Political power and delight in intellectual explorations
GREAT BARRINGTON -; Asma Abbas talks about her life and experience in many ways, in philosophy and theory and listening silence.
People often ask someone who has suffered to tell a story, she said, only in the way they want to hear it. She remembers giving a talk and saying she felt thankful for fellowships that have helped her, and people afterward saying, “I can’t believe how much you have struggled” — and they knew nothing about her life, her family or the advantages she has also had.
“Why should I tell you a story you already know?” she said. “Why does someone have to tell a story in first person about my suffering, my background?”
She brings passionate curiosity to understanding the stories of others, to her research and her classrooms. Abbas has taught politics and philosophy at Bard College at Simon’s Rock for 10 years, more than four as chair in the division of social studies. She is researching the politics of love on the verges.
She is studying people at the boundaries, on the edges of societies, and the ways people believe in God and love their parents and their children, their country — and what they feel is worth suffering or dying for.
“There has to be a different way of understanding what people who are suffering do,” she said. ” People relate to pain differently. My experience in coming from Pakistan, from a background of labor activists, is not focused on how suffering will end.”
She has come from Karachi to the New School to Pennsylvania State University, and now to the Southern Berkshires, to teach college classes and publish a book, “Liberalism and Human Suffering,” in 2010.
In her teaching, she draws on a wide range of writers, scholars, playwrights and philosophers — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” Ingeborg Bachmann, Assia Djebar, Tony Kushner, Horatio Alger and Malcolm X and more.
She wants to teach her students to question, she said, to feel they belong in any conversation and to affirm that they are there to struggle with ideas — and the struggle is exhilarating.
Many of her students have welcomed the challenge to engage in any deeply theoretical exercise, she said. But she finds herself worried by some students, by a resistance to thinking. They want to study what speaks to them, she said — but how will they know what speaks to them unless they experiment, push themselves, and look for new thoughts and responses and arguments?
She recalled moments of tension in a class, when students study something new to them. When she asks them to open themselves to new ideas, she may also make herself vulnerable, she said. She takes a risk, hoping they will recognize it and take one, too.
She hopes they will claim a space for themselves even when others say it is not theirs. She has had students read W.E.B. DuBois next to Rousseau, she said, and think about what happens when people who have no place stand up to claim it. When the world defines someone as a problem, how effective can they be in any change they work for?
“We have to change the problems,” she said.
She studies what moves her and what she wants to change. And she finds power in the idea that one person can change the structure, the society around her, even the state.
“Politics is the capacity to make meaning,” she said. “How do you do that if you shut out thought?”
When a state has power over someone’s life, political thought can touch the most private places. And people who protest may suffer.
“When we have to fix the world and have nothing to fix it with, we fix it with everything we’ve got,” she said. “It’s like hospitality with nothing, being the outsider and the host all the time … trying to invite people to think.”
This kind of experience is a common one. She has often talked recently with professionals, people of color who have come back to pursue advanced degrees in their mature years. Many were told as young students, “You go back and fix up your neighborhoods, because no one else will” — and they did, she said. But they look back now and see that they were working with someone else’s ideas. Now they want to claim their place among the thinkers.
“For people who are suffering, the moments they’re made to feel included are on the terms of others,” she said.
She sets her own terms. She may explore them in political theory or in a quiet invitation to listen and to talk.
“Isn’t a way of being hospitable a way of telling a story?” she said.
It is too easy to deny someone’s suffering “or find something redeeming in it — you are the meek who will inherit the earth — and both are ways of not thinking about what someone is actually doing,” she said.
Denying the people also denies the causes of pain.
“Violence is not abstract or invisible,” she said.
But political language can try to make it so.
“We give [terror] a sense of otherness that keeps it distant and us uninvolved ‘ she wrote in ‘In Terror, in Love and out of Time,’ an essay in the anthology “At the Limits of Justice: Women of Color on Terror,” in 2014.
So how can thought and language change, so anyone can see suffering and people who suffer, close and involved? She asks the question in her books, in conversations with her students and in TEDx talks at UC Berkeley.
She wants a world open to people who live with pain — and survive, and love.