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Honoring the Humanity of Our Neighbors (with Tim Brauhn) [Podcast]

Tim Brauhn is a long-time interfaith activist and conversation partner to many. He attempts to approach every conversation by remembering that anyone he encounters most likely has much more in common with him than the things they disagree (even heatedly) about. In this episode, he shares the values he brings to dialogue, and highlights the work of Islamic Networks Group, a network of teaching and community resources for strengthening relationships in the civic space.

Episode Transcription

Stephanie:       You’re listening to In Times Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt.

Stephanie:       Tim Brauhn has long worked at the intersections of dialogue, digital camaraderie and heartfelt collaboration. Currently he’s at Islamic Networks Group. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s exemplified kind, accurate and civil conversation in contentious Facebook threads. In this episode of In Times Like These, he helps me understand why it’s important to keep talking with those who share ideas abhorrent to us and reminds us that some of the most important work we can do as allies is to let others speak.

Tim:                 So, 24 years ago … Next year’s our 25th anniversary, which is pretty cool. 24 years ago the bosses, Maha Elgenaidi and our content director Ameena Jandali got together to create an organization that could fill a very noticeable gap in public knowledge about Islam and Muslims. There were rampant stereotypes back then just as there are now. The broader context of irrational fear of Muslims has never really changed. Doesn’t matter who’s in office. So seeing a need for responsible, culturally appropriate, well researched education about this topic, they started working with high schools, and universities, and civic organizations, and government groups, hospitals, HR professionals, all kinds of people to basically bring real-life Muslims into a room and say, “All right, well, here’s the rundown of how I practice my religion, and now ask me a whole bunch of really prodding, occasionally awkward questions and I will answer them honestly.” The goal being to introduce and humanize people who otherwise would have been stereotypes in the 1995 Disney classic Aladdin, which is a very poor way to introduce you to the idea of Islam.

Stephanie:       So, 24 years ago, I was in elementary school in Southern Illinois. You know, Aladdin was probably the first … Probably one of the first big movies I saw that was in another culture with heroes and heroines that didn’t look like me and Cinderella. So, was that a touchpoint for conversations around The Middle East?

Tim:                 The … When ING got kicked off, The Gulf War, I believe had just wrapped chronologically. And at that time a lot of Americans had come to know about The Middle East more broadly, I guess through that war, which is not a good way to learn about another culture. That on top of movies like Aladdin is kind of a rough way to get aquatinted with foreign cultures. And that caused a lot of problems. So, even people who are more or less convinced that Muslims were just normal, all of the sudden conflated them with both Arabs and all these dangerous tropes about like, cutting off hands and camels and that kind of thing, which isn’t remotely close to the truth. So, ING worked to train people to talk about these things and to have honest, open conversations with people about their faith and culture and families and history and all those pieces.

Stephanie:       Great. I love the phrase you used. You said, “Responsible, culturally appropriate education.” And responsible isn’t a word that I hear a lot. You talk about, oh, we need to learn about this. We need to talk to these people. Tell me more about what that looks like in your experience. Describe a really good example of responsible, culturally appropriate education.

Tim:                 In the context of ING’s work, there are two … Well, there’s like six large thematic areas that we work in, but two of the bigger ones are The Islamic Speakers Bureau, which is taking real-life Muslims, putting them in rooms full of people and having them talk. The other one is a robust online curriculum grouping. So we have six or seven or eight … I should know this because I run the website, but a couple different curricula that are free for educators to use at the high school, middle school, college levels. And the side of the curriculum, that’s easy because we spend years putting these things together, talking to scholars from you know, legal realm, religious realm, American political history…All these things to put together a product that doesn’t really pull any punches. It explains actual history and cultural things and religious teachings and then gives it to educators in a way they can present to the class more easily.

Tim:                 On the Islamic Speakers Bureau side, the responsible part is learning about Islam and Muslims from actual Muslims, which far too often is not the case. The talking heads on TV are often … You know, they’ll be called security experts. I’m doing air quotes right now. Security experts or you know, experts on Middle Eastern politics or something. And generally they are not Muslims and generally they have a fairly negative outlook on the religion as a whole. And learning from them is not particularly appropriate and is definitely not responsible, because if you want the truth, you should get it from the horse’s mouth. And the horse, in this case, is your regular old American Muslim.

Stephanie:       Right. So, I get asked this question a lot when I’m doing community work. And people feel a little scared and hopeless. Like, why, why are we still afraid of other people? Why do we always find a class of people to discriminate against and stereotype? The organization has been doing good work for two decades. Lots of, you know, we both know lots of incredible organizations have been doing this work. What is it … I don’t know. What is it about this time in history? What is it about the US? What is it about human nature? Like, how do you grapple … How do you wrap your head around our human tendency to other. And is it a hopeless situation or is there … Can we do this? I mean, do we just give up? Or do we keep doing what we’re doing?

Tim:                 Giving up is easy, so I am attracted to that option, but it’s not really viable. Humans … I remember writing this in like a freshman year ethics paper or something. It was like, you know 10,000 years ago the bear clan and the wolf clan clashed because bear clan guys were like, “Ugh, wolves? Wolves are the stupidest.” And the wolf clan guys were like, “Ugh, bears. Yuck.” And we’ve been doing that for a very long time. Until, I think, recently the flattening of information access was … That was kind of like a mitigating factor for people aligning on different sides of important issues. So for a long time you would have a very tiny group on one end of a bell curve, maybe, to help visualize it. And those people say in this example, were terrified of anyone who was not like them.

Tim:                 And all the way on the other end of the bell curve is this tiny group of people who are like, “Oh, other cultures are fascinating. Let’s learn more. And you know, steal the good things that they have and you know, merge them together and have some kind of synthetic super thing like, America.” And then in the middle is giant, mass of people who didn’t particularly align either way or they just didn’t care. Didn’t have time for it. And until, I think somewhat more recently, having more access to information, not always good information, has made that group less large. It’s pushed down and made people slide to either side of that curve. So, now there’s a much larger group of vociferous, essentially frightened by difference people. And on the other side there’s a big group of people who think, “No, no, no. Can we please just all get along? And, My God, once you cut us open we all look the same on the inside, that’s what matters.” Probably not a good analogy, cutting people open.

Tim:                 But, the group in the middle is still pretty big, it’s just smaller than it used to be. And so that’s why I think it feels much more present, the idea of other-ing people. And that group in the middle still needs to be convinced one way or the other. And the more of them lean toward the side of, “Hey, I’m okay, you’re okay.” The smaller and angrier that last tiny xenophobic piece gets and the more and more ridiculous they look to other people who actually, like value compassion and stuff.

Stephanie:       Good. So, you are one of two or three people that I learn from you almost every time I see you interacting on Facebook. Like, for years, I just … You are able in a forum that makes lots of us feel like our worst selves, like our most insecure selves, like our most self-righteous selves. You are able to communicate in a way that I think is authentic and compassionate and yet, you don’t give anything away. So for example, I was in a taxi cab recently in Atlanta and the guy … It was a white taxi driver, an Uber driver. And he was like, “What do you do?” And I’m like, “Oh, I do interfaith work.” And he was like, “Ugh, Muslim people, why do they oppress their women?” And, I wanted … Part of me was like, I need to bring up culture. I need to bring up my Pentecostal cousins who also dress modestly and nuns.

Stephanie:       And then I was like, “Well, I’ve only got two more minutes left in the drive.” What do I do? What do I say? I don’t know this guy. And I’m a woman, I’m alone in the cab. But, I’m also like, “no, I have a PHD in this. I have a lot of … right?” Like, my PHD is in Religion Education, how do I not take this opportunity? And I feel that way a lot on Facebook. And it’s really scary. And if it’s scary for me, I have a PHD in this and a lot of social capital, why is it so hard and why are you committed to not de friending people when they say something that is like, so ignorant and hateful. Like, how do you do what you do in that space and why do you keep doing it?

Tim:                 I think that’s … I have gotten that particular question about like, how to maintain and moderate and facilitate discussion without becoming a shouting person a number of times in recent years. And I think it stems at a deep level from, you know being eager to please and wanting people to get along. That’s just kind of what I’ve always leaned towards, I just don’t like conflict, I hate it. And being able to have a constructive dialogue or debate in any case rests on a couple very simple, but sometimes difficult to get around foundations. One of them is remembering that in any interaction, the person that you’re talking to might have a particular viewpoint that to you seems from another planet or you know.

Tim:                 So, in any interaction there are ideas that people have. Maybe they’re friends, family they could be colleagues. They might hold ideas that you find morally, pragmatically, socially reprehensible. Gays aren’t real people. The earth was created 6,000 years ago. Any of those things make it seem that you could never relate to that individual.

Tim:                 On the other hand, every morning that person wakes up, probably has some water or coffee or something, eats toast. They have lunch, they have crappy commutes. They get into arguments with their spouses. They own pets. They hate pets. They love to travel. They hate to travel. They went to a private college or went to a state school. There’s all these other pieces of them that are entirely pedestrian and don’t particularly have an impact on what they believe about the fundamental nature of reality.

Tim:                 And for all those other things, those are parts that we don’t have a problem with because it’s ridiculous. Like, oh … You have soft-boiled eggs in the morning? No sir, only hard-boiled for me. That’s an idiotic thing to worry yourself around. So, knowing that for 99% of a person’s life, the things that they do and believe are of either no consequence to you or are so banal as to be impossible to worry about. At the end of the day drunk uncle still loves his kids. And you know, I don’t know, even neo-Nazis get skinned knees. I’m not sure. It’s just about the basic idea of humanizing people who have disgusting viewpoints. Sometimes those viewpoints translate into policy, which is terrible. But for the largest part of their being they’re just a person like me and recognizing and honoring that in a way that is honest to me and to my intellectual inquiry and to them as a person is really, really important. Because if you lose track of the base-level humanity of other people that you’re in conversation with, then all of the sudden you are as bad as you think they are. Which is a very, very big problem.

Tim:                 So, whenever I get into an interaction where I’m fairly certain we’re going to orient around things really differently, I remember, Okay, this person is just trying to get by like me and they happen to believe these two or three things that admittedly are tremendously important to human lives. But, they’re not a monster. That makes conversation really, really hard because we want to be able to have monsters. But, especially in cases those monsters are our family, that just doesn’t work. That’s not a viable debate or dialogue.

Stephanie:       Thank you. Thanks for listening to In Times Like These where we explore issues of politics and faith and learn from one another how to navigate difference for maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.

Ways to listen to this episode:

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why it can be so hard to broach difficult subjects when we disagree with loved ones (and strangers)
  • How to use best practices (for teaching and community events) in cultural diversity in your context
  • How the Disney movie Aladdin set a strange and problematic course for perceptions of Islam and the so-called “Arab world” in the West
  • When to let our differences be the most important thing in dialogue, and when to let them go

Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:

1. “Why are we still afraid of other people?”

Hopelessness can often creep in when we spend our days reading media that underscores our difference. Even when we know that other humans are potential friends and neighbors, we often fall prey to paralyzing fear (and stereotypes) about others. Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

'Why are we still afraid of other people?' Listen now: Click To Tweet

2. “Giving up is easy, but it’s not really viable.”

When you’re working in contentious times, it can seem that we will never really get along. Our differences seem too intractable. So why are we still teaching, learning, voting, legislating? Over time, as we are able to share more respectful ideas and build community, we see (to our surprise) that the group of people most opposed to diversity is, in fact, getting smaller. We must continue the work of getting to know our neighbors.

'Giving up is easy, but it’s not really viable.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

3. “Why are you committed to not defriending people?”

Especially since the last US presidential election, many of us find ourselves in emotional conflict with colleagues, friends, family, and loved ones on social media (and in person). And when our emotions are inflamed, we often react by blocking. Why should we remain in relationship with those who upset us?

'Why are you committed to not defriending people?' Listen now: Click To Tweet

Mentioned on the episode:

How to connect with Tim and with us:

You can find Tim’s website here. He’s also on Twitter @TimBrauhn. You can also connect with the Islamic Networks Group on Twitter @ING_org and on Facebook here.

You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes. And you can always connect with us at CLU on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts linked here.

Like the show? Help us spread the word by giving us a rating and review on iTunes!

About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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