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An Appeal to Intellectual Humility:  

Reflections by Dr. Rebecca Moore and Dr. Leila Zakhirova 

Department of Political Science 

On November 16th, the Political Science department hosted a discussion on the Israel-Hamas conflict as part of our regular Politics Café series.  These Café events offer an opportunity to encourage thoughtful, discipline-based discussion of contemporary political events in a less formal and more relaxed atmosphere.  Our goal with the last event was to encourage students to think about how we preserve rules and moral principles in the context of a rapidly-evolving situation in which the prevailing rules governing the use of force and proper treatment of both civilians and soldiers are being challenged on multiple fronts.    

We are aware that many students currently feel enormous pressure to take a public position on the Israel-Hamas conflict even if they recognize that they know little about the history of the conflict or the rules governing the use of force in international politics.  Our goal during the Politics Café was to create an opportunity for students to learn, to ask questions, and to express their uncertainties about a long-standing and morally-complex conflict.  We expressly stated at the outset of the event that we did not want students to take sides or debate which “side” is right or wrong.  Again, our goal was to encourage students to recognize that rarely are such conflicts black and white or even two-sided, and that, unless we are willing to listen to a diversity of views, we are unlikely to make any progress toward ever resolving long-standing challenges.   

Unfortunately, the discussion did not evolve as we had hoped.  Some students shared with us afterwards that they felt too intimidated by other voices to pose the questions they had or express their uncertainties about the conflict.  We know that for some of our students the current crisis in the Middle East is a personal and emotionally-wrenching experience, so it is not surprising that strong emotions were reflected in the Politics Café discussion.  The magnitude of human suffering we are witnessing is deeply troubling, and should be of concern to all of us who wish to preserve an international order in which every human life has value and rules exist to restrain our worst human impulses.  Not only do we have a moral obligation to demonstrate that we value the lives of all human beings; none of us should pretend that we can somehow isolate ourselves from human misery even in parts of the world that might seem distant.  Indeed, it is our fervent hope that the ongoing crisis will serve as a reminder of our common humanity.  The dehumanization of others who we somehow perceive as not on “our side” has been the source of countless atrocities throughout history.  And we should all be disturbed at the prospect of a descent into anarchy in which the perceived justness of one’s cause becomes an excuse for failing to recognize the protections granted civilians under just war principles and international law.  As political science faculty, we are not interested in taking sides. Indeed, we are troubled by any inclination to see the world in black and white terms, and to reduce all conflicts to victim and victimizer.   At this juncture, we can only encourage all members of the Concordia community to listen humbly to those with whom we disagree. Not only is intellectual humility integral to learning and the pursuit of truth; it is at the core of a liberal arts education.   

As engaged citizens, we all have a responsibility to seek out credible sources of information about the world around us and listen with an open mind to others whose expertise and experiences might be different from our own.   This is not to suggest that we should be paralyzed by complexity or the absence of easy solutions.  To the contrary, at moments like these, we should all work to align our voices and our actions with the principles we wish to see prevail in the world.  At the same time, we must recognize that the process of identifying and effectively implementing those principles, more often than not, is and should be, a morally agonizing one, also requiring knowledge of the norms, rules, and institutions underpinning a rules-based order.  Failure to understand and appreciate the foundations of that order puts at risk the very right of free speech that so many of us cherish and take for granted.     

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