Speak Unto Others

An Interview with Irshad Manji

I sincerely hope that it's the kind of book that educators will pick up and apply the lessons of in their own classrooms and across their campuses. Every university today, bar none, has some kind of a diversity and inclusion effort. Even if they don't call it that, there is some attention, if not a whole lot of attention, being paid to diversity and inclusion. I'd like to believe that this is a set of teachings that can equip administrators to make very clear to student bodies that we are willing to respond when you communicate with dignity, and that this is going to take an effort by both sides, but here are the steps that each of us can follow to get there.

I've been a teacher long enough to know that big ideas are nice, but they are not enough. You've got to teach even the most well-informed people the how of pulling out of polarization.

OR: If you were faced with an audience of young people, and you were tasked with giving them a few concrete, practical pieces of advice for developing this ability in themselves, what would they be?

Manji: It would be tough to just break it down into only a few pieces of advice. At the end of Don’t Label Me I actually offer 11 pieces of advice. But let me try to whittle it down to those pieces that I think are most counterintuitive.

Use social media. Use it to evaluate yourself as much as to post your opinions. Four times a year, answer questions (these are all in the book) based on what you see in your social media feed. What stories do I pause for? What stories move me enough to share them with my friends? What gives me joy when I watch, listen, or read about it? What makes me mad when it's in the news? What should be in the news much more than it actually is? What does all of this suggest about the ideals that I stand for?

When you can answer these questions, you are developing self-knowledge. That self-knowledge will allow you to determine what are the one or two issues that you are so passionate about that you actually need to go out and seek somebody who equally passionately disagrees with your perspective on them.

Which brings me to the second concrete piece of advice.

Between, let’s say, now and November of 2020, develop a relationship with one person — just one! — who comes from a very different (and to you, offensive) point of view.

In developing that relationship, all you need to do is set aside 60 minutes out of the 10,080 minutes that make up a week to be face-to-face with that person and ask him or her questions about why they believe what they believe.

Why should you bother to do that? Again, it goes back to that ironclad law of human psychology. If you want to be heard, you must first be willing to hear. But there's something more here that you're doing. You are gleaning information about that other person that helps you understand why they value what they value. With that information, you can also reframe your own arguments in ways that they can finally hear.

The point is not to change their mind. The point is to learn what it is that you're missing about their perspective so that you can be a much more effective communicator.

A third concrete piece of advice would be to remember that you're in it to understand them and not to win a debate. Not every discussion that involves disagreement has to become a debate. In fact, very few need to become a debate. When you're listening to understand and not to win, you're also taking the burden of being right off of your shoulders.

Yes, there will be young people, and old people, and people in between who say "But I am right. It's not a burden. I know I'm right."

In that case, you're naturally going to want to proselytize. You’re naturally going to want to be an evangelist for your so-called correct point of view. But remember that without listening first, you're not going to be heard. Become savvy by becoming more humane.

My advice to a new generation is not to be nice, it's not to be polite, it's not to somehow defend the status quo. It is to become a lot more intelligent as communicators and as relationship builders. What are systems and structures if not the people who inhabit them? To change those abstract forces called systems, structures, and institutions, the human beings who inhabit them have got to change. If you believe that other people need to change, you're going to have to change yourself — and develop a degree of humility so that they will see that it's both possible and desirable to change themselves.

I used to teach the idea of moral courage as speaking truth to power. Period. What I didn't account for (and this is what's happening in so many circles of ideological militancy today) is that one can become as dogmatic about one's own truth as one’s claims about the people they're critiquing. It's not enough just to speak truth to power. The core lesson here is to recognize that there is a power that is universal, pervasive, and more often than we care to admit, pernicious. It lives in the biological structure of all of us. That power is ego.

There's one other thing. When I was touring the world and the United States with my earlier books about Islam, very quickly the conversation in places like the heartland and the Midwest and the south of the United States would turn to the question, "Why do they hate us?" But “they” here did not refer to Muslim militants. It became very apparent to me that the question was about the so-called coastal elite. Why do they hate us? Why are we called racist and misogynist and homophobes when they don't know us as individuals? The more I engaged with people, the more I realized that they felt demeaned and humiliated by this constant labeling.