Expanding our empathetic scope

Western imperialism, a modern segment of historic imperialism, continuously inspires discussion in our classrooms. Realist and morally deterministic arguments go head to head, with both regrets and admissions realized as afterthoughts. Formal discussions about Latin America or the Levant can perhaps be viewed as interlocked with the theme of Western imperialism. It is unavoidable at times, and can instigate passionate reactions, that might otherwise be repressed. The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) adds a unique account to such discussions. Two Assyrian reliefs, currently exhibited at the museum, are actively referenced and visited by classes. After encountering the slabs, students begin to relate differently. A theme they otherwise discuss abstractly becomes directly associated with the narrative of the institution they attend. Lessons are therefore inspired by aesthetic and narrative accounts rather than abstract distant ones.

Most of the news students have access to is in the form of the latter. Products of most journalism are meant to be true and efficient. Truth here is subjective to the source at hand, and efficiency can be understood as general practice. Only articles that exhibit first concise facts, names and numbers and second what is viewed as popular make it to BBC’s online headlines. Anything else is dismissed as time consuming and unproductive.

The implications of this include student apathy regarding matters that are distant from the Williams community. Information is accessible to those who are actively interested, but the process the Assyrian reliefs can initiate will always be unreachable without either aesthetic representations or human narratives. It is unsurprising that active global awareness and action are lacking in isolated institutions such as Williams. The purple bubble is difficult to pop.

However, the existence of narratives and aesthetic representations of distant matters can be found in the experiences of many members of this community, hidden and perhaps untouched, but nevertheless existent, either directly or analogously. The horrible tragedy that struck the city of Boston and this nation’s people on April 15 can be an example of the later. As soon as the bomb exploded, the conversation began on campus. People close to the city, the victims of the events or the families of the victims, were instantly engaged. Stories spread. Narratives of survival, heroism and tragedy were continuously retold. Almost the entire campus collectively sympathized with the crisis. Williams as a community became a cushion on which any affected individual could rest and reflect. Social media and other informal settings reflected that. One could almost feel that if an opportunity to actively assist those influenced by the calamity should arise, every member of this community would contribute to the cause. Such is the response that the community is capable of when an incident such as this is expressed intimately by fellow students and faculty.

The question that unfortunately arises is what if an event such as that were distant? What if the number of students affected were small? What if the narratives were not easily accessible and not sympathized with? Would the community become less of a cushion and more of a hardened rough surface? If so, could some of our behaviour be expressed as orientalist and/or imperialist? In our pursuit of a profound Western liberal arts education, are we dismissing other global concerns as unworthy of equal attention or care?

During Winter Study of this year I was fortunate enough to pursue a research project in the Levant. I spent my month in Lebanon, Jordan and the outskirts of Syria exploring the artistic scene that inspired on-going social and political upheavals. I regrettably had returned to my region with an arrogant and superior state of mind, privileging my Western education. I was inevitably proven wrong. I met artists, students and journalists from our generation who had more to offer than I could conceivably imagine. It was humbling and transformative. Their achievements, while different, were far more moving than the academic work I was exposed to. Returning to Williams in the spring allowed me to internalize the apparent vacuum we have in terms of such experience-based academic resources, and the arrogance associated with being exposed to a single style of learning. The past week, however, highlighted to me that Williams can be a cushion on which an exhausted mind can rest, even for those with distant troubles and concerns.

On Sunday, April 21, over 500 deaths were accounted for in Syria. During the past two years, over 77,770 people have died. As of late March 4390 children and 2726 women have been killed. Often dubbed as the part of the cradle of civilizations, Syria has 2000-year-old synagogues and one of the last communities that still speaks Aramaic. Its capital, Damascus, is mentioned in the Bible and Islamic texts repeatedly. Aesthetically and historically Syria belongs to the world. And its narrative currently belongs to Syrians and their suffering. It is the duty of Williams students to learn and understand that narrative, and the narratives of numerous other distant, suffering communities. In the case of Boston, the narrative was forced upon us, and we, the College community, responded. For all of the other cases of suffering across the globe, we must seek those narratives out.

Burhan Aldroubi ’15 is from Damascus, Syria. He lives in Morgan.

  • When it comes to justice it must be across the board at the personal, familial, county, national, and international level. There must be no compromise when it comes to global justice.

    [Qur’an 5:9] O ye who believe! be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is aware of what you do.

    [Qur’an 4:136] “O ye who believe! be strict in observing justice, and be witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves or against parents and kindred. Whether he be rich or poor, …”

    Moreover, we must be kind and willingly, voluntarily let go of our rights for the sake of justice.

    [Qur’an 16:91] “Verily, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonished you that you may take heed.”