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Sources for Engaging Difference in the Classroom

My research on how people in China define happiness shows that difference can be both fascinating and edifying. As a natural outgrowth of my research, I aim to captivate students with the vast and varied diversity of perspectives in the world.

“Assume that people’s actions make sense in some way,” I tell my students, “Especially if how it makes sense is not immediately obvious to you.” Sociologist Arlie Hochschild speaks of “the empathy wall,” an obstacle that prevents understanding among people. At Georgetown, students are eager to scale the wall, but no one can do it without help. I introduce students to the voices of those people who might feel differently about topics that seem to them self-evidently right. While everyone tends to shoehorn new information into ways we already think and grasp for quick certainties, the opposite may be what we need most in this world: the slow and difficult work of considering views that do not immediately make sense to us. There are moral languages that must be translated—rendered intelligible—for real mutual understanding to occur, as sociologist Richard Madsen has written.

I ask my students to look closely at Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, comparing it to the kind of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that they are used to thinking about. The government in Bhutan uses a measure of human well-being that includes cultural components—knowing traditional songs and rituals, and having skill in carpentry. Why? The Bhutanese concept of driglam namzha denotes conduct that is good for people, including etiquette and civility, which are embodied in that cultural knowledge.

In addition to expanding beyond the seemingly self-evident, my students read from a range of perspectives, from the surprising to the downright shocking (at least, to a Georgetown sensibility). I assign sociologist Jocelyn Viterna’s study showing that some women in the Salvadorean civil war enjoyed their work as guerillas and comrades, proudly embracing gruesome leadership positions. Perhaps more difficult to understand is anthropologist Jason Hickel’s book, which explains why some rural Zulu men in South Africa see democracy as an embodiment of death and sterility rather than an unquestionable good. Along the same lines, and perhaps most demanding of my students, are studies about why some women—for example anthropologist and activist Fuambai Ahmadu from Sierra Leone—might regard their circumcision as something civilized and honorable, more similar to male circumcision in Judaism than to a form of female genital mutilation, as others call it. 

How do I navigate these complex topics in the classroom? My strategy is to put a diversity of perspectives in front of the students. Alongside the (sometimes astonishing) sociological and anthropological studies that rely on fieldwork and ethnography, I ask my students to examine materials using language more familiar to the Georgetown environment, like World Bank press releases, World Health Organization website content, and speeches made by American presidents. I ask my students to compare them: How might someone in the field site feel about the language used in these published materials? 

In a recent class, I introduced the work of anthropologist Arturo Escobar. As someone born in Manizales, Colombia, Escobar personally felt the violence that development language in the 1950s (and beyond) inflicted on his own people by depicting them as helpless and formless (dark) masses, items to be counted and measured by demographers and nutritionists in their seemingly scientific discourse. We then looked at Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, in which he characterizes most of the world as “living in conditions approaching misery,” “victims of disease” whose economic life is “primitive and stagnant.” I asked my students: How do you imagine Escobar feels about Truman’s language and the representation of people (like him) around the world? 

I hope that I can teach my students to be unafraid of the slow, difficult work of being able to see from a variety of different perspectives. I want them to relish the challenge of achieving comprehension of different moral languages—especially those that are difficult to make sense of. After my students graduate, I hope they maintain a lifelong interest about the vast and varied ways of thinking in this world. That curiosity and appreciation will launch them over the empathy walls that might otherwise hinder their capacity to truly engage with people around the world.