit, rampant hyper-privilege. We have unhampered access to information, resources and influence. And yet the things that we view on the news and through social media have yet to permeate the social disconnect that makes these real-life happenings seem inconsequential.
Citizens the world over are standing up for things that upset them, excite them, incite them with some sort of emotion. And another sector altogether, are fighting for their seemingly inherent right to speak freely.
And we sit, smugly so, in the warmth of our homes and in the spoils of our rights watching the news, allowing the reporter’s voice to wash over us inconsequentially, while there are things happening by which we should be truly infuriated. Historically speaking, we as Americans have found solace and success in the trenches of community, cooperation and have taken more than an inchoative step towards self-advocacy and self-determination.
Ironically enough, our generation—despite the myriad of groundbreaking events that have passed within our borders and on a global scale—is unable to react. Empathy is an inherent animal instinct. But somehow we, twenty-first century citizens of the United States of America, have become immune to natural human reaction. Forget rights, privilege, entitlement. Forget our seemingly intrinsic lust for the preexisting hierarchical social paradigm. We have a responsibility to stand up for what fuels our fire.
We have things that we should be standing up for. And our constitution and institutions provide us with the rights and resources to do so. And for this reason, I commend those people who stand out there on the plaza utilizing their right to free speech.
Bottom line: if you don’t like what they’re yelling about, yell louder. You have the right—and responsibility—to do so.
Geneva Mueller is a senior political science and international studies double major. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.