On October 1, 2019, the DePaul University Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education welcomed Dr. Ceasar McDowell to deliver the 2019 Ikeda Lecture, “Dialogue in Demographic Complexity: Overcoming Our Discriminatory Consciousness.” Professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, McDowell is internationally renowned for his work on dialogue and voice in the development of community knowledge systems, civic engagement, peace, and the education of urban students. The lecture was attended more than 300 students, faculty, public school teachers, and community members.

Institute director, Jason Goulah, introducing Ikeda’s Harvard lecture

Institute director Jason Goulah welcomed McDowell and framed the lecture’s theme with remarks from Ikeda’s 1993 Harvard address.

McDowell opened his lecture by describing how we live in the midst of fear and hope, disconnection and courage, climate change and determination, and traditions that are binding us and interests that separate us. He sees this complexity as our challenge and the source of our effort for more equity.

McDowell then spoke about his efforts to provide frameworks and tools that allow for demographic complexity, where what we often think of separators can be agents for peaceful coexistence. He sees the current effort for democracy as not set up for the whole of complexity, and the underlying assumption is a system of exclusion. He argued, “the challenge before us now is how do we actually design a system [where the] fundamental premise is including. And for me that is the work and that is the challenge that we have for democracy in this country.”

Sharing some frameworks for designing engaging communication, he emphasized the importance of allowing members of the public to express themselves in dialogue, making their lived experiences named and heard. In this process, he stressed, “we have to pay attention to how we are dealing with the issues of healing because the reality is that most of us are dealing with trauma in our relationships with others.”

For a meaningful dialogue, McDowell argued, having “empathy” is important because empathy enables us to understand others’ situations better, reflect on our values and identity, and relate to other people. However, McDowell also identified “the dark side of empathy.”

Citing a neuroscience study, he explained how empathy can actually cause distress in our own body, and this can lead to aggressive behavior of listeners because they want to relieve the pain they are feeling.

Sharing the words of Shakyamuni from Ikeda’s 1993 Harvard address that “I perceived the single invisible arrow piercing the hearts of people,” McDowell saw discriminatory consciousness in our unreasonable emphasis on difference. He stated, “We may need empathetic dialogues to recognize the wounds caused by the piercing discriminatory arrows but we can only heal those wounds with compassion.”

How then do we bring this kind of compassion to our dialogues? McDowell said, “The first step is to be gentle to each other.” In this time of transition, when we feel frustrated by the seeming inability to make great changes in perceived structural flaws, we do not have the language to address what it means to be gentle to each other. But McDowell stressed, “sometimes you have to look back and look for the desperation we need. I think [such reflection is] the core vision on how to be gentle living in the transition in the world.”

McDowell followed his lecture by an engaging dialogic Q&A with the audience. One audience member, acknowledging the polarizing discourse that is prevalent in society, asked “How do we get to the point where we can institute the kind of dialogue we need to have when people don’t even want to show up unless there’s some great fight happening?”

McDowell shared his belief that it’s not that people only want to show up for the polarizing discussion, but that is all they are asked to show up for. He explained [people] are not listened to “in the human way.” He then discussed the question campaign he conducted–and continues to conduct–where people are asked to share their questions about the future of America. He said “I believe people contribute because what’s going on in the country is exactly the project of America’s future.” Then, people who have similar questions were invited and asked to have conversation with each other. He said “the point of conversation is not to answer the question… One goal is to have people share what in your life experiences got you to this question because that’s what we don’t know. If we don’t understand this, there’s no way we can solve the problem…I think people want to be part of those conversations.” Observing how the public conversations are often set up to divide people, McDowell called for conversations that connect the public.

For more on Dr. McDowell’s views on voice and dialogue, see his chapter in Peacebuilding through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution, Peter N Stearns, Editor, Forward by Daisaku Ikeda (George Mason University Press)

2019 Ikeda Lecture flyer