We need to listen openly to everyone, even if we abhor their views, says Irshad Manji

Author Irshad Manji argues adversarial behaviour towards people you disagree with holds back social progress.

“When you are willing to hear, you, in turn, are more likely to be heard."

An anti-Trump protester (left) and a Trump supporter clash in Anaheim, California, in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Irshad Manji has a very poor view of the U.S. President.

"I despise the lack of character in President Donald Trump," she said.

Yet, when Manji got married to her wife Laura several years ago, one of the men who walked her down the aisle was a Trump-voting Republican.

It's the same man, in fact — a fellow named Jim — who introduced the couple in the first place.

"I had to be dragged to go see her kicking and screaming. I simply was not in any position for the emotional complexity of a romantic relationship," she said. "He looked at me and he said, 'well I'm not asking you to marry her.' And that's exactly what wound up happening."

Manji said her friendship with Jim reinforced her conviction to keep an open mind when engaging with people from across the political spectrum.

She says over the many years she's known Jim, she's come to understand that his political views are well-informed and not motivated by hate. 

"Though I strongly disagree with Jim's conclusions, I understand why he reaches those conclusions. I see that he's not insidious, he's not evil and, God knows, he's not ignorant."

And she values their discussions because they're open and respectful.

Irshad Manji is founded the Moral Courage Project at the University of Southern California. (Clement, Rene)

That message — that everyone along the political spectrum should tamp down their vitriol and engage others with compassion — is one of the takeaways from Manji's new book, Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times. Manji joined Mary Hynes, host of CBC Radio's Tapestry, to talk about the book and the experiences that motivated it. 

Being a gay Muslim, Manji is, herself, very familiar with what it's like to be judged by people who don't know her. She knows the attendant pain and alienation.

But she said Jim, too, sometimes contends with limiting assumptions, albeit of a very different nature. Like the accusations levelled at him by the children of family friends.

"They think that because he votes Republican he is all of the [...] things that so many people associate with being a Republican: misogynist, a racist, homophobe."

"It was clear to me [...] that really gut-punched him; that he felt so demeaned by having these things assumed about him … that he couldn't just shake it."

Manji said that kind of labelling often reinforces political divisions, entrenching people's views and increasing their acrimony.

A conversation about the Confederate flag

Manji said she saw a corollary of that lesson play out with a friend of hers, Genesis Be, a black activist and rapper originally from Mississippi, who now lives in New York City. For Manji, this anecdote shows how openness and understanding can form bridges between potential antagonists. 

In 2016, Genesis staged an anti-racism protest while performing a concert in New York. The protest was aimed, among other things, at the Mississippi state flag, which contains a small Confederate flag as part of its design.

While on stage, Genesis draped herself in a Confederate flag and put a noose around her neck.

"Many people took photos of that and of course those photos went viral and she got a gazillion death threats as a result," said Manji.

But among the violent messages, was one from a guy named Lewis, a white man Genesis had gone to school with as a kid, but had not seen in more than two decades.

Lewis, a descendant of a Confederate soldier, told Genesis that while he disagreed with her view of the flag, he also disagreed with the hate she was receiving.

The Mississippi state flag waves outside the state capitol building, in Jackson, MS. The flag has been the target of protests because of its inset Confederate flag. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Genesis sought out her old classmate for a conversation.

"She invited Lewis to her backyard and she sat down with him and poured him a glass of water ... a very hospitable thing to do in Southern culture," said Manji. "She asked him, 'how does the Mississippi state flag make you feel?'"

That question opened a discussion that fostered trust between the pair, said Manji. The result was that Lewis ended up realizing he cared more about Genesis than the flag.

"Over several more weeks Lewis realized that he actually doesn't need this flag to confirm his identity as the descendant of a Southern Civil War soldier."

A little while later, when Manji called Lewis to double check a detail for her book, he told he'd, "taken down his Mississippi state flag, he'd folded it up and put it away in a box entitled, 'things in my past.'"

For Manji, this story illustrates the necessity of openness in the face of those you disagree with.

While you may not be able to establish a productive and respectful connection with everyone, she said, you won't know unless you proceed with an open mind.

"When you are willing to hear, you, in turn, are more likely to be heard. And that is the simple, iron-clad law of human psychology."

Irshad Manji is a best-selling author and the founder of the Moral Courage Project at the University of Southern California.


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