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How to empower students to hear -- not fear -- different perspectives

Irshad Manji
July 29, 2021

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School is a microcosm of society, reflecting the time and community in which it exists. Educators put great effort into shaping school climate and culture -- using each as a barometer of aspirational values and behavioral norms -- all the while navigating and addressing societal upheaval and polarization.

Polarization has become the norm in the United States, and labels are the soundbites in our daily lives. “Us” versus “them” feels like status quo, and our only recourse is to pick which “us” we stand with so we know which “them” to attack or cancel.

Rather than allowing for a vast diversity of thought, recognizing that human beings are highly complex and capable of holding multiple sometimes even contradictory beliefs, it’s become too easy to choose a single opinion, statement, even one word to be the sole representation of a person -- and judge them accordingly. 

No one is immune, certainly not the educators caught up in the politicized struggle over what and how to teach the children whose future vote or silence they are courting. The debate over how to teach our young people the history of our country, and by extension, the history of the world, is so heated that school board meetings are becoming battlefields, and state lawmakers are passing laws about what can and cannot be taught or even mentioned in our schools.

Some people agree with their state’s efforts -- others don’t. That’s nothing new, but too many average people, somewhere in the political middle, are afraid to ask any questions, seek information, or start dialogue. Simply asking a question, let alone challenging decisions on curriculum, policies, and school culture, comes with the risk of damaging your career, losing your livelihood, or threats of violence.

Yet, it’s more important than ever that we teach our students to question, to think critically, to gather and assess information rather than blindly accepting what they are told. They are watching us, and if what we model is fear and avoidance of discomfort or worse yet, succumb to anger and hate as the easier road, that is the learning they will internalize.

So, how can we step back from the fear of judgement and from the “us vs them” mentality? 

To start, we must communicate, collaborate, and likely, compromise. It can be challenging to talk to someone we fundamentally disagree with. Consider the following scenario:

You’re networking at a conference, and hear someone say something that is the polar opposite of your own beliefs. You immediately feel stressed, and your fight or flight response is triggered -- this is one of “them” that your “us” is against! Your instinct is to leave, or stay silent (flight) -- or start a confrontation (fight). A deep breath and recognizing your emotions is obviously necessary, but then what?

Use the Moral Courage method

Humans fear being judged, which is why judgment creates defensiveness and division. The solution is to avoid escalation, and lead by listening. 

With these principles in mind, I created the Moral Courage Method. Moral Courage ED is a research-backed method for empowering students to hear, not fear, different perspectives. It means speaking truth to power -- not just the power of authorities and systems, but also the power of our own ego.

The skill of communicating across differences is key for teaching students how to avoid the trap of labels --  and the “us” versus “them” mentality. Using Moral Courage is not always easy (and can feel a little scary) --  but can help turn tense moments into rich conversations. To support others, I came up with five tips for communicating with someone who you disagree with. These tips are especially useful for those involved in education -- from parents and teachers to administrators and diversity, equity and inclusion leaders.

  • Tip #1: Common ground builds trust. Before diving into differences, pinpoint a commonality. “Did you know that we have something in common? “I’m not going to assume your position on one thing represents the whole of who you are. Can you do the same for me?” If they agree, get comfortable, maybe grab some coffee, and dive in. If not, don’t try to break through a brick wall...they may be unwilling or unable to step back from their own fight response at that moment.
  • Tip #2: Ask what your Other believes. Before you make statements about your beliefs, take a step back to consider what your “Other” -- the person at the opposite side -- believes. Ask how the issue makes them feel, or what experiences they’ve had that forms their opinion. These need to be sincere questions. If you’re just waiting for a chance to pounce, they’ll sense it.
  • Tip #3: Really listen to their response. Listen to understand, NOT to win. Tuning out and waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can state your case isn’t going to work. Even worse is collecting “gotchas” to present later. This is a learning opportunity for you, expanding your understanding of the issue and affecting your own perspective and beliefs. What you hear may solidify your belief or could be food for thought and cause you to examine your viewpoint in a different way.
  • Tip #4: Ask more questions from curiosity, not judgement. Your choice of words, tone and body language are critical for keeping the discussion flowing effectively. Questions such as  “How do you know that’s true?” or “But what about X?” can make someone feel judged and counteract your efforts.
  • Tip #5: Invite yourself to share. If your Other doesn’t start asking questions, don’t assume they are disinterested. They may be caught up in the thoughts you’ve inspired, or be shocked that you wanted to hear from them first. You can continue the trend by asking if they mind if you share how the issue makes you feel. Then, keep the trust going and recognize that even if they continue to disagree, you’ve received a gift in the interaction.

Through Moral Courage, I hope to communicate across differences of viewpoint and help unify -- rather than divide. Communication is the most essential skill every student needs to build, every educator needs to model and every human being should practice and improve.

The recipient of Oprah’s first “Chutzpah Award” for boldness, Irshad Manji is the founder of Moral Courage ED. A professor for more than 15 years, she now teaches at Oxford University’s Initiative for Global Ethics and Human rights. Irshad is a New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars.

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