Where Truth & Empathy Go To Die

Image of tents and students outside a university

I spent a decade at NYU immersed in theories of social justice and critical race theory. I got a law degree, a doctorate in political science, wrote a dissertation on progressive forms of tolerance, published, and taught classes there. At NYU Law, I studied constitutional law under the godfather of critical race theory. I agreed with everything that was taught in that class. I still do. But what I’ve come to realize is that some of what I learned, though not inherently dangerous, has led to the intellectual chaos we now see on college campuses. In the wrong hands, critical theories can take on a momentum of their own and give rise to an insidious form of academic and social intolerance. The critical theories of today, as practiced on some college campuses, are what Stalinism was to Marxism, a political movement defined by loyalty pledges, social extremism, Orwellian fact manipulation, and an appalling scarcity of empathy. Watching today’s professors preach self-contained paradigms of political thinking, critical to all theories but their own, and watching students embrace this inside-the-box thinking, makes me question the utility of my own education. Students draped in keffiyehs, holding signs they only partially understand, should be questioning theirs too.

I want to begin with a simple idea: facts are not opinions and opinions are not facts. When the sole purpose of a fact is to serve our opinions—especially opinions we carelessly arrived at because we were ill-informed or simply adopted someone else’s views—we are behaving irresponsibly. As the recent protests on college campuses show, many students cannot marshal intellectually honest or factually sound support for their arguments, much less distinguish between facts and opinions. Some are guilty of sloppy thinking, while others are sworn to intellectual purity tests that lead to inflexibility and bias. In light of this, I would suggest colleges rethink their required courses and core curriculums. Instead of demanding that students learn the classics from privileged white Europeans or countervailing theories of postcolonial thought, let’s start with a curriculum that promotes factfinding and intellectual honesty. Let’s start with a curriculum that teaches students the difference between facts (empirical claims) and opinions (normative claims). Like a license to drive, we should require students and professors to pass a test in distinguishing facts from opinions. Before we allow you to take control of a dangerous bullhorn and commandeer a university, we should make sure you understand that facts matter (a lot!) and that opinions should be informed by them.

Since October 7th, we have witnessed not only the meteoric rise of antisemitism on college campuses, but the symbiotic collapse of rational reasoning and empathy. When all Jews are settler-colonizers because some professor said so, we know we are witnessing a historic moment of anti-intellectual fervor. Listen to the chants of any protest:

We are Hamas.”                            

One solution [sometimes Final solution]. Intifada Revolution.”

Resistance by any means.”

We have Zionists [kids wearing Jewish stars] who have entered the camp.”

Listen to the denials of rape, murder, and kidnap. Listen to the shouts of “dirty Jews” or “Zionist pigs.” Read the signs suggesting that Jews should once again be slaughtered or shipped off to countries that killed them not long ago. When terms like “resistance” and “intifada” and “river to the sea” can mean anything protesters want them to, we know that college campuses have become graveyards for truth and empathy. We know that college campuses have become places where truth and empathy go to die. We know that student protestors have convinced themselves that it’s okay to call a kippah-wearing kid a “dirty Jew” or “Zionist pig” because, in their view, to be a proud Jew is an unacceptable oxymoron. To some protestors, it is impossible to be a proud Jew because there is nothing a Jew can or should be proud of.

We have reached the point where college students disproportionately drive the debate on the conflict, and yet they are woefully ill-informed about the history of Arab-Israeli politics. The conflict is complex, and perhaps even more importantly, devastatingly tragic for Israelis and Palestinians. Yet, with all the seriousness of a toddler playing dress-up, students put on keffiyehs, bang drums, and chant sing-songy slogans about killing Jews. I wish we could require these students to read about the history of the conflict before they are allowed to march. Facts, not ill-informed students, should be driving the debate. Students should understand that moral complexities necessarily include competing and contradictory facts. For example, the empirical claim that Jews have had a continuous presence in Israel for over 3,000 years is accurate, and so too is the claim that in 1850, Jews were a small percentage of the population of what is currently Israel. To the extent colleges are places of higher learning—a claim which may now be in doubt—these academic institutions should be encouraging students to embrace the idea that competing facts can be equally true, and moreover, be compelling evidence of complexity itself.

Universities should teach students that facts are often inconvenient, and that paradigms of thought are often dangerously reductionist. Universities should hire professors who willingly recognize the limits of their schools of thought. I have no problem trying to view Zionism through the lens of colonialism, but only so long as it is done with intellectual integrity. A professor should recognize the significant historical disparities between colonial empires like Great Britain and the diasporic history of the Jewish people, who after being persecuted and murdered in the millions, returned to their ancestral homeland from Europe, Africa, and Asia. A professor should recognize that grafting political jargon like colonization, settlers, and indigenous people onto the story of Israel is fraught with difficulties. To not acknowledge these intellectual limits is academic malpractice.

Universities should be places where tolerance and intellectual humility thrive. They should be institutions that embrace empathy and compassion. They should encourage more listening and more learning. I think our greatest social movement leaders, revolutionaries like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, would agree. They would be horrified by the lack of empathy on our college campuses today. Like King and Gandhi, we can recognize the importance of viewing today’s political inequities through the prism of colonialism. We can celebrate the importance of intersectionality and our shared oppression. We can feel outrage over the indignities Palestinians endure every day. But we can do it with empathy. We can do it with compassion. We can do it with humility. We can do it with facts.

Jay Schiffman
Founder & Executive Director