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On college campuses, a new form of pressure: to take a stand

I want my students to know that moral courage can also mean remaining silent and taking the time to figure out what they think for themselves.

Protesters gathered at Harvard to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally earlier this month.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

After learning that 34 Harvard student groups co-signed a statement holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” I asked my students at Loyola University Chicago what they made of the mounting tensions on campuses across the country.

It was the collegiate equivalent of turning out the lights to get some order — a conversation about the conversation. And maybe because my students write and share personal essays in this creative nonfiction course, their responses were not political or ideological. They were personal.

What student after student identified with was the unrelenting social pressure to take a moral stance on every event that rates a headline.

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“Sick of it,” was the phrase that ricocheted around the table. Sick of the anxiety, sick of having to judge and be judged, sick of having to comment on everything or risk being accused of no comment, like a cowardly politician running from the cameras. Sick of the fear of being canceled. And, for the record, they were especially sick of celebrities weighing in, like Justin Bieber, who expressed his support for Israel by unwittingly posting a picture of Gaza.

Seeing what was in their faces as they listened to each other — the accretion of anxiety, the fatigue, the shadow of the zeitgeist — helped me realize what concerned me most about the statement of their Harvard counterparts and the similar moral hot takes that were proliferating across the country.

It was the carte blanche moral immunity extended to a terrorist organization, the odd social pressure behind this reductiveness, and the seeming impossibility of conversation that might lead to empathy and deeper understanding, even thousands of miles away from the fighting.

How did this happen? How did today’s young people, usually so intent on making safe spaces, turn to performative heartlessness? How could students at Stanford, preparing to hang a “Zionism is genocide” banner out their window, say they needed to be on the right side of history, no matter their Jewish housemate who was grieving the deaths of family in Israel?

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The answer, I think, has far less to do with the fraught history of Israel and Gaza, or even with the postcolonial theory dominant on college campuses, than with the history of the students themselves.

This generation grew up in the throes of climate change, school shootings, the murder of George Floyd, the sexual predations of powerful men, the Trump presidency, and a global pandemic that kept them home, on their screens. Which means they also grew up on social media, the world’s most powerful tool for connection and an even more powerful tool for alienation and shame. Given the requisite perpetual display of self, being cool couldn’t just be about the clothes you wore or the music you liked. Not when there were movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo. Not when the newsfeeds on their phones made crisis perpetual.

How could they not have started to speak out? And how could they not have started judging each other for the quality of their posts, trying to one-up each other, when the platforms they used called for judgment, demanded it with buttons for likes and shares? To be socially engaged with your friends, you had to be politically engaged with the world, and you had to judge each other’s engagement. There was no other choice.

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So, more political engagement from students, more student empowerment, and higher anxiety. A mixed bag, but livable, until the polarized, uncivil online world crosses the border into the daily physical life of campus. And now at Harvard, Stanford, and other colleges across the country, many Jewish and Muslim students don’t just have the war to worry about but an online level of pressure and hostility from each other.

Students need a crash course on moral courage. They know the old textbook axiom of speaking up for justice in the face of pressure to keep silent, but moral courage can also be remaining silent in the face of pressure to speak. It means risking no comment, taking the time to learn about the complexity of historical context. It means not talking in bumper stickers, not caving to social pressure masquerading as moral pressure. It means taking the time to figure out what you think for yourself.

Then you can fly your banners, issue and sign statements. Then you’ll know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it.

Otherwise, no matter what side you’re on, you’ll have no chance of being on the right side of history. No ill-informed person ever is.

Howard Axelrod’s most recent book is “The Stars In Our Pockets: Getting Lost And Sometimes Found In The Digital Age.” He is the director of the creative writing program at Loyola University Chicago.