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Irshad Manji on dishonest diversity and free speech

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.

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.

The more this was happening, the more they were smeared as racists and misogynists and homophobes, the more they felt the need to retaliate. What we wound up with was a situation which political scientists have called negative polarization. People voted for a candidate whom they didn’t support flat out, whom they didn’t necessarily have faith in, but as a way of saying to people who would label them as the things I just talked about, “If this is what you want, this is what you’ll get. How do you like it so far?”

My point, therefore, to many students on campus is that if you are sincere about defeating not just Trump but Trumpism — and that’s if you are sincere, a big if — then you’re going to have to change the way you treat current supporters of Trump. You’re going to have to learn to humanize them. Because they are human.

Again, we’re not talking about being nice. We’re not talking about being polite. We’re not even talking about being civil for the sake of civility. Much harm happens under the guise of civility.

We’re talking about being intelligent and humane as you go about changing the world. If you’re only changing the players in the game, then you’re not changing the world. If you’re only in it to have a feel-good moment of chest-thumping, then you’re not changing the world. You’re not changing yourself.