Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Protests on the Israel-Hamas war evoke questions about civic engagement

It is time protestors truly gain a grasp of what they are preaching.

In an era marked by numerous global conflicts, a rising tide of so-called civically engaged college students is sweeping through elite universities and bustling city streets, championing ideals of freedom, liberation and justice. Since Oct. 7, protests have erupted nationwide, demonstrating students’ opposition to the oppressive status quo in both Israel and occupied Palestine; Tufts University is no exception.

Undoubtedly, protesting is an important element in the healthy functioning of a robust democracy. It allows people to voice their concerns, representing public opinion and driving policy change. It also fosters civic engagement by empowering citizens to challenge and oppose a status quo with which they disagree, a crucial trait that characterizes democratic societies. However, it is precisely because of these noble aims that we need to critically examine current student protests.

While I don’t doubt many student activists have an extremely thorough understanding of the causes they advocate for, others may join protests without the full depth of context necessary for them to also champion the same mottos. A survey poll carried out by a political scientist at University of California, Berkeley, which surveyed 250 students from a variety of backgrounds across the U.S. who supported the phrase “from the river to the sea,” showed that less than half of the students knew which sea and which river the phrase is referring to. Similarly, a friend of mine shared that they knew someone who failed to articulate what liberation would look like for Palestinians in a post-war world. Even though these instances neither capture the full picture nor reflect the majority of the Tufts student body, they do reflect an issue of insincerity towards a conflict of extreme gravity. On the surface, protesting students may be viewed as civically engaged solely for their involvement in public demonstrations aimed at bringing about justice. However, only by delving deeper into what it means to be a civically engaged citizen can we realize the perilous state of the current sentiment toward protests.

To be an active citizen in a democratic nation, informed participation is key. True civic engagement is predicated on people acting with a conscious understanding of the issue they are addressing and knowing how their actions contribute to making a difference. Protests are thus premised upon citizens wanting their voices to be heard and understood, but this creates an inherent contradiction. How can a protest serve as a public display of one’s opinion and voice, if one doesn’t even understand the extent of their advocacy? When protestors lack clarity and purpose, they impede constructive civic engagement.

It is, of course, a First Amendment right to be able to speak freely on whatever issue you want and to do so in a public manner regardless of the purpose behind such acts. However, if people only participate in movements with shallow knowledge of the issue at hand, this ‘right’ will impose harmful consequences such as obscuring legitimate concerns and hindering nuanced dialogues.

So how can we ensure protests are done productively to embody their irreplaceable role in a democratic society truly? I believe that alongside their right to march in the streets, protestors have a simultaneous responsibility to research the situation they are protesting for. Of course, the average student has limited knowledge of the complicated issues that can be important in understanding contemporary social movements, and it is simply impossible to mobilize huge masses of diplomatic historians and social policy experts for weekly protests. But if the masses don’t know what type of decision they are influencing, it is not productive. Why should someone protest in support of a cause they don’t fully understand or don’t intend to understand how its goals would materialize?

These questions aren’t meant to discourage protest. Instead, they aim to encourage protestors to create avenues for broader awareness and establish clear goals. While some dialogues and discussions at Tufts have helped activist students gain important background about the Israel-Hamas war, such as those by the student organizations Alternative Jews and Tufts SJP, and the community talks hosted by the university, more is needed. We must also increase awareness of the fundamental principles behind a protest before joining it.

Before taking to the streets again, ask yourself why you are protesting. Is it because you are truly a civically engaged person who knows about your cause and wants to contribute your voice? Or are you simply acting in response to a movement because it feels like the right thing to do? If the latter is the case, consider taking your next step towards meaningful protest by engaging in conversations with a knowledgeable friend.