It has become characteristic of a certain kind of political protest to demand that some institution - the US government, a university, your local town, a company - take extraordinary steps to disconnect, divest, or otherwise disassociate itself from a political situation or conflict. Institutions that fail to take such steps are, in the eyes of the protestors, "morally responsible" for whatever atrocities or horrific crimes are being committed elsewhere. And since the crimes in question often involve a lot of bloodshed, this tends to lead to some pretty hyperbolic protest language.
A student at Ohio University treated her university, and the world, to an especially silly version of such a protest this week. You can read a full news account of the incident here. The original video has unfortunately been taken down, but you can watch the debate it set off on the OU campus here.
It is worth noting that the student body president did recant and apologize for her silliness and appears to have recognized the error of her ways. But I would guess that this is an argument that will linger for a while on the OU campus.
While dramatic (turning the Ice Bucket Challenge into a bucket of blood will certainly draw attention), the argument that this student made is a familiar one. It's worth noting her statements, captured in transcript from the video:
In the video, posted on Vimeo, Marzec states, "I'm sending a message of student concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state. I'm urging you, and OU, to divest and cut all ties with academic and other Israeli businesses and institutions," she said during in video. "This bucket of blood symbolizes the thousands of displaced and murdered Palestinians atrocities which OU is directly complacent in your cultural and economic support of the Israeli state."Now, I assume that she meant "complicit" rather than "complacent", but you get the drift. Because OU's investment portfolio and international activities include ties to Israel in some fashion, the university itself has "blood on its hands" for all of those innocent Palestinian deaths.
There is a practical silliness to this, of course: OU could do as this student asked tomorrow, divest itself of every investment connected to Israeli companies, cut all ties of cooperation with Israeli universities, and not a single thing would change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, if every last university in the US did this, it still wouldn't change a thing. This seems like the opposite of the Peter Parker Principle - if great power brings great responsibility, shouldn't no power absolve one from responsibility?
But the real reason for such protests isn't the practical impact of the actions demanded (though protesters often delude themselves into thinking that they will in some fashion change the world). What these folks are primarily after is the self-righteous rush of feeling that, whatever evil happens in the world, their hands are clean.
This is, of course, an absurdity in the modern world, especially if your standard for "bloody hands" is "any financial connection to the perpetrators". Do you pay taxes to the US government? Do you participate in the international economy? The reality of modern trade and global production is that nearly any economic activity is likely tied, in some fashion, to some questionable behavior that you probably wouldn't like to be associated with.
It is the merging of these impossibly high moral standards with the obvious (if unintended) hypocrisy of those who promote them that makes the whole thing fall apart. What starts as impassioned moral protest degenerates quickly into cheap theater, screaming, and useless diatribe that accomplishes nothing.
If you are truly concerned about the great moral issues of the day, whether they are in Missouri or Israel, the appropriate response is much harder. Rather than trying (fruitlessly) to disassociate ourselves and our institutions from whatever side of a conflict we don't like, what we need to do is engage with the issues and the people involved. Talk to all sides and hear their stories. Listen to their humanity, their dreams, their aspirations. Understand their weaknesses and failings - and how little you may be able to change them.
You cannot end an intractable conflict by dumping blood on your head. But you may be able, in a small way, to heal some of the damage that conflict causes, even if it's far away from the bombing and the killing. And in the process, you will discover something far more valuable than angry self-righteousness. If you're lucky, you may just discover the peace that comes with connecting with another human being.