The Emotional Weight of Words

War in the Middle East has illuminated how language can be both a barrier and a bridge to understanding. How do college campuses function in the midst of so much anger, fear, and pain? Faculty members across disciplines address what resources they draw on, and useful lessons from their respective fields.
by Alisa Giardinelli

photos by Laurence Kesterson

Beware Simplistic Frameworks
Dominic Tierney, Political Science

The liberal arts in general, and political science in particular, teach us to beware simplistic frameworks of good guys versus bad guys. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and the more one learns, the more complex it becomes. The people who are most confident about the solution often know the least about the issue.

Multiple things can be true at the same time: Hamas is a brutal and extremist group that committed appalling atrocities, and Israeli governments have made choices that oppressed Palestinians and closed off pathways to a Palestinian state.

We should beware a “zero sum” view of grief where admitting the sorrow felt by the other side is seen as diminishing the moral clarity of the “cause.” Otherwise, good people can end up apologizing for atrocities and seeing truth in terms of who it benefits.

The extremists on both sides supposedly hate each other, but they can act more like allies than enemies. Violence and radicalism by one side is a centrifugal force that deepens the conflict, buttresses the position of the extremists on the other side, and defeats their common enemy — the moderates. The ultras who scream at each other are often useful adversaries.

Most of all, we need a long-term approach to the conflict, focused on creating a better peace. Winning a war is not about killing, but about politics: deciding who rules and how. Those who press Israel to launch a major military campaign in Gaza, as well as those who demand an immediate ceasefire, need to explain how this will produce an enduring peace.

Tierney is a professor and chair of political science at Swarthmore, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and an expert on American foreign policy.

Scholarship is Not Emotionless
Edwin Mayorga, Educational Studies

We all have content to cover, but when something happens that is so life-altering on a global scale, part of our job is to model for students how to pause and really sit with it. That requires us as teachers, as I am trying to do with my student-teachers, to ask: How does one facilitate heavy conversations? One thing we can do as teachers is show humility and vulnerability, which is an invitation to our students to figure it out with us in a caring space. Students miss out if they don’t see we are human as well, and that we are navigating difficult things, too. We can’t presume trust, we have to earn it, and we can’t wade through complexities without it. We won’t be exactly the same. How can we be, knowing full well our opinions and perspectives will be different? What’s the thing that can connect us?

For me, it’s peace and ending violence, in all directions. None of the harm is excusable, from my perspective. So we can model how we are trying to make sense of it ourselves. We also need to be anchored to a commitment to something. That commitment should be doing no harm and, at the same time, working towards some notion of justice. Whose justice? I’m committed to figuring that out, but again, that requires building trust. It also requires us to be accountable, not just for what is happening now but, crucially, the past as well.

Scholarship is not emotionless. It’s about our interests and passions. The scholar in all of us needs to shine. The same thing we bring to our disciplines, I want to bring into our teaching and thinking about these larger global issues, so that we consider our emotions and relationships, along with the social, cultural, and political implications.

I was four days into my first student-teaching experience, in New York City, when 9/11 happened. What really moved me were the ways the counselors came in the days after, checking in on each other and talking about how to keep each other safe. And we knew school was going to continue, but in what ways is life, and by extension school, different in the aftermath of these global flashpoints?

Sadiya Hartman talks about the “afterlife of slavery.” What’s the afterlife of war, terror, and upheaval? We certainly see the negative repercussions. What comes from it that’s about care and repair?

I remain hopeful that there will come a time when there is a ceasefire. One can hope and work towards that locally and globally. And then, if that day comes, are we ready to go about the work to continue on? We can’t lose sight of doing the reparative work that is essential to more just futures.

Mayorga is associate professor and chair of educational studies and the founder of the Education in Our Barrios Project.

Photo of Clothier Bell Tower, shot through fall foliage.

You Need a North Star
Krista Thomason, Philosophy

As a history of philosophy person, I find it helpful to read the work of people who thought their world was falling apart. Montaigne writes movingly of the French civil wars in the late 1500s. If they survived it, then maybe we can find a way out. It may be cold comfort for some, but it helps me.

Right now, our ability to engage in moral dialogue is pretty impoverished. Other than on a campus, we as a populace don’t have many opportunities to engage with a wide array of perspectives in human conversation. Real-world dialogue requires that ability to sit down, look at somebody, and open your ears to them with generosity. Space for that kind of conversation is not to be found in the world we live in right now.

The moral philosopher in me wants to weep for that loss. Moral dialogue is one of the most important things that we do. My job is to convince you, give you reasons and arguments to accept the position I’m offering. The whole premise is built on having an audience who doesn’t already agree with you.

Instead, we think if we have the moral high ground, then anything we might do is justified. Or that the louder I yell, the more committed I am to my beliefs. We’ve traded moral dialogue for moral statement-making. Almost no moral philosopher in the world would say there’s something wrong with having a conversation with someone who has different views than you do.

Most of the time, moral conversation is happening in a time and place in which we are both safe. We might be upset and may have a stake in a situation, but it’s the time to have a conversation. Then there are times when that is not the right thing. If my family is in danger, now is not the time to press me on where we disagree. Maybe now is the time to say, “I’m sorry your family isn’t safe.” It’s the time for comfort. That’s what’s called for in that moment.

We lose that thread very quickly. You have to be attentive to what might be behind people’s words, not just their actual words. But that relies on a generosity and willingness to really hear people and think about where they’re coming from. Grace. Everyone needs it.

Now, I don’t want to extend grace to people committing atrocities. But I can’t give up the idea that they are still human beings. They are engaging in monstrous behavior, but do they exit being human? If I eject them from the human community, then what does that make me? And will it actually help if I say they’re not human? My suspicion is no. The more you do that, what happens the next time around, the next atrocity? Humans have done terrible things literally from the beginning of human existence.

That does not mean forgiving, but it does mean understanding how a human being can come to do such terrible things. Otherwise we are not really fixing the problem. If I’d like to prevent other human beings from doing such things, then those are questions I should ask.

I teach about genocide and why people commit atrocities. There’s always a voice that doesn’t like asking these questions because they think explaining means that you excuse it. It does not. In The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koonz examines what’s behind Nazi ideology. And that’s important work if you want to understand how people become Nazis. I think people get so unnerved because it forces you into a hard mental space.

Understanding why someone commits atrocities also means understanding why you didn’t become someone who commits atrocities. How does a seemingly normal person kill their neighbor? That’s really terrifying.

A couple wrong turns on the internet and you, too, could become radicalized. You want to believe they’re so different from you, but it’s not true. And that’s a hard truth.

People get upset when you say it’s morally complicated. But there are moments of moral clarity, even within something that’s wildly complex. It’s when we see humanity in each other. If anything is going to help us get out of this moral morass, it’s keeping each other’s humanity clearly in view. It’s not easy, but if we can remember that person is another human being, that’s solid moral footing. And that’s what you need in situations like this. You need somewhere to plant your moral feet. A north star.

Thomason is associate professor of philosophy and author most recently of Dancing with the Devil: Why Bad Feelings Make Life Good.

How We Decide to Talk Together
Tim Burke, History

You have to think about the causes of what’s happened in Gaza and Israel. You have to keep that thinking from evacuating moral clarity about what’s happened. You have to do that thinking in tandem and then slowly and carefully bring them into relationship.

So yes, it matters that the government of Israel has consistently worked since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the breakdown of the Oslo Accords to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian leadership with legitimacy in the West Bank and Gaza with whom they might negotiate a two-state resolution. Yes, it matters that the West Bank is being eaten away by settlements and that Gaza has become an open-air prison. Yes, it matters that Palestinians are subject to arbitrary repression and dysfunctional authority, whether from Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, or in Jordan. Yes, it matters that Israel’s existence has been threatened since the moment of its creation. Yes, it matters that Israel’s citizens have periodically faced waves of random murder and terrorism, fueling further building of walls and restrictions and bombardments in defensive retaliation. It all matters as a cause of the attack from Gaza and now the strikes against Hamas and Gaza.

The problem for many is that a recitation of causes instantly sounds like a pre-emptive diminishment of moral concern, an explanation intended as a hedge against recognizing agency, against assigning responsibility, against seeing the initial attacks for the inexcusable moral catastrophe that they absolutely are.

What rises out of doing both kinds of work, both kinds of thinking, is an actual politics that can speak coherently both about the world we want, the world the combatants should want, and about what kinds of things we should say and do on the way to it.

The call for a retaliation so fierce that it will permanently deter further attacks is a failure in both terms: It’s an assertion about causality that doesn’t fit with modern global history, and it’s a moral failure that contains within it the seeds of genocide. An analysis that understands that Palestinian nationalism became urgent and real in the Nakba has to (but often does not) understand that Israeli nationalism became urgent and real through the very same processes, which again inflects straight into a moral truth about sovereignty and security in the world we live in and might hope to live in. I frame this all in terms of how we decide to talk together about a moment like this one so that we also understand that how we talk and how others act or will act are not quite the same things. Much as Hamas is not at “all Palestinians” (or even “all the people of Gaza”), neither is Netanyahu’s government at all “all Israelis.” And neither are we looking on in horror and anxiety more than what we are, a global public who cares both about the moral stakes of the conflict, and what it might still cause. It is important that we talk without being too self-important in that talk. It is important that we listen without indulging everything being said. We are right to fear; we need to hope.

Burke is professor and co-chair of history at Swarthmore and the author of the Eight by Seven blog on Substack.

[These interviews were completed in October before publication and reflect the war in the Middle East at that time. The full article is available here]

more faculty reflections

“Maybe the right view in the heat of the moment is not to support anyone perpetrating violence and to instead advocate for peaceful resolutions.”
—Syon Bhanot, associate professor of economics
Bhanot is a behavioral and public economist who uses field experiments to study prosocial behavior and issues related to public policy, development, and poverty.
“How do we talk and have a language that allows us to not attack each other?”
—Pallabi Chakravorty, Stephen Lang Professor of Performing Arts
Chakravorty is an anthropologist, dancer, and choreographer.
Snow on leaves in Scott Amphitheater.
“I’m recognizing my own smallness. I don’t need to change anyone. What I can offer is some route to locate the grief and sorrow that sits beneath the pain and confusion that all of us feel. There is no arrival.”
—Moriel Rothman-Zecher, visiting assistant professor of creative writing
Rothman-Zecher teaches creative writing at Swarthmore.
“It’s about collaborating with the people that you’d engineer a solution for and making them part of the process as collaborators in the enterprise.”
—Joseph Towles, associate professor of engineering
Towles specializes in neuromuscular biomechanics and engineering education.
“I tell students: If you start policing your thoughts now, the real danger is the internal censor. Is that how you want to live your life?”
—Ted Gup, 2023-24 Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change
Gup is an award-winning journalist, author, and educator.
“While I cannot pretend to have the answers about how to solve such a deep conflict, I believe that any long-term resolution will be premised upon an affirmation of the humanity and equality of both peoples.”
—Sam Handlin ’00, associate professor of political science
Handlin studies the comparative politics of developing countries, with a focus on democracy, authoritarianism, and electoral politics.