Monday, November 14, 2016

The power of a question.

As I struggle this week to understand what could drive anyone to cast their vote for someone whose words and deeds I find so utterly toxic and dangerous, I have found this interview (conducted shortly before the election) with Kathy Cramer, a political scientist and author of The Politics of Resentment extremely illuminating:

Cramer conducted hours of interviews with rural voters in Wisconsin and what she found goes a long way toward explaining the results on Tuesday. It’s a nuanced and compelling argument that I won’t try to explain here (read the interview or, better yet, read her book). What it drove home for me, though, is that, no matter how well-intentioned, the tactics currently employed by those of us committed to challenging injustice, questioning privilege and empowering all people are only working to further alienate the people in Wisconsin Cramer interviewed. Something simply isn’t working and it’s not because most people in rural Wisconsin (or North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, or Florida or California) are racist.

I’m reminded of a story in The Children, David Halberstam’s account of the Nashville Student Movement of the 1960s:

At a lunch counter sit-in in Tennessee, James Lawson (by Halberstam’s account, a relatively unsung hero of the era) faces off with a white counter-protestor, who spits in his face. In response, Lawson quietly and calmly asks the man if he can borrow the man's bandana to wipe his face. Stunned, the man grants his request and soon finds himself in a pleasant conversation with Lawson about his love of motorcycles. 

Two things stand out to me about this account. First, Lawson was not passive in his response to injustice — he was actively engaged in civil disobedience aimed at dismantling the repressive and violent system of segregation. But the second thing that strikes me is that he was able to diffuse a potentially violent confrontation, not by telling the man that what he was doing wrong but by asking him a question, a question that reminded the man of his own capacity for kindness and generosity.

As an educator and a parent, I consciously and deliberately try to avoid the use of shame as a means of addressing  behavior. I say try because I’m sure that I’ve probably failed at this in both arenas numerous times. But I try very hard because everyone has that memory of a time when they were called out and shamed by a teacher. Those memories still burn years later, like radioactive fallout. Shame might work in the short term but it’s painful and, in the long run, it erodes trust and breeds resentment.

Instead, what I try to remember to do when I find myself in discord with my students or my children is to ask them a question. Questions are invitations for dialog. Questions create opportunities for me to listen. Questions allow me to discover the need underneath the behavior.

How do consciousness-raising efforts based on eliciting shame contribute to the perception that urban dwellers and educated elites do not respect their rural, working class fellow citizens?

How can questions reveal the concerns underlying the positions of those we disagree with so as to remind us both of our common humanity?

How can we use questions to reduce the number of unconscious actions that reinforce inequity?

How can we foster meaningful dialogue so as to bring about positive change in our culture?

For Cramer, this change can only come by "spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective." She concludes, “you can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment