What I Cannot Change

One of the most unpleasant obligations that one faces as a just person–and not just someone who wants to appear just–is the burden of speaking unpopular truths.  Another obligation, and one that is equally uncomfortable, is to hear unpopular truths.  Yet it is an aspect of our natures that we will not hear unpalatable truths unless they are said in a fashion that is communicated with love and respect.  If we desire other people to change, we have to recognize that we as human beings are strongly resistant to change, and will generally only change peacefully when we feel comfortable and safe.  Those changes that are coerced on people will be fought and resented till kingdom come.  This is something that would-be reformers simply do not understand.  To be sure, they are equally resistant to being told about their own sins and flaws and need to change, but they are impatient to change others and to change the world according to their own flawed and biased vision.  And the lack of respect for others makes efforts at change far more violent and hostile than needs to be the case.  Those who are impatient about change need to reflect upon the fact that eternity is at stake, and compared to that the years and decades and generations we worry about the pace of change are entirely worthless.

So, in the interests of discussing why it is that the pace of some changes are so slow, it is time for us to take seriously the fears and concerns of those whose perspective is seldom heard or respected when it comes to society, and that is the point of view of white, and frequently Southern, conservatives.  Although admittedly this has not been a point of view I am very sympathetic with, it is well worth hearing because the pace of change can only be accelerated to the extent that it feels safe for people to do so.  And threatened and harassed and disrespected people tend not to feel safe with any change at all nor do they well regard those who view them with contempt.  To the extent that we genuinely care about change and not with merely appearing to be just in the eyes of whatever subaltern group we view as possessing some sort of victimization cred, we must respect the sensitivities of those whom we wish to persuade to make some kind of change that we wish and prefer, and that may even be in their own best interests.  Again, this change must be freely given and cannot be coerced, and efforts at coercion will generally backfire and delay or reverse the course of change altogether, which is clearly not what those people desire.

If we look at the ethnic conflicts in the United States, we will see that most of them are strongly connected to histories of conquest.  Even the resentment felt by many Southern whites is deeply connected to the conquest of the South in the Civil War, which forced upon the South the extinction of slavery and the destruction of the wealth and power that the region had built up.  Even in the North, with far fewer blacks at least in the 19th century relative to the South, there were tensions whenever blacks were viewed as competition with poor whites when it came to wages, which led to blacks being banned from such states as Illinois and Oregon during the mid-1800’s, and to riots against blacks such as the Irish-led draft riots of 1863.  Similarly, the promise to poor Southern whites that race was enough to make one a natural aristocrat despite one’s poverty was highly appealing to those whose lives were greatly harmed by the general depression on living standards that comes when free labor is put in competition with slave labor, and where work is looked down upon as being servile and dishonorable.  To the extent that one group can be pitted against another in competition for scarce resources of jobs and honors, people in those groups find that gains given to one are threats to the well-being faced by the other.  This was true in the early centuries of America’s history and it is still true to this day.  Obviously, the extent to which this competition and this scarcity can be limited can encourage less intergroup hostility, since it is easy for people to be pitted against each other.

If you want to encourage some sort of change, one of the most obvious things one can do is to go to the people whose resistance to the change is greatest, and to listen to them and take their suggestions and to figure out what about the change is most worrisome and threatening to them.  Somehow no one thinks to do this.  By and large, change efforts are forced from above by people who are not asked to change or learn anything on people who are asked to keep up with their tasks while being forced to learn new ways of working and living and behaving and who are understandably less than happy about being coerced in such a fashion.  To the extent that we are able to understand the point of view of those who are being asked to change, and to address their concerns in a fair way that makes as few demands on them or that provides as many benefits to them as possible, that resistance to change can be overcome graciously.  Most of the time, though, efforts to change are trumpeted from above, fail because they are unrealistic and fail to address the concerns of those below, and simply fail to work.  This is true in business, in politics, in religion, and in a great deal else besides.  Rather than demonize those who are resistant to change, we can use that as a signal that we are simply not respecting them and their concerns enough, and that if our desire for change was urgent and serious enough, we would.

Why is this so difficult?  When we show contempt to others whose change in some areas is slower than our own, it is of vital importance that we reflect upon the ways that we ourselves are prejudiced and highly resistant to change.  Do we appreciate when others tell us how our own behavior falls short of God’s standards in the Bible, or of the societal standards of decency, or of the expectations of those with whom we have to deal?  No.  Do other people inform us of these shortcomings and bring them to our attention in the most gracious way possible?  Not often.  Do they think they are doing well by awkwardly forcing upon our attention things that we do not want to hear and that we may lash out against?  Without a doubt.  Yet while we all know and resent the way that people try to coerce us to change, we tend to think that it is somehow different when we are the ones trying to coerce others to change.  When we believe ourselves to be enlightened and just and others to be unjust and ignorant, how patient are we with the struggles of others to learn and grow and change?  Often, not very patient.  And even if we are, by our lights, we will still frequently come off as being superior to others simply because of the imbalance between our position of strength and theirs of weakness.  However difficult it is to be empathetic to those who are different from ourselves, it is more striking that we seldom try to put ourselves in the perspective of others and recognize that the responses that others have to our efforts at pushing them is similar to the response that we have when others push us.  And yet we seldom stop to recognize how this aspect of our shared human nature could potentially unite us by allowing us to see others without viewing them with contempt.  But if we truly desired change, and not to be seen as something special, it would be more common to see humility and reflection rather than posturing and virtue signalling across the land.  And instead of asking others to bow down to us because of some imaginary historical guilt, we would bow down to God and ask Him to forgive us for our own pride and arrogance of heart, and for the blindness of our own ways.  For few are blind guides to the extent that would-be reformers are, and few more ignorant of the darkness inside their own hard hearts.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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