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Learning Moral Courage with Professor Irshad Manji

We live in divided times, and our world is more polarized than ever before. While social media platforms today allow us to communicate instantaneously and effortlessly anywhere in the world, they have engendered a new crisis, ironically, of communication—the effects of which we could not possibly have anticipated.

At present, the prospect of communicating across divides—political or otherwise—seems an impossible task. As our lives become increasingly isolated and insular, we feel more distant from our friends and neighbours, and from the world at large. The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offered a poignant assessment of our contemporary social affliction in a recent article for The Atlantic: “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.” Yet, recent data published by Gallup reveals that our society was more cooperative, with intergroup relations perceived nearly twice as positively, only ten short years ago. So, how can start to bridge our modern divide and begin to heal collectively, as a society?

Professor Irshad Manji (University of Oxford) proposes a simple, yet satisfying, answer: by learning to communicate with each other—again.

Last year, Ridley College joined the growing ‘moral courage community’ by partnering with Professor Manji’s non-profit Moral Courage College (MCC), an organization that empowers and works with institutions, including K-12 schools like ours, to engage in honest diversity work rather than simply rushing to adopt the trendiest framework out of fear of appearing unresponsive.

In September 2021, we invited Professor Manji to host a series of virtual workshops with students, faculty, and staff to teach us about moral courage and set out on a path together, as an institution, to develop the skills to engage constructively about contentious issues without sowing division.

Of course, Professor Manji is no stranger to Ridley College. As many in our community will no doubt recall, she was the inaugural speaker in our MGI-Gordon Distinguished Speaker in November 2005 during the tour for her controversial second book, The Trouble with Islam Today, which had been released the previous year. Seeking a dynamic speaker who could spark discussion and debate around big ideas, she fit the bill perfectly and, as with her latest visit, she certainly did not disappoint.

This year, however, Professor Manji returned to Ridley in a new capacity—as our first Global Leader in Residence, sharing her wealth of knowledge and insight with our students, parents, faculty, and staff, as well as some of the intimate biographical details that inspired her to establish the Moral Courage Project.

Before joining the University of Oxford’s Initiative for Global Ethics and Human Rights, Professor Manji served for many years as a professor of leadership at New York University. Prior to that, she held a number of positions under Canadian New Democratic politicians—as a legislative aide, press secretary, and speechwriter—while somehow also finding time to moonlight as the host of a television program about queer issues and author multiple New York Times bestselling books, most recently, Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2019.

But despite her many accolades—including Oprah Winfrey’s Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness, and conviction”—Professor Manji remains completely authentic, wholly unpretentious, and down to earth. She moves fluidly between registers from session to session, deftly navigating a spectrum of big—and often controversial—topics in a way that is engaging and memorable, masterfully modulating her message to command the full attention of her audience, whether comprised of Kindergarteners, teens, or adults over 50.

Stepping out onto the Mandeville Theatre stage in person for the first time in nearly two decades, she addresses the packed crowd on Monday morning with humility and grace—virtues she credits to having her proverbial butt kicked in the early years of her career. “I wanted to change the world without recognizing that I had to change myself,” she reflects. 

“Back then, the voice in my head told me if you don’t fight back, your opponents won’t know that you mean business. […] But this was the biggest mistake I ever could have made because it made my critics more rigid in their thinking and made my sympathizers question my sincerity.”   

But this change did not come easily. After nearly a decade of “digesting toxic energy,” experiencing clinical depression and panic attacks, she collapsed just moments before the biggest interview of her life. Then, her doctors presented her with an ultimatum—either she quit her book tour, or they quit as her doctors. “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” she explains. “My body was trying to tell me something, but I was not listening. Then my body showed me who was boss.” 

Today, she is no longer the incendiary, confrontational figure who “used to walk on stage with her metaphorical fists clenched, ready to punch back at her opponents,” but instead, strives to be a thoughtful and respectful adversary to those with whom she disagrees—a power she claims is entirely within reach for those who are willing to “speak truth to the power of their own egos.”

Drawing on the principles of neuroscience and positive psychology, she started the MCC to help educators and leaders communicate and develop relationships across divides by learning to modulate their emotions in situations where they are forced to confront difficult, often emotionally charged, issues. This instinct to fear and lash out when we are confronted with views different from our own, and the related impulse to subdue this perceived threat by labelling others, is a fundamental part of how we are wired, she explains. However, letting our emotions—primarily fear—guide us tends to produce only fast, often temporary, fixes that only deepen existing tensions and polarization.

 “Instinctually, we are always scanning for threats. When we perceive them, the primitive region of our brains—the amygdala [part of the Limbic System]—starts to take over. […] When we disagree on subjects that we feel passionately about, our brains make us believe others are attacking us. We perceive disagreement as an existential threat. But in reality, we are only experiencing mere discomfort.” 

In those decisive moments, we are forced to make a choice. We can let fear overtake us and become defensive—usually at the expense of being heard by our opponents—or we can choose to listen, which requires us to acknowledge and respect the singularity of the individual we are facing, despite our initial instinct to reduce them to a set of labels.   

“There is no shame in categorizing,” she continues.  

“The trouble with labels is not that they exist, but the baggage that goes with them. But we must remember that we are also owners of a more evolved part of the brain. Rather than letting emotion bully cognition out of the picture, we must find a way to let cognition and emotion peacefully co-exist.” 

A problem arises only when we let our assumptions—and our emotions—take the wheel and shut down rather than engaging with our opponents as equals. In these moments, we deprive others of their humanity by reducing them to caricatures rather than engaging with them as our equals with complex thoughts, opinions, and emotions, at which point, Manji emphasizes, “social justice becomes anti-social, and justice is reduced to ‘just us.’”

True justice, she counters, manifests when we recognize that individuals who belong to the same demographic group are not identical, and we are impelled to create space for that individual to express their unique point of view.

“I am a Muslim. But does that mean that I think like every other Muslim? Not all Muslims think alike. And if that’s true of marginalized groups, it is also true of the so-called straight white guy. […] If you’re going to [make the conscious effort to] know me, [rather than] of me, you are going to engage with me, not make assumptions based on this or that label.” 

So, how do we outsmart the limbic system which causes us to react this way? The answer might surprise you: take a deep breath. “We must give our bodies the time and oxygen to transition from this hyperemotional ego brain to the more evolved pre-frontal cortex […] where cognition and emotion can cohabit and coexist,” Manji claims. This is not to say we need to banish emotion. “Good luck trying,” she scoffs. Rather, it is coming to the realization that our biggest obstacle is not the other person, but our own egos.

“By lowering our emotional defences, we are using our power wisely to motivate the other to follow in our footsteps,” she explains. But unfortunately—in the age of cancel culture and reactive social media platforms—many social justice advocates and educators have lost sight of this noble ambition. 

As governments, businesses, non-profits, and other institutions around the world continue to direct considerable effort and resources to creating or revising DEI or JEDI mandates, Manji emphasizes the need for creating organizational cultures that respect and encourage a diversity of viewpoints, which she suggests is both a cornerstone of our pluralistic, liberal-democratic way of life. Recent events show, however, that this way of life is increasingly threatened by a creeping homogeneity driven by a fear of appearing ineffective, behind the times, or worse—prejudiced.

“There is a tendency to frame free speech as antithetical to social justice and social justice as contradictory to free speech. You can have one or the other but not both. I’m calling B.S. on that. You must have both.” 

In response to changing tides, administrators in K-12 and higher education have deployed various “inclusion efforts” and “inclusion training” programs over the last decade which Manji claims have only “inflamed the culture wars” and fuelled an “us versus them” mentality—usually in service of “speaking truth to power,” a slogan that Manji partially takes issue with.

This statement, and the term “moral courage,” she explains, are usually attributed to the same source—former U.S. Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, who was an advocate for the civil rights movement and fought against corruption before his tragic death in 1968. When we are called upon to “speak truth to power,” we are being asked to take a moral stance on an issue and stand up for what is right, even when it is inconvenient or unpopular, or our position might be perceived as unnecessarily critical or offensive. But in our current climate of “us against them,” Manji claims, “the way we speak truth to power matters as much as the truth we think we are speaking.” 

“Speaking truth to power is not enough. We must appreciate that we have power. Moral courage today has to mean speaking truth to the power of your own ego, even as you are speaking truth to powers external to you.” 

One of the key tactics deployed by the civil rights movement that ought to be leveraged by today’s educators and social justice advocates is the capacity to educate one’s emotions. She explains: 

“During the civil rights movement, facilitators of activism taught young people to educate [their] emotions. If you simply lash out, you are not going to make your point in a way that motivates the other to hear you. These moments spent so much time building resilience and antifragility. We have lost that today.” 

Doing moral courage work today, therefore, requires learning to master our emotional defences so we can productively communicate and develop relationships across divides. Doing so, she explains, permits us to overcome our all-pervasive us versus them mindset so that we can begin to work co-operatively to build cultures—organizational and otherwise—that reject shaming and labelling and champion free speech, diversity of expression, and diversity of viewpoint. For educators, this means rejecting fear and putting these skills to work in their classrooms to create and cultivate respectful spaces for open dialogue and debate. But it also means teaching students to respect the plurality of forces at work in each of us and begin to view themselves and others as more than individuals or a set of labels—but as “plurals.” Only plural, Manji explains, “accurately captures all sentient beings [and suggests] that there is so much more to any of us than meets the eye.”

This responsibility will not fall squarely upon faculty members. In the fall, Professor Manji will be virtually leading an exciting new club, “We the Plurals,” which is open to all students between Grades 7 and 12 who are 100 percent committed to the cause. The club will teach students to recognize themselves and each other as plurals, teach them to educate their emotions and equip them “with the skills to engage across lines of difference, disagreement and mutual disgust”—skills that Professor Manji notes are increasingly in demand in our global society.

Members of our faculty and staff will also enroll in Professor Manji’s Moral Courage Mentor Certification Program in the coming months to become certified Moral Courage Mentors. This program, which she bills as a “Moral Courage boot camp,” teaches participants to “finesse [their] moral courage skills, boost [their] confidence to teach those skills to younger people, and meet fellow aspiring Mentors.” At the conclusion of the course, all participants will receive a certificate issued by the University of Oxford and be equipped with the skills to teach Moral Courage both in the classroom and in communities beyond. We encourage parents and students to consider enrolling in the course as well to help us extend our Moral Courage teachings beyond the classroom.

As we continue to advocate for and define our individual approach to cultivating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus, we remain committed to empowering our diverse community of learners, fostering global competency, and providing a safe space for healthy debate on global issues. Above all, Ridley College is a place where everyone belongs and finds a home. Equally, we reject the chilling modern tendency to respond to intolerance with new, sometimes greater, forms of intolerance.

We are so grateful to Professor Manji for her kindness and profound insight, and we look forward to working with her in the future as we continue to integrate the teachings of Moral Courage into the essential foundation of our learning community.