Not Just the Jews: Mental Paralysis on Campus

Scene from the encampment at Northwestern University, April 2024. Used with permission.

On a recent episode of The Glenn Show,  Dr. Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University, speaks with Dr. John McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, about two of the hottest items in the current news cycle: the Israel-Hamas war, and the student encampments at university campuses across the country. During the episode’s second half, McWhorter offers his perspective on the encampment at Columbia University, which has arguably been the most visible center of the encampment movement. 

At the beginning of the episode, McWhorter and Loury share their thoughts about the war in Gaza.  Neither professor believes that the intensity of the damage in Gaza is justified, but they openly discuss the complicated issues around a proportional and necessary military response, the brutal tactics of Hamas, the militarized tunnel system throughout Gaza (including Rafah), a civilian population that has been embedded in Gaza’s militarized zones, and the potential existential threat to Israel, which both men seem to believe should be managed with rigorous Israeli defense rather than continued offensives. They also make mention of the conspicuous lack of international outrage over other humanitarian crises that are occurring across the world.  Both McWhorter and Loury make room for differing perspectives about Israel and its prosecution of the war. This alone made the conversation refreshing, despite the fact that I personally disagree with several of their conclusions. 

The professors bring the same spirit of exploration to their discussion of college encampments and protests. McWhorter shares that his office was previously located in Hamilton Hall, the Columbia building that protesters seized before police entered to arrest those who had barricaded themselves inside.

Both McWhorter and Loury condemn the takeover of Hamilton Hall as having crossed the line from lawful protest into criminal lawlessness. On the matter of the encampments themselves, the two are of mixed minds. 

McWhorter and Loury both emphasize their commitment to the protection of lawful protest. They also share the view that the subject of the protests, which they characterize as having at least initially represented an urgent appeal for America to divest from the military apparatus of Israel, is a legitimate moral and political concern. (McWhorter acknowledges that other motives and influences seem to have entered the picture, which has made the protests’ aims much murkier.) 

But McWhorter adds a new layer to the discussion, one he wrote about recently in the New York Times.  McWhorter reflected on having found himself in a tricky position during one of his recent humanities classes this spring. He had arrived at a point in the semester during which he typically plays his students the famous piece 4’33″ by the American composer John Cage. “Play” is perhaps a confusing verb in this instance, since the entire composition involves four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the absence of orchestrated sound. During this time, the listeners’ attention is necessarily drawn to the silence, or noise, within and around them. 

On this particular day, the sounds outside McWhorter’s classroom window were the chants from the nearby encampment of  anti-Israel—some would say pro-Palestinian and others might say pro-Hamas—protestors.  McWhorter felt that the chanting outside had the potential to cause serious emotional harm to the Jewish students in his class. 

Ultimately, McWhorter decides not to have his students sit in silence for over four minutes while campus protestors clamor outside. On the podcast, he categorizes this as a decision to be gracious; he emphasizes that he believes he was providing emotional protection to the Jewish students in his class, several of whom he is personally aware have felt uncomfortable, even unsafe, due to the tone of the protests at the encampment. 

Loury questions this decision, asking if McWhorter hasn’t missed a powerful pedagogical opportunity to have his students confront sentiments that make them uncomfortable. Couldn’t this be a moment that provokes critical thinking? 

McWhorter, who is Black, answers Loury, who is also Black, that degree matters. McWhorter states that if there were students standing outside his classroom window chanting slogans that were likely to make many students of color feel uncomfortable, such as “DEI has got to die!” or “You are not as smart as us, you’re just fit to drive a bus!,” he would initially be inclined to have his students of color listen to those chants for four and a half minutes— unless those yelling the chants had grown exponentially louder and more physically intimidating over a matter of not hours or days, but weeks.  

McWhorter’s attention to the emotional safety of his Jewish students is admirable, but his focus on these students misses at least half the problem: when the discourse about the damage done by the encampments revolves exclusively around the emotional protection of Jewish students, it fails to consider the risks that other students face when they hear these chants and slogans with increasing noise and fervor. 

Anyone who works in branding and marketing understands that sound bites and graphics and background noise matter. Exposure to repeated messaging will compel us to buy one soap over another for no reason that we can articulate while standing in the soap aisle. Those under twenty-five, the primary population of undergraduates, are particularly susceptible to this kind of messaging. We would all do well to bring this angle to the conversation about how the heat and noise of the current college encampments fail students of all stripes.   

I am not here to parse every instance in which loud chanting of protest slogans should or should not be allowed on a university campus. But I do want to emphasize that it is critical that we also pay attention to those students in McWhorter’s classroom whose views on this extraordinarily complicated conflict are yet unformed. Reductive slogans may cause emotional damage to those who are directly connected to the issue at hand, but they do equal damage to young people when they cause mental paralysis.

Mental paralysis is a real phenomenon. It is difficult for anyone to hold opposing histories, thoughts, and beliefs. It is equally difficult to emerge from exposure to these kinds of contradictions with a well-reasoned, defensible position on a significant matter. And it can feel nearly impossible to do so when there is so much noise in the background. For this reason, liberal arts institutions have an obligation to offer students fertile ground to actually think. When throngs of people are chanting in unison, when the primary common spaces of an institution are plastered  with tents and flags and graphics and slogans that primarily reinforce one worldview, it is difficult to find the peace to think critically and clearly. 

There is a reason that chants are catchy; they are a form of marketing.  Good slogans are meant to lodge themselves into the pre-conscious minds of those who hear (and yell) them. They are meant to provoke affiliation, which we see in the common reflection of students who say that the encampments have given them a genuine community. But the din of the chanting is absolutely antithetical to critical thought. For this reason alone,  Jewish, Zionist and/or Israeli students are not the only ones who have the potential to suffer in the current campus climate. 

In the analogy they made during their conversation, McWhorter and Loury assume that the danger of listening to potential slogans about the worthlessness of DEI or the inferior intelligence of students of color would impact those exact students in much the same way that encampment activity has impacted many Jewish, Israeli and/or Zionist students. But it is not only students of color who would be in jeopardy in this scenario. Their white peers would have a dangerous vulnerability as well: to listen to loud and intensifying rhetoric so unscrupulously and unconsciously that, without even thinking, they begin to believe it.  

About the Author
Manya Treece is a Jew who lives in America. She is also a wife, a mother, a psychotherapist and a sporadic poet and author of fiction. Manya lives outside Chicago with her husband and three children.
Related Topics
Related Posts