I, like many people, find myself increasingly frustrated with much of the polarization in American society. Many people are frustrated and demanding change. However, while there are a number of voices demanding change, there is little agreement regarding what kind of change is needed and what is needed in order to bring about change. One thing that is often common, however, among those demanding change is a belief that it is "others" who need to change.
Often when we refer to "change" we are referring to something that "others" need to do rather than something we ourselves need to do. I believe it is this belief that "others" are the ones who need to change that contributes to much of the polarization in society today.
Unfortunately, media (especially social media) often strengthens and affirms our belief that it is "others" who need to change. Most people gravitate toward media sources that affirm many of the negative views/beliefs we have about "others." Most media sources function as "echo chambers" that filter the information we receive so that it supports our existing opinions and affirms and strengthens our belief that it is "others" who need to change.
Most social media sites present single ideological perspectives (e.g. "liberal," "conservative," "moderate," etc.) that resonate with the perspectives of the people visiting the sites. During my sabbatical this year, I am working to create a social media site that welcomes multiple ideological perspectives and that encourages engagement and interaction with and conversation across multiple perspectives.
I believe change is not primarily about persuading and convincing "one side" to see things the way that "another side" sees it. Instead, change is about all sides ending up with new perspectives that can only be arrived at through engagement with and understanding of others. My belief is that "change" is something that needs to be experienced (not merely demanded of others).
I believe in order to experience change, we have to be willing to deeply and reflectively engage ideas that challenge our existing opinions and ideological perspectives. One necessary component in promoting social change is a willingness to consider the possibility that our own individual perspectives (especially about "others") may need to change.
In order for us as a society to experience meaningful, lasting and transformative change, each of us has to be open to the idea that our own perspectives might need to change. Meaningful, lasting and transformative social change rarely happens if individuals are not open to the possibility of experiencing change. Simply demanding that "others" change usually leads to polarization rather than meaningful, lasting and transformative change.
If we as a society are going to experience the "change" so many people are clamoring for, we have to move beyond polarization. I'm not suggesting people will (or even should) agree on everything. Disagreement is not the cause of polarization. It is disrespect—not disagreement—that leads to polarization, and disrespect is almost always rooted in a lack of understanding. That is why another necessary component in promoting change is to genuinely seek understanding. And in this quest for understanding, we must seek to understand as much as to be understood.
Finally, in our quest to be understood, we must at all times ask ourselves how what we say and the way we say it encourages others to try to understand us. If we seek to be understood, we must give others a reason to want to understand us, and being disrespectful to others does not give others a reason to want to understand us. This is not an issue of being political correct; it is an issue of being respectful. If we are not willing and able to engage in respectful interaction with those whom we disagree and seek to understand, then we most likely are simply trying to change others rather than actually experience genuine transformative social change.
Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners "God's Politics" blog.