“Can We Talk”: Penn Badgley and Dr. Mowzoon Talk Empathy

Feeling frustrated with the lack of social progress in our volatile society, beloved local actor Penn Badgley has teamed up with Dr. Nura Mowzoon for a collegiate lecture series called “Can We Talk?” where the pair emphasize how the roots of social change can grow through meaningful interactions with each other’s differences. 

Surrounding what seems like every conversation in today’s atmosphere are extreme forms of division. It is trendy to identify with the “side” you agree with and to act like a representative for that ideology when conversing with someone who has an opposing view. This phenomenon ends many conversations in anger, which impedes our ability to influence and learn from one another through dialogue. Both Badgley and Mowzoon noticed our culture’s reluctance and decided to use their combined notoriety to make a tangible and transactional change. 

“On any issue, there are countless sides, but we always act as though there are only two,” Badgley told The Oracle. “What we are considering is understanding the origins and the manifestations of hate and what it takes to overcome it, if we can agree that love is the answer.”

Mowzoon, a professor of social sciences who teaches classes specifically on love and relationships at Arizona State University, noticed that her students held unrealistic expectations on human connections due to the dramatized and overly-stereotyped versions of them that are displayed in TV and movies. Social media is no help either; it has destroyed people’s ability to have difficult conversations in-person since they could now take place anonymously behind a screen  without the awkward moments and backlash that sometimes arise from a dispute. These factors, among others, are what drove Mowzoon to realize that part of the world’s stagnation in areas of social change comes from people’s unwillingness and/or incapability of empathizing with one another through disagreement.

“Going into a conversation, you can’t even start unless you actually care about knowing the other person’s context better,” said Mowzoon. “It’s really important to look for points of agreement. It creates a connection and makes people see that they’re not polar opposites. Psychologically, the defenses will just start to melt. It’s also important to remember that you’re not doing this with the agenda of changing the other person at the end. You’re doing it to show them that you’re not an enemy, that you care and that it is possible to have these conversations civilly.”  

The renowned professor came up with the idea for the series around the same time Badgley’s Netflix series “You” was becoming popular; she figured that his platform as an actor would bring more attention to the conversation. 

“I thought he would be a relevant media figurehead that could be interested in something like this,” Mowzoon said. She and Badgley share a mutual friend, which was how the two got in touch. “I reached out to Penn and within the week, he was like, ‘I’m down.’”

The two began traveling to schools across the U.S., drawing large crowds of students at DePaul University and San Diego State. They frame the series through the therapeutic work that Mowzoon has done with couples and small groups, which centers around ideas of empathy for your loved ones. They then apply that same logic to people who don’t inherently love each other to show that empathy goes beyond family and friendship and should be utilized in understanding the universality of the human condition. 

“It might sound kind of corny, but we really believe it to be true that you approach this conversation with love for our fellow human being,” Mowzoon expressed. 

But finding love for everyone can be daunting, especially when the person you’re being told to love could be your oppressor.

“Penn and I are both members of the Bahá’í faith, which is a religious minority that faces heavy persecution regularly, and my background is from Iran. I do know a little bit of what I’m talking about when it comes to showing love for the oppressor,” Mowzoon expressed.

The Bahá’í faith is a religion founded by Baháʼu’lláh in 1844, who taught the “need to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life.” People who practice the Bahá’í faith believe in the fundamental unity of all religions and the abolishment of any form of discrimination. Unfortunately, people who practice the Bahá’í faith are subject to persecution in various countries, especially in Iran, where the religion was created.

“We try to apply our best understanding of these teachings to everything we do. We wouldn’t be doing this, if that wasn’t the case,” Badgley expressed. 

Mowzoon was born into the faith, but Badgley discovered the teachings through “a process of personal, spiritual and social seeking.”

“That’s the driving force behind what we’re doing,” Mowzoon said, “creating a feeling of connection and oneness.”

The series itself still has much traction to gain. “Two weeks before we flew out to Oregon State, COVID hit and the country shut down. You guys kind of caught us when we’re about to make it a little more public.” 

Trying to bring more attention to the talk series is no easy task. However, “It’s an interesting game, getting everything lined up when Penn’s not filming or doing press and when school is in session. So there’s very small windows where the stars can align,” said Mowzoon. Over the past few years, the two have only been able to visit about four schools due to the pandemic and scheduling difficulties.

“It only becomes more relevant and pressing every day,” said Badgley, in reference to his lecture’s significance. “Meaningful social change does begin with a meaningful conversation — and it can be just between two people. If you understand how a productive conversation functions between two people, we can then begin to theorize how it may look on a larger scale with more people.”

Badgley and Mowzoon both hope to speak at NYU in the upcoming months and are working on a website, as well as increasing their general social media presence. They want to visit more universities and hope to make more formal announcements about the series in the near future. To keep up with the program, you can follow them on Instagram @canwetalkseries.