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TED2018

Zachary R. Wood: Why it's worth listening to people you disagree with

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We get stronger, not weaker, by engaging with ideas and people we disagree with, says Zachary R. Wood. In an important talk about finding common ground, Wood makes the case that we can build empathy and gain understanding by engaging tactfully and thoughtfully with controversial ideas and unfamiliar perspectives. "Tuning out opposing viewpoints doesn't make them go away," Wood says. "To achieve progress in the face of adversity, we need a genuine commitment to gaining a deeper understanding of humanity."

- Crusader for dialogue
As the head of a student group called Uncomfortable Learning, Zachary R. Wood made a point of engaging in conversation with people he disagreed with. Full bio

In 1994,
00:14
Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein
coauthored "The Bell Curve,"
00:15
an extremely controversial book
00:20
which claims that on average,
00:22
some races are smarter
and more likely to succeed than others.
00:24
Murray and Herrnstein also suggest
00:28
that a lack of critical intelligence
explains the prominence of violent crime
00:30
in poor African-American communities.
00:35
But Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein
are not the only people who think this.
00:39
In 2012,
00:43
a writer, journalist and political
commentator named John Derbyshire
00:45
wrote an article that was supposed to be
a non-black version of the talk
00:49
that many black parents feel
they have to give their kids today:
00:54
advice on how to stay safe.
00:57
In it, he offered suggestions such as:
01:00
"Do not attend events
likely to draw a lot of blacks,"
01:03
"Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods"
01:07
and "Do not act the Good Samaritan
to blacks in distress."
01:09
And yet, in 2016,
I invited John Derbyshire
01:13
as well as Charles Murray
01:18
to speak at my school,
01:19
knowing full well that I would
be giving them a platform and attention
01:21
for ideas that I despised and rejected.
01:26
But this is just a further evolution
01:30
of a journey of uncomfortable learning
throughout my life.
01:33
When I was 10 years old, my mother
was diagnosed with schizophrenia,
01:37
a mental illness characterized
by mood swings and paranoid delusions.
01:42
Throughout my life, my mother's rage
would turn our small house
01:47
into a minefield.
01:51
Yet, though I feared
her rage on a daily basis,
01:54
I also learned so much from her.
01:57
Our relationship was complicated
and challenging,
02:00
and at the age of 14, it was decided
that I needed to live apart from her.
02:05
But over the years,
02:12
I've come to appreciate
some of the important lessons
02:13
my mother taught me about life.
02:16
She was the first person who spoke to me
about learning from the other side.
02:18
And she, like me, was born and raised
02:24
in a family of committed
liberal democrats.
02:27
Yet, she encouraged me to see the world
and the issues our world faces
02:30
as complex, controversial
and ever-changing.
02:34
One day, I came across
the phrase "affirmative action"
02:40
in a book I was reading.
02:42
And when I asked her what the term meant,
02:45
she spent what felt like an hour
02:48
giving me a thorough
and thoughtful explanation
02:50
that would make sense to a small child.
02:52
She even made the topic sound
at least as interesting
02:54
as any of my professors have.
02:58
She explained the many reasons
why people of various political views
03:01
challenge and support affirmative action,
03:05
stressing that, while she strongly
supported it herself,
03:07
it was important for me to view the issue
as a controversial one
03:11
with a long history,
03:15
a questionable future
03:17
and a host of complicating factors.
03:19
While affirmative action can increase
the presence of minorities
03:22
at elite educational institutions,
03:26
she felt that it could also disadvantage
hardworking people of different races
03:28
from more affluent backgrounds.
03:33
My mom wanted me to understand
03:37
that I should never
just write off opinions
03:41
that I disagreed with or disliked,
03:43
because there was always something
to learn from the perspectives of others,
03:46
even when doing so might be difficult.
03:50
But life at home with my mom
03:53
was not the only aspect of my journey
that has been formative and uncomfortable.
03:56
In fourth grade, she decided
that I should attend a private school
04:01
in order to receive
the best education possible.
04:05
As a black student attending
predominantly white private schools,
04:08
I've encountered attitudes and behaviors
that reflected racial stereotypes.
04:12
Several of my friends' parents
assumed within minutes of meeting me
04:17
that my best skill was playing basketball.
04:21
And it really upset me to think
that my race made it harder for them
04:25
to see me as a student who loved
reading, writing and speaking.
04:28
Experiences like this motivated me
to work tirelessly
04:32
to disprove what I knew
people had assumed.
04:38
My mother even said that,
in order to put my best foot forward,
04:42
I had to be patient, alert
and excruciatingly well-mannered.
04:46
To prove that I belonged,
I had to show poise and confidence,
04:50
the ability to speak well
and listen closely.
04:54
Only then would my peers see
that I deserved to be there
04:57
as much as they did.
05:00
Despite this racial stereotyping
and the discomfort I often felt,
05:02
the learning I gained from other aspects
of being at an elite private school
05:07
were incredibly valuable.
05:11
I was encouraged by my teachers
to explore my curiosity,
05:14
to challenge myself in new ways
05:18
and to deepen my understanding
of subjects that fascinated me the most.
05:20
And going to college was the next step.
05:26
I was excited to take my intellectual
drive and interest in the world of ideas
05:30
to the next level.
05:33
I was eager to engage in lively debate
with peers and professors
05:35
and with outside speakers;
05:40
to listen, to learn and gain
a deeper understanding of myself
05:42
and of others.
05:46
While I was fortunate to meet
peers and professors
05:48
who were interested
in doing the same thing,
05:51
my desire to engage with difficult ideas
was also met with resistance.
05:54
To prepare myself to engage
with controversy in the real world,
06:00
I joined a group that brought
controversial speakers to campus.
06:05
But many people fiercely
opposed this group,
06:09
and I received significant pushback
06:12
from students, faculty
and my administration.
06:14
For many, it was difficult to see
06:20
how bringing controversial
speakers to campus could be valuable,
06:23
when they caused harm.
06:26
And it was disappointing to me
facing personal attacks,
06:28
having my administration cancel speakers
06:32
and hearing my intentions
distorted by those around me.
06:34
My work also hurt the feelings of many,
06:39
and I understood that.
06:42
Of course, no one likes being offended,
06:45
and I certainly don't like hearing
controversial speakers
06:47
argue that feminism has become
a war against men
06:50
or that blacks have lower IQs than whites.
06:54
I also understand
06:57
that some people have experienced
traumatic experiences in their lives.
06:59
And for some, listening to offensive views
07:05
can be like reliving the very traumas
that they've worked so hard to overcome.
07:08
Many argue that by giving
these people a platform,
07:13
you're doing more harm than good,
07:16
and I'm reminded of this every time
I listen to these points of view
07:18
and feel my stomach turn.
07:22
Yet, tuning out opposing viewpoints
doesn't make them go away,
07:25
because millions of people
agree with them.
07:28
In order to understand
the potential of society
07:31
to progress forward,
07:33
we need to understand the counterforces.
07:35
By engaging with controversial
and offensive ideas,
07:39
I believe that we can find common ground,
07:43
if not with the speakers themselves,
07:46
then with the audiences
they may attract or indoctrinate.
07:49
Through engaging, I believe
that we may reach a better understanding,
07:53
a deeper understanding,
07:58
of our own beliefs
08:00
and preserve the ability
to solve problems,
08:01
which we can't do
if we don't talk to each other
08:05
and make an effort to be good listeners.
08:08
But soon after I announced
08:12
that John Derbyshire
would be speaking on campus,
08:13
student backlash erupted on social media.
08:16
The tide of resistance,
in fact, was so intense,
08:19
that my college president
rescinded the invitation.
08:22
I was deeply disappointed by this
because, as I saw it,
08:25
there would be nothing
that any of my peers or I could do
08:28
to silence someone who agreed with him
08:32
in the office environment
of our future employers.
08:34
I look out at what's happening
on college campuses,
08:38
and I see the anger.
08:41
And I get it.
08:42
But what I wish I could tell people
is that it's worth the discomfort,
08:44
it's worth listening,
08:48
and that we're stronger,
not weaker, because of it.
08:49
When I think about my experiences
with uncomfortable learning,
08:54
and I reflect upon them,
08:59
I've found that it's been very difficult
to change the values
09:02
of the intellectual community
that I've been a part of.
09:06
But I do feel a sense of hope
09:10
when I think about the individual
interactions that I've been able to have
09:12
with students who both support
the work that I'm doing
09:15
and who feel challenged by it
and who do not support it.
09:18
What I've found is that,
09:23
while it can be difficult to change
the values of a community,
09:24
we can gain a lot
from individual interactions.
09:27
While I didn't get to engage
with John Derbyshire
09:31
due to my president's disinvitation,
09:34
I was able to have dinner
with Charles Murray before his talk.
09:36
I knew the conversation
would be difficult.
09:42
And I didn't expect it to be pleasant.
09:44
But it was cordial, and I did gain
a deeper understanding of his arguments.
09:47
I found that he, like me,
believed in creating a more just society.
09:53
The thing is, his understanding
of what justice entailed
09:58
was very different from my own.
10:02
The way in which he wanted
to understand the issue,
10:04
the way in which he wanted
to approach the issue of inequality
10:07
also differed from my own.
10:10
And I found that his understanding
of issues like welfare
10:12
and affirmative action
10:15
was tied and deeply rooted
10:17
in his understanding of various
libertarian and conservative beliefs,
10:19
what diminishes and increases
their presence in our society.
10:23
While he expressed
his viewpoints eloquently,
10:27
I remained thoroughly unconvinced.
10:30
But I did walk away
with a deeper understanding.
10:32
It's my belief
10:36
that to achieve progress
in the face of adversity,
10:39
we need a genuine commitment
10:43
to gaining a deeper
understanding of humanity.
10:46
I'd like to see a world with more leaders
10:50
who are familiar with
the depths of the views
10:52
of those they deeply disagree with,
10:54
so that they can understand the nuances
of everyone they're representing.
10:58
I see this as an ongoing process
involving constant learning,
11:03
and I'm confident that I'll be able
to add value down the line
11:07
if I continue building empathy
and understanding
11:11
through engaging
with unfamiliar perspectives.
11:13
Thank you.
11:16
(Applause)
11:17

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About the speaker:

Zachary R. Wood - Crusader for dialogue
As the head of a student group called Uncomfortable Learning, Zachary R. Wood made a point of engaging in conversation with people he disagreed with.

Why you should listen

Zachary R. Wood wants to encourage open conversations about hard topics. He is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal and a class of 2018 graduate of Williams College, where he served as president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that sparked national controversy for inviting provocative speakers to campus, from John Derbyshire to Charles Murray. Wood's defense of such conversations led him to give Senate testimony in the summer of 2017.

His recent writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Jet and SLAM Magazine. In 2018, he'll publish Uncensored, a book that tells his own personal story to enrich and deepen his work as an advocate for difficult conversations. You can reach him at zachwood2448@gmail.com.

More profile about the speaker
Zachary R. Wood | Speaker | TED.com