Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
In the wake of last fall’s campus protests, the protests that inspired this year’s Arendt Center Conference, Real Talk (October 20th and 21st), Nathan Heller checks in with one of the most prominent cases, Oberlin College:
“In mid-December, a group of black students wrote a fourteen-page letter to the school’s board and president outlining fifty nonnegotiable demands for changes in Oberlin’s admissions and personnel policies, academic offerings, and the like. “You include Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity,’ ” it said, “when in fact this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.”The letter was delivered by hand, but it leaked onto the Internet, and some of the more than seven hundred students who had signed it were hit with threats and hate speech online from anonymous accounts. The president, Marvin Krislov, rejected the letter’s stance, urging “collaboration.” All across Oberlin—a school whose norms may run a little to the left of Bernie Sanders—there was instead talk about “allyship”: a more contemporary answer to the challenges of pluralism. If you are a white male student, the thought goes, you cannot know what it means to be, say, a Latina; the social and the institutional worlds respond differently to her, and a hundred aggressions, large and small, are baked into the system. You can make yourself her ally, though—deferring to her experience, learning from her accounts, and supporting her struggles. You can reach for unity in difference.”
Heller spoke with Jasmine Adams, one of the signees of the fourteen-page letter. ““Me trying to appeal to people? Ain’t working. Me trying to be the quiet, sit-back-and-be-chill-and-do-my-work black person? Doesn’t work. Me trying to be friends with non-black folks? Doesn’t work.” She draws out her final syllables. “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work! So you’re just, like, I’ve got to stand up for myself.” “I have to be political,” Slay says. “I have to be political in whatever form or fashion,” Adams says. “Because I have nothing else to do.” There were negative responses to the fifty demands (which included a request for an $8.20-an-hour activism wage, the firing of nine Oberlin employees deemed insufficiently supportive of black students, and the tenuring of black faculty).”
That students are being political is something we should applaud. Hannah Arendt applauded students who engaged in politics. She supported students who requested leaves from classes to engage in political organizing. To make political claims. To seek to realize their interests. To live a political life. For Arendt, these are essential attributes of citizenship. Arendt even wrote that of all the students engaging in violence in the 1960s, she understood the violence of the black students the best because they were fighting for real political interests.
At the same time, Arendt insisted we separate politics from education. She saw education as at once conservative and revolutionary. Education is conservative insofar as it seeks to lead a student into the common world. The educator teaches students to love the world, the love of the world, Amor Mundi. We are, Arendt thinks, to love the world in full cognizance of its terrors and tribulations. And one important characteristic of the world that we love is that it is never static, never unquestionable, never sedentary. There is, she insists, always the possibility of a revolution, of a new direction, of an unexpected transformation. To love the world is to love it with both its horrors and its revolutionary potential. If liberals are too often overly critical and dismissive of the world we are living in, conservatives are frequently dismissive of revolutionary change. Education, for Arendt, is the teaching of the love of the world in both its conservative and revolutionary elements.
It matters, however, what one’s political argument is. Calling for people one disagrees with to be fired and seeking to shut down the exchange of opinions that is at the heart of both politics and academic life are demands that while political go against the very idea of both politics and education. So too are the efforts to stop the teaching of so-called offensive books. One student objected to the teaching of Sophocles’ Antigone, arguing in the campus newspaper the Oberlin Review that Antigone’s case for suicide was a potential trigger. According to Heller, the student “argued that trigger warnings were like ingredient lists on food: “People should have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their minds, just as they have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their bodies.”” The demand for trigger warnings emerges from the medicalization of campus discussion so that literature is no longer part of the humanities and opinions are extracted from their traditional political context; now all words and images are understood medically as potential triggers that may induce traumas. Traumas, of course, are real and can be debilitating. Once the language of trauma invades the academic and political spheres, however, reason and persuasion give way to preventative medicine.
What we are seeing emerge on college campuses is a hierarchy of oppressions in which each group insists that its sufferings need to be addressed and that it too must be protected from hostile and unwelcome speech. On February 25th, an Oberlin publication published an article that included screenshots from the Facebook feed of Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin. The posts suggested, among other things, that Zionists had been involved in the 9/11 plot, that ISIS was a puppet of Mossad and the C.I.A., and that the Rothschild family owned “your news, the media, your oil, and your government.” The posts did not sit well with everyone at Oberlin, where, weeks earlier, a group of alumni and students had written the president with worries about anti-Semitism on campus; the board of trustees denounced Karega’s Facebook activities. As a teacher, however, she’d been beloved by many students and considered an important faculty advocate for the school’s black undergraduates. The need for allyship became acute. And so, with spring approaching, students and faculty at one of America’s most progressive colleges felt pressured to make an awkward judgment: whether to ally themselves with the black community or whether to ally themselves with the offended Jews.”
It is a sad day when a professor at an elite institution fans false, anti-Semitic, and hateful propaganda. Professors have a power to speak and be believed by students and spreading false facts corrupts the fundamental role of the professor as someone who leads students into the truth and beauty of the common world. But it is also sad the board of trustees felt the need to get involved. The answer to such claptrap is to respond clearly and strongly. Professors, students, and administrators should speak out, making clear that such statements are wrong and dangerous. There is no need to attack the professor personally. This is not a personal matter. It is a matter of the responsibility of a college to teach young people how to engage intellectually around controversial and difficult questions on which we may legitimately disagree. Yes the Professor was wrong. But we should attack her facts and her arguments.
If there is a ray of hope visible in the chaos at Oberlin, it is the advice that Michelle Obama gave to the Oberlin students at a speech there last year. AT the 2015 commencement address, the First Lady advised Oberlin students to “run toward the noise.” Oberlin’s President told Heller that many students actually are eager to talk these matters through themselves. “One of the things we’ve heard from students is that they want to talk about difficult issues among themselves—they would prefer not to have people who purport to speak for them.” That is the right approach. What Heller finds at Oberlin, however, is that students want to run away from the noise. “But at Oberlin a number of students seem to want to run away. More than a few have told me that they are leaving Oberlin, or about to leave Oberlin, or thinking about leaving Oberlin—and this at one of the country’s most resource-rich, student-focussed schools…. Many also speak of urges to leave due to a fraying in their mental health, a personal price paid for the systemic stresses of campus life.”
At Bard, the Hannah Arendt Center is working with students to create a “Dorm Room Conversation” series modeled after the national “Living Room Conversations” model, in which six students who disagree will sit down for difficult conversations on difficult issues that divide the campus. We also have inaugurated a “Tough Talk” lecture series designed to bring highly controversial speakers to campus, speakers who can and will challenge students in their basic presumptions. And we are dedicating our 2016 Fall Conference to the topic of “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” There are real questions about inequalities of race, sex, and religion on campus, not to mention class and other inequalities that structure campus social and political life. It is worthwhile to talk about and struggle against such inequalities. But we must do so in a way that honors our common commitment to a shared political and intellectual world. The First Lady’s advice is sound: Run toward the noise.
“The Bush administration’s mass surveillance efforts were partly exposed in December 2005, when the New York Times published a front page article by reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, which revealed that the NSA was monitoring international phone calls and emails of some people in the US without obtaining warrants. Eight years later, that story would be dwarfed by Snowden’s revelations. But at the time, the Bush White House was furious – and they were determined to find and punish whoever had leaked the details to the New York Times. According to Crane, his superiors inside the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office were eager to help. Henry Shelley, the general counsel – the office’s top lawyer – urged that the IG office should tell the FBI agents investigating the Times leak about Drake and the other NSA whistleblowers. After all, the NSA whistleblowers’ recent complaint had objected to the same surveillance practices described in the Times article – which made them logical suspects in the leak. Crane objected strenuously. Informing anyone – much less FBI investigators – of a whistleblower’s name was illegal. After debating the matter at a formal meeting in the personal office of the inspector general, Shelley and Crane continued arguing in the hallway outside. “I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out my copy of the Whistleblower Protection Act,” Crane recalled. “I was concerned that Henry was violating the law. Our voices weren’t raised, but the conversation was, I would say, very intense and agitated. Henry [replied] that he was the general counsel, the general counsel was in charge of handling things with the Justice Department and he would do things his way.” There the disagreement between Crane and Shelley stalled. Or so it seemed until 18 months later. On the morning of 26 July, 2007, FBI agents with guns drawn stormed the houses of Binney, Wiebe, Loomis and Roark. Binney was toweling off after a shower when agents accosted him; he and his wife suddenly found themselves with guns aimed directly between their eyes, the retired NSA man recalled.”