On the central plaza of Yale University’s campus, under an airy shelter strung with lights, eight graduate students are fasting as a public protest. Their protest has been called a hunger strike, a label they have invited and have not publicly refused, initially calling their action an "indefinite fast." They have stated that they will not risk hospitalization; new fasters plan to replace any who cannot continue.
Their stated goal is to persuade the university to begin immediate negotiations with students in eight departments that voted for unionization on February 23, in elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Yale has declined to begin bargaining while it awaits a reply to a request for review by the NLRB. The university maintains that graduate students are first and foremost students, not employees, but that if the students are to decide on unionization, that decision should be made by all graduate students, not just those in the eight "micro-unit" departments. These represent under 10 percent of Yale graduate students, and hail from carefully selected departments, such as sociology, history of art, and history, where organizers felt they had the best chance of winning.
Those facts are well known here on the campus. And yet the spectacle of the indefinite fast raises a more pointed question: What does it mean to invoke this tactic among all other forms of protest?
The practice of protesting through self-inflicted hunger stretches back millennia, recorded as a tool of last resort from ancient South Asia to medieval Europe. In modern history, hunger strikes against the 19th-century czarist monarchy in Russia or against 20th-century British rule in India directed attention to the plight of oppressed citizens and the brutality of authoritarian regimes.
From Ireland to Cuba, hunger strikers have drawn attention to human-rights abuses and unjust incarceration. In this form of protest, the oppressed ask all who look on their bodies to recognize injustice the world has refused to see.
The history of graduate-student organizing — in contrast to those antecedents — is a history of disagreement among members of a privileged community. At Yale, doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences spend an average of six years earning their Ph.D. degrees, during which time they take classes, do research, and work with world-renowned experts in their fields. As part of their training for careers as professors, they apprentice as teaching assistants in four to six semester-long courses over their 12 semesters.
In the sciences, doctoral students assist in fewer courses, instead training with professors who guide them in laboratory research. Each doctoral student receives full tuition funding, health-care coverage, and an annual stipend that, in 2017-18, will exceed $30,000, whether they are assisting in teaching, taking classes, or researching and writing their dissertations.
A hunger strike is appropriate when due process is unavailable to the victims of injustice. When it is invoked by relatively privileged citizens, and when the processes of law are working, the tactic is poorly chosen. It 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. The tactic invokes the moral authority of those who have used it in the gravest circumstances on behalf of graduate students wishing to improve the terms on which they are supported while pursuing a Ph.D.
This form of protest is not only out of proportion to the situation in which it is being invoked. When the spectacle of fasting is used in a context where people of equally good will can and do disagree, it also signals disregard for the value of disagreement, reason, research, evidence, debate, and persuasion. The tactic declares that the only solution to disagreement between members of a community in a lawful society is to physically threaten the bodies on one side.
Yale and the graduate students are participating in a process of negotiation over how best to structure graduate education. Right now, negotiation is happening through the NLRB, and it could continue into federal courts. If the union prevails in this legal process, negotiation may take place at the bargaining table. If the union does not win, then it may take place in renewed organizing, persuasion, research, and argument. Minds will be swayed, protesters will march, and the world will change.
To the students fasting under the strings of lights: Let us allow the process to unfold without doing damage to education and to protest itself. We must be able to disagree without the threat of violence, self-inflicted or otherwise. Those who aspire to be the next generation of scholars, teachers, and researchers compromise the very foundation of their intellectual commitments by refusing to meet disagreement with debate, by choosing physical harm instead. This is anathema to the methods of inquiry that drive both classroom and laboratory. And if we are to be faithful to what we know about the history of protest, we must safeguard the symbolism of a tactic — the hunger strike — whose power belongs, by right, to the political prisoner, the victim of torture, the hero of an oppressed people in an occupied land.