Order of Interbeing | Tiep Hien

The Creative Tension Between Fostering Dialogue and Social Justice

I teach sociology and global studies at the college level, which means that thorny social issues regularly come up in my classroom. As part of observing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in the classroom, I try both to foster dialogue between students of different worldviews, encouraging them to understand and respect each other, and also to create a classroom that cultivates social justice, particularly in giving those who belong to oppressed and normally silenced groups room to speak. But in mindfully observing the dynamics of the classroom, I have realized that there is a tension between these two goals, making it difficult at times to achieve both. If, in the name of open dialogue, we give too much room to speak to those who normally dominate the public conversation on social issues, they can silence those who are oppressed and marginalized. Sometimes I have found it necessary to intervene in classroom conversations in a way that cuts off a certain line of argument in order to create a space for where students from oppressed groups feel safe expressing themselves. The trick is doing so in a way that doesn’t permanently shut down students with worldviews reflecting the dominant belief systems and the experiences of the dominant social groups.

One time a student was talking about the case of a female college student who had been raped and filed charges against her attacker through the school’s disciplinary system. Rather than her attacker being disciplined, she herself was punished by the college. Another, male student expressed disbelief and asked if this wasn’t a case of the woman filing false rape charges. I think the male student’s response was honestly rooted in disbelief that such an obvious injustice could take place; I did not get a dismissive, misogynistic vibe when he spoke, then or at other points in class. But this could too easily have degenerated into a conversation about how prevalent false rape claims are and the repetition of myths promoted by misogynistic, so-called “men’s rights” groups that most reports of rape are false. This in turn would have created a classroom atmosphere that was unpleasant for women, especially any who had experienced sexual assault, something that is all too common. So I rapidly intervened and noted that, while false rape reports did happen, they were very rare and that it was more common for women simply not to report sexual assault at all, redirecting the conversation.

Another time, we were discussing Trump’s election campaign and the attacks he had been making against groups like immigrants and Muslims and one white student said she felt like the media had misrepresented his positions and unfairly villainized him. An LGBT student demanded to know if she was dismissing the fears of people like him, as well as immigrant and Latino students. Again, I intervened, this time before the Trump sympathizer could say something unintentionally insensitive and explosive. I stressed that people from different social backgrounds with different life experiences would have much different perspectives on issues like this and that her experience as a white person meant she wouldn’t see something the same way a (for instance) Latino immigrant would.

In both cases, I acted to shut down a line of discussion, seeking to redirect the conversation elsewhere–doing so more instinctively than anything else, since the situation did not allow time for mindful reflection before speaking. In both cases, looking back, I think shutting down the line of discussion in question was the right thing to do, because allowing it to roll forward could have created a hostile classroom atmosphere where students belonging to oppressed and marginalized groups felt silenced. As it was, I appeared to have done so skillfully enough that the students who I was cutting off did not feel silenced either, since they continued to speak up in class. But these incidents drove home to me the fact that there can be tensions between fostering dialogue and social justice.

This is hardly a challenge limited to the classroom. In talking with other practitioners in the Plum Village tradition, I have noticed a real difference between those who emphasize a path to a better world through dialogue and those who advocate a path through nonviolent but more confrontational social justice activism. And it’s a tension in the larger world of social justice activism and peace-building. A Jewish friend of mind who is involved in peace activism in Israel and Palestine, including efforts to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, has told me that many Palestinians have what she considers legitimate objections to engaging in dialogue at this historical juncture. While they do not oppose dialogue in principle, they oppose doing so now, while the Israeli occupation of Palestine is ongoing. They would, however, be interested in engaging in dialogue once the occupation is ended and some degree of equality has been achieved. But it’s difficult to have a meaningful dialogue when one party has their boot on the other’s neck, holding them down and silencing them. In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. describes how civil rights activists had tried engaging in dialogue with the business leaders of Birmingham to end segregation in city businesses, but these dialogues continually failed because the business leaders were personally committed to segregation, fearful of the negative impact ending the practice would have on their businesses, and unwilling to engage in dialogue in good faith, making promises they would then renege on. King notes that Birmingham’s business leaders only began to engage in meaningful dialogue leading to social change once civil rights activists had begun engaging in more confrontational actions, such as boycotts and protests that shut the entire city down, turning public spaces into chaotic battle zones between nonviolent protesters and attacking police. According to my Jewish peace activist friend, many Palestinians have been similarly dissatisfied with their experiences in engaging in dialogue with Israelis. In many cases, they feel like they achieved real understanding–but after the end of the dialogue, many Israelis would take no further steps to help the Palestinians end the occupation. As far as the Palestinians could tell, the dialogue had helped the Israelis salve their conscience, but without taking meaningful action. Dialogue is not always meaningful or fruitful, if the larger social causes and conditions are not right.

How then do we mindfully handle the tension between dialogue and fighting for social justice? In my classroom, I seek to decenter the experiences of those from privileged backgrounds, while making the experiences of those who are oppressed the center of discussion and inquiry. Decentering the experiences of the privileged doesn’t mean dismissing them or ignoring them, but instead not making them the focus of attention, as they so often are in mainstream political discourse. Instead, we concentrate on the experiences of members of oppressed and marginalized groups, trying to understand the social causes and conditions that foster their oppression and what that means for people’s lived experience. This creates room for members of these oppressed groups in my classroom to speak up–for African-Americans, for instance, to talk about being harassed as possible shop lifters by store employees when they are simply trying to shop or students who are undocumented immigrants to speak of their fears of deportation. It gives privileged students a chance to listen and begin to understand the experiences of others belonging to social groups from who they may have heard little from in the past. And these privileged students can join in the conversation as well. I am not silencing them, but I am also moving the class discussion away from focusing on them. I hope by doing this I can create a space of genuine dialogue that also fosters conditions of social justice.

What we should bare in mind here is the goal of our practice as engaged Buddhists. Neither dialogue nor activism are ends in themselves–instead, we are seeking to deepen our ability to cultivate understanding of others and to find skillful means for putting compassion into action and making the world a better place. Dialogue, if done skillfully, can be a powerful means to deepen our understanding of others, seeing more deeply why people believe what they believe and do what they do–thus better allowing us to foster more compassion for others, particularly those whose beliefs, words and actions we may initially have found difficult to understand and angering. The goal of challenging inequalities in power–whether in classroom discussions or by protesting in the streets–is to create a world based on more compassionate principles, where people treat each other with more fairness and respect. Dialogue and social justice activism are both skillful means to these ends. While there is a certain amount of tension between two in practice, I think rather than abandoning one for the other, we should embrace both, finding ways to make them complementary.

Matt Williams
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha
Chicago IL, USA





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