Learning From Conflict: How Compassionate Dialogue Can Transform Higher Education
Conflict is ingrained into the soul of higher education. Nurturing a civic imagination in students requires the friction of ideas pushing against one another to see which will hold out and which will crumble. Still, long-term discord can rear its head on campuses when students lack the skills to navigate conflict in emotionally satisfying ways. There's a piece I constantly revisit by abolitionist and conflict manager adrienne maree brown in which she explains the urgent need for us to engage in "principled struggle" in the face of conflict. She says, "principled struggle offers us another way, a way to struggle in which we are not being conflict avoidant, or conflict aggressive, but rather engaging in generative conflict, conflict that grows each of us and that creates more possibilities for what we can do in the world together." She calls for us to seek deeper understanding before responding and be honest, direct, compassionate, and accountable for our own feelings and actions in the process.
However, much of the way my generation engages in conflict proliferates differences instead of resolving them. In challenging moments, we often default to tactics that deepen divides and lessen understanding. Knee-jerk callouts, teardowns, and clap backs obstruct our ability to work as a collective. We can't determine what strategies will lead to resolution, so we let our emotions take the wheel, causing further damage. After all, our hyper-polarized country rewards us for controversial content while dissuading us from developing skills to engage compassionately.
In my time as a student, I was at the center of many conflicts, and I deeply regret not practicing the self-reflection adrienne maree brown encourages.
I’m Palestinian-American. The community I grew up in, however, was extremely hostile to Palestinians. For much of my childhood, I thought the world had robbed the people that I loved of a safe and happy life just because it could. I internalized this sense of antagonism and carried it with me wherever I went. My progressive, borderline dogmatic, values meant that I was always right. I reasoned that by virtue of being marginalized, I was infallible. Anyone who disagreed with me was a Bad Person.
When I started college, I saw that same resentment I felt growing up echoed across almost every identity group. Students frequently claimed that they were put in situations that were disruptive to their learning, triggered, traumatized, and expected to swallow and endure. That paradigm bred animosity and divisiveness, making many of the explosive conflicts on campus less about the inciting situation and more about dissatisfaction with a culture that allowed harm to fester.
So when a classmate sent me a video of the Central Student Government (CSG) president making anti-Palestinian and Islamaphobic remarks as a high schooler, I acted without thought. The video represented years of racism, microaggressions, and silence that I (and my classmates and mentors) had to endure. I was enraged, not at the 17-year-old boy in the video, but at the feeling of powerlessness that pervaded my upbringing. I wanted him punished for a version of himself that didn’t exist anymore. And so I sent it to the Arab student group chat and watched the mob go to work.
It felt good. Public take-downs allow people at the margins to exercise power over others. They displace responsibility for harm away from systems (that are not easily held accountable) and onto individuals (that can very easily be punished). It reinforces our own moral superiority when we’re on the “right side” of the mob. That instant gratification causes us to confuse continuing the cycle of harm with creating long-term change.
However, I never doubted that I made the right decision. The video turned into a public trial, and the public trial ended with taking the student government as a body to task for its general neglect of Muslim and Palestinian students. Many initiatives that were unimaginable prior to the event were passed almost unanimously. I didn’t give a second thought to whether the CSG president deserved the humiliation that came from my actions. I didn’t believe in people’s capacity to change or to learn from their mistakes. I didn’t consider his upbringing or the community he was socialized in or that he was a child when he made those remarks. What he said in that video wounded me and other Muslim and Palestinian students. That was enough.
I can’t begin to explain how gut-wrenching it was when, by kismet, I had a class with him that next year. For an entire year, I sat across from the boy I berated and humiliated in multiple public forums. I was completely wrong about him. He didn’t know any Palestinian people growing up, and when he got on campus, he made an active effort to talk to different affinity groups to re-evaluate his own perspective.
I never knew any of this because instead of trying to talk to him, I reached for tools that perpetuate harm in our society. Our culture is so punitive that it didn’t allow for him to make a mistake. It didn’t account for space for him to change and grow; I didn’t account for space for him to change or grow.
It dawned on me that my approach to activism was deeply antithetical to the values I had been spouting my entire life. Some of the core tenants of restorative justice that I revere are compassion, dialogue, forgiveness and understanding. Yet, I blindly endorsed disposability and punishment for the sake of punishment. I had internalized this mindset so much that one year, I even tried to cancel myself after making a choice in an interpersonal conflict that I regretted. I remember I broke down sobbing to one of my professors as I explained how I didn’t deserve to pursue a career in social justice because I caused harm to so many people. I couldn’t imagine making a mistake, being held accountable, and being allowed the space to become a better person from it. After patiently deciphering my unintelligible blubbering, he assured me that all I did was be human and that effective practice only comes when we learn from failure.
It took me some time to realize the damage I did to our campus culture. What I did validated a fear-based adherence to “safe” talk tracks that prevent students from the engagement and necessary dialogue that creates grounded beliefs. I perpetuated the idea that we are not allowed to be people in progress.
What we practice in our classrooms and with our friends and colleagues is what comprises our broader culture. I often wonder what could have been possible if I approached my own relationships and conflicts with dialogue and vulnerability. What avenues, solidarities or coalitions would have presented themselves if I took adrienne maree brown’s approach earlier? What outcomes would I have experienced if I found the courage to communicate across differences, even in situations that scared me?
This isn’t a case against call-outs. Even brown caveats that call-outs are often necessary where there are unequal power imbalances, mediation is unsuccessful or when repeated instances of harm occur. Yet and still, I urge us to consider why our first instinct in the face of conflict with our peers is not to seek to understand but rather gleefully shame and avoid direct confrontation.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on where those instincts were coming from, where I had been complicit in harm, and re-evaluating why I even wanted to engage in advocacy to begin with. What drew me to social justice as a teenager was the desire to live in a community rooted in love and support, one freed from grief and trauma. I was never going to be a part of that world if I couldn’t even muster up basic human compassion for people I disagreed with.
Working towards a principled struggle is a constant process, but I am hopeful that students will naturally start to crave a culture of dialogue and that our institutions will fulfill the craving. It’ll take a collaborative effort between actors at every level of the higher education system to aid students in developing skills and minds for dialogue, but I have no doubt that it’s possible. Everybody deserves a chance to be better, and if we teach compassionate dialogue, we can create a society where chances to learn and reform our views are afforded to us all.
About the Author
Jinan Abufarha is a recent graduate from the Ford School of Public Policy with a focus area in gender justice and imperialism. In her time on campus, she was a board member of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and worked as a facilitator for the Intergroup Dialogues Program, where she brought together students’ lived experiences in order to deepen their understandings around identity, discrimination and privilege. She is currently pursuing a career in public policy before transitioning to law school.
Jinan spoke on the CDI webinar, A Culture of Dialogue: How students can practice talking about what matters.
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