This week I’ve been thinking about respectful engagement and disagreement. This past term I was teaching a course called “Advanced Topics in Social Justice” at the graduate-level. My students are mainly teachers. They come from different backgrounds in many ways: urban and rural; middle class and working class; religious and secular. The divide between religious and secular became very pronounced in that class, particularly as there was a brilliant student from the Catholic school board who contributed passionate and well-thought-out opinions that quite often diverged from the opinions of others in the course.
Sometimes teaching courses in social justice can be an exercise in mutual and self-congratulation. We mainly agree and we all locate ourselves against common enemies such as sexism, racism, and homophobia. This can be nice, but it isn’t particularly good for learning. And as an educator, learning is always my true objective.
My teaching in social justice is quite different. I teach people becoming teachers who are often actually quite Conservative/conservative in nature. Many are from traditional families and small towns. Many disagree. My job is to get us to talk, to engage, to consider ideas from new perspectives. Not to agree, necessarily. Truthfully, however, I am generally pretty steadfast in my beliefs. This past term with this particular Catholic student changed me a little bit.
Here are some of the social justice issues we discussed in the course: public funding for religious education as an equity issue; the Federal government’s policy of discontinuing funding for any charitable group that has an anti-choice (anti-abortion) agenda, prayer spaces in schools, sex education and the kinds of inclusions possible. I, like most of you, have a very pronounced belief in separation of church and state. I believe it is fundamental to democracy and human rights, not to mention diversity, equity, and social justice. My student, however, would say things like: “if you believe in freedom of religion, prayer spaces in schools are essential” or like: “I have no problem with the progressive sex education curriculum but why is there no mention of love? Religiously, sex is about an expression of love between partners and a love between self and God, who created the body.” I have to say, he made me work a little harder, think a little deeper, and, most importantly by far, reach a little further in the extension of my empathy.
I can be one of those secularists who dismiss religion too easily. I sometimes think of religiosity as relic, partly because it doesn’t feature very much in my own life. We all have a bubble and my bubble tends towards the secular. However, I really wish to avoid becoming fanatic about my atheism/secularism, for that is just the flip side of the coin from religious fanaticism. I can and should still have beliefs, but I have to respect the beliefs of others. To me it is a no-brainer, for example, that separate school funding needs to end. I still believe this; my student vehemently disagrees. But we heard each other out. Considering the other side of this issue helped me sharpen and better articulate my thinking. It also reminded me that if the funding were to end, real people would feel really hurt but that, and that matters.
My student reminded me that if I really believe in social justice, I have to care about what others care about. I have to learn to listen with more openness and respect. This extends to personal relationships too. Sometimes when I disagree with my partner, I notice that neither of us feels heard. We have children together, own and run a house together, eat dinner together. We have to be on the same team! So I have to hear him; he has to hear me. One of us has to give in (and it shouldn’t always be the same one of us!). Sometimes it is better to be happy than to be right. That is, sometimes we might have to let something go in order to achieve peace.
Here’s where it becomes difficult: both sides must be willing to do this. Sometimes one group on the side of an issue, or one person in a relationship, tries to listen and show compassion. The other doesn’t. That is a failure of empathy and both sides lose.
We are about a week away from an election and so our environment is politically charged. Let’s do our best to hear each other — to note that even when we disagree, the other side is not “stupid” or “ridiculous.” Let’s show each other some compassion and grace. Notice the talking-heads on tv — they never listen or hear each other. Let’s be better.
I love the Amichai poem above. I also love this from Epictetus: we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
Until next week,