Campus protests and the tyranny of certainty

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Instead of imploring campus protestors to learn more content, we need to begin by asking them to learn how to hold nuanced viewpoints. 

Lately, I have found myself wondering: Have we spent so much time training this generation to learn the one correct answer needed to get a good grade that we haven’t taught them how to develop a complex and nuanced perspective?

In the last few weeks, I have seen several social posts that methodically implore campus protestors to learn what their slogans actually mean and understand who they are actually supporting. Two of these in particular have been widely circulated on my Facebook wall, and finally, in response to one colleague’s re-posting, I wrote, “If only the people who need to read this would make the effort to do so.” 

But unfortunately, the vast majority won’t read it. And that is because people at both ends of the political spectrum are blessed with the gift of certainty. They do not doubt that their position is the most right, the most accurate and, recently, the one with the most moral clarity.

People on the ends of the spectrum are not interested in nuance, because absolutes are so much easier to defend — all you need to do is repeat your perspective and refuse to engage in dialogue. After all, you are right, so what else is there to say?

It is so much harder to hold a position that includes nuance. Nuance requires you to incorporate perspective and context, to authentically hear and hold multiple narratives, and perhaps the most time-consuming and effort-filled thing, to learn more than what you already know. It requires a lot of work. And it requires acknowledging that you may be wrong, at least in part.

To learn which river and which sea and how religious Zionists have weaponized settling. To understand the reasons behind the crumbling of Israel’s center-left politics and the ways the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is not as neutral as it purports to be. To appreciate how we can gently hold a particular and a universalist perspective at the same time. 

Nuance is hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis marching in protest of their government for months on end. Nuance is a Hillel employee bringing their child to experience the encampments to understand the experience beyond what they see on social media. Nuance is spending the last year reading content about both Israel and Palestine that was completely new to me to create a curriculum with a wide range of perspectives. 

Some days I long to find myself on one end of the spectrum. It would certainly be easier to avoid having to admit that a place and a people I love haven’t always lived up to my framework of dignity, compassion and respect. But I refuse to do that because while this work is emotionally and mentally exhausting (and oftentimes, scary), it has strengthened my ability to find an authentic place in my narrative for both love for and critique of Israel. 

In many situations there is not a clear right or wrong answer — there is nuance. We need to teach protestors about the legitimacy of Jewish indigeneity and direct them to read Hamas’s mission, which plainly states a goal of killing all Jews.

But none of those efforts will be effective unless we first teach the skill of being open to the vulnerability that comes from learning content that is beyond one’s current narrative.

Moreover, none of this will be effective until protestors are willing to set aside the shame and embarrassment that society has associated with admitting that they’ve been tricked, taken advantage of or manipulated. For a generation of “the best and the brightest,” this acknowledgment may be the most difficult.

An 18th century rabbi reportedly carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. One said, “The whole world was created for me” and the other said, “I am but dust and ashes.” I doubt it was easy for this rabbi to set aside his ego and admit that. Just as it was hard for me to admit that I didn’t know as much about Israel as I really should. 

So, like that rabbi, I pledge to continue pushing myself to learn more broadly, understand more deeply and question more thoughtfully, with anyone who wants to join me. They are too large to fit in my pocket, but I’ll be the one holding “The Hundred Years War” in one hand and “Like Dreamers” in the other.  

Rabbi Carrie Vogel is director of Undergraduate Initiatives at American Jewish University. 

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