I didn’t post anything or offer an official communication expressing sorrow and support after the Easter attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka. Had I just become accustomed to the capacity of hate to connect to tools of mass violence after the horrific shootings at mosques in New Zealand, when a right-wing terrorist gunned down Muslim worshipers? I contacted friends, I expressed my condolences privately, and I went about my business. Shame on me. Is it because I’ve become inured to political violence, or because the attacks were so far away? The vicious bombings in the name of a religious or political crusade have the ring of familiarity, and it may be inevitable that repetition reduces the stench of brutality.
Yesterday, again, news of hate crimes came back home. Newspapers report that a driver plowed into a crowd in Sunnyvale, California because he thought he would hit Muslims. As a result, a young girl lies in a coma with severe brain trauma. And further south in Poway, California, yet another right-wing, white supremacist tried to massacre Jews celebrating Shabbat and the end of Passover. He killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injured others—it seems only a faulty gun prevented a much worse massacre. The attack fell on the day of the six month anniversary of the murder of Jews in shul in Pittsburgh.
I shake my head; I feel sorrow and rage. But I am a teacher, and so what do I do? I turn to my books.
Many years ago I studied Éric Weil, a German-Jewish refugee philosopher who settled in France and taught that the option for discourse, for meaning, was a rejection of both certainty and violence. But he also taught that violence was always an option—that the violent rejection of meaning and direction was an ongoing threat. The philosopher, Weil wrote, chooses conversation, not as a weapon against violence but as an alternative to it. When we choose conversation, or education, we don’t get the Truth, we don’t get certainty, but we create what I’d call a safe-enough space to make meaning.
There are those in the academy taught to find “violence” in all sorts of ordinary interactions. Although this may enable a loose critique of privileged environments, it also fudges the distinction that Weil so clearly observed: When we choose education, we are choosing conversation against the alternative of violence; when we choose education we are choosing meaning — rejecting (and sometimes having to use tools to prevent) violence.
Recent events remind us of the threats against our choice, as an educational community, for uncertainty. We are reminded of the threats against our willingness to embrace ambiguity, engage with different points of view, and to seek compromise rather than certainty. Now we mourn the fallen, and we aim to help those damaged or still threatened by attacks. And we hold fast to our choice against violence—our choice for meaning and for education.