Navigating Politics Using Benefit of the Doubt and Fairness
By Megan Saxelby
The goal of this series of Navigating Politics Articles is to demonstrate how focusing on specific Elements of Dignity will prepare your community to have better conversations about current events as well as increase your community’s ability to manage discomfort when discussions make people uncomfortable.
This post will:
- Introduce two new Elements of Dignity
- Give examples of how to use these two elements in your classrooms or communities
- Provide a role play to experience and grapple with Fairness and Benefit of the Doubt
Our last post gave an overview of Dignity and modeled using Dignity to have difficult conversations. Teaching others to frame their perspective in the context of the Elements of Dignity helps avoid personal attacks and promotes prosocial critical thinking.
Quick reminders about Dignity
- Dignity is the inherent worth and value of every human; everyone has it and everyone has the same amount. Dignity is different from respect: dignity is a given, but respect is earned or lost through an individual’s or a group’s choices, actions, and behavior.
- When we feel psychological distance from others it changes how we see them, what we think we owe them, and how we think we get to treat them. Using Dignity closes the gap between us and others.
- Having shared vocabulary turns conflict into an exercise of demonstrating social skills rather than a reflection on character. The Elements help you name your feelings, get your needs met, and have better relationships and discussions.
This post focuses on two more Elements:
Treat people justly, with equality, and in an even handed way according to agreed-on laws and rules. People feel that you have honored their dignity when you treat them without discrimination or injustice.
Benefit of the Doubt
Treat people as trustworthy. Start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
These are two Elements of Dignity that loom large when it comes to discussing politics and current events because:
People rarely extend Benefit of the Doubt to those they perceive have a perspective they disagree with. For example, if you have a student who loudly professes their affiliation for a specific political candidate, other students may have a hard time hearing their opinions with an open mind and assuming they have good motives.
Fairness is complicated since it is hard to have an agreed upon understanding because many agreed-on laws and rules do not extend dignity equally to all people and often have embedded bias. For example, in a school context, rules around dress code impact female students far more than their male peers. Numerous studies also show that Black students are punished within school at much higher rates than their white peers. In a political context, race plays a huge role when it comes to sentence length for a criminal offense.
Ways to use Benefit of Doubt and Fairness in your classroom or community
- Use Benefit of the Doubt as the foundational norm for class discussions. This means asking students to be generous in their assumptions of others and that listening means being prepared to be changed by what you hear. Using it to frame conversations can help prime the group to assume positive intent. However, extending Benefit of the Doubt does not mean students have permission to violate the emotional safety of others.
- Ask students to explore the definitions and have a seminar discussion about how these two Elements impact them personally and how they see them play out in the larger school community, discipline policies, and politics. Keeping discussion rooted in the Elements helps promote critical thinking because participants can’t make baseless claims, as well as keeping the analysis focused.
- As a mediation tool if students are in conflict. Ask them what is getting in the way of extending Benefit of the Doubt to each other, or why they are feeling a lack of Fairness. Have them make a list or share verbally as a way to coach them to think more deeply about the skill of conflict. Using these Elements provides shared vocabulary to coach students to frame disagreement and feedback as a skill, rather than personal attacks.
- As a mediation tool if you are in conflict with someone. Frame your feedback around how their words or behavior makes you feel a lack of Benefit of the Doubt or denies you Fairness, and how that impacts you. Avoid personal attacks.
- As an analytic tool for discussing legislation, policy, or other political topics. Ask your students to analyze through the lens of fairness and safety, using the definitions from these posts. Using a specific lens to think critically about an issue encourages students to take multiple perspectives and think more deeply about all sides. It is much harder to make hasty generalizations about an idea or topic when you have to dissect it.
Fairness and Benefit of the Doubt In Action: A Role Play
The Danger of a Single Story Lesson Plan below is an interactive role play, called Unicorns and Rhinos, that is an excellent introduction to the importance of Fairness and Benefit of the Doubt. The Role Play demonstrates how easy it is to create conflict by ignoring the needs, perspectives, and values of others.
The role plays offer narratives that prime each side to think they have the moral high ground when it comes to debating the ownership and use of public space. Students are given only one side of the argument, and primed to fight for their cause from a limited perspective.
I created this Role Play activity in the weeks following the 2016 Election. My students were agitated, upset, and having a difficult time creating space for others. I wanted to address the underlying issues my school community was facing and push my students to grapple with Dignity in practical application, not just as a concept we discussed in class.
I have used this lesson in middle schools, high schools, and as an exercise with parents and administrators.
Quick Tips to Increase Effectiveness:
- Do not tell students the goal of the lesson beforehand. Introduce it as a critical thinking exercise or a way to practice their debate skills. Prime their competitive natures.
- Plan to give this lesson time. The real work is in the unpacking and the processing after, so do not cram into one 45 minute class and then never discuss it again.
- Lean into the mess. Some students may disengage and say it’s dumb, some may get over the top invested, some may fall everywhere inbetween. Let the process unfold and try not to judge their reactions. It will get heated and that is okay.