What If We All Got Along?(Take-Aways from What If at U of T)

Every month Hart House hosts a different What If conversation, an event that can be best described as an opportunity to hear eloquent, interesting speakers discussing a question that warrants further reflection. This month the question was “What If we all got along?” and the discussion panel featured Nouman Ashraf, a Research Fellow at the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking (and former Director of U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office) and Corey Scott, the VP External for UTSU, two highly articulate, thoughtful, interesting individuals that left me inspired to work harder at becoming someone who can think and communicate with precision and elegance.  After the event, the most common piece of feedback I heard was that audience members were impressed at their ability to think quickly and say so much without the ‘um’s and aahs” and general hesitation that normally accompanies speech. For those who couldn’t make it, here is a brief re-cap of the snippets that made it into my notebook. =)

Firstly, they spoke about the conditions of creating dialogue, with Nouman noting that

 First of all, we have to think, what is the value proposition of getting along? If this (Hart House) is a living, learning lab, we need to share space for dialogue and open, civil discourse. Not possible to always agree, but important to create that space and enable certain conditions for open discourse. This is not about getting along, it’s about shared intentionality, the ability of others to create shared intentions and joint endeavours. And so we have to think, what are the conditions for shared intentionality? Because it’s important to ask provocative questions and give assistance for that shared intentionality to occur. Agreement is setting the bar too low. It means we are just tolerating each other, but we need to be more robust, more authentic. We need to advocate for own views and inquire about others.

They  spoke about allegories of power, the possibilities and limitations of theory in trying to understand our world (As Corey said, “Butler is amazing, but theory has nothing in comparison to talking to someone from a different background”) and the power of sharing experiences. Nouman shared a story of people from different faith and philosophical backgrounds coming together to talk about food, and said that “assumptions of power can be challenged when share common experience. Common experiences may not lead to common conclusions, but it will be transformative”.

They also spoke about what extreme dissent is, with Nouman noting that “any discourse that breaches legal limits is off limits, though it’s difficult to talk about extremes without talking about the norm” and Corey noting that it is difficult to talk about legality because sometimes what is considered illegal in the present is viewed positively in hindsight (the Civil Rights movement was discussed as an example). Nouman spoke about  how “we need to reverse engineer what dissent looks like because innovation doesn’t just happen overnight”, and Corey noted that “we don’t often have owls (in reference to an earlier story) asking us why we’re upset about mobilizing. Most people are content to just watch news to give us its take on things.”

And finally, they left us with questions of our own. Nouman spoke about how we force-feed people our ideas, but we have to resist that itch for the health of the body, and asked:

“How do we actualize the potential on campus? What tools can we offer communities (note the plural) on campus? How do we cultivate genuine curiosity of others, instead of Othering others? You need to experience representation of self in positions of privilege in order to believe you can acquire them yourself.

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