Author Irshad Manji teaches Class of 2023 about the psychology of arguments

Emily Sun, Staff Writer

In human psychology, there is an ironclad law: if you wish to be heard, you must first be willing to hear,” said Irshad Manji, author of Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars in a discussion with the sophomore class last Thursday. Manji hoped the talk informed students on how to turn destructive disagreements into constructive conflicts.

Manji founded the Moral Courage Project (MCP) in 2008, an organization that teaches people a “no- shaming approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she said. Manji developed the Moral Courage Method as a way to “transform disagreement into engagement and, ultimately, into shared action,” she said.

Community Council (CC) member Ariela Shuchman (10) met Manji through her father, Daniel Shuchman P’21 P’23, she said. Daniel co-founded the organization Let Grow to promote children’s independence and resilience through programs such as those the MCP offers.

Ariela thought Manji could equip students with skills for navigating disagreements from political arguments in history class and on social media to conflicts between friends and family, she said. “A lot of speakers focus on specific political issues, so we wanted to invite her to give us some tools for those discussions,” she said. “Otherwise, it can get really nasty in class and on platforms like Snapchat.”

Manji began her presentation by discussing the neuroscience behind how people react to disagreements. She described the fight-or-flight response, where the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body to flee from or attack perceived threats. The brain has a hard time distinguishing between mortal danger and mere discomfort, so it reacts the same way to both, making people defensive and aggressive when someone disagrees with them, she said.

“Social media is deliberately designed to exacerbate this impulse by manipulating people to seek out and validate those who already think alike,” she said. “In that way, it feeds our instinct to manufacture an Us- Against-Them mindset.”

Communicating through that bubble requires people to ‘outsmart’ their brains, Manji said. She gave five steps for doing so: breathe deeply, find common

ground, ask questions about how the other person came to their position, listen, and ask more questions. After these five steps, people can feel free to state their own views, she said.

Breathing calms the sympathetic nervous system and tells the brain there is no immediate threat, and finding common ground builds trust, she said. One way to find common ground is to establish that people are more than their position on one issue, so neither side should judge the other’s entire character based on one disagreement, she said.

Dean of Class of 2023 Chidi Asoluka said that finding common ground helps people see the other person’s humanity, which can feel impossible when they say and do things that run counter to one’s beliefs.

For example, people with opposite political views also share concerns about where the country will be in the next few years, Asoluka said. “You can find common ground by saying ‘we’re both nervous about the future of this community. We just have different ways of trying to figure out how to fix it,’” he said.

Manji’s next steps are to ask about the other person’s experiences that influenced their opinion, listen to and understand their response, not rebut their point, ask more questions, and finally express one’s own views, she said.

It can be challenging to bypass the urge to win an argument, Jerry Lascher (10) said. When he is speaking to someone he disagrees with, Lascher often asks questions to trip them up or prove that he is right, he said. “Instead, it’s important to ask a question and hear their opinion, even if you don’t agree,” he said.

Megumi Iwai-Louie (10) said she liked how Manji revealed that the Latin roots of “respect” mean “to look again.” “To respect someone isn’t to agree with them,” Manji said. “It’s to engage with them, because the first impression you have of someone is usually cursory, so it should not be the only impression you have.”

Iwai-Louie previously thought respect meant conceding to the other person in a disagreement. As a result, she would often stay silent because she believed it was disrespectful to argue, she said. “Manji taught me that you can and should share what you feel and believe, as long as you also see the other person and where they’re coming from,” Iwai-Louie said.

“If you adopt the Moral Courage Method and turn it into a habit, you’ve got a good chance of being heard even by those who disagree with you,” Manji said.