Office hours with a hunger striker.

April 11, 2024, 1:19pm

Last semester at Dartmouth, I taught a course on literature and philosophy called “Introduction to Aesthetics.” We spent two full weeks discussing Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory, in particular his idea that when we say something is beautiful, we are doing something different than when we say something is true or right. While we expect others to agree with us, we are aware that not everyone will. For example, when someone doesn’t share our appreciation for a songwriter’s sound, we cannot bring them to our opinion by presenting proofs, and we know this—yet we feel compelled and justified to insist that they reconsider, listen again.

A few weeks into the term, in March, one of my students, Paul Yang, wrote to request a meeting in office hours. In class, we had discussed the valences of different aesthetic categories, like cute, ugly, relatable, and cringe. Paul wanted to know if it would be permissible to write a midterm essay that treats “cruelty” as an aesthetic category. In office hours, it became clear that his interest in “the cruel” was occasioned by an urgent sense of political responsibility spurred by the growing loss of life in Gaza. He told me that he was about to begin a hunger strike to protest the arrest of two Dartmouth students facing misdemeanor criminal trespassing charges. They had been arrested in the fall at the behest of the Dartmouth administration while engaging in a peaceful protest on campus.

“Although the term is mostly used in political and ethical contexts,” he reasoned, “it seems to be relying on a strongly aesthetic conception of human life or human dignity.” Essentially, Paul wanted to argue that judgments of cruelty qualify as aesthetic judgments by Kant’s standards. Just like Jewish German philosopher Hannah Arendt, who turned to Kant’s aesthetics after the Holocaust, Paul saw aesthetic judgments, which for him included opinions about cruelty, as belonging in the public sphere.

A week later, I thought back to my conversation with Paul as I sat in a general meeting of the Dartmouth faculty. Before turning to items on the meeting agenda, the floor was briefly opened to faculty who had something to say about recent events. Someone stood up and said that he had talked to the student protesters and found it offensive “as a Jew” that they wouldn’t care about the death of over 1000 Jews. I felt a twinge. Does this person really believe that only “as a Jew” would one feel offended by collective disregard for the loss of 1000 lives? How many of us, like this man, believe it to be so? If one believes this, that only by being Jewish or Muslim or Israeli or Arab could one recognize the cruelty in senseless deaths, then you cannot be disappointed in others for not seeing or not feeling. At that moment, I realized that I had made the same mistake. I remembered asking Paul why he, as a Korean man, came to protest the death of Palestinians.

How easy it has become, even for someone like me who has been thinking and writing about this very question, to forget what Paul wanted to say in his paper. That when we disagree with others about whether something is cruel, we are not counting on their shared sense of history. We are not appealing to internationally recognized legal standards. Nor are we insisting on our turn to speak, just so our view may be acknowledged. We are appealing to others on the basis of a presupposed sense of human community.

Without that presupposition, people with different views would have no reason to turn to each other instead of retreating into an echo chamber. Only by presupposing in others a basic sense of human community do the most poignant scenes of dialogue move us instead of seeming pointless: Shylock’s monologue in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day Speech (1852), or the cries of those who turned to fellow-citizens unbothered by pictures of immigrant children in cages at the U.S. border and said, “How can you not see how appalling this is?” For Paul, the question was, and remains: How can anyone not see the senseless death in Gaza as cruel?

On the eleventh day of Paul’s fast, the college administration sent out an email announcing the end of the hunger strike following “discussions with the remaining students involved.” “We now understand,” said the message about the two students who were arrested, “that they are consistently nonviolent activists.” But the college’s case against those students remains undropped.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top