Zachary R. Wood is on a mission to encourage open conversations about hard topics. Currently a political science and philosophy major at Williams College, he has served as co-president of Uncomfortable Learning – a student group that has sparked national controversy for inviting provocative speakers to the campus. Though not yet out of college, his first book, Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America, will be published in June by Penguin Random House. His writings have also recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Nation, andThe Weekly Standard, among other notable publications. His 11-minute TED main stage talk from last month in Vancouver has just been posted. You can watch it below. Yet be warned – his direct and clearly articulated message just might challenge you to your core.
I would like to be able to say that, at least from time to time, I engage in the kinds of open conversations about hard topics that Zachary is talking about. But if I’m really honest, I can’t. These conversations are not completely foreign to me, yet I can’t say that I seek them out on a regular basis. For all of us who are striving to make a difference in the world and who like to feel like we are fostering a more transformational culture in our communities, companies, organizations, and families, this young man has something to teach us. I am humbled by his courage and commitment to addressing the enormous gaps in our society, whether racial, political, economic, or ethical.
Zachary fully acknowledges how uncomfortable the path he is walking is, both for him and for others. He also fully recognizes the legitimate pain many people have suffered because of the ideas expressed and actions taken by some of the people he seeks to engage.
Yet he also says, “Tuning out opposing viewpoints doesn’t make them go away, because even though large numbers of people may disagree, millions of people actually doagree with them. In order to understand the potential of society to progress forward, we need to understand the counterforces. By engaging with controversial and offensive ideas, we can find common ground – if not with the speakers themselves, then with the audiences they may attract or indoctrinate.” Zachary goes on to say, “By engaging, I believe that we may reach a better understanding – a deeper understanding – of our own beliefs and preserve the ability to solve problems. Which we can’t do if we don’t make an effort to talk to each other and make an effort to be good listeners.”
A little later in the talk, Zachary speaks about what is happening on college campuses and the anger that he sees there. “And I get it. But what I wish I could tell people is that it’s worth the discomfort – it’s worth listening – and that we’re stronger, not weaker, because of it. What I’ve found is that, while it can be difficult to change the values of a community, we can gain a lot from individual interactions.”
Zachary concludes, “It’s my belief that to achieve progress in the face of adversity, we need genuine commitment to gaining a deeper understanding of humanity. I’d like to see a world with more leaders who are familiar with the depths of the views of those they deeply disagree with so that they can understand the nuances of everyone they are representing.” It’s all about “building empathy and understanding through engaging with unfamiliar perspectives.”
Watch, listen, and feel. What do Zachary’s words touch in you?
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