Thursday, January 4, 2018

Working to overcome polarization

What can we do to work against and overcome polarization? In IDC terms, the next stage after Polarization is Minimization, which is characterized by focusing more on what we have in common with others than on the differences. This essentially represents a less negative experience of difference, as we discover the “common humanity” of those who differ from us. In our study abroad program (in the Middle East, in an Arab Muslim majority setting), this happens as our Christian, mostly anglo American and Canadian students begin meeting and relating to Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, and others (these categories obviously have some overlap with each other).

Our students meet people in different contexts – we have local people come in as speakers, talking about various aspects of Islam, local culture, politics, social issues, etc.; we arrange meetings with local young people, with both organized and informal interaction, and hanging out talking and getting to know each other; we do homestays with local families, during which our students have the opportunity to experience something of daily life with “regular” people; our students have the opportunity to observe prayer in a mosque as well as to attend a church service in Arabic; and of course there is the daily opportunity to interact with people on the streets, in shops, taking taxis, hanging in coffee shops, etc.

These opportunities, with a focus on learning and understanding – through interaction, asking questions, listening carefully – are at the heart of our students’ experience of “humanizing” the very different “others” they meet on their sojourn in the Middle East. These relational opportunities are transformational – as we “draw near” to others who are different than we are, they become “real” to us, comprehensible, relatable. We may not “agree” with them (about one thing or another – views of God, or of politics, or whatever), but we can understand and appreciate (beyond Minimization, this is a move into Acceptance – i.e., accepting others as the real and equally human beings that they are, different from ourselves but equally worthy of respect, understanding, etc.).

This is very difficult and challenging, and requires great intentionality and effort. We don’t “naturally” seek out relationship with those who are different from us, and especially not with those with whom we are polarizing. But the question is, do we want to overcome polarization? Do we want to learn to get along with, to live positively with, those who are different than we are?

If we do want this, the way forward is somewhat “simple” (though admittedly difficult) – we can work to overcome polarizing over difference by seeking relationship with those who are different than we are (here’s a life principle for you: the harder it is for you to understand an individual or a group, the more you need to pursue this approach with that individual or group). Seeking relationship involves seeking understanding, to enter in to the world of the other, their values, perspectives, etc. And this is the path of humanizing others, and coming to experience them much more positively.

Do you see the problem (of polarization)? Would you like to experience difference (and those who most frustrate you) more positively? Are you up for the challenge? It’s doable…consider finding someone “different,” whose views and perspectives you disagree with / don’t understand, and simply saying, “could we talk? I’d like to get to know you, and to understand your views of (/values in regard to)…”

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