Asking to Understand: Having Productive Conversations Abroad

Kira Pyne headshot
By Kira Pyne, AU SPA ’20

I have spent the past two months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), focusing on terrorism and counterterrorism from a European perspective. Classes at DIS focus on learning outside of the classroom, and my terrorism course took a week-long study tour around Western Denmark learning about how Denmark works to prevent terrorism and radicalization.

Something that is important to understand about Denmark: It is a racially and culturally homogeneous society. I try not to stereotype, but it’s hard to not see that everyone whizzing by me on bicycles is blonde, tall, and dressed all in black. As a society that pays over half of its income in taxes to the government, Danes have to have similar values and beliefs about how their government should work and use their money. Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. The Danes that I’ve met and talked with seem to be very satisfied with their quality of life and their government.

A topic that is frequently brought up in my classes is Denmark’s views on immigration. We read over a policy about immigration that essentially said Denmark was going to work as hard as it could to strictly limit immigration and keep refugees out of the country. Two of my professors explained that this was because many people want to keep Denmark as, well, Danishas possible. This article can provide more insight into the subject.

These views on immigration were certainly in the back of my mind when my terrorism class arrived at a mosque for our study tour. We were fortunate enough to be able to speak with the Imam, an official who will lead prayers, and two other male members of the mosque. My professor encouraged us to ask provocative questions and get as much of an understanding as possible on their views on religion, assimilation, and life in Denmark. To say that my classmates took this seriously was an understatement.

When my classmates asked questions to purposely provoke the men we were talking with, we didn’t end up learning much. For example, someone asked, “Are you actually trying to embrace living in Denmark?” The Imam was angry at the implication that he and the other members of the mosque were not working hard to assimilate into Danish culture, especially because many members of the mosque were born in Denmark.

But when someone asked a question with an open mind, we got so much more out of the conversation. For example, someone asked about their opinions on the new Danish law passed that has caused frustration in the Muslim community. The law requires new citizens to shake hands with Danish officials at the naturalization ceremony.

The reasoning by Danish officials for this law is that in Denmark, it is custom to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, and shaking hands at the ceremony symbolizes people’s integration into Danish culture. When members of the Muslim community did not want to abide by this, Danish citizens assumed that Muslim people were disrespecting Danes and their culture.

What was explained to us, from the perspective of this particular mosque, is that members of their community are not supposed to touch someone of the opposite gender unless they are married or family.

I certainly did not agree with everything we discussed at the mosque, but I did get a much better perspective on productive dialogue. We are never going to agree with everyone’s opinions or ways of life. We all live our lives differently, and there is a difference between trying to learn about and understand those differences versus confronting people about their core beliefs. Asking to understand allows us to see into someone else’s world and day to day life. When we ask questions that try to reaffirm our previous beliefs, our beliefs are reaffirmed. The dialogue is closed.

Unlike Denmark, America is not a homogeneous society. Many of us come from different countries, different religions, and we certainly don’t all look the same. We have to work every day to understand the differences between ourselves and those that surround us. Too often, we jump to defend our own opinions and react with frustration when someone questions those beliefs.

In a time where our country is extremely divided, asking questions to understand, rather than to change another’s opinion, is more important than ever. We don’t have to agree, but without understanding, we are not going to be productive. Understanding, embracing, and loving our differences is what is ultimately going to move us forward as a nation.

Kira Pyne is a junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG) and minoring in Psychology. She is a member of the SPA Honors Program, part of the Standards Committee for the Rude Mechanicals, and a New Membership Assistant for Phi Alpha Delta. 

Student Journalism’s Voice in Campus Discourse is Vital

Samantha McAllister headshot
By Samantha McAllister, AU SIS ’21

Due to the current social climate, we are seeing attacks on media and journalism. As the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi fades from headlines, the necessary role that dedicated journalists play in how we as a society speak to each other is increasingly highlighted, or dismissed, by those in positions of power.

The need to share stories, both others and my own, is what drove me to my high school newspaper. My passion for sharing my voice about campus issues led me to The Eagle’s opinion section. Whether it be finding out how Title IX changes will affect the university or where someone’s next brunch spot should be, The Eagle is participating in campus discourse.

News happens at AU, big or small. As a columnist, my choice in what to write about frequently starts with the news section. After it was reported that an AU Trustee had a history of sexual misconduct, I wrote a column on how this instance was just an example of the larger problem of disrespect towards women in the workplace. Sometimes, a column idea is simply what my friends have been complaining about in the last week. The process can work in the opposite direction: after Opinion Editor Nickolaus Mack wrote a column highlighting AU’s founder’s ties to slavery, the University created a working group to investigate its history. This was an instance where a student voice could have been ignored, but instead an entire conversation between students and administrators was started on campus that would not have happened otherwise.

Discourse on campus can be fraught with quick reactions and obscured facts. The Eagle, along with the other talented student media organizations on campus, find the truth for students and provide a platform outside of Twitter rants. For Eagle reporters, the ethics code is strict, with reporters not allowed to express opinions on campus related issues, even on personal social media. The dedication for unbiased reports on the people and circumstances that matter on campus is what leads student journalism in shaping campus discourse. Students want to leave campus, and the world, a better place. Providing information and a platform for that discourse is vital for a healthy student body.

Recently, fellow student media organization AWOL was shut out of a public meeting held by the AU Dining Advisory Board focusing on controversial new meal plans. Actions like these are concerning for all students, because without access to information there can be no discussion. Information on college campuses is power, and The Eagle’s role, along with other organizations, is to disseminate that information.

My goal as an opinion columnist is simple: get people talking. Whether that be people disagreeing or the AU administration taking some notice, the purpose of any opinion is to share it. Without a platform to do that like The Eagle, AWOL, or The Blackprint, students could be erased from the issues that most deeply affect them. Students are what drive me to write my opinions: the ones that agree, disagree, or do not even care about the issue. By finding truth and speaking on campus issues, The Eagle and student journalism get the campus talking.

Students and student media talk together to find what matters, now and tomorrow for students. Because in the end, that’s what we all share: an identity as a student.

Samantha McAllister is a sophomore majoring in International Studies at American University. She is an Assistant Opinion Editor for The Eagle and an avid advocate for student journalism.

Trauma-Informed Discourse in the Age of Incivility: Not Silencing Speech, But Enhancing It

Steph Black headshot
By Steph Black, AU CAS

Everybody has a reaction to trigger warnings. And I get it. The concept has been so wildly blown out of proportion that it is seemingly impossible to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on the use of them. Right-wing pundits thoroughly lambast them and left-wing activists preach them.

But when we take a step back and look at what trigger warnings are, we might be surprised by what we find. Let’s start from the beginning.

Trigger warnings didn’t stem from social media. They didn’t originate from liberals who didn’t want to see certain things online and they didn’t come from college students who didn’t want to be intellectually challenged.

The concept of trigger warning originated with psychologists who studied Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those who suffer from PTSD (including survivors of sexual violence, people who experience accidents or freak weather, and combat veterans) can exhibit many symptoms, particularly intrusive memories and reliving the original traumatic events via flashback, recurrent thoughts, and nightmares. These can all be ‘triggered’ or brought on by internal and external stimuli.

Internal stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include anger, anxiety, certain memories, feelings of abandonment or frustration, racing heartbeats, pain, and even muscle tension. External stimuli that can cause intrusive thoughts include arguments, seeing news articles related to the traumatic event, witnessing similar traumatic events, certain smells, anniversaries of the incident, places, holidays, or seeing other people who also witnessed the traumatic event.

Constantly reliving these memories is extremely harmful as it creates a response called fear conditioning. Fear conditioning occurs when “these thoughts and images bring traumatic events vividly back to life, accompanied by the intense fear that the events originally evoked. Experiences that recall those early events trigger re-experiencing symptoms through a process that is rapid, unconscious, involuntary and automatic.”

Early usages of trigger warnings stemmed from this understanding and were used to alert traumatized people (people who had experienced trauma such as rape, physical assault, or war) that information that was about to be presented included something that might trigger the memories of their trauma.

Having seen the trigger warning, the traumatized person could use coping strategies they had learned during therapy (grounding, breathing exercises, or other relaxation methods) and avoid experiencing a flashback or other unwanted side effect of PTSD.

Those who are ‘trauma-informed’ have applied this principle to other areas. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase ‘trauma-informed care’ or ‘trauma-informed advocacy.’

More specifically, a trauma-informed approach:

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  • Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

And while the connection might not be immediately obvious, the tenets of trauma-informed approached closely mirror the tenets of civil discourse. American University’s cutting-edge Project on Civil Discourse has outlined civil discourse as:

  • Truthful
  • Productive
  • Audience-based
  • About listening and talking
  • Each Speaker’s own responsibility

It is through these guidelines that discourse can be the most productive it can possibly be. When we consciously make the decision to hold conversations according to these tenets, our conversation can become less polarized, less hateful, and more productive.

When both civil discourse and trauma-informed practice come together, the implications of who can be engaged in conversation expands exponentially. Take, for example, the experiences of Amanda Nannarone, a law student at AU who worked for the Project on Civil Discourse. Nannarone, a trauma survivor, said she was caught off guard by a class discussion about a survivor of domestic violence.

“I got very upset during class, and I wasn’t expecting it,” she said in an interview. “Usually, if I can prepare for it, I know what I’m going into where I can make sure I have my stuff with me. For that class, I didn’t have it because I wasn’t expecting it.”

If Nannarone had known that this was going to be a part of the class discussion, perhaps she would have been better equipped to engage with the subject matter. There are countless others who have had similar experiences who would also benefit from classroom discussions, and discussions in general, that are framed with a trauma-informed, civil discourse lens.

Trauma-informed civil discourse is not about ideology. It is not about censoring or enforcing a singular kind of speech or debate. It is about believing that we, people of all backgrounds and experiences, are able to engage deeply with challenging subject matter on an even playing field. Employing the tenets of both trauma-informed practice and civil discourse is our best way forward to achieve that.

Steph is a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major at American University. Steph can be found reading next to her cat Goose, writing about feminism and Judaism, or protesting around the city for basic human rights. 

A Reflection on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education”

Marissa Klass headshot
By Marissa Klass, AU SPA

“Are you being challenged in your fundamental beliefs?” asked Dr. Robert George, a political philosopher and American legal scholar at Princeton University. Robert George was accompanied on stage by his ideological rival Dr. Cornel West, a political activist and American philosopher at Harvard University. If you were to see these two intellectuals speak on the news or simply glance at their social media accounts, you would never guess that George, a conservative, and West, a progressive, share the same core values, especially when it comes to the importance of a liberal education. During a discussion moderated by Dr. Tom Merrill, an associate professor within the School of Public Affairs, the men spoke about the importance of making yourself uncomfortable in the process of learning.

Before I walked through the doors of Constitution Hall, I had little idea of who Dr. Cornel West was, my only understanding being that he holds progressive values. As for Dr. Robert George, I knew nothing about him except that he supposedly held the exact opposite political beliefs of West. I found that my lack of background on the two scholars was essential in allowing me to see the two simply as individuals with opinions rooted in philosophical and political thought. This discussion challenged my beliefs in a way they had not been tested since I arrived at American University.

Cornel West and Robert George spoke of the value of challenging your own existential beliefs in search of truth. It is something that must be endlessly sought after and requires a constant state of learning, questioning, and challenging. George made the audience chuckle by suggesting that us students pay American University a great deal of money to be made uncomfortable. In that quip the law scholar conveyed the value of listening to the opinions of your peers and reflecting on some of the best historical philosophers in order to challenge and rethink your set of beliefs. Learning is a process which encourages the seeking of truth, rather than the gathering of information to compliment an existing perspective. This acquisition of information is not something to be handed over. To gain a true liberal education is to chase after the discomfort in which you feel like your most core beliefs are being constantly challenged.

It is clear to students at American University which political party stands dominant on campus. While this political homogeneity is not uncommon across many liberal arts college campuses, I feel that our university, which sits in the nation’s capital and is ranked the “most politically active,” holds the responsibility of stimulating more uncomfortable discussions in order to really get our money’s worth, as Robert George suggests. In order to be challenged, it is essential that students break out of their comfort zones by engaging with and even befriending peers whose views are different than their own.

In my own experience, I have found this practice to be a successful one. By forming close relationships with people who I disagree with politically, I have been able to gain a better understanding of their perspectives and where they are coming from. Sometimes, I have found the ideas of my peers to be so convincing that I have adopted them as beliefs of my own. We are a campus that preaches inclusion and community, and it only seems just that these values include political affiliation.

The two intellectual voices of West and George offered a call to action: to get uncomfortable, to understand the other, and to challenge yourself until you are shaken to your very core. It is crucial to maintain a level of discomfort in order to have the motivation to continue learning. This ongoing process of learning will spark new ideas and questions. The undertaking of constant truth-seeking allows individuals like you and me to take in new ideas and perspectives in order to understand the other. Challenging conversations generate thoughtful ideas and theories which have the ability to make you reevaluate your most basic values. Cornel West and Robert George have challenged the way I learn and, through this event, have assisted me in grappling with my knowledge in a discovery for the truth.

Marissa Klass is a first-year Political Science and Justice & Law double major at American University. She is a member of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program and has a passion for civics, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.

Identity, Allyship, and Discourse: A Follow-Up Interview with Ian Madrigal, the Monopoly Man

Amanda Werner dressed as the Monopoly Man at Senate hearing
By Jason Steuerwald, AU SPA 

Editor’s Note: Since speaking at American University, the speaker changed their name to Ian Madrigal.

It seems like every day the news is covering the increasing marginalization of one group or another. One day they’re reporting on the mistreatment of migrants seeking asylum at the border, the next on the possibility of the repeal of protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, and the day after on the continued epidemic of police brutality towards black men. These are only a few examples of the many stories and groups that are being impacted by the particularly hateful climate currently shrouding American politics.

While it can often be hard to find the light in this situation, my discussion with Ian Madrigal, a creative advocate best known for their work as the Monopoly Man, reminded me that times like these can lead us to evolve as communities and individuals. In a follow-up interview after they spoke at American University, Madrigal discussed how different identities can play a role in how we interact with each other, both as activists and simply as human beings.

When I asked Madrigal about their experience with the ways that identity can interact with advocacy, they pointed out how being trans and queer has allowed them to live their life from a number of different perspectives. Because their identity and expression has developed over time – having a “stint on every letter of the LGBTQ” – they have seen things evolve through more fluid stages rather than the more common interpretation of reality set in distinct steps and categories. They went on to explain how as their transition has progressed, they have had to “straddle the dualities” of people’s perceptions. In certain spaces, they are now sometimes seen as a straight white man, which gives them a certain degree of privilege they had not had before. But other times, such as when their voice is read as being trans, that safety that comes from passability can quickly dissipate as feelings of unease set in.

As a transgender person myself, I have spent a lot of time navigating this phenomenon. For most people, privilege is generally immutable. Your race, your class, your gender, they stay relatively stable. But as trans folks, we often have the unique opportunity to experience a spectrum of gender-related privileges and discrimination alike. This resulting awareness is something pretty unique to the trans community and Madrigal is actively using this awareness to try and effect change.

Specifically, Madrigal talked about how showing up to a hearing dressed as the Monopoly Man gave them access to space in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Madrigal explained that the Monopoly Man, as many of us know, is the “pinnacle of privilege.” He’s a straight white man drowning in money and real estate holdings. Because of this status, even though they were in costume, Madrigal was able to lean into these associations and the resulting confusion to participate in the conversation in a way that an uncostumed Ian would not have been able to.

I asked Madrigal about the role of race in the Kirstjen Nielsen protest they organized and how we can use our different privileges to advocate for groups while also respecting individual boundaries. Most of the protestors were white or white-passing and Madrigal discussed how they believe the event and their interaction with the Secret Service would have gone drastically differently if the group had not been majority white or white-passing. In fact, the Secret Service grabbed the one Latinx member of the group and proceeded to speak mockingly to him in Spanish.

In reflecting on an educational equity course they had taken in college, Madrigal encouraged using privilege rather than giving it up. “Good people should take and hoard privilege and distribute it,” they said. It’s not useful to “reject” privilege because you can’t really reject how another person is going to see and treat you; that just gives the privilege back to people who will use it solely for personal gain. Instead, Madrigal urges people to use their positions by staying aware and putting their necks on the line when others can’t afford to.

In the same vein, I asked Madrigal about allyship, the surrounding discourse, and how to improve each. And though the idea of their answer seems so simple, it really is the largest missing component of allyship practice today: listening and learning. In order to be effective allies, we need to “take our cues from the marginalized folks in the community. And if they’re not there, figure out why that is.” For example, Madrigal talked about the current wave of white supremacy in the United States, saying that many people are thinking “Oh wow, I didn’t know there were actually Nazis in the country. People of color did.” But it’s important to talk about white privilege with other white people too and not always rely on our marginalized friends to walk us through these discussions. On the other hand, Madrigal encourages us as consumers to be skeptical of what people in power say, not automatically believing or disbelieving anyone, but taking it back to a balance of healthy criticism.

Shifting the conversation, I asked Madrigal about the boundaries and definition of civility. Using the context of the Nielsen protest, Madrigal broke it down into two categories: moral and tactical. In terms of morality, they argued that we can go pretty far in situations like that. Because Nielsen was “putting literal babies in prison,” Madrigal said that morally, a lot could be justified. People bring up incivility when cultural norms and etiquette are broken, but these things should get thrown out the window when questions of human rights violations are involved.

Tactically, however, things become a bit more limiting. Though we may have a “radical view of what morals allow,” odds are that not everyone is on the same page as to what this means. It is important to be able to read the culture you are working within and approach the issue effectively, often aiming for harm reduction in cases of social justice and human rights. Because Nielsen and the imprisoned children were at the forefront of the news cycle, the cultural outrage matched the efforts and allowed Madrigal and their fellow protestors to convey the message appropriately. Being aware of these issues and implications allows us as advocates to navigate the complexities of activism and civility.

In speaking with Ian, what stood out to me was their call to harness our identities and privileges to be better advocates for ourselves and those who don’t have as much of a voice yet. And the only way that we can do this is by actively listening to each other using what we hear to effect change. Knowing that there are people like Madrigal who are creating change and empowering the rest of us to join in makes that constant daunting newsreel feel less like a ball and chain dragging us down and more like a match and gasoline igniting a movement.

Jason Steuerwald is a second-year Justice and Law student at American University. On campus, he is a part of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, a member of the executive board of PRIDE, and an overnight library assistant. Outside of school, he is involved in drum corps and got to spend this summer touring the country and competing as a member of the Oregon Crusaders.