Episode 1: Dialogue Across Difference

In our first episode, we explored the foundations of dialogue across difference. Our expert for the episode is Tarah Trueblood, the Director of the Center for American and World Cultures. Tarah discussed the context for the divisive and polarized landscape of our nation and provided several tips about how to ready yourself to engage or create spaces to have dialogue with people who have different identities or hold different beliefs. This was followed by a conversation with two students that discussed the barriers students face in engaging in dialogue across difference and why it is so important to push through the discomfort.

Listen Now

Segment takeaways

  • Takeaway #1: Check in to see if you are willing to make mistakes.
  • Takeaway #2: Seek out spaces where you can make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Takeaway #3: Make sure you know the difference between your learning zone and your danger zone
  • Takeaway #4: Call people in and affirm the person but challenge the ideas

Episode transcript

Kimberly Moore: Hello, I'm Kimberly Moore, Dean of Students.

Jessica von Zastrow: And I'm Jessica von Zastrow, the current student body vice president and

Kimberly Moore and Jessica von Zastrow: We need to talk.

Kimberly Moore: This is the first episode of the "We Need to Talk" podcast, a collaboration between the Dean of Students Office and Associated Student Government. In this episode, we have several incredible guests here to talk about dialogue across difference. Our expert for the day is Tarah Trueblood the director of the Center for American and World Cultures. Tarah will discuss the context for the divisive and polarized landscape of our nation and provide several tips about how to ready yourself, engage or create spaces and have dialogue with people who have different identities or have different beliefs. This will be followed by a conversation with two students: Brandon Small, ASG Secretary for Diversity and Inclusion, and Taylor Armstrong, the current president of the College Republicans. These two students will discuss the barriers students face in engaging dialogue across difference and why it's so important to push through this discomfort.

Tarah Trueblood: I'm Tarah Trueblood and I'm the director of the Center for American World Cultures and that's part of Global Initiatives. But I started off at University of California Berkeley and that's where I fell in love with the process of helping people to acquire some skills and some confidence to dialogue across significant differences.

Kimberly Moore: Thank you, Tarah. We're excited to have you.

Tarah Trueblood: Thank you.

Kimberly Moore: We'll just jump right in and ask you our first question which is from your perspective how have we arrived at our current polarized state of dialogue in the country and how do you think it specifically impacts college students?

Tarah Trueblood: Such a great question. Nationally we are, as you said, heavily divided. And I think there are going to be people doing studies about why this is for decades to come. And so I'm not sure that my limited insight would be helpful. But what I will say is that college campuses reflect what's happening nationally and that's a deep political divide and increasing distrust. And so there are a number of things that you can point to about that. But I think the political system has broken down. And so the rest of the country is kind of caught up in that and, like you said, on college campuses, this is a place where traditionally students have made a difference and started great social movements. And so I think students have great ideas and so they need to be empowered to put those into action and resource to do that. So, there was a study and the study found that college students are more politically divided than ever in our history. And so we are reflecting the national culture of division. So I'm not sure all of the reasons, but I know that the political system had some changes in it. I know that we are now the most racially and religiously diverse in our history. And I think that challenges some of the fundamental teachings that we have had as a country and so I think wearing down some of those old and insisting biases and prejudice is causing reactions among people. So I think rather than be afraid of these changes, we need to, you know, lean in and one of the things we talk about in intergroup dialogue is leaning into the discomfort because when we're comfortable we're not learning. So we have to lean in in order to learn and grow. And then build bridges across these deep, deep divides.

Kimberly Moore: Absolutely. I think there's this idea where the concept of safety has evolved as our political landscape has evolved. So over time safety was about a physical safety. But now the conversation is very much about psychosocial safety and sharing an opinion or an idea that could perceived as controversial or even just different than the sort of mainstream accepted view can intimidate folks into silence.

Jessica von Zastrow: Coming back to that idea, what does safety look like for us? And feeling comfort is where we want to be but we're not growing when we're comfortable. I think it's interesting because when we surround ourselves with people who hold the same identities and beliefs as ourselves we're not even exposed to people who have different views. I guess my question for you is how can we encourage individuals to have discussions with people who do hold different beliefs than their own?

Tarah Trueblood: That's a great question. A couple of things. One is that the human spirit really does want to be connected. And so we have that going for us. That we really do want to belong and to be connected with one another. So that means there are some terrible obstacles in our way that are keeping us back. I think this cancel culture is one. This need for some kind of safety and social media has given people one way to connect but it's no substitute for us being present to one another in a deep and profound way.

So how do we create that sense of safety? Because so often when we think about people having a different opinion we immediately think it's going to end up in a debate. And in a debate you can feel how your body is closing and clenching up and so we become naturally very defensive.

So, what we need to be intentional about the kinds of relationships that we want to have. This is when we get started in intergroup dialogue we learn there's a difference between debate, discussion and dialogue. If you want to have a debate, let's agree to have a debate. If not, let's choose a different one and then act accordingly. So, classrooms are a great way for people to engage in a discussion. It invites people in. It does invite different opinions. The one thing it doesn't do, though, is acknowledge people's deep feelings. So when you think of dialogue you're inviting our vulnerability, our emotions into the room in a way that is going to be respectful. And it's uncomfortable. I mean we have to lean into that until we gain some skills. So the other thing that inter dialogue does is it helps us be intentional about the type of environment we want to be in. Do we want to be in debate, discussion or dialogue?

And the other one is how do we have some skills to actually listen. We can challenge one another on our ideas while we affirm the humanity and we connect at that level. So once we build that kind of safety we're much more willing to be vulnerable.

Kimberly Moore: I love that. And how do you think that skill is developed for our college students?
What kind of opportunities? It doesn't necessarily have to be in a formal setting where they're learning and being formally trained on this. Do you think that social media has truncated the organic and natural spaces and places where students learn that skill earlier on in life?

Tarah Trueblood: Yeah, I think there's some research that's going to happen here when I compare college students to people out in the community. I realize students are not worse off than people in the community in terms of knowing how to have a meaningful and deep conversation across difference.

But I wonder if students are less willing than they have been in the past because of that substitute. So I think social media is great in a lot of ways and I would never pretend that we would be better off without it. It's a good question is do we reach for our phone rather than reach for a hand? And I think just the practice of reaching for the hand will make it a habit.

And then our comfort zone which is, you know, pretty small, we can actually grow our comfort zone. And we'll learn much more about our own values and beliefs by speaking with people who have a difference of opinion of beliefs. I know myself better by being around people who have challenged me in a positive and affirming way.

Jessica von Zastrow: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. Because there has been this loss of connection when we are in that social media space because all of a sudden when you're reacting to someone you're not reacting to a person, you're reacting to a screen. I can definitely see how that creates a disconnect and creates this lack of willingness to listen to the other side and to learn about what their view is and to respect their beliefs even if they may vary from your own.

How do you balance approaching dialogue from a place of openness and wanting to learn versus expecting others to teach you?

Tarah Trueblood: Yeah, that's a great question. Unfortunately, it falls on people who are already in the minority to educate people in a majority identity, for example.

So, I think the big one here is race. People who look like me and since you can't see me I'm white, often expect the people of color around them to educate them on racism. That is an enormous burden on people who are already in the minority in terms of numbers around us. We do learn from each other, we learn tremendous amounts from people who are different and people who are minoritized but we have to take on the obligation of educating ourselves before we can be developed enough to ask someone else about their experience as a person who's been marginalized. In a group dialogue works best for those who are eager to learn and willing to teach. But that means all of us are teachers and all of us are learners. We co learn. So, if you're in a room and one group is demanding that another group educate them, that's not very reciprocal. That's not mutually valuable. And so learning how to ask affirming questions and to be reciprocal in a relationship is one of the skills that we learn.

Kimberly Moore: I absolutely think it's also part of having an openness to experiencing something different. You were talking about it earlier about all of this requires some discomfort and having an openness to stepping into spaces and places that embrace and demonstrate the richness of our diverse society and our diverse communities is so important. So I think that's another dimension of what maybe our students can do.

So, so often our students hear the message of don't do this. So we started talking about it. But what are some things students should be doing to co exist in a world of difference and potential disagreement to foster respectful dialogue?

Tarah Trueblood: Yeah, the willingness to step out of our comfort zone, I think, is the most important thing. But another one that really is hard, especially for people who look like me is there's this fragility around our identity. So as a white person I can be very sensitive to being told that I'm racist or that I've said something that's racist. And so my defense goes up and that means that the barriers are up. We are not going to be able to have an authentic dialogue or it's going to be very hard or I'm going to shift a lot of the work onto the other person.

So being willing to make mistake, that's a gold mine. So knowing that something is uncomfortable and deciding that it's a good decision to do it anyway, don't want to put yourself in harm or expand yourself beyond your learning zone so that you're in the danger zone. And we help students recognize what zone are you in and are you being intentional about being in that zone? The comfort zone, the learning zone, and the danger zone. Where are you on different topics and issues? And if you're not learning zone are you willing to lean in there? But be responsible for yourself and know who you are and where your danger zone is because you need to respect that because we can't learn and grow in the danger zone.

And we do exercises with students around all kinds of issues like how would you feel going to a mosque? Would you be in your comfort zone or your learning zone or your danger zone? Or how would you feel if you were pulled over by a police officer in an urban neighborhood? Different people have very different experiences around that.

So, being willing to lean into your discomfort when it makes sense to do so, being willing to make mistakes and, instead of calling people out we need to practice calling people in. So in a way that's affirming to say to folks, you know, I'm not sure I agree with that but I can tell you've been thinking about it and I really appreciate that. Here's my take on it. So you've introduced a different perspective. How do we introduce other perspectives in a way that's not shaming people? Where we can make mistakes that are good mistakes that lead us to learning?

Kimberly Moore: That comes up a lot in the conversations I have with students. They don't even want to start the conversation because they're afraid of making a mistake. They don't want to hurt somebody. The intent is good. But so often in today's climate, intent doesn't matter, right? Here we're just talking about we want to encourage students to lean into that fear a little bit. There's discomfort and then there's pain, right, as you categorized. And as long as you're in that zone it really would produce growth and development versus shutting down. But I think right now a phenomenon from my perspective is that students, they're to reluctant step into that space to begin with. How do we get them in the space?

Tarah Trueblood: At least from my perspective the more people have the opportunity to try it, the more willing they will be to do it in the future too. So setting students up to have a good first experience around it will lead to the next good experience. So I think as faculty and staff and even other students is how do we create a space where people can come in and reach for the hand instead of the phone. So do we set out some guidelines for us? How are we going to be together? How are we going to create a community? How are we going to foster a culture of dialogue rather than a cancel culture?

One of the things we do is ask people what do you need to be vulnerable and ask people about things, what kind of guidelines do we need to set for one another? After we agree to those we can amend them from time to time as we need. We started on a platform that is an aware one. We're not just blundering in business as usual because things will just continue if we don't say right up front let's do something different. How do we give ourselves permission to make mistakes?

We really need to make mistakes. We need to say, oh, wow that was a mistake. Look what I learn from that. Wow, I'll not make it again. And I'm sorry, I did hurt people around me and I realized in my unawareness that I was hurtful. But I learned a lot. I appreciate it. We just need to be comfortable making mistakes.

Jessica von Zastrow: Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a really, really great conversation.

Taylor Armstrong: Well, hello, everybody, my name is Taylor Armstrong. I'm a junior political science major. I serve as the chairman of the Miami University College Republicans. I also serve at the state level for the Ohio College Republican Federation as their vice chairman. I also serve in the office of Institutional Relations with Mr. Randi Thomas; I serve as deputy chief staff and we work with the government relations networks and the activities that they get us involved in semesterly, especially furthering cause of the University at the state level.

Brandon Small: My name is Brandon Small. I am a second semester senior here at Miami. I'm from Columbus, Ohio and on campus I have served as ASG's Secretary for Diversity and Inclusion for the past two years. I've also been involved with organizations like the Diversity Affairs Council for the past three years, loosely involved with the College Democrats and I also serve as president of Soul to Soul acapella which has been fun.

Kimberly Moore: Thanks to both of you for being here and part of our inaugural episode of our podcast. So really appreciate it. So really the first question is, you know, why do you think dialogue across difference is important or not important? So do you think dialogue across difference is important? If so why, if not why, why?

Brandon Small: I assume that Taylor and I would both agree this is an important thing. Especially as somebody who has advocated for people from marginalized identity groups. Existing in a predominantly white and privileged space like Miami I've had so many conversations with people who said they've either never had a friend of color or didn't meet anybody of color until they came here. I think that as Miami is a liberal education institution one of our priorities must be equipping our students with the resources to be able to navigate in an increasingly multicultural world. I think part of that sort of necessitates us to have dialogue across difference.

Taylor Armstrong: Yeah, I mean, dialogue is an important facet of what makes college what it's all about, you know. You're supposed to come to college to not only have your ideas challenged but help challenge the ideas of others as well. That's how we learn and grow.

I come from an area, frankly, where yeah, it might not be the most diverse area but we understand we look at everybody as a person first regardless of view, regardless of their background, we look at them as people. Things like these, especially in a very politically tense and frankly a very politically polarized time that these types of activities where we're having open, respectful dialogue is crucial to just building back to where we're able to have conversations without having to demonize the other side or think ill of the other people.

I make clear especially as the leader of a political organization to a lot of our members is the fact that we have to understand that our views are not fact, sometime, they are indeed opinion. And there are other opinions out there. But the best way to navigate an environment where there are different opinions is by respecting those opinions, respecting the people who are giving those other opinions and that's how we're better able to work together to at the end of the day, further a place like Miami, Ohio and across the country.

Jessica von Zastrow: Yeah, you both spoke to the fact that dialogue across these differences is important. And it's part of the college experience and learning about people who come from different backgrounds than your own.

And yet despite the fact that both of you agree, dialogue across these differences is important, it's sometimes difficult to have these conversations. And so I want to ask both of you what do you find difficult about having dialogue across differences and why is this challenging? And then kind of building off of that, what can we do to get students into that learning zone that Tarah spoke about in her segment?

Taylor Armstrong: I think the difficult part is, especially right now, is being afraid of for lack of a better term getting called out. You know what I'm saying? Being very uncomfortable coming out with a view that you might have a pretty darn good idea is not going to be well received. And I think that plays a role in why we go to our respective camps to echo chambers where basically the opinion and the general consensus is all the same instead of throwing ourselves in situations where we would want our opinions and beliefs to be challenged a little bit. I think that's the biggest reason why we're seeing a lot of the division and a lot of the just lack of decent conversation is because we automatically go into it, you know, someone might think 'oh, she's thinking that, he's thinking that, I better make sure I say something the way that, you know, doesn't make me feel uncomfortable or make them feel uncomfortable'.

I think it's a better idea that when we have spaces like these, that everyone comes out and says, you know, we're here for respectful conversation. We're not going to take offense to anything. I think right now speaking from a political aspect, you know, being the head of a political organization, it's tough sometimes to have conversations when the other side when we go on twitter and social media and there's some pretty disrespectful and frankly just immature conversations that happen on that side. I think some people unnecessarily transfer that to things like this. And that's not how it's supposed to be. And I think we need to get back to the fact that we might disagree but that does not necessarily mean that dissent qualifies to think any lesser of the person who might be speaking a different opinion or coming from a different background and explaining their perspective on things based upon that.

Brandon Small: I think Taylor hit it right on the head when he, you know, labeled our current cultural situation as polarized. And I think that Tarah hit it on the head as well for sure when she called for a willingness to be wrong. The difficult thing for people to understand is that words have disproportionate effects on various communities. Whereas an opinion that I might disagree with to me might actively whether intentional or unintentional contribute to the marginalization of a specific community. I see that a lot with ableist language, a lot with xenophobic language.

While I do disagree with the general idea of cancel culture in the sense its tendency to discourage conversation and dialogue, I also feel we're in a really interesting moment right now where particularly the younger generation is starting to wake up to the festering underlying intolerances that have been normalized within our culture. And we're becoming increasingly discontent with that. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing for those things to be called out in the same way that we have to be willing to be incorrect and to be challenged, I think that we need to support, I think, a willingness to call things out when things are actively harming other people. However, with that being said, I do think that there are better ways to go about it than personally attacking people, saying mean things on social media, etc., etc., but I don't necessarily see anything too harmful with the idea that we should be able to call things out when they are unjust.

Kimberly Moore: Brandon, it's interesting. You point out a nuance between call out culture and cancel culture. You are creating a nuance there that I think is a really important nuance. So you're saying you shouldn't just ignore things that happen that continue to marginalize, marginalized populations. But you're also saying that cancel culture is something that can be harmful and unnecessary.

Do you think college students are censoring or silencing themselves or limiting their opportunities to engage with peers because they're afraid of the call out or cancel?

Brandon: I do. It's a very difficult thing. Because on the one hand the entire point of attending university is to learn and to receive an education. I think that that happens both in and outside of the classroom. I think when we participate in cancel culture we inherently detract from opportunities to experience those things. However, with that being said, at least for myself it's becoming increasingly difficult to be tolerant to intolerance. I mean we saw a lot with this summer. A lot of people were getting quote, unquote, canceled for things that they said. I think that while cancel culture can be really destructive to careers and personal opportunities to grow and can fester resentment that maybe was previously unintentional or unconscious bias, especially on a college campus, part of that educational experience at least for me was to learn how to respectfully call things out when they were unjust.

Taylor Armstrong: I completely agree with that. There is a huge problem in terms from younger generations as Brandon alluded to with the ability to articulate where they stand. Because if you're not able to properly articulate it might be taken away from others who might think it is an intolerant use of opinion or speech, you know, when, in fact, that's not their intention. They're just trying to frame their argument. Basically the idea that they're not explaining it very well to the point that people are making bad conclusions or drawing the wrong conclusions. And I think part of the reason and because of that is inherent fear from some that they want to speak out or they want to talk about a certain issue. It boils down to the fact that people need to realize that it's not always black and white learning how to articulate your stance on things is important especially when trying to figure out that not everything is either good or bad.

Part of the reason why we need to get back to a respectful dialogue is that people can learn to better articulate where they stand without being able to prevent others from drawing the wrong conclusions and causing a little more tension because of that.

Jessica von Zastrow: I think it's interesting because both you and Brandon touched on something that I think is really important which is that students are still at a learning point where they're trying to figure out and verbalize what their views and what their beliefs are. And that happens best through having conversations and having dialogue with those people that have different positions than your own. And so a fundamental part of the student experience is to question and inquire to pursue truth and knowledge to form a position and a viewpoint and then to test it through those conversations and through that discourse. But do you feel like that's happening? Are those late night debates happening on campus? Or are you sitting down with someone at the dining hall and having the conversations? Is that discourse happening that's necessary for students to gain that experience and hear from people with different beliefs?

Brandon Small: I don't think that it's happening. And I think part of the reason why it's not is because we're sort of at a point right now where those conservations become uncomfortable and people avoid talking about anything controversial especially with their close friends because they're unwilling to potentially negatively impact their interpersonal relationships.

I do want to say also under that same lens I do think that one thing I'm struggling to come to terms with with this conversation is the idea that this is an intersectional issue. I think if we had the answers of how we can all engage in civil discourse peacefully and efficiently I think we wouldn't need to have this conversation. I think it's really difficult to answer. You see it especially with conversations about race, conversations about gender. These are things that I see a level of defensiveness when these sort of issues are raised. For example, if I were to explain how we still live under a system of institutionalized racism to a privileged white person a lot of those conversations that I've had and this is just my own lived experience and a lot of those conversations people get defensive and they want to say I don't have a hand in that. And I think that speaking more broadly if what we are seeking is to engage in peaceful discourse in which we are all able to learn and grow from one another we have to remove those walls and be able to accept our whether it be complicitness or whether it be our ignorance to certain topics. I think we're in an era right now where if you don't have all of the answers you're sort of looked down upon. I think that's one thing we need to fundamentally change and sort of reimagine within our current culture.

Taylor Armstrong: And to the same question. I certainly think what you described, Jessica, is not happening enough, if you know what I'm saying. I'm not saying it's not happening at all. But it's certainly not happening to where it probably needs to be. And to Brandon's point especially, from my perspective I like solutions, I like results kind of oriented especially in conversation. Where getting to point A to point B, basically. I've had conversations with friends of mine of color who frankly I asked them I don't know what you've had to go through, I don't know what that implies for you, help me understand. And then based upon that tell me what needs to happen based upon what you know and maybe I can help contribute to something and you can help contribute something to me as well to where we can say okay, this is where we need to go, this is how we do it. The way I put that is I think the problem right now having discourse not only should be an opportunity to discuss what problems there are whether you think they're a problem or not. But also what possible solutions and talking about what we could do to address those problems. And I think that's another huge facet not only here at Miami but across the country and in our political discourse and our civil discourse is that we are too interested in talking about problems but not interested enough in talking about the solutions or those potential solutions to those problems based upon the backgrounds, where we come from, and other aspects of who we are in terms of articulating our stances on things.

Kimberly Moore: I think it goes back to what Tarah advised us and this ability to create spaces where individuals can make mistakes and get a little bit out of their comfort zone, right? Get uncomfortable as Brandon had said, enough to move into that learning zone, right? And so I think that's really the idea is to, you know, we named it. Students are afraid to make mistakes, students are afraid to get called out, students are afraid to get canceled. But we need students to be unafraid to be uncomfortable. And I think that's ultimately the goal.

Jessica von Zastrow: Thank you to all of our guests for taking the time to be part of this conversation. So let's recap some of the key takeaways that Tarah talked about in her segment.

Takeaway number one: check in to see if you're willing to make mistakes. Takeaway number two: seek out spaces where you can make mistakes and learn from them. Takeaway number three: make sure you know the difference between your learning zone and your danger zone. And lastly takeaway number four: call people in and affirm the person that challenged the idea.

Thank you for listening.