Confessions of a Cynic

By: Claudia Winkler

July 10, 2019

“I’m off to do some trust falls,” I joked to my colleagues as I headed off to participate in a two-day workshop on intergroup dialogue (IGD). To say I was skeptical of what would come out of this experience is a huge understatement.

When I arrived, I found myself surrounded by mostly unfamiliar Georgetown colleagues from across a range of centers and departments—everyone exceedingly friendly, many familiar with the types of conversations that lay ahead of us. The gathering was the 2019 Doyle Symposium, this year structured as a workshop led by University of Michigan IGD specialists Charles Behling and Scott Hwang. The day started off innocuously enough with an exercise on defining the differences between dialogue, discussion, and debate.

Things got interesting in the afternoon when we were invited to share our culture boxes with our table. “Getting ready for adult show and tell,” read my text to a colleague. That morning I’d hastily grabbed a plastic lei of German flag-colored flowers and a baby bottle to symbolize my social identities as first-generation German-American and mother. I failed to identify the third object requested of me for this exercise because I couldn’t really be bothered to put that much thought into it. 

We started going around the circle, with complete strangers sharing with me familial struggles and formative experiences that led to or broke down prejudices. “These are all such good stories—people clearly put a lot of thought into this,” I reflected, and I started panicking about what I would say. Suddenly, I was up, and out came a flood of commentary on my German heritage but also on life paths not chosen, my simultaneous delight and sadness about being a mother, and other deeply personal feelings. There we were: four of six of us the direct descendants of immigrants, three of us working mothers, all of us working through expectations and worldviews passed on to us by our parents. It was therapeutic and strange and encouraging all at once.

Other parts of the two-day workshop were also notable. An exercise where we had to talk about the ways in which we were discriminated against and discriminated against others was uncomfortable, but led to new insights. As many other participants observed, it was so much easier to think of times I was discriminated against (for being a woman, mostly) than when I discriminated against others. 

But here’s the thing I didn’t say aloud: The reason I had a hard time thinking of specific examples of when I discriminated against others was because I realized it happened so often, really, mostly in little everyday ways: that flash of fear when I see a nonwhite man behind me on the sidewalk at night, or those times that I’m corresponding with someone with a non-Western name and can’t be bothered to look up the cultural standard for addressing them because it’s just too much effort. My participation in perpetuating forms of injustice is there. Every. Single. Day. 

In short, there were a lot of surprising moments in the two days. I shared and connected with people on things that I haven’t shared with some of the people closest to me. I realized how complicit a “good person” can be in upholding an evil system. That’s not bad for two days’ work, and I can imagine you establish far more trust and get much deeper into challenging issues with a semester-long course that incorporates IGD.

That said, I must return to my cynical posture to voice the nagging questions I had at the workshop. The main one was: How do you bring the people who really need to be talking to each other into this kind of dialogue? How do you get people talking across major divides? I think as a society, and even just at Georgetown University, we really need to work toward fostering dialogue among people who, in a sense, don’t want to talk to each other anymore—who think they have so little in common with others (often political others) that they don’t even know how to begin a conversation, much less envision forming bonds, finding commonalities, and learning from each other. 

And to be clear, I mean that in all directions. In fact, often in the university setting, I think liberals are so convinced of their own righteousness that they (we) are some of worst offenders in thinking we have nothing more to learn. Meanwhile, in broader (political) society, people across the political spectrum often outright dehumanize those who don’t agree with them. That is terrifying and exceedingly dangerous for the health of our democracy.

Based on my experience at this workshop, I do think IGD is precisely the kind of pedagogical tool that could serve to bridge these gaps and teach people to empathize and find their shared humanity, but how do you implement IGD or similar techniques on a large scale in a university setting? 

That’s the challenge that lies ahead for my colleagues at the workshop, so many of whom are fighting in their own way every day to get us just a little closer to truly living out our commitment to justice and the common good and to honoring our founding principle “that serious and sustained discourse among people of different faiths, cultures, and beliefs promotes intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding.”

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