Associate professor of philosophy Maureen Linker held a workshop on Friday, Oct. 2 which coincided with the recent publication of her book, Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice (University of Michigan Press, 2015).

The workshop reiterated the book’s purpose: giving educators necessary tools to combat what Linker describes as “diversity fatigue.”

“The book provides a step-by-step method for more effective reasoning about socially divisive issues,” Linker said.

“Too often dialogues and conversations break down because the people involved have not critically examined their own biases and beliefs and how these may be interfering with their ability to assess evidence.”

Linker was inspired to write the book after her experiences as a teacher of critical thinking in metro Detroit for more than 10 years prompted her to view the city as a testament of many social issues faced by the United States as a whole.

“Coming from New York City, I had assumed I had a pretty urban and metropolitan perspective,” Linker said. However, after living and teaching here for several years I realized that the Detroit metro area, much more than NYC today, is a microcosm of every significant issue facing the United States.”

According to Linker, racial divides and economic hardships account for many of these issues.

“There are the urban, suburban, rural divides. There is stark racial and economic segregation, there is the loss of a manufacturing base, there were the foreclosures that hit the region hard, religious pluralism and community connections to international wars and there is the rise of a creative young urban class with gentrification becoming more of an issue. Dearborn is, in many ways, at the crossroads of these issues. There are incredible opportunities here for healing social divisions.”

Linker said that these social divisions are omnipresent and can be detrimental to the democratic process.

“Social divisions affect every aspect of our personal and professional lives,” Linker said. “Policing practices in neighborhoods, community protests over Mosques, the leaky pipeline for women in science and technology, whether a business or a government official can object to serving particular people because of a conflict with their personal values. All of these issues divide communities, cost tax payer dollars and present obstacles to effective democracy.”

Central to Linker’s book is Socrates’ aphorism “know thyself,” which refers to the practice of being self-aware.

“Socrates famously said ‘know thyself,’ and that may sound easy,” Linker said. “Knowing how to do calculus or engineer a bridge or compose a piece of music seems much more difficult. Yet, what Socrates’ is referring to is self-awareness.”

The lack of this self-awareness can lead to an incomplete sense of reality, Linker said.

“Too often we take our own belief system — the one we have developed growing up with our family and within our close knit communities — and take that to be the ‘truth’ or ‘real’ when in fact it is one perspective on reality. It is like seeing only one side of a coin and thinking that is the whole picture. ‘Knowing thyself’ refers to understanding how your belief system is relative to your standpoint, and understanding that those who have had different experiences will form different beliefs.”

Conversely, Linker said that the recognition of beliefs different from one’s own can result in gaining a fuller perspective.

“If you see the ‘heads’ side of the coin, you are right that it is a description of the coin,” Linker said, “but you are wrong if you deny that someone who only sees the ‘tails’ is also accurately describing the coin. The challenge is
for us to share our descriptions so that we get the full picture — the perspective from both sides.”

Linker believes that the challenge can be met more effectively.

“I believe we can do better,” Linker said. “What I mean is, we can do better than our current leaders at identifying and addressing these complex social issues.”

For Linker, the process begins in the classroom.

“The exciting thing about the classroom is that people with different points of view come together to learn,” Linker said. “It has been my experience that students with different perspectives and beliefs, who have a sincere desire to learn, learn the most from each other. However, without the tools and methods for creating a trusting, productive, low risk, high learning potential environment, the opportunities are lost. I hope the book will help teachers, community leaders and business leaders create more of those opportunities.”