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Relating to "the Other"

Dr. Mona Ibrahim

(This was given as an oral address for the 2010-2011 academic year Convocation)

SALAM. That’s hello in Arabic. To respond you just say Salam back. I chose to greet you with Salam, which means not only hello but also peace and goodbye and is the standard greeting that Muslims use, regardless of the native language they speak. I chose to greet you with Salam because it captures many of the thoughts that I want to share with you today. For today I want to talk to you about diversity and about relating to “the other:” the other languages, the other religions, the other races, the other nationalities, the other human beings.


Why talk about diversity and relating to the other as you begin your education at Concordia?


Because relating to the other is essential for the Salam, the peace, that we all strive for in the world today, and because relating to the other is, in fact, at the heart of the core curriculum that you are starting today. The theme of the core curriculum, as I am sure you have already heard, is to BREW, that is to become responsibly engaged in the world.


Diversity is an integral part of the world’s design. In order to become responsibly engaged in the world, it is essential to have the ability to relate to others who are different from us. Diversity is a fact. Differences are all around us. What should a responsibly engaged person do with these differences? Conveniently avoid them? No. Tolerate them out of the goodness of one’s heart? No. Merely accept them? Still no. A responsibly engaged person values differences and understands what a precious resources they are.


Differences are valuable for the richness and perspective they offer. With different points of view we are able to see the full human experience. It is like looking at a complex statue from all different angles, slowly walking a full circle around it, crouching in front of it to view it from below, and climbing to the top of a tall building to view it from above. The result is a simplistic, inaccurate, deficient view of that statue.


It is our diversity that helps us fully see the world in all its complexity. It is our diversity that helps us understand ourselves and recognize what is distinctive about our viewpoint. And, paradoxically, it is also our diversity that helps us discover the core of humanity that we have in common with the other. After all, we all have the same goal: to enjoy the statue, regardless of the position we are in or the viewpoint we happen to have. Yet, we often feel threatened by difference because of the ambiguity and novelty it forces us to deal with.


How do we keep anxiety from overcoming us when we are faced with difference? How can basic trust replace fear? The answer lies in empathizing with the other. Empathy is the bridge through which we can connect with the other. The good news is: Empathy is not hard at all. It is a natural ability that we all have. Neuropsychologists have described what they call mirror neurons in the brain. These brain cells activate in response to the other’s situation in the same way they activate in response to our own situation. For example, when we watch another person being poked by a needle, mirror neurons in our brain fire as if we are personally experiencing the pain. Basically, we are hard-wired to empathize and to emotionally respond to the other.

It is failing to empathize that is hard. It requires actively going against our nature. In one study neuroscientists showed Democrats and Republicans pictures of election candidates. When observers saw an image of a politician from their own party, their mirror neurons fired strongly, indicating empathy toward the politician. When the same observers saw a picture of a politician from the opposite party, an astonishing sequence o events occurred. At first the observer’s mirror neurons fired, indicating a natural tendency toward empathy, but after a little while, as the individual thought about the fact that the politician belongs to the other party, the firing of the mirror neurons stopped. The person’s prejudice effectively quelled the brain’s natural empathic reaction.

We must avoid prejudice because it is bad for us as well as bad for the other. Prejudice takes away from our humanity. It suppresses our natural tendency to form connections with others. How can we avoid prejudice? Simple: by knowing the other. When you get to know the other well, you begin to see that other, not as a stereotyped member of a threatening out-group, but as a fellow human being. The other may be an Arab, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Mexican immigrant, or maybe even an MSUM Dragon. But first of all and above all, that other is a human being; a human being who has the same basic needs for love and dignity that you have; a human being who values justice and fairness just as you do; a human being who is just as vulnerable to fear and suffering as you are.

Knowing the other eliminates our prejudice and allows our empathy to dissolve the barriers between self and other. Really knowing the other is the best antidote to prejudice and the best prescription for peace. What then does it take to really know the other? Three things: meaningful, sustained face-to-face encounters with the other, dialogue with the other, which means listening and responding as well as talking and learning about the other’s history, and the socio-political context that makes them who they are. Encounters, dialogue, and knowledge; these three things help nurture our empathic capacities and make it possible for us to responsibly engage in the world.

I urge you to take advantage of the abundant opportunities to encounter, to dialogue, and to learn that exist in the Fargo/Moorhead area and on this campus. Sign up for courses that help you learn about the other. Introduce yourself to a person different than you in the cafeteria, in the dorm, in the classroom and stop to dialogue with them. Encourage their questions and don’t be afraid to ask yours. Nothing is gained by avoiding differences out of fear of appearing ignorant or insensitive. Savor the wonderful process of discovering the other, of being challenged by the other, and of being affirmed by the other. Use your natural empathy to bridge the differences while cherishing them at the same time. Study abroad. Master a second language. Engage in service learning with the diverse communities that surround this campus. Read and contribute to Djembe, the intercultural journal run by your fellow Cobbers. Participate in intercultural events such as the screenings and discussions of the movies, and attend dinner and panel discussions that take place frequently on campus. I know all this takes times and effort.

As Eboo Patel wrote in Acts of Faith, the 2010 summer book read, “Pluralism is an intentional commitment that is imprinted through action. It requires deliberate engagement with difference.” Take action now. Don’t put it off till next year or next semester or even next month. Act now. In fact, you are already on your way. You took some action already today. You learned a different way of saying hello, remember? SALAM.

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