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. 

Weekly News Digest, No. 17

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the seventeenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Upcoming Events

Tomorrow, February 7th, Dr. Alice Dreger will speak at American University about cultivating the virtue of disloyalty. Dr. Dreger, a historian and researcher, will draw from real-life histories to explore ethically productive disloyalty. For more details or to RSVP, click here.

On Thursday, March 21st, the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement will host their #SpeechMatters conference at their Washington Center. With a focus on the future of free expression on college campuses, the conference will feature panels on civil discourse and online speech, along with a keynote lecture and other functions. For a detailed schedule and list of speakers or to register, click here.

Style Guides

Using proper language is an important part of civil discourse. It respects the topic of conversation and its participants and it allows for an accurate, productive dialogue.

The Association of LGBTQ Journalists (NLGJA) created a stylebook for journalists to use when covering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Find the Stylebook here.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism, a similar organization in the disability communication, created a style guide for journalists and other communicators to use when referring to people with disabilities. Find the 2018 Style Guide here.

New Discourse Center

The Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, announced this morning that they are establishing a Center for Ethics and Leadership, funded by Craig Newmark Philanthropies. The Center will focus on training journalists and working with news organizations to create meaningful, transparent ethics practices. Poynter hopes to “elevate American discourse and battle disinformation and bias.”

Thanks for reading!

Weekly News Digest, No. 14

Crowd standing in a public square

Welcome to the fourteenth installment of the Project on Civil Discourse’s Weekly News Digest, hosted on our Real Talk blog.

Speech on Campus

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, released their Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report, which examines the state of free speech on college campuses across the country. Using an internal rating system, FIRE reported a decrease in schools with a red-light rating and an increase in schools with a green-light rating as more schools adopt policies modeled around the University of Chicago’s report on freedom of expression.

Recently, Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in Inside Higher Ed against endorsing the Chicago principles. Although the principles represent an important, necessary commitment to free speech and inquiry, the “legalistic and formal framework” falls short when it encounters unique situations and diverse concerns. Dr. Ben-Porath writes that an endorsement “comes at the expense of the reasonable demands from people on campuses who argue that free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry — especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right.”

Creative Activism and Protest

In November, Ian Madrigal spoke at American University about activism, discourse, and identity. Madrigal – an attorney and consumer advocate better known for their activism as The Monopoly Man – appeared in the news recently after an appearance at the House Judiciary Committee hearing for Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The Washingon Post Magazine profiled Madrigal, writing that the costume “is really an elaborate act of protest: a combination of entertainment and trolling that Madrigal calls ‘cause-play.’”

Discourse in our Communities

The Michigan Public Policy Survey examined the state of civil discourse on local policy issues in Fall 2018, looking at relationships among local officials, among residents, and between the two. MPPS found that most leaders believe discourse is constructive at the local level, with little change compared to a 2012 survey. However, discourse between residents is viewed as considerably less constructive, especially in Michigan’s most diverse communities.

Better Angels is trying to reverse that trend by facilitating discussions across the political divide. Rather than seeking a centrist compromise, David Graham writes that Better Angels “presupposes polarity” and focuses on fostering conversations between those on opposite sides. Graham examines the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, ultimately asking: “Even if Better Angels can succeed in getting a large swath of the population to speak civilly, who knows if they’ll be able to convert that into productive conversation on real policies?”

Thanks for reading!

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.

Understanding the Burden of Speech

Isabella Dominique headshot
By Isabella Dominique, AU SPA ’20

As a junior at American University, I have spent a lot of time thinking about campus climate and the way we talk to each other. I learned about the differing perspectives and backgrounds that are present at AU and how that might impact students’ participation in discussion. As a black woman on this campus, I have taken the time to better understand the role of my allies in difficult conversations. I realized that challenging dialogues often place a heavy burden on minorities to not only defend our ideas, but ourselves. And as someone who worked extensively to bring the Civil Discourse program to life, I have come to understand the many ways in which all AU students can significantly benefit from an increased understanding of civility, but also in drawing the line between when engaging conversations help people understand and when they do more harm than good.

I began working with Professor Schwartz on the program in the Fall of 2017. As we piloted the program, I was responsible for coordinating with students as they created their own solutions to campus climate issues. We hosted several events that gave students the opportunities to identify the biggest issues and best solutions regarding campus climate. Then, in spring semester 2018, the program entered its research stage. I spent time reading about the difficulties other schools have faced with campus speakers and general intolerance from both sides of the political spectrum. I also hosted several focus groups with students to better understand varying opinions and perspectives regarding speech, intolerance, and civility. Now, I will continue working with Professor Schwartz’s team to facilitate more campus discussions.

When I first began working on the Civil Discourse program, I remember feeling extraordinarily passionate about freedom of speech. I felt that the First Amendment was one of the most important pieces of American law and should be protected by any means necessary. In every class I have taken about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, I have always found myself defending our right to say almost anything we want to. Regardless of my identity as a black woman, I knew that it was important that hate speech and political speech receive the highest level of protection – I thought I had skin thick enough to endure most things someone could say to me.

I was able to ask students difficult questions that aimed to address the root issues that prompted the need for civil discourse both at AU and around the nation. While I will always continue to find free speech important and essential, I have begun to better understand how identity, privilege, and perspective alter an individual’s experience with speech and civility. This is not to say that free speech is no longer productive, but instead that it presents a complicated challenge to people who bear greater burdens.

During my time researching, discussing with the team, and hosting focus groups in the Spring semester, my opinion regarding the First Amendment evolved. However, much of this evolution stemmed from the focus groups because I was able to better understand the ways in which different people understood their role regarding speech. My partner and I posed hypothetical questions that aimed to facilitate a line-drawing exercise with the participants: Do you always respect other people’s ideas? When does it come time to shut down speech? What role do you take in conversations regarding speech? Have you ever been in a situation in which someone deeply offended your identity? How would you react if someone denied the Holocaust in a conversation with you? Most students said that they would tolerate most speech and that there is rarely a time for speech to shut down. While there were a few exceptions (i.e. students who admitted to their strong likelihood of punching Nazis), I noticed that students who did not have minority status were more willing to protect all ideas, regardless of whether they dehumanized others.

However, when I shared my own answers to the group, I realized that my willingness to listen to those ideas is far lower. This likely stems from all that I know about my African American history and my womanhood, but I had never before realized the role my identity plays in both my tolerance and the strain we feel in these conversations. After a semester’s worth of focus groups, I concluded that often times the notion of respecting all ideas places an undue burden on minorities. The focus groups gave me the power to realize how deeply my blackness impacted my patience and capacity to listen to bigotry because of the direct impact it has on me. With that, I was left to wonder how civil discourse can encourage all students to use their privilege to create a positive and healthy learning environment.

I recognize that even though I value my worth as a black woman over the need to respect bigoted ideas, I still, and always will, have more to learn about what productive discussions look like. While I learned last semester that I am more vulnerable when I am put in situations with hateful individuals, I do understand that this does not make me immune from learning more about interacting with our passionate and politically-active peers. At the beginning of my civil discourse journey, I often found myself fiercely defending the First Amendment in its entirety. I knew I had a thick skin and would be able tolerate most hate speech. However, as I interacted with more of my AU peers, I learned that there was a distinct disconnect regarding the people on which the burden of free speech falls. Moving forward, I am eager to learn more about how we can present opposing views in a productive way that respects each other’s identities and takes the unequal burdens of our free speech rights into account.

Isabella Dominique is a junior at American University double-majoring in CLEG and Political Science and minoring in SIS. She currently serves as the Vice President of AU’s NAACP chapter as well as the Co-President of the AU Pre-Law Society. She is also leading an Alternative Break to Kingston, Jamaica to study slavery and reparations in the Caribbean.