Arabic translation available here.

On Saturday, May 4th, a colleague and I decided to pick up some donuts to donate to the University of Toronto student encampment. As we drove around downtown looking for places to park, 200 public service employees gathered in preparation for their annual Labour Day march, but this year was different. This year they were wearing keffiyehs and holding Palestinian flags, and were joined by an extra thousand people just like them, organised by Toronto’s Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM). After finding a parking spot near Queen Street, we made our way up towards King’s College Circle, and before reaching the gates, were met by the sounds of drums and chants, a group of over a thousand people marching in solidarity towards the encampment.

Like all the university encampments popping up worldwide, the U of T encampment was inspired by the student protestors at Columbia university, and while there have been some confrontations between students and police around Canada, such as at the University of Calgary and McGill, no confrontation has been so violent as what has been taking place across the United States.

While we were there, instances of violence we experienced were mild, sporadic, and didn’t come from any kind of official law enforcement, but from a handful of isolated counter-protestors. 

The first we encountered was a man who, while walking by, upon seeing us on our bench drinking coffee with keffiyehs around our shoulders, felt compelled to spit out, through the gap in his yellow teeth, “proud of yourselves for supporting terrorism?” With no real point to stop and stand on, he said this as he kept walking, but my friend called out after him, “do you feel good that you said that?”

The second was a tall, young man, wearing a giant flag brandishing the Star of David who arrived after the rally speakers had finished their speeches, and started walking back and forth through the crowd while the muslim community held their prayer.

The third was a young woman who didn’t say much, but who, at first, simply walked through the crowd, wearing white nike sneakers with little blue Stars of David on them. After the prayers, when we resumed the march to the other end of campus, she started tearing down the little Palestinian flags that had been planted in the fence posts along her way. When the crowd took notice, people in the march outside the fence placed themselves in between her and the posts, and students inside the fence quickly formed a line along the posts ahead of her.

Many people have been watching the police brutality unfold on campuses across the U.S. and have made comparisons to Orwell’s 1984. Given the brute force that governments, and especially the U.S., are using to suppress dissent, and the amount of money being spent to perpetuate false narratives despite people’s direct access to reality through social media, it is easy to see what these comparisons hinge on. But fewer people have made the comparison of our modern world to that of Orwell’s own teacher, Aldous Huxley. What is interesting about Huxley’s Brave New World is that it is a direct descendent of a world of Orwellian control. Huxley’s world is suggested to have come about from within a 1984-like system, as one of the fragmented memories of Huxley’s protagonist reveals to us: 

“In the end, said Mustapha Mond, the controllers realized that force was no good. The slower but infinitely surer methods of ectogenesis, Neo-pavlovian conditioning, and hypnopaedia…”

Huxley’s is a world of scientific materialism, a dystopia of comfort, while Orwell’s is a world built on brute force and lies. In Orwell’s world the truth is hidden and manipulated, and dissent is quelled through painful measures of punishment, but in Huxley’s world, information is available and dissent is allowed, but people are so comfortable, so biologically conditioned to their caste and circumstance, that they have no desire to rebel—everything they are programmed to want is accessible to them. Today, at the student encampments, we are witnessing the overlap of these two worlds, and with the advent of new surveillance technologies, AI, and biogenetical engineering, one wonders whether this overlap is the condition of Western society's transition from Orwell’s dystopia of tyranny to Huxley’s dystopia of comfort.

While we may not have witnessed police brutality on the U of T campus first hand, the students’ fear of surveillance and infiltration of their encampment was palpable. No-one unaffiliated with the university was allowed into the camp, and even though they were originally accepting donations in the form of food or drinks, by the time we got there, our donuts and water were rejected for safety purposes. Most students inside the fences wore keffiyehs wrapped in the traditional head and face wrap, revealing only the eyes, reminiscent of the headdress adopted by Palestinian feda’yeen. Protestors with the May Day and PYM rally gathered around the fenced property of King’s College Circle, holding flags and posters reading “STOP THE GENOCIDE” and “LONG LIVE LEGAL ARMED RESISTANCE TO OCCUPATION”, juxtaposed by little “NO TENTS” warning sign sitting miserably on the lawns against the backdrop of the student’s settlement. 

In 1999, Philip Altbach wrote that “University students are among the few groups in society that possess the knowledge and the freedom to undertake political activism”. With the growth of humanities departments and political science programs in universities across the world, and the surge in production of critical political theory that examines oppressive systems of the past, it is more surprising that institutions expect their students to turn a blind eye to the very real current of events unfolding before their eyes. We learn about the apartheid of South Africa, and the propagandic tactics used against Nelson Mandela to obstruct national liberation and freedom from racial injustice, but we are not expected to follow in his footsteps when we see those very same tactics of oppression being used 30 years later. We are taught how the Nazis used starvation and disease as a weapon against the Jewish people, but are discouraged from drawing parallels between that and Israel’s current manufactured famine in Gaza. U.S. legislators, at the behest of American-Israeli lobbyists, are going so far as to not only discourage, but outlaw such comparisons under the guise of “protecting Jewish people” and “battling antisemitism”. 

Ultimately, students are being asked to do away with all forms of critical thinking, while simultaneously being graded and assessed as civil members of society based on their ability to think critically. As we watch children be blown to pieces for the crime of being born Palestinian, we are simultaneously being told that there is no proof that Israel is committing genocide. We are being bombarded by “bring them home” campaigns while simultaneously watching Netanyahu reject deal after deal with total disregard for the lives of hostages. Language has become so polluted as to render all discourse void of meaning, and it is this pollution, this corruption of language that has pushed students, whose job it is to use language to the best of their ability to succeed in their respective fields, over the edge. 

The main tool of regulation in a democracy is not violence, but speech. What makes a democracy and upholds the rule of law is the quality of speech. Once the integrity of language is broken down, so that anyone in power can tell lie after lie in complete transparency without facing any consequences, the quality of speech is compromised, nothing means anything, and we have only to resort to violence. And today, students are standing at the crux of this failure in democracy, challenging all that is civil about Western society by refusing to bow to the linguistic corruption of reality, revealing how shallow the commitment to liberty and civility in the U.S. actually is.

كن جزءًا من مشروع "رحلة"
وادعَم صُدور النّسخة الورقيّة الشهريّة

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