Ways of Seeing: Conflict calls for ‘wakefullness’
The first word of the central prayer of any Jewish liturgy is shema, “Listen.” The deep significance of that first word is reflected by the fact that the prayer itself is known as The Shema. The word shema is sometimes informally translated in ways that call for wakefulness: “Hey! Pay attention! Listen up!” Others prefer to emphasize the kind of attentiveness that can only come from quieting the mind-heart and slowing down: “Shhhh … calm yourself, take a pause, open your heart so that you can truly listen.”
In these unbearably long weeks since Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel, acts of really listening to one another have been in very short supply. In large part, I blame our current social media “culture” with its self-perpetuating insistence that everybody immediately respond to the news of the day — and to do so with forceful opinion-giving that will align perfectly with the perceived expectations of the groups with which they identify. My students tell me that they feel a constant pressure to speak up on matters that they haven’t had time to even think through, much less research, for fear of being accused of being silent on the hot issues of the moment. But caving to social pressure and a culture of haste can have grave consequences.
In the immediate wake of the Hamas attacks, a coalition of 34 student groups at Harvard co-signed a shocking letter declaring that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Some authors of this letter were clearly operating from this kind of “jump on it now” pressure. That these students failed to pause and reflect on the influence of this pressure is almost unfathomable to me. I experienced their words as a gut-punch. I felt betrayed by my own alma mater. The fact that these were words uttered by student leaders — as opposed to the voice of the institution itself — did little, initially, to ease the pain.
Of course, my own response was, itself, in the heat-of-the-moment. I chose not to announce it to the world. I mostly internalized my anger and my pain, which is never quite as satisfying as letting words fly. After a few days, however, I detected a slight (very slight) modulation in my response. I reminded myself that these words were the words of young adults still trying to figure out their way in the world. Students are naturally quick to make judgements, especially when feeling the acute pressure not to diverge from the views of their peers. In the wake of the backlash against them, some Harvard students have clarified that they did not know that certain groups to which they belonged were co-signatories on a letter with which they vehemently disagreed. Some group leaders admitted that they had said “yes” to adding their group’s name without carefully reading the letter itself. Some had not seen or read it at all. At this writing, at least eight groups have retracted their initial endorsements, whether for reasons of conscience or self-preservation is not entirely clear. Some student leaders, however, have flatly denied reactivity and have doubled down on their commitments to the message of the letter.
No matter the context of urgency, the peer pressure, the later regrets or the stubborn refusal to budge, I do not excuse the letter. But neither do I think that students’ names should be broadcast on electronic billboards or that their futures should be forever marked by their hastily scribed, truly damaging words. These students ultimately can choose to think, learn, read, reflect and make the kind of apology that is not mere “damage control,” but expresses some level of reflection and true contrition. I, in turn, can choose to forgive them. But for any of that to happen, we need both to wake up and to slow down. We must pause, open our hearts and listen.
What boggles my mind and breaks my heart is that the reactiveness of these smart-enough-to-know-better young people are not outlier outbursts. They are utterly reflective of the dominant discourse in the United State at this moment, one shaped by a culture of polarization, reactivity and, with it, a rush toward false equivalencies: all injustices are equal, all stories of colonization are the same. As an educator, the kinds of phrases I am most apt to utter in any classroom (regardless of the subject at hand) are: “Well, yes, but it’s more complex than that” and “Could we take a more nuanced look at this?” No doubt, by halfway through any semester, the eye-rolls and inner groans have multiplied: “There goes Professor Gould again! Complexity and nuance. Enough already.” But that’s okay. That’s my job.
How do we even begin to probe complexities, to discover and articulate nuance? We wake up. We slow down. We listen. We listen to texts. We listen to history. We ask genuine, sympathetic questions. We open our minds and hearts. We gently ask people if they would care to share their stories.
In these utterly wrenching last few weeks, what is human about the humanities has never felt more urgent and significant to me. Developing the core capacity of attentiveness to complexity feels more and more like its own act of both peace-making and resistance, however small. Hamas wants polarization. Netanyahu wants reactivity. Destroyers of democracy and dismantlers of peace everywhere are deeply invested in our continuing not to pause, ask a question and listen carefully to the response. But we have the power to do otherwise. We can urge ourselves to wake up from what Thoreau aptly called the “mud and slush of human opinion.” We can rein ourselves in to a slower pace. We can choose, for now, the radical act of Just Listening.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities.
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