Speak Unto Others

An Interview with Irshad Manji

Octavian Report: How did you come to write Don't Label Me?

Irshad Manji: The increasingly acrimonious nature of our political discourse spurred me to think harder about why this is happening. It's interesting to note that just a few months ago, a study came out from a very well-respected political scientist. The study found that almost 20 percent of the Democrats and almost 15 percent of the Republicans surveyed would tolerate violence being done to the other group.

These are not unprecedented times, but the causes of our polarization and their implications for the future are unprecedented. I believe that we as individuals, as human beings, and as citizens need to be asking ourselves, "How am I contributing to the problem?"

I will be very personal in telling you that the more I paid to attention to the toxicity of the political discourse that started to emerge about five years ago, the more depressed I became, the more anxious I felt. I had a choice to react or to respond. I could have reacted and retreated and decided to turn my mind off. Or I could have asked, "What's really going on here? What makes sense given my own experiences? Not just in my little world, but when I speak with people — very different people from very different parts of the country and the world — what am I picking up?” And that is when I decided something needs to be said about how diversity, a much-vaunted ideal and something that I truly support, has been corrupted.

OR: How do you distinguish between what you call in the book “honest” and “dishonest” diversity, and how does one metamorphose into the other?

Manji: Let's start with the distinction that I'm drawing. When diversity is dishonest, it slices and dices individuals into categories and then leaves them there, which I think is what too much diversity training and diversity teaching does today.

Now, labels can be starting points for further discovery. But they should never be finish lines. After all, labels can lie. They flatten each of us to one dimension, vaporizing all the rest of what makes us what I would call “plurals,” multi-faceted individuals. And whether the label is “queer Muslim” or “straight white guy,” each of us is multi-faceted.

In contrast, honest diversity moves beyond labels. Crucially, honest diversity includes different viewpoints and not merely different complexions, genders, and religions. I think that honest diversity liberates us from our so-called assigned places. To me, honest diversity is pluralism, a nation-building approach that reconciles social justice with free expression. At its core, it reconciles diversity and liberty. That, of course, is an ideal, but it's something that I believe we can work towards — as long as we stop looking to politicians to do the work for us.

OR: Where does this impulse to flatten people come from?

Manji: I think there are two main drivers. One is technology; social media in particular. But let's never forget that social media products and platforms are deliberately designed to amp up our emotions. From a biological perspective, the easiest emotion for human beings to feel is fear. In this whirlwind environment, labels such as “racist” or “libtard” come in very handy because they're convenient tools for indulging in our emotions and avoiding self-reflection.

I speak with many, many educators about the need to teach young people basic life skills. One of those skills is how to not be offended so easily. That means that even when you use social media you can develop the skills to, for example, breathe deeply, slow down the blood rush in your body, and move past the impulsive part of your brain so that you're tapping into the more evolved part of the brain which can reason and make executive decisions about how to regulate your own response. That is the difference between reacting and responding. And I firmly believe that we're not going to transition from dishonest to honest diversity with a few individuals choosing to regulate themselves. This is a generational project; digital technologies are not going away. Manipulation, which is at the heart of human nature, is not going away. Our brains are not evolving as quickly as societal advancements would require. I think that the challenge and the opportunity here is to teach kids how to communicate across disagreement.

We don't know what kind of politics or economy or technology we'll have 10 or 15 years from now. But the one certainty is that no matter your vision of progress, if you want to realize it, you'll have to bring some hold-outs on board.

You can't do that by mocking and berating and insulting and labeling. You'll have to learn how to communicate across disagreement. To me, that is an urgency, if in fact we're going to have anything worthy of being called social cohesion.

OR: What has been your experience in trying to convey these ideas to college-age people?

Manji: I've been surprised by how receptive young people have been. I knew (and have long known, because of my work on university campuses) that there is a large swath of young people who do not feel represented by social justice militants, and at the same time do not subscribe to right wing blowhards. These kids often feel politically and philosophically homeless.

So here comes, and let me be straight-up, a woman who checks off all the boxes as a multicultural poster child saying that we don't have to lapse into militancy on either side in order to stand for something firm and to have a strong moral compass. That pluralism is their destination, and that the way to get there is to recognize each other as plurals, but that somebody has to go first — and that somebody can be you.

When you're not met with the same good faith that you're bringing to the table, there are ways to respond to that without reacting to it. This book is as much a how-to as it is an analysis of how we became dysfunctional in our cultural and social politics. That fact has struck a chord with those who have heard me talk about the message.