Clarissa O'Conor | The myth of neutrality
From Palestine to Penn | The impossibility of apolitical being in a political world
September 23, 2013, 7:07 pm · Updated September 23, 2013, 10:24 pm·
From Palestine to Penn
Liberalism asserts a false dichotomy between the public and private spheres, ignoring the fact that oppression and injustice are systematic functions of society and operate in all aspects of life. There exists a similarly false dichotomy between the academic and the political.
It is a fallacy to think that you can be balanced and neutral while “studying” systems of injustice in which you are complicit. It is a fallacy to think that you can be apolitical in an intensely political context and an intensely political world. In fact, it is only those of us who benefit from systems of oppression who have the privilege and comfort of even thinking that we can lead apolitical lives.
In Palestine, the political context is extreme and unavoidable. The official rules of my program are to steer clear of politics and not get involved in “activism” — things which may well jeopardize our physical safety, as the Israeli Occupation Forces have become much less discriminatory in whom they target at protests. There’s this idea that studying abroad in Palestine should be “non-activist” and just to participate in an “apolitical” educational experiment.
Let me be clear: My not participating in weekly demonstrations in Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank does not make my presence in Palestine any less political or my objectives any less “activist.” I can travel freely in a place whose inhabitants live under brutal oppression at the hands of Israel and in a place from which some of these people have been expelled and not allowed to return.
The violence that Israel perpetrates against Palestinians is done with the financial and rhetorical backing of the United States government. The American public has been trained to view Palestinians as unworthy of safety, security and basic human rights, and therefore Israel’s systematic and individual acts of violence against Palestinians do not concern most Americans. I am a political actor whether I like it or not, especially given my position to work to change the reality of U.S. support for Israel.
My position is not unique. We are all political actors in the classrooms we enter, especially where structures and rhetoric of injustice and oppression go unchallenged.
The very notion of what or who is deemed necessary to “study” has a political meaning. Who can do the studying has a political meaning. Whose narratives are allowed in and whose are kept out has an intensely political meaning.
I’m thinking particularly of political science and history classes dealing with the Middle East, my area of study and a popular one at Penn, where classes focus on societies that Western media portrays as irrational, exotic, terroristic and villainous and has since the advent of cinema and television.
Media scholar Jack Shaheen’s research on the systematic dehumanization of Arab people in American TV and film since the beginning of moving pictures is chilling because it demonstrates that this dehumanization is so commonplace that we don’t even notice it. The powerful Israel lobby in the United States does its best to make sure that Arabs and Palestinians in particular remain utterly dehumanized to the broader American public, a fact that has allowed Israel’s actions to go largely unchallenged thus far. Our government’s policies and recent and ongoing wars make it clear that Arab and Muslim lives do not have much value.
It is then in this context that students are stepping into a classroom to “study” the Middle East. Some of these students may well become future U.S. government officials, and all of them will be voters or participants in the system. The rhetoric that is used to justify U.S. war crimes will never be challenged in these classes. In the American context of Zionism and Islamophobia, war crimes are nearly inevitable. But we should stop allowing racist rhetoric couched in the language of academia and international relations to remain to be seen as objective and apolitical.
Trying to absolve yourself of political involvement or responsibility in an academic setting is in fact one of the most political statements you can make.
Clarissa O’Conor is a College junior from Lititz, Pa., who is studying abroad in Palestine this fall. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. View her tumblr here. “From Palestine to Penn” appears every other Tuesday.