Putting Down the Shield of Silence:
Facilitating Dialogues with Bravery & Curiosity
An awkward situation...
You learn in a staff meeting at your university that a group of high school youth from a school that is well known to predominately serve Black and brown students will be visiting your campus in November. As brainstorming is occurring as to how to best serve these students and their experience on campus for the day, someone chimes in with the comment that "It would be great to have a winter clothing drive to help those kids and their families, who are probably quite poor." As you hear this well-intending, but stereotyping and off-topic comment, you feel... what? How do you feel? Give words to it.
Then, what would you do? Be honest with yourself: do you speak out? What consequences are there if you do? For whom? … What consequences are there if you don’t? For whom?
Shield of Silence
Silence is a shield. It is meant to protect, and it is successful in protection. It protects us from difficult dialogues. For those of us not already targeted, it protects us from being targeted. It protects our relationships. It protects the feeling of peace.
But it also protects racism, ableism, ageism, and prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. It protects the wrong-thinking and the ignorance of people who need an opportunity to learn and grow.
Above all, the shield of silence protects the status quo. If things are going well for us, it protects that. For those being hurt, it protects that ongoing hurtful system.
The shield of silence takes many forms, from the way we silence ourselves (vs. Bravery), in our fear of speaking out and speaking up when we know we should to the way that we silence others (vs. Curiosity) in the form of cancel culture, selective news feeds, and curated communities.
We need to be brave in how we step out from behind our shields to a new kind of space in which people are safe, but prejudice is not. This kind of safe space for critical dialogues is one in which ideas can be safely shared. Truths are spoken. It is one in which ideologies are wrestled to the ground while the humans who hold them are allowed the dignity to keep their feet.
We need to create a space where fear is no longer the dominant emotion but is replaced by curiosity.
It's Still About Learning
You see, whether we are speaking of hatred and prejudice or community and collaboration, learning is involved. We learn to stay away or we learn to engage. We learn to hate or we learn to love. Our choices are influenced by lessons learned throughout our lived experiences, and the way we choose to respond to them.
As UDL practitioners, I believe that learning is a process involving one’s whole brain. Learning is emotional. It’s expressive. It’s cognitive. We feel, act, and think our way through learning in an ongoing, iterative cycle.
For example, you may walk into a 7th-grade Algebra classroom feeling apprehension or excitement for the subject matter. Your emotional state will affect both how you perceive the information and the way you participate. Those, in turn, will affect each other and reinforce or change your feelings. When you have positive experiences in these domains, you’re more likely to learn well.
When you have negative experiences, especially recursively, you also learn something. You probably aren’t learning a love for math, though, but rather the lesson that you may take away is that you don’t like algebra, or more personally - that you’re not a math person. As such, you’re less likely to engage with it going forward, and your feelings that you aren’t good at math will become increasingly true. Not for lack of capacity, but for lack of experience.
Learning & Sociology
Now, how might this model look if we apply it sociologically?
Imagine, say, that you have developed some bad feelings toward people in a political group with which you don’t identify. Maybe this started with a bad experience (action), based on perpetual exposure to a certain biased perspective (understanding), or based on an internalized feeling of distrust toward members of other political groups (feeling). What is important to see is that it doesn’t really matter where it begins, the result is a cycle of reinforcement.
So, if I have an innate distrust of members of a political party and their allies, I am less likely to spend time with them (feeling-action axis). I’m less likely to hear their points of view or to try to understand their perspectives (feeling - understanding axis). And the three continue to reinforce one another. Over time, the more I go through this cycle, the deeper my animosity becomes until what was once mild distrust may eventually become full bore hatred. The way that I silence and “other” these people makes it gradually easier and -frankly- more natural to begin hating them.
The shield of silence wraps around our actions. We protect our brains and our hearts from that which we fear. Nothing could be more natural. More human. It’s important to see that. This cycle, this kind of behavior is our default setting. We don’t have to do anything for this to happen again and again and again.
What can we do?
What’s the antidote then? The lynchpin for change is action. But intentional actions come from desire. From willfulness. We need to create opportunities for ourselves and others to act, but doing so starts with the heart.
Facilitating Difficult Dialogues: The UDL Way
Difficult dialogues are about getting to the heart. But remember, people guard their hearts behind defensive minds and minds behind defensive actions. Engaging in critical dialogues means bravely and patiently pulling back defenses through vulnerability, honesty, and hard work. What does UDL have to teach us about this process?
It begins, of course, with engagement.
Difficult dialogues are difficult because they affect our emotional centers, our capacity for logical processing, and our willingness to participate. (E.g., the backfire effect).
This has been reinforced by "cancel culture" and “call-out culture." What if, instead of calling out, we called in (cf. Loretta Ross)? To this end, “safe spaces” need to be redefined. Not spaces where are safe from being challenged; spaces where it is safe to let your guard down and talk things through, to learn, to be wrong, and learn why without it being on your “permanent record.”
In areas where you have influence...
- Create space for moving past extremes- what is right about X and Y? Not just which is right.
- Use dialogue protocols and prepare people for these kinds of conversations.
- Remind yourself and others that dialogue is a genuine willingness to give and take.
- Understand and accept your and others' emotional responses as valid, but also be willing to transcend them. Name them. Understand why you (or others) feel as they do.
It happens with thoughtful representation.
In areas where you have influence...
- Don’t just preach. It doesn't work in the classroom, it doesn't work on social media, it doesn't work at happy hour, either! Show. Roleplay. Represent in creative ways.
- Speak about your experiences. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Make it personal.
- Stories over stats. Many people will respond more to stories than they will to statistics. Share real experiences.
It involves making space for sharing and practice.
In areas where you have influence...
- It's an old rule, but a good one. Seek first to understand, then be understood.
- Notice others' actions and what they are communicating. People acting the role of bullies and oppressors almost always were themselves bullied or oppressed, first. All behavior is communication. Listen to their behavior!
- Pull people into private conversations. You may delete a message from your social media wall or put a stop to a line of commentary in class, but follow up in a private message. Redirect in class, then facilitate a dialogue when tempers are down and people have time to think.
- “Pave their retreat with a golden bridge” (Sun Tzu). Make space for yourself and others to be wrong and to learn from it. When we are quick to condemn people, we miss the opportunity to reach them.
In the culture of postmodern America today, with social media channels and discussion threads on news stories, it's all too easy to become jaded. We may be quick to condemn others and develop an unwillingness to speak our own truths. I get it.
But we all have the opportunity to be change-makers in our spheres of influence. If things are going to get better, people like you and me have to be willing to speak up, speak out, and bring in. We need to be willing to step out from behind the shield of silence that protects us and the status quo so well. We need to move with bravery, curiosity, compassion, and conviction to engage meaningfully with others and to pursue what is right. Just imagine how different our world would be if we did this regularly.