Learning Uncomfortably: An Interview with Zach Wood of ‘Uncomfortable Learning’

Learning Uncomfortably: An Interview with Zach Wood of ‘Uncomfortable Learning’

Conatus News Editor-In-Chief Lucas Lynch spoke with Zach Wood of ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ on the Schism Podcast on the importance of honest engagement with dangerous ideas.

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Zach Wood, a recent graduate of Williams College, where he was the president of “Uncomfortable Learning”, a group that purposely invited controversial speakers such as Charles Murray to openly challenge their ideas in public settings.  Wood is also the author of the book “Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America“, a stirring memoir about his life growing up poor and black in America, but transcending his circumstances through a commitment to intellectual pursuit, free inquiry, and debate.
Many genuinely concerned activists on the left in particular believe that engaging with people such as Charles Murray is actively harmful to oppressed groups. It was fascinating talking to Zach about this because he lies at the intersection of all the various identities that such activists claim are gravely endangered by this. Zach’s take on this is refreshing, honest, and full of clarity. If this thesis regarding the harm of such ideas were true, no one would stand more to lose than Zach. His comments are a worthwhile take on our zeitgeist for anyone having doubts as to whether honest intellectual engagement with dangerous ideas is possible or advisable. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Apologies for some background noise – air conditioning unfortunately was not optional during the recording of our conversation.

A few excerpts from the conversation are printed below.
Lucas Lynch – “Charles Murray seemed acceptable to at least debate his ideas, whether they’re right or wrong. Where do you think the line is in terms of when it becomes truly unacceptable? I would imagine you probably wouldn’t have invited Richard Spencer to talk at ‘Uncomfortable Learning’.”
Zach Wood – “It’s an important question. It’s a tough one. Because you’ve got so many gradations, so many variations. There are things Charles Murray and Richard Spencer agree on. But there are also things that they disagree on. And sometimes you have people who don’t want to acknowledge that there is any difference between them, that they’re the same. You have to be careful of that as well. For me there are a few criteria.  One – is the subject matter that this speaker wants to address. The argument they want to make – is it socially relevant? Are people talking about this? Are people discussing this with significant interest? Is it in the news? The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, is it in those outlets? Second – is the person genuinely interested in making an intellectual argument? Or, like Milo Yiannopoulos, are they just interested in stoking flames, or pouring cold water on people’s faces? Is that what they’re interested in? Or are they committed to serious intellectual discourse? Do they see something at stake with respect to the arguments that they are making? And then the third factor is – do I see this as something that could contribute positively to intellectual and political discourse on campus? If I can check off those three boxes, then I’m confident in my selection. With someone like Richard Spencer, it’s tough to check those three boxes. He might be able to check one. Second one it might be, eh, you know, race is always discussed, immigration is discussed, how we draw line around national identity and so forth, that’s something being discussed, but his perspective is so extreme that it becomes a question of – is that really the conversation that’s being had? Or is there a different one, and he again is just stoking flames. So for someone like him I’d need to have twenty students come to me and say ‘Richard Spencer’s who I want to talk to’. If I got that from twenty students, then I would take it seriously.”
Lucas – “You would consider it if you got twenty students?”
Zach – “If I got twenty students to come to me and said ‘Listen Zach, this is who we really want to debate and we’ll tell you why’, I’d say ‘Hey!'”

Lucas – “What do you see as the difference between someone like Charles Murray and someone like him [Richard Spencer]? When I hear Charles Murray speak, I really do genuinely think he actually wants to help people.  Whether or not his studies do, that’s totally legitimate debate, but I don’t get the sense that he’s a malicious person, or wants anyone to suffer as a result of his ideas.
Zach – “I would agree with that, having sat down with him face to face over dinner for over an hour, I don’t think there’s any malevolent intent there.  I think he’s an intellectual who has an argument that I deeply disagree with and find very flawed in a number of ways. But it’s also an argument that a number of credible, venerable scholars have taken on, and that in and of itself kind of shows some of the merits of engaging with it.  And so for me I see the difference as one being – Charles Murray went to Harvard and studied with Frederick Jameson, actually, a Marxist. He’s a serious intellectual, even though I disagree with a lot of what he said. If you look at ‘Coming Apart’, some of the solutions, some of the things he’s addressing there really merit a more thoughtful consideration.  Richard Spencer, what books has he written that have been taken seriously by scholars with PhDs? What has he written that people are really mulling over?
Lucas – “What would you say to people who would say to that all kinds of odious things were taken seriously by scholars in previous generations?  …I can’t say I’m really a fan of sort of the postmodernist approach to all this, but where they do have a point – for example, being gay used to be viewed as a medical disorder. I think we all know now why that was really not only wrong, but really quite odious. Do you have sort of an idea in terms of differentiating between where the scholarship could be wrong, or could be biased, versus when scholarship is legitimate and the topic is just controversial, although points of view on it could be true?
Zach – “I think there is always going to be a debate over which topics are conclusively decided upon.  And I think it’s important for those of us engaged in these conversations to remember that there are topics that are conclusively decided upon.  There was a time in which the majority of people in this country did not see black people as fully human. I think that’s conclusively decided upon.  There was a time in this country when people thought that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. I think that’s conclusively decided upon. “The Earth is flat” – I think that is conclusively decided upon.”
Lucas – “Not if you read facebook it’s not.”
Zach – “[laughing] Not if you read facebook, right. And so really what I’m getting at here – there’s always going to be a debate over whether or not we need to discuss certain things. But I do think it’s important to remember that while in a society that values free speech, we should defend the right of anyone to go out on the street and say “I think the Earth is flat.” That gives them the right to do that. And I’m not here to censor, I’m not here to stop them from doing it – what I’m here to do is promote and encourage thoughtful conversation around the things that I think are still up for debate. Around the arguments that I think we still need to win, the arguments that I think we need to be having, the discussions we need to be engaged in. And so there is no way to definitively draw a line in the sand in which everyone or even a majority of people will agree.  But I think it’s important to kind of use those criteria I have and think about – well, is this something?  What are the stakes here? The question you’re asking, if there aren’t any stakes there, then we have to consider is that really something worth discussing.”

Lucas – “How do we acknowledge facts, how do we really look at things dispassionately… but without perpetuating the sorts of justifications that [were] used …in previous generations to perpetuate oppression and inequality?  Which is what I think a lot of people who might be opposed to ‘Uncomfortable Learning’, they think that that’s what’s going on, although I certainly know that’s not what you’re trying to do.”
Zach – “I think it’s tough, there are always going to be people who are distorting the intentions. You see what I mean? Who are distorting what you’re trying to do. And you have to acknowledge the fact that that’s going to be the case.  And I think one thing that’s good is trying to give people the benefit of the doubt when you can.  It’s a tall order sometimes. …Like you said, there are a number of people that when they engage with Charles Murray, there is no willingness to consider the fact that he may truly believe what he’s saying. That he may have a vision in his own mind of what a just society look like, but that that vision of a just society may just be very different from the vision they have themselves.  So I think all of this comes down to saying, I’m going to take the leap of faith that it takes to engage with someone in such a way that I resist assuming the very worst – that I consider the fact that maybe there is something of value here that they can contribute, and that even when there are those differences that we see as, ‘this person is just irredeemable there is nothing we can do ‘ – to practice tolerance wherever possible. Which is to say, even if you deeply disagree, and you know, there is nothing you and I are going to agree on, I find the beliefs you hold to be odious, repulsive, I want nothing to do with them – I think there is something to gain in practicing tolerance there, which is to say you engage respectfully, and then you see, okay, this is how we deal with speech that is offensive, this is how we deal with view that challenge us as a society overall.  I think there is something to be gained in practicing tolerance in that way.”

Lucas – “When I look at the fact that so many thousands of voters switched sides from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, and how many of them have seen the Democratic party… viewing them [the voters] solely based on identity… I see it as a lost opportunity by the Democrats, partially because this emphasis on identity is the way it is.  Not in the sense … that you view it, in terms of – we really can know one another, we can get to know one another, we can empathize with other people if we’re willing to talk to one another. It seems like that’s very rare.  I don’t see that changing within the next cycle.”
Zach – “I’m afraid that I have to agree with that analysis.  I don’t think it’s going to change. I think if it does change it’s going to be incremental, it’s going to be slow. Any time you have a change like that, especially when we’re talking about our entire electorate, it’s probably going to take – and I consider the 2016 election to be this – some kind of tragedy. Something that shakes people up so much that it brings people together in a way that normalcy doesn’t. In a way that the normal challenges we face in a daily news cycle don’t.  I wish that weren’t the case, but I do think that is the case.  I think that, given the way that media works in our society, corporate media as well as social media, the way in which we’re so often exposed to information that reinforces our own biases, information that makes it more difficult to be critical thinkers and receivers of information, we retreat to our own silos and we stay there and we’re comfortable there. And all the norms of our society reinforce that.  That anger is reinforced and rewarded. You get a pat on the back, on twitter you get retweeted, you get a comment, you get a like, you get a share, and I worry about that. What are the effects of living in a world where there’s so much information and there really is no news anymore? Everything is opinion news. That’s a big problem. I think that’s really contributing to identity politics and reinforcing it in ways that can be detrimental.”

Watch Zach’s Ted Talk, “Why It’s Worth Listening to People You Disagree With”. 

Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News. Lucas is also a writer and podcaster, with interests in science, religion and politics.

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