• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Politics and Hummus

Let’s move beyond condemning others, roll up our academic sleeves and commit to teaching individuals to be more thoughtful, less impulsive and how to pursue meaningful change.

February 2, 2015

I wish there was more strategic discussion on US campuses about how to respond to the abuse of human rights and other injustices being committed all over the world today.  There is quite a lot that institutions and students can do in the interest of creating a better, more just, more humane world, but boycotting hummus? 

Consider the following:

Threats of violence and backlash from conservatives and Christian leaders compelled Duke University to move the Muslim call to prayer from the chapel tower to a more discreet location on campus. 

When Vanderbilt professor, Carol Swain, suggested that Islam does not share the values of Christianity and that members of this faith represent a danger to people of other religions, Vanderbilt’s provost quickly issued a statement distancing the university from her comments.

And finally, Wesleyan University stopped selling Sabra products (hummus and other dips) because student groups objected to the alleged contributions of a Sabra corporate partner to the Israeli military.  Wesleyan thought better of their initial reaction and restored Sabra to campus but with the compromise of offering another brand of hummus as an alternative to the offending brand. 

The incidents above provide important teachable moments yet universities today are much too quick to retreat from conflict on campus rather than exploit these instances to do what they (should) do best—teach.  Classes, workshops, lectures, and open forums (rather than a quick retreat from difficult issues) could encourage respectful debate and (hopefully) more thoughtful responses from the campus community. This does not mean that we need to teach political correctness, but rather teach that tolerance for different values, religions, or traditions is not the same as acceptance or agreement.  Tolerance of different ideas is, sadly, in short supply around the world and building some would be useful indeed.

I am not suggesting that institutions or individuals should remain silent in the face of the many injustices being committed around the world, only that we need to be very cautious before contributing further to the tensions and divisions that too easily lead to violent confrontation. 

Two fundamental lessons that universities should teach are how to listen to opinions different from our own, even when we find them to be repugnant and how to disagree. But first, we also need to understand why people believe what they do.


Making a difference

We live in a world of instant change due to the miracles of technology, but social change never takes place in an instant; it requires a long commitment, combined efforts, strategy and a lot of knowledge.  Bringing about social change also requires taking risks and putting a lot more on the line than dietary options.

I can’t help but wonder how many of those non-hummus eating students vote, get involved in electoral campaigns, or write to their representatives in Congress. Young people will not necessarily learn to be effective citizens or catalysts for change on their own.  Participatory democracy offers great potential for change, when people participate.  Universities have a role to play here as well, teaching constructive engagement, employing the lessons of history to demonstrate how political and social change have been achieved in the past.  There is much to be learned from studying the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing campaign for equal right for the LGBT community in the US, the movement for independence in India, the overthrow of the last dictatorship in Chile, as only a few examples.    

The depth of inhumanity in our contemporary world indeed cries out for attention and action.  Universities should be centers of free expression, tolerance and respectful debate and, ideally, catalysts for effective social engagement. Sadly universities seem only to be indulging the growing wave of intolerance.

The hummus boycott smacks of naïve (albeit well-intentioned) students who may just not know how to grow the sustained commitment or be willing to assume the risk that pursuing social justice and achieving political reform requires.  Let’s move beyond condemning others, roll up our academic sleeves and commit to teaching individuals to be more thoughtful, less impulsive and how to pursue meaningful change.



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