Why would activist Zachary R. Wood encourage you to sit down to a pleasant, or even not so pleasant, conversation with someone whose views radically oppose your own? In brief, Wood believes that these uncomfortable conversations represent opportunities for learning and the first step toward social change. getAbstract recommends Wood’s bold, eloquent talk to academics, activists, mediators, and others interested in improving communication between opposing individuals and groups.
- Rather than avoid or dismiss controversial, opposing or even offensive views, engage with them as opportunities for learning – albeit uncomfortably.
- Some argue that providing a platform for offensive or harmful ideas does more damage than good, but shutting down the conversation doesn’t eliminate the views.
- Dialogue enables progress toward finding common ground, “if not with the speakers themselves, then with the audiences they may attract or indoctrinate.”
- Moreover, when people listen to an opposing perspective, they gain insights about their own beliefs and hone their problem-solving skills.
- Engaging with objectionable or controversial opinions builds empathy and understanding that enables social progress.
Don’t avoid controversial, opposing or even offensive views. Instead, treat dialogue about these ideas as an opportunity for “uncomfortable learning.” Take, for example, sociologists Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, which posited that on average, certain races are more intelligent and prone to success than others. Or, consider political commentator John Derbyshire’s 2012 article advising nonblack families to safeguard their children by teaching them to avoid areas or events “likely to draw a lot of blacks.” Even when ideas are harmful, engaging with them is fruitful. That’s why, in 2016, activist Zachary R. Wood invited Murray and Derbyshire to speak at his school – providing a podium for the ideas that Wood opposed.
“Through engaging…we may reach a better understanding, a deeper understanding, of our own beliefs and preserve the ability to solve problems, which we can’t do if we don’t talk to each other and make an effort to be good listeners.”
Wood’s mother, though schizophrenic and often rageful, had instilled in him the importance of learning from opposing views. She taught him that the world is complicated, contentious and changeable. When young Zachary asked her about affirmative action, she explained its support and opposition before sharing her own contextualized opinion. Wood understood that he shouldn’t dismiss perspectives that he dislikes. Instead, no matter how difficult it was, he should seek the lesson in others’ views. Thus, in college, Wood joined a student group that brought contentious thinkers to campus. The group’s invitation to Derbyshire caused an uproar among students. Wood endured personal attacks. His school’s president rescinded the invitation. Detractors argued that giving such ideas a platform does more damage than good.
“To understand the potential of society to progress forward, we need to understand the counterforces.”
However, shutting down the conversation doesn’t eliminate the views. Rather, it blocks progress toward finding common ground, “if not with the speakers themselves, then with the audiences they may attract or indoctrinate.” Moreover, when people listen to an opposing perspective, they gain insights about their own beliefs and hone their problem-solving skills. Though Wood didn’t have the opportunity to engage with Derbyshire, he shared a mealtime conversation with Murray. Wood still finds Murray’s views unconvincing but understands them better. Progress amid adversity hinges on achieving a “deeper understanding of humanity” through ongoing learning. And engaging on hard topics builds both empathy and understanding.
About the Speaker
Activist Zachary R. Wood advocates social change through dialogue. To that end, Wood is president of a student group called Uncomfortable Learning.
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