Portrait of Janice Stein
Munk School

“You Have to Be Optimistic”

Growing up Jewish in post-war Montreal, Prof. Janice Gross Stein learned to walk between two competing, conflicting worlds. She was neither French-Catholic nor Protestant, and was never fully accepted by either society. But that outsider status freed her to closely observe both cultures – and made her a lifelong believer in the power of deep, empathetic understanding of international conflict.

Respect for the complexity of the human experience has served her well:  Stein is a world-leading scholar of international relations and conflict management who founded the Munk Centre of International Studies (now the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy) at the University of Toronto and served as its first director; a position she held for 15 years.

Currently, Stein focuses on how ‘great powers’ compete with one another through their technology policies. She is frequently asked to share her expertise with governments and contribute to the public conversation through media appearances in Canada and the United States. For her novel work, including insights on the importance of psychological factors in foreign policy decision making, Stein has received some of Canada’s highest honours, including membership in the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario, and fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada. She is also an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science.

Stein has received honorary doctorates from universities in Canada and abroad. And on May 23, Johns Hopkins University, home to one of the earliest schools of global affairs, became the first American institution to grant her that recognition. She shared the stage with Stevie Wonder, opera legend Renée Fleming, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Wall Street financier Bill Miller, and the Vietnam war memorial designer Maya Lin.

Stein spoke with writer Heidi Singer about the honour, the state of the world – and her delight, as an opera fan, at the opportunity to meet one of her icons.

Let’s talk about your honorary doctorate. You are in great company.

My two sons were awestruck to be in a room with Stevie Wonder. I am dazzled by Renée Fleming who is an amazing woman. Opera is such a microcosm of life. When I am in the presence of people who are icons in their fields, you ask yourself, “what am I doing in that group?” I think I am not alone in having that feeling.

What do you think it means that you, a conflict management expert, are being recognized by global affairs colleagues at this particular moment in time?

People (have to) understand that human beings are complex -- emotional as well as rational. There are periods when the world is calmer and then when it is turbulent. We’re in turbulent times now where anxiety is very high about where the world is going. I’ve spent my whole career doing work that speaks to this moment. I think the biggest challenge right now is how you can talk with – not at – people who strongly disagree with you. At times now, if you disagree with me, you’re seen as a bad person. And that’s not a healthy way to live. It can destroy communities. Evil is less common than we think. To label someone as evil and to refuse to engage with them in any way is driving much of the polarization that is so corrosive of our societies. We need to do better.  And universities have an important part to play in helping us all to do better.

The Israel-Hamas conflict is of course incredibly polarizing. How do you stay true to academic values at a time like this?

It’s important to hear, to really hear, the stories people tell about themselves and their history. And there’s always more than one story. You have to be able to really listen and engage. In the Palestine-Israel tragedy, the story of one is the mirror image of the other. But neither side can hear that. What really matters is that you have empathy and that you can see the other person. When you can do that, you open up ways to have conversations and turn away from violence.

Empathy and conversation do not always lead to agreement. The mistake is to expect that there will always be agreement at the end of the process.  An agreement, if it comes at all, may come much later down the road. In the moment, we have to be humble enough to recognize that there is much that we don’t know and be able to hold two (conflicting) narratives at the same time.

I say to my students, “In universities we talk about difficult issues and we don’t suppress disagreement. We challenge each other all the time. It’s not enough to have feelings, you have to look behind the feelings and search for the facts. And then you have to reason from the facts and say what you think, but say it in a way that is least likely to inflict hurt on the person who’s sitting next to you.”

Right now we have a culture in which we often say things in the most hurtful way. Social media  is shorthand for all of that. People are rewarded for deliberately escalating the language in ways that are designed to shame and wound.  When people are hurt and frightened and angry, it is impossible to have a conversation and listen to the other story.  And then, there is no community.

In my class, we talked all year. And I spent two hours facilitating a discussion among Munk School students in January. As people felt heard, the temperature came down.

Have you found over the years that the desire to bridge divides is not really a value anymore?

Sadly, it is far less valued. Our political parties were once big tents. They bridged those divides inside the party. In Canada, Red Tories and right-wing liberals could bridge divides within their own parties and across parties. They were friends with people who didn’t share their perspective. Politics isn’t much like that anymore.

Is there hope?

Yes, of course. I am optimistic. If you’re not, you lose all willingness to engage. We have Israelis and Palestinians that come together and say we will live next door to each other forever, and therefore we have to find ways of bridging this divide. Even after Oct. 7 these groups continue to meet and work together and stand together against the violence. We have the capacity, but we have to do much more to support and reward people who are willing to do that hard work.  And here too, universities have an important role to play.

I notice that the people you’re most excited to share the stage with when you receive your honorary doctorate are artists. 

I remember at another graduation hearing a musician talking about what music meant to him and how it was a language for him. He was aware that not everybody could understand it but he wanted to share what he heard. For him it was all about finding ways to share with people the magic that he heard.  

I’ve tried to break out of this model of one-dimensional, rational, economic calculation that has so dominated economics and social science in the last century.  We need a richer understanding of who we are, and so I’ve always paid significant attention to humanities and the arts because they talk to us about the richness and variety of the human experience.

People want to be seen and to be heard. More than anything else they want you to see them and hear them. Yet much of what we do makes people invisible. We label them and fit them into tidy categories.   But there’s more than one story, even about one person. That’s the richness that the arts bring to our lives.

This genuine desire you have to see all sides of a conflict, where does it come from?

I had a really interesting family. I grew up in Montreal, which was a city with two cultures. And I was never fully accepted by either.  I was very aware growing up that there was tension between these two communities. Where else would I have been described as an  “allophone?” Not anglophone or francophone but ‘other’ phone! It means you don’t fit neatly into any box. I learned very early that there were two cultures -- two solitudes -- in Montreal and I had to understand both, or else I wouldn’t understand anything about my city.  And I learned as well that I could do that even knowing that  I wasn’t fully accepted by either. And I learned that I could understand the two cultures and still cherish my own.

My mother went to law school in 1939 at McGill University. She was among the earliest women to be admitted and she went knowing that women were not admitted to the bar in Quebec at the time. She knew she would not be able to practice. When I asked her why, knowing that she would be prohibited from practice she nevertheless committed to three years of advanced education, she said “I did it out of curiosity – I wanted to understand how law shaped society.”  Her intellectual curiosity led her to break the mold, and she was a great role model for my sister and for me.

Any final words of wisdom?

Canada right now, in so many respects, is such a wonderful country to live in, so welcoming and so open to different stories.  But I worry. When we scream at each other, and when adults model that behaviour for young people, we put everything generations have worked so hard to build at risk.  We risk tearing ourselves apart.

Are we going to get through this? Of course we are. The question for me is not whether we’re going to get through it but how much damage we are going to do along the way. That’s why I continue to do research and teach. My research tries to answer the question you asked me: what makes it possible for people to transcend the divide? My teaching is also very important to me. It always has been. I’m grounded when I’m with students because I understand the larger purpose.

Interview condensed for brevity.