Episode 144 – Irshad Manji

On this episode, our correspondent, Emily Rendell-Watson speaks to Professor Irshad Manji: Best selling author and founder of Moral Courage College, and a recipient of Oprah’s “Chutzpah Award” for boldness.

Professor Manji is an accomplished leadership scholar whose work focuses on teaching people how to engage in constructive conversations. She will be presenting her talk: “From Polarization to Collaboration” on June 8th at the Citadel Theatre. This talk is part of Edmonton Public Library’s Forward thinking Speaker Series.

Get your tickets to “From Polarization to Collaboration” on June 8th at the Citadel Theatre.
Learn more about Professor Irshad Manji.
Get engaged with constructive conversations with Moral Courage College.

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The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation.

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Transcripts by Karli Drew.


[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays]

Graeme Lummer [00:00:25] Hi everyone. Welcome to ECF’s Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Graeme Lummer—

Lisa Pruden [00:00:29] And I’m Lisa...


Graeme [00:00:30] Edmonton is full of generous donors who have created endowment funds at Edmonton Community Foundation.

Lisa [00:00:35] These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.

Graeme [00:00:40] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.

Lisa [00:00:45] On this episode, we speak with Professor Irshad Manji, bestselling author and founder of Moral Courage College, and a recipient of Oprah’s Chutzpah Award for boldness.

Graeme [00:00:56] Bold is a great way to describe her. Professor Manji is an accomplished leadership scholar whose work focuses on teaching people how to engage in constructive conversations.

Lisa [00:01:04] We so often hear about polarization and othering. Our current political and conversational landscapes are portrayed as “us versus them.”

Graeme [00:01:12] It really raises the stakes of one’s worldview from sharing your perspective to taking a stand.

Lisa [00:01:16] Professor Manji will be presenting her talk, From Polarization to Collaboration, on June 8th at the Citadel Theatre. This talk is part of Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker series.

Graeme [00:01:27] It is such an incredible series, and ECF is proud to be a presenting partner for this guest.

[transition music plays]

Our correspondent, Emily Rendell-Watson, sat down with Professor Irshad Manji to find out how we can create common ground, even when we stand our ground.

Emily Rendell-Watson [00:01:40] On the heels of an election that highlighted some of the most significant rifts in our province, there may be no better time for Irshad Manji to pay us a visit. Manji is an educator and New York Times bestselling author. She’s also the founder of Moral Courage College, where she teaches people how to engage on contentious issues, including those that span political, racial, and cultural divides.

This June, Manji will lead a conversation called “From Polarization to Collaboration” presented by the Edmonton Community Foundation as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking series. She will also speak at ECF’s annual luncheon. Our conversation will give you a taste of what to expect, and hopefully get you thinking the same way she did for me.
We began our conversation by talking about how she defines moral courage.

Professor Irshad Manji [00:02:31] You know, a lot of people assume that the phrase “moral courage” because it sounds so noble, so idealistic, it must be something that, you know, is out of their reach. Uh. Something for Mandela or Gandhi or Rosa Parks. And I say… scratch all of those assumptions, throw them out the window. Moral courage is actually a set of skills. Let me explain.

So, you know, in popular culture, moral courage means “speak truth to power.” But here’s the problem. Pop culture also pushes this narrative, this story, that power only exists quote “out there” in the system. You know, the-the corporate captains and the tech titans and the media moguls and the police— And if you’re opposed to the police, then in the protestors, and [emphasized] definitely in the politicians. But [sarcastically] no. Not in you. You don’t have any power.

And that is simply not true. See, the reality is that power also exists within ourselves in the form of the ego, which is really only our primitive brain.

[00:03:40] Now, again, ego: small word with big implications, right? People think of the word ego and often they think it’s self-help-y or, you know, something that’s mystical. No. Ego is a biological function. It comes from the primitive part of our brain. For example, if I’m, like, in front of an oncoming bus, it’s gonna be my ego that says, “Irshad, get out of the way now or get ready to fight that bus.” And so, the ego actually exists to keep us alive. So… you’d think it’s our best friend, right? Yes. [tone indicating uncertainty]

And the fact of the matter is that the ego is so primitive that it cannot distinguish between mortal danger, like me in front of the oncoming bus, and mere discomfort, like me when you are hardly disagreeing with my point of view on something that I feel passionate about. Those are two [emphasized] very, very different situations. And yet the ego can’t tell the difference between those situations. And precisely because it has power. The power to manipulate us. It makes us feel stressed and fearful… and defensive whenever we encounter views that differ from our own, which then prevents us from understanding others. And crucially, it prevents us from being understood because we’re not trying to understand others at the same time.

[00:05:15] So here’s the bottom line. Now more than ever, in a culture that thrives on “us against them”, now more than ever, moral courage has to mean speaking truth to the power of your ego, even as you’re speaking truth to power “out there.” And when you speak truth to the power of your ego, you’re saying to your ego, “Look, ego. I love you and I respect you. But at this moment, I’m not gonna die. So, I’m not gonna let you bully or intimidate me into feeling more fearful of the person on the other side of this issue than I actually need to be. So… I’m gonna take control of you, ego. You’re not gonna control me.” And when we can speak truth to that kind of power, we can learn from multiple perspectives, especially on issues that need solutions. That is exercising moral courage. Speaking truth to the power of our ego, even as we are speaking truth to power “out there.”

Emily [00:06:25] So when you talk about this element of being fearful, there’s been [laughs] a lot that I think a lot of people are… are scared of, especially over the last couple of years in the pandemic. But what are people really afraid of when you talk about that element of fear?

Irshad [00:06:45] Well, I’ll tell you, there is one thing that we human beings fear… more than death itself. And that is… being judged. We fear being judged: stupid, ignorant, evil, inadequate, or just plain wrong. So, instead of opening ourselves up to a conversation that allows for different points of view to be heard, these days, especially— and we can get into the reasons why these days, especially— but these days especially, we won’t even wait to be offended by somebody. [laughs] No. We will simply want ourselves to be pre-offended. Meaning, “I know your label, or your set of labels, therefore I know what you’re all about and I can assure you, we have nothing more to say to each other.” You know, “You’re a Tory. You’re a New Democrat. You’re that party affiliation. Hey, I know everything I already know— that I need to know about you, so forget it. I’m not gonna engage. I know I already don’t like you.”

[00:07:53] Look at what we’re doing. Not only are we reducing people to our own assumptions about them, but we’re doing that out of our own insecurities because God forbid they have a point of view that challenges ours. Or even, you know, makes us think. And we don’t wanna go there. So, we’ll just stay nice and cozy in our own little corners and continue to fight it out without recognizing that, in fact, that we may have more common ground than we’re assuming. And moreover, that in fighting it out because we’re afraid to be proven wrong, we’re giving the “other” [emphasized] zero incentive to hear us out. Like, that’s the absurdity of-of where we are as a society today.

Emily [00:08:47] We’re having this conversation on behalf of the Edmonton Community Foundation. As we touched on before we began this conversation, Alberta is certainly a… polarized place for a number of reasons. So when you talk about those labels and, you know, some of the things that people are afraid of, what does that mean in Alberta and what is the solution? How do we go from where we are now at a community level, at a province level, to working together so that we all benefit an-and move forward?

Irshad [00:09:23] So, um, having grown up in British Columbia, uh, which, you know, has its own polarized politics, I’ve known for [emphasized] many, many, many years that Alberta… is kind of like the distinct society of the West. You know how, you know, Canadians think of Quebec, French-speaking Quebec, as a distinct society? And it certainly is. But Alberta, I know from hard experience is also a distinct society. And one of the things that makes it so distinct is that people who have convictions cling strongly to those convictions in Alberta. Whether you’re conservative, whether you’re progressive, you are, you know, digging in. And largely you’re digging in not because you believe that your way is better than any other, but because you don’t [emphasized] like the other way. In other words, it’s what social scientists call negative polarization. It’s not that I love my people as much as you think I do, it’s that I hate your people more than you think I do.

[00:10:38] And that is, frankly, a cycle of destruction. You know, it’s— because then we’re operating from a, uh— sort of a no mindset. Even if I don’t know all that I stand for, I do know that I am not you because I [emphasized] hate what you stand for. And talk about, you know, a poisoned culture in that regard. So poisoned, by the way, that research shows that about a third of Albertans are feeling completely disengaged from any kind of politics that would lead to a solution because they don’t have hope or faith anymore that politics itself can, you know, come up with solutions for everybody. And who can blame them?

One of the big mistakes that we make, not just in Alberta but well beyond, is that we tend to turn to politicians for solutions. But think about that for a second. Politicians have no incentive to come up with solutions that serve everybody, especially not in an “us against them” culture.

[00:11:50] They need to get elected. And because they need to get elected, they need to be as appealing to their base as possible. So, once they get elected, in order not to be called sellouts and traitors by their base, they then need to stick to their, forgive the metaphor, guns. Right? And so, all we get from most politicians— not every politician, of course— but most politicians today is that cycle of “us against them.”

This is why I’m so proud that an organization like the Edmonton Community Foundation emphasizes community. Let’s understand our own power as citizens, as individuals, and as members of a wider community to actually claim the challenges that are in front of us and come up with solutions that do not require, you know, politicians to approve of them. ‘Cause if we’re waiting for them, we’re gonna get an even bigger segment of Alberta that has no faith that solutions are possible. And that’s an illusion. Solutions are possible. It’s just that we have to work them out ourselves and not, uh, hand them over to the politicians ‘cause they’re not the only people with power in our system.

Emily [00:13:20] When you talk about those solutions and you talk about that community level of starting to communicate across these lines and identities, labels that divide us, how do you even begin that work?

Irshad [00:13:35] So I mentioned earlier, right, that moral courage is not merely a noble idea. It’s actually a set of skills. And these are the skills that my team and I teach at Moral Courage College. These are skills that allow people to turn contentious issues into constructive conversations for the sake of healthy teamwork. These are skills that allow people— equip people, not just allow, but equip people to build trust from the get-go. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you already know the person you’re about to engage with disagrees with you on the very issue that you both need to find solutions for. You can acknowledge that each of you disagrees. But you can acknowledge something more right off the top.

[00:14:30] For example, Emily… I know that you and I are probably not gonna see eye to eye on this issue. I totally get that. But here’s something else I know: that you are so much more than just this one issue. You’re so much more than just this disagreement. So I have no right to judge who you are based on the conversation that we’re about to have. No right at all. And I’m not here to judge. Could you remember the same about me, that I’m also bigger than this one issue and this possible disagreement?

When you enter into that conversation like that, assuring the other person, or people, that you’re not here to judge, and moreover, offering them, inviting them a common rule of engagement, you have just created a common ground. In other words, you’re not merely finding common ground, you’re not seeking common ground. You are proactively creating it. And the reason for creating that common ground proactively right off the top… is that we cannot discuss our differences, any kind of differences, without a modicum of trust.

[00:15:52] So, you see, even knowing how to say what I’ve just said and say it at the beginning of a conversation… and to know that [emphasized] you, Emily, have the power to say that. That, again, you’re not leaving it to somebody else to claim that power, to create the culture of the conversation. No. You have that power and you are gonna use it wisely. Knowing all of this is part and parcel of your moral courage toolkit.

And so, if you go ahead and say that, 9 times outta 10, the other person is gonna feel a sense of relief that you are not here to judge them. Remember, we humans fear one thing more than death itself, and that is being judged. So by assuring them… that not only are you here not to judge them, but also that you’re here to engage in a good faith dialogue in which you hope, too, that they’ll remember not to judge you, you… are lowering their emotional defences.

[00:17:02] And ultimately what that means is— This is ironic, but it’s true. It’s an ironclad law of human psychology. You are tilling the soil… for them to hear you out because you are going first in the listening department. In other words, this is not about being nice, it’s not even about being civil for the sake of civility. This is about repairing divides in a way that allows you to stand your ground… [emphasized] and create common ground at the same time. It’s enlightened self-interest.

Emily [00:17:40] How does this apply to social media? Because as you’re talking, so much of this is resonating, but I’m thinking about how much of this division [Irshad: Mhm] happens online and because of the technology that really dictates so much of what happens in our world these days. So, how do you take what you’re talking about in this approach when you know that so many of these conversations that are dividing and pulling people apart are happening in a… area that it’s maybe difficult to move forward with that kind of approach?

Irshad [00:18:17] Yeah. Well, and that is where we come to other tools in your Moral Courage toolkit. First and foremost, here’s something we should all remember. We don’t have to reply to everything we see on social media. I— it’s such an obvious insight. [Emily laughs] And yet, I know that we tend to forget that in highly emotional moments, right? But first and foremost, I’m gonna say it again. You are not under any obligation to engage with people who you do not believe are in this in good faith. In other words, with trolls. Trolls are people who show up just to blow up the space. And if that’s what you suspect somebody is, save your breath, save your time, move on. But let’s say you do get baited [laughs] into, uh, engaging with them. So, you know, another tool at your disposal is something called the sincere question, okay?

[00:19:24] Ask that potential troll, you know, what it is that you might be missing… about where they’re coming from. Now notice that in phrasing your question that way, you are positioning yourself as their student. They… are being invited to school you before you presume to be schooling them. And by putting yourself in that kind of a humble position, you’re really testing their integrity, right? Are they willing to engage in a good faith way? Because now you’re saying, “Hey, maybe I’m missing something about where you’re coming from.” Alright, so that’s a question that then they will have the choice to answer or not.

[00:20:10] And if they answer, but they answer in a very rude or arrogant way, then you have a choice. Will I continue to engage, or will I simply move on? And if, again, you’re goaded into engaging, engage with one more question. And that is, tell me more. This question, research shows, completely breaks open a conversation. It leads to utter honesty because it is unassuming. It tells the other you’re still listening, they can still trust you not to play “gotcha.” And… who knows? Maybe they misread you the first time. So now that you have responded rather than reacted, and responded in a way that is thoughtful and inviting, you’ve given them one last chance to show you their good faith. And if they don’t… at this point, you can simply say, “I’ve shown you good faith. I don’t think that I’ve received it in return. I’m moving on.” Or if you really wanna play with their heads, you can say, “You know, I think I’ve heard, uh, pretty much everything I need to hear. You’ve just missed an opportunity to change my mind. And that’s because of how you’ve reacted to me. If you responded, I would’ve been more motivated to think. But you’ve reacted and made me even more defensive.” Think about that the next time you’re engaged with someone who you disagree with.

One thing I’ve often done, by the way, I have, uh, asked the people on the other side of the discussion slash debate. I’ve given them the final word and I’ve actually said, “I will move on from here, but I’m giving you the final word. Make it a doozy.” Those who have enough chops to make it a doozy will remember something that nobody else has done for them. Nobody else will have given them the space to actually come back with their best shot and then leave it there. Leave it there. Because I’ll tell you something, in our “us against them” culture, if you can make somebody feel heard, even if you don’t agree with them, just making them feel heard, they are going to walk away from that exchange thinking about what they’ve heard from you.

[00:22:44] That is a great triumph. If, on the other hand, you fail to surprise them with your grace… if you simply blow them off the way they’ve blown you off, or if you insult them the way you feel insulted, that’s par for the course. They expect that. So, they have zero reason to think about what you’ve tried to express to them. So do yourself a favour… surprise people by not meeting “us against them” with more “us against them.” And you will ensure that they walk away thinking about how you treated them as much as what you’ve actually said.

Emily [00:23:29] I can see how this work takes an immense amount of humility to do it, in a way. An-and I imagine, you know, it doesn’t— you don’t start off by— it’s baby steps and you learn. [Irshad: Baby steps. That’s right.] Yeah. You learn and get better as you go and, you know, sometimes probably don’t necessarily approach conversations, social media or off social media, the way you’d like to once you begin to adopt this approach. But I wonder, when we think about these tools, and you’ve talked about these approaches on and offline— You know, when we think about applying that to community building and collaboration, what I just talked about around those baby steps, how you go even further to getting other people on board. So once you’ve had— [Irshad: Yeah!] you’ve introduced this approach and you maybe started to get the wheels spinning in their head and, you know, maybe they’re not feeling so angry. What does it look like… after that? How do you start to bridge that divide even further?

Irshad [00:24:33] Well, you know, I mentioned a few moments back that the skills of Moral Courage equip people to turn contentious issues into constructive conversations for the sake of healthy teamwork. That is the goal. Healthy teamwork. And I’m gonna give you a couple of examples of what I mean. If you don’t mind, I’d-I’d like to share just a couple of stories [Emily: Yes, please!] as quickly as I can. One is that in a state in the U.S., Utah, which is not unlike Alberta in many ways. It, too, is a very polarized state. Lots of people of faith and lots of secular progressives as well. And each feels under siege from the other. There is a group, an organization in Utah called Equality Utah. And, uh, they are that state’s leading proponent of LGBTQ civil rights. Recently, the Utah legislature was really threatening to legalize conversion therapy, uh, which is a so-called form of therapy that tries to talk queer people out of being queer.

[00:25:47] And it has had a [emphasized] very, very harmful impact on queer people and their families for decades. It was suspended in Utah, but the legislature was now threatening to reintroduce it and actually legalize it. Well, Equality Utah, their leaders, took a four months training from Moral Courage about how to collaborate under such dire circumstances. How to collaborate with the other side. And to cut to the chase, they managed to address the fears that Republican legislators had. Those legislators, they realized, were not hateful of queer people. They just had a number of myths that needed to be clarified.

[0:26:38] And because Equality Utah was willing to engage with them rather than label them bigots or dinosaurs or what-have-you, but willing to engage with them and get to know them as people free and clear of attorneys in the room, the legislators— the Republican legislators, came to see that Equality Utah folks were not demons. And over the course of only two weeks, they managed to find the kind of common ground that then allowed the governor and the Lieutenant Governor and the leaders of both houses of their legislature, the Senate and the House of Representatives, to come together and outlaw, once and for all, conversion therapy. So my point is that, while it starts with individual relationships, those relationships can be built pretty quickly into something much bigger than just one-on-ones.

Emily [00:27:44] That is just one of the stories Professor Manji has to share with us about putting this work into practice. When she comes to Edmonton, there will be more insights into the concrete skills you can begin practicing in your own lives.

Now let’s give Professor Manji the final word.

What is one thing you can leave folks thinking about ahead of your visit later this month?

Irshad [00:28:07] Well, I’ll leave people with what I hope will be an intriguing idea. We’re now, of course, being swept into the world of artificial intelligence. And it can be exciting and others argue it can be very, very dangerous. And both are true. And so, I’m gonna talk a little bit about what we are gonna need to do as individuals in order to really make AI work to the advantage of community building. I have some very concrete thoughts about that and they are through the… the lens, the paradigm, the framework of Moral Courage. And so, yeah! On the evening of June the 8th, let’s talk about that too.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

Let’s get super cutting edge and super relevant and let’s figure out together how we’re going to make AI work for us rather than us working for it.

Graeme [00:29:04] A big thank you to Emily Rendell-Watson for bringing us this conversation, and to Professor Irshad Manji for so generously sharing her time and expertise.

Lisa [00:29:12] Professor Manji will be presenting at Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking speaker series. Her talk From Polarization to Collaboration takes place on June 8th at the Citadel Theatre, and there is still time to get your tickets. We’ll have the link in our show notes.

Graeme [00:29:26] We’ll also have links to more of Professor Manji’s work and the Moral Courage College, and to other upcoming guests for EPL’s speaker series.

Lisa [00:29:34] And while you’re checking out our show notes, you can find our upcoming granting deadlines and our blog featuring even more great community stories.

[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]

Graeme [00:29:41] Well, that brings us to the end of the show. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

Lisa [00:29:44] Yeah, thank you! If you enjoyed it, please share it with all your friends. If you have time, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s a great way to help our show grow.

Graeme [00:29:53] And you can come say hi to us on Facebook. You can share your thoughts, and also see some pictures.

Lisa [00:29:58] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Lisa Pruden—

Graeme [00:30:01] And Graeme Lummer.

Lisa and Graeme [00:30:02] Until next time.

Andrew Paul [00:30:06] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation—

Lisa [00:30:10] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Andrew [00:30:12] This episode was edited by Lisa Pruden.

Lisa [00:30:14] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com.

Andrew [00:30:18] Subscribe to us on iTunes

Lisa [00:30:20] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.

Andrew [00:30:22] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.

Lisa [00:30:25] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.

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