Polarization or Reconciliation

John G. MacKinnon

Berry Street Lecture, 1971

 

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Washington, D.C.

June 7, 1971

 

          Contemporary American society is fraught with internal conflict.  Speakers and writers about the social scene usually describe this conflict in superlative terms.  We read or hear that in present day America there exists the most intense internal conflict, or the greatest degree of internal conflict; the most and greatest of any age in history and of any place in the world.

 

            As I hear or read such opinions, I have an automatic tendency to get my back up.  I respond to such use of superlatives with a negative mood, or at least with a serious question.  How thoroughly has the speaker or writer researched conflicts in relation to all of history or to the whole rest of the world?  Or how likely is he to be merely letting superlatives carelessly roll off his tongue or the point of his pen for dramatic effect?  Other times and places have been deemed by the participants therein to be highly fraught with internal conflict.  Who is appropriately equipped to compare moods in different times and places?

 

            Hence, while I want to begin by pointing to the intensive and extensive degree of internal conflict which afflicts our present society, my own caution restrains me from describing it in superlatives.  I just don’t know whether I can concur in the use of superlatives or not, to agree that the internal conflict existing in contemporary American society is deep enough and widespread enough to be a source of great concern to us who experience it.

 

            I see this concern as focusing on the question "How much internal conflict, and how intensive internal conflict can today’s American society handle without the destruction or loss of important values, or even of its coherence as a viable social system?”  I don’t know the answer to this question.  No one is able precisely to determine the exact degree of internal conflict our society can absorb and live with, without some degree of irreparable loss.  But there are certainly times when I find myself altogether "fed up” emotionally with conflict, as well as intellectually concerned for the continuing viability of our social structure.  I wish I could somehow call a halt to the inner conflict that continually harasses us.  I wish I could issue a magic clarion call for reconciliation to resolve and dissolve the polarization of our society.

 

            However, one does not contemplate issuing a call for reconciliation without finding himself pretty acutely aware of the forces of polarization bearing upon him, and demanding that he take sides even in an appeal for reconciliation.  Unless one sees the two forces of polarization as exactly equal in desirability, morality and feasibility—and very few of us can see them as exactly equal in all three—he finds himself under pressure from his fellows, from his own inner orientation and from his concept of society, to take sides.  He must even tailor his admonition to "cool it” so as to be of advantage to one force in the conflict or the other.  I suspect that the only alternative to seeing a call for reconciliation as tinctured in behalf of one conflicting interest or the other—except in the case of genuine neutrals or which I don’t know any—is to withdraw symbolically from society muttering a disgusted "curse on both your houses.”  Unfortunately there is no simple way for symbolic withdrawal to be actual withdrawal.

 

            We must, therefore, assess and describe the two major poles of conflict in society, for we cannot realistically hold ourselves aloof and pretend that they mean nothing to us, or have no effect upon us.  Insofar as the generalized nature of our continuing and ubiquitous conflict is concerned, these two conflicting thrusts can probably best be described as one desiring change and one desiring stability; as one wanting things to remain as they are, and one wanting things to become different from what they are.

 

            It is pretty futile to explore the "ifs” of history, much more the "ifs” of prehistory.  If evolution had resulted in self-aware, time-conceiving, articulate, manipulative entities (people) whose way of life was altogether solitary (except for one interpersonal relationship a year, or perhaps one in a lifetime for procreative purposes) the kind of activity which characterizes the dominant life form on the surface of the earth would be vastly different from that which we now observe.  There would have been less conflict, if for no other reason than there would have been far fewer people.  But, of course, evolution didn’t do this.  Instead it resulted in highly social beings whose principal tool of survival is effective social cooperation.  In this particular corner of the universe, one absolutely indispensable necessity for the continuation of human life is some set of arrangements which will ensure the social cooperation necessary for survival.

           

            These arrangements, even in the simplest human situations, have become very intricate and complex.  A social system consists of an accepted and operating pattern of relationships (courts, work patterns, media or exchange, educational practices and manners), a capital structure (factories, railroads, roads, cars, trucks, busses, mines, mills, buildings and machinery) and a method of manipulating resources (production and distribution of goods and services).  All this complex and highly interrelated system works to maintain human life; it is the sine qua non of all that concerns us; the process without which there would be nothing to be concerned.

 

            As a species, if there is one thing that has priority, it is to stay alive as a species; for everything we might consider of value or desirable must be secondary to this.  And staying alive as a species is dependent absolutely upon having a set of arrangements—a social system—by which and within which we can do what must be done to ensure the continuing life of our species.  Literally, our lives depend upon it.

 

            The inclination of those who choose to gravitate toward the opposite pole—the pole demanding change—is rooted in an acute awareness of, and an acute discontent with, components of the present social system which are poor, damaging or altogether deplorable in their effect upon certain values they cherish.  They are little concerned about the danger that change may result in a system that won’t work, won’t be able to maintain life.  Perhaps they are sure that the social system we have is durable and effective enough so that nothing can destroy or damage it, so that it can safely weather any change.  Perhaps their overriding concern with the defects of this system tends to black out attention to the question of survival.  Or, perhaps they really feel that no life at all is better than life with the defects they abhor.

 

            The last of these three considerations deserves some comment.  On has the right, of course, to select in his hierarchy of values, those which are more important than life itself.  One has the right to decide for himself that he would "Rather be dead than red” for instance; or that life without freedom—or justice—is literally not worth living.  He does not have the right to decide this for other people; to impose his personal hierarchy of values on others.  In my book, it is dirty pool for anyone—particularly a speaker or writer flinging his ideas on the scales of public opinion—to enunciate such a sentiment purely as a rhetorical ploy.  One ought to be very sure that he really would forego continued personal existence rather than be deprived of some value dear to him before he says so.  Even then, he has no right to decide for all men to forego species survival.  I suspect the species has instincts for survival which will put up with almost anything to maintain its continued existence.

 

            The polarization of our society, then, in the broad picture, seems to be between two groups.  There are those on the one hand who recognize their dependence upon a system of relationships, a capital structure, and a way of manipulating resources which is working effectively to maintain the continued life of the species, and who prefer to put up with its imperfections rather than to tinker with it.  There are those, on the other hand, who are sufficiently irked by the defects in this system to demand that these defects (one, or several, or perhaps everything about the system) be changed by whatever radical surgery is necessary to change them.  These two groups represent, of course, the extreme and clearly distinguishable poles of society’s polarization.  It goes without saying that many degrees, variations and combinations of these views and allegiances exist within the body politic of any society.

 

            The nature of the specific demands of those polarized for change differs, of course, in different social and economic systems.  Since my concern is primarily with polarization in America, I will not bore you with exhaustive, comparative and historical analysis of the varying form these demands take or have taken in other places and at other times.  In America the common underlying element in most of the demands of those polarized for change seems to me to be a concern for individual values—individual rights, privileges and powers—as contrasted to, if not in conflict with, the existing system of species survival.  Change is demanded because the present working and workable system does not, in the opinion of the demanders, deliver or guarantee to individuals enough value of the sort they want to satisfy them.

 

            I suspect that this thrust for more and greater individual value is probably a result of two things.  One is the capacity of our particular system of relationships, capital structure and manipulation of resources to produce materials and opportunities of living and achieving values in an abundant quantity.  Our system has created an affluent society.  In it the threat of immediate individual demise and disaster has been pushed far into the background for the overwhelming majority of people.  The system has been successful enough so that, in fact, few people are, or have to be, concerned with sheer survival.  There is enough fat in the system so that most people are secure and have extra resources above food, shelter and clothing.  They have the extra resources to seek and enjoy many additional values.  The absence of any need to be concerned with the bare necessities of living has created the demand for more than these bare necessities.  As this demand has expanded, it has become apparent that people do not share equally in the actual use and enjoyment of this extra fat in our system.  Many—some who themselves feel deprived and some who note and are concerned about the deprivation of others—are motivated to push for changes in the system which are expected to distribute its surplus more equitably among individuals.

 

            This surplus which the change-oriented want distributed more equitably consists not only of material goods, but also of the intangibles which we speak of as rights, privileges and powers.  These, too, probably these even more, are demanded of society, and changes are sought in the system in order to fulfill this demand.

 

            The other thing which has resulted in the particular tailoring of demands for change in America to individual values, I would assume to be the kind of instant communication which is the result of modern technology.  Not only are all aware immediately of the disparity of goods, rights, privileges and powers enjoyed by some but not by others, but articulation of this disparity, and of demands for change are so widely and immediately disseminated by the communications media as to be everywhere noted.  This feeds and augments the demand for change.

 

            I would hazard a guess that, particularly in the polarization we experience in America, and probably elsewhere as well, there is a great disparity in the degree to which protagonists have done their necessary homework.  This disparity does not result from any great difference between the status-quo polarized and the change polarized in ability, sincerity and seriousness, but probably from the difference in the requirements of homework to be done.  In general, to support the status quo, fully or in major part, doesn’t require much in the way of thoughtful analysis, anticipation of future consequences, or projection of feasible proposals.  Really, all one needs to know and articulate is the obvious fact that the system we have is working to enable the species to survive; and in our particular case to survive with a considerable amount of extra fat.

 

            The major exception to this non-need to do homework on the part of those polarized toward the status quo, lies in realizing that ultimately change of some sort is inevitable and in understanding the possible consequences if changes are too adamantly resisted.  Standpatters at the time of the French Revolution grievously misjudged this factor in failing to assess the seriousness or extent of the people’s discontent.  Probably devotees of the status quo overthrown by the Russian Revolution did some misjudging, too.  I suspect that they misjudged more their own ineffectiveness and the ability and determination of a small core of change-makers, than the mood of the masses of the people.  Perhaps a misjudgment of the possible consequences of atomic and nuclear weapons may be an error on the part of today’s status-quo polarized which needs to be corrected by more and better homework.

 

            However, the quality of the homework required of an effective advocate of change is of an altogether different order.  There are certain things he ought to know if he is going to push for change; and certain things that the public ought to (but seldom does) demand that he know and articulate.  By and large most of those most visibly polarized toward change do not know or express these things.

 

            One who demands change ought to specify precisely what particular change or changes he is demanding.  He ought to specify what the proposed change is a change to as well as what it is a change from.  He should do this in some detail, being sure himself that he knows how to alter the system so that it will, in fact, eliminate the factor or factors that cause his discontent and replace them with procedures that will correct the evils he decries.  He should be required to articulate this in convincing detail.  He should have planned carefully enough so that he knows a procedure (step by step) for getting from the status quo to the desired condition of his changed society; and he should be able to articulate his plan in such a way that his hearers will be convinced that it will work.  He should be sure, and able to convince people that his assurance is soundly based, that no other factors in the system of relationships, capital structure and manipulation of resources will be damaged in their effective operation by his proposed changes; so that the net effect will not be a loss instead of again.

 

            It is pretty easy simply to denounce and decry this or that defect or inadequacy of the way things are, and to demand that there be a change.  It is as easy as it is to denounce the denouncers and demand that the status quo be maintained.  With sufficient moving rhetoric to both of these ends, and sufficient coverage and dissemination of this rhetoric by the media of communications, it’s pretty easy for one to become a significant factor in polarizing society.  But, in the nature of the case, if effectiveness is to result, more and better homework is required of those who demand change.

 

            I do not think well of polarization as a way of getting things done, or as an appropriate climate to pervade a society.  There are many characteristics of polarization which contribute to the low esteem in which I hold it as a way of life or as a way of effecting decisions and actions in society.

 

            Polarization tends toward conflict if it is not, indeed, conflict itself.  Whenever opposing desires and demands in and of society exist, without adequate thought, planning and understanding of possible consequences (homework) by those on both sides of the issue, appeals are made primarily to emotion as the driving power of both attack and defense.  Emotional appeals for opposite positions do not often result in fruitful discourse or in mutual understanding, but in a drive on the part of each to smite the opposition hip and thing.  This, of course, creates the mood of conflict.

 

            A word that has come into widespread usage during the current trend toward polarization in our society is the word "confrontation.”  A contentious force demanding either change or non-change which is sufficiently polarized and charged up emotionally seeks a confrontation with its opposition.  Confrontations are seldom discussions or occasions in which to explore what might be done to resolve a problem.  Far more often they are occasions for enunciating nonnegotiable demands, for telling the opposition how it is, or for telling the opposition off.  Rarely does anything new in the way of ideas, programs or solutions find expression in a confrontation.  Most often both sides involved in a confrontation simply reiterate, with emotional force, their respective demands.  A dispassionate observer (if there were one) could almost write the entire script of a confrontation in advance.  Nobody learns anything new about the desires and demands at issue; the plans and programs proposed; the proposed solutions which might be advanced; or even the honest motivation of the participants.  One learns only the amount of strength which can be mustered on each side.  News reports of confrontations, insofar as what is said and how it is said have a boring sameness about them.  The only item of any variability is how much strength is mustered.  Hence the important thing in the news, and about the only thing that differs from one confrontation to another, becomes the report of how many people were involved.

 

            An extension of the confrontation is the showdown.  The showdown is accompanied by loud and insistent demands (often in the form of emotional slogans or battle cries) but seldom with any delineation of a program for achieving change.  Because of the activities of the news media (and showdowns are rarely arranged unless the news media are present and active) the demands are articulated to a vast public.  Usually little effort is made to communicate demands to the opposition.  The opposition gets them, like the public, through the news media.

 

            In the showdown (as contrasted with the confrontation) what becomes important is the amount of force (violent or nonviolent) actually exerted.  How many bodies were blocking the entrance to the selective service office?  Did they succeed in preventing its operation?  For how long?  How many police were used?  How many protesters were injured or arrested?  A showdown does not change the minds of the participants, nor except for the impact of the force brought to bear, does it change the minds of uncommitted onlookers.  If it exhibits and uses enough force on one side or the other, uncommitted people may be moved to choose up sides out of fear, or to get on what looks like the winning side.  But since it deals with the display or use of force rather than with reasonable proposals for change or non-change, it is difficult to see how it could change minds.  It may change emotions, and if there is any considered design in the manipulation of a showdown, I suspect this is what it is intended to do.

 

            Since the intellectual content of polarization, as manifest in confrontation or showdown, is minimal and the emotional content high, these manifestations tend to freeze participants on both sides into their preselected positions.  Particularly with the public looking on—and the news media see to it that the public is almost always looking on—physical or emotional assault is only able to fix and strengthen the emotional attachment of people to the position they already hold.  The only exception, of course, is to alter people’s positions through fear.

 

            Another unfortunate characteristic of polarization is that it easily transforms the issue in dispute into a moral issue.  We have such a high regard for morality, at least for the appearance of morality or for morality in others, that one who is committed wholly to a position as required in a polarized situation, must convince himself of, and proclaim to others, the unalloyed morality of his position.

 

            Therefore those who are polarized on one side or the other are—must be and must declare themselves to be—right (good, ethical, on the side of the angels) and their opponents must be wrong (evil, unethical and on the side of the devils).  It is difficult for the thoughtful, uncommitted man to be sure, always, what is right and what is wrong in our complex world.  But he who is sufficiently polarized has become a "true believer” and the true believer always knows without hesitation, doubt or equivocation what is right and what is wrong.  There may be some absolute measure of morality, but those of us who whom a supernatural arbiter of ethics has become a dim and unreal concept are inclined to doubt it.  We are inclined to doubt it until we become true believers in some polarized crusade—then we have no doubts.

 

            When all good is conceived as on one’s side in a polarized situation and all evil on the other, it is almost automatic to become judgmental about the morality of one’s opponents.  Opponents can no longer be tolerated as holders of different ideas, but they become evil people whose wrongness demands and receives personal hatred.  {People whose morality is impugned in this way are apt to respond in kind.  Hence, a polarized society is one in which, as polarization increases and becomes more intense, personal antagonism, hatred and denunciation in moral terms increases and becomes more acute.  We find ourselves not only differing about what to do, but hating as evil those with whom we differ.

 

            To feed this personal hatred and enmity it is necessary to draw our picture of the opposition in such terms as clearly to reveal its perniciousness.  Hence the position, the desires, the demands and actions of the opposition are increasingly distorted.  Anatole Rapoport, in an address at All Souls in Indianapolis several years ago said that in negotiation or discussion of moot issues, each participant should be under the obligation to state his opponent’s position in terms which would be satisfactory and acceptable to his opponent.  Unfortunately Rapoport, on a later occasion in the same pulpit, as a true believer in the evil of the Vietnam War, stated the position of the government on the Vietnam issue so as grossly to violate his own rule.  To keep things polarized it is necessary for both sides to distort the position of the opposition.  This means, of course, that we talk but never listen.  We shout slogans and moral condemnations past one another hoping to catch the ear of the communications media—which we usually succeed in doing—thus increasing and intensifying polarization further.  It is characteristic of the anatomy of polarization that the precise issues at issue are seldom continuously the same over very long periods of time.  The particular battle cries of the confrontations and showdowns keep change.  The slogans around which the crusades are organized and resisted, and by which enlistment of the uncommitted is sought, vary from time to time.  It is not unreasonable for an uncommitted onlooker to wonder, and even to consult the news to find out, what the issue of polarization is this month.  Certainly there is little hope that if one issue should be resolved, or become irrelevant, we would no longer find ourselves polarized.  Some other issue will spring up, or be found, about which to devise slogans and battle cries, and on behalf of which to seek confrontations and showdowns.  The suspicion arises in the uncommitted mind that some measure of the devotion shown to one side or the other of a polarized situation is a matter of hopping on the current band wagon.  It may be that issues are not central to polarization but that it is sought for its own sake, and may be becoming a way of life with us.

 

            Insofar as this is true, one suspects that no small part of the force resulting in polarization is not related to the effort to be effective in changing society or keeping it the same, but rather springs from a psychological need on the part of the polarizers to strike a posture.  By now it is certainly common knowledge among the psychologically literate that much need for self-justification, aggrandizement and fulfillment finds expression in commitment to a cause.  I wonder how high a proportion of polarizers are basically fulfilling a neurotic need to see themselves, and to be seen, as knights in shining armor smiting the forces of intransigent evil.  I do not believe all commitment to causes is neurotic, but I suspect that the neurotic needs of individuals play their part (how large a part I do not know) in polarizing us.  At any rather, polarization seems currently to be an acceptable channel through which to sublimate our inner neurotic needs.

 

            Seldom are human affairs, in reality, as one-sided as the commentary I have been presenting in regard to the evils of polarization.  There must be something to be said in its favor.  And, of course, there is!

 

            There have been, are, and will continue to be, occasions in human affairs of such a nature that the only way tot bring the existence of a problem to the awareness of the collective consciousness; the only way to alert public awareness to the fact that all is not smooth and satisfactory, is a polarized confrontation of some sort.  One thinks most readily, in this regard, of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins.  In this category, too, I suppose would also fall the weapon of the strike and the role it has played in labor relations.  I suppose that the Declaration of Independence which resulted in the war of the American Revolution was a necessary act of polarization.  I am sure that many of you will think of other necessary acts of polarization—the particular ones in which you are involved, of course.

 

            It is unfortunate when polarization must be resorted to in order to get a problem on the agenda of public affairs, but sometimes it happens that way, perhaps often.  When men of good will and good intelligence come to the conclusion that polarization is a necessary and unavoidable technique for beginning to effect change or non-change; that it must be used in a particular case, it should be used with care.  There are limitations to its usefulness of which we should be aware.

 

            The usefulness of polarization is limited to the role of making a problem situation widely known.  Polarization, per se, does not solve the problem—or, if it is able to do so, it does so only by force.  It can make public opinion aware of a problem.  One who feels himself forced to use it for that purpose, if he has an honest concern for effectiveness instead of a wish simply to use polarization for its own sake, should have done his homework on the question of what to do and where to go when polarization has served its purpose of getting the question on the public agenda.  He should be very sure that the issue on behalf of which he is polarizing is not, in fact, already on the public agenda and that he is not beating a dead horse.  He should be ready, when polarization has served its purpose, to abandon its use for other methods of resolving human differences.

 

            I suppose personal and group frustration must lie behind a great deal of our polarization.  This frustration may arise from the inability to get an issue on the public agenda, or it may arise from the inability to effect the desired objective (change or non-change).  It is easy to confuse these two kinds of frustration, and easier still to pretend to, for the consumption of the information media.  It is not uncommon for confrontations to be engineered to demand a hearing about an item that has been heard ad nauseam; because the real frustration is failure to win for that issue.

 

            If one is to use polarization wisely and effectively where it is useful he should not confuse the objective of getting an item on the public agenda with the goal or winning whatever contest is involved.  Polarization can usefully get a public hearing.  It cannot—except by force—win a victory.  Its usefulness is ended once the public has become alerted and the issue is out in the open for public consideration.  To continue polarization beyond that point is to throw the outcome into the arena of power conflict; to seek a resolution by force.  If one really wants to go this route, a part of his necessary homework is to be sure he has, or can muster, enough force to prevail.

 

            My assessment of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins is that polarization was necessary, was wisely used, and in general was not carried beyond the limit of its usefulness.  The conscience of the nation was alerted to the problem and, probably more gradually than we would have wished, went to work to correct the particular evils in question.  Labor union versus management polarizations, after participants have struck their respective intransigent postures to alert the public to the issues, are almost always abandoned at some reasonably appropriate point so that the issue can be resolved by negotiation.  The polarization initiated by the Declaration of Independence continued on into the polarization of the American Revolutionary War, and the issue had to be settled by force.  This is the case with wars—they are polarizations which are carried through to the ultimate show-down of resolution by force.

 

            It is difficult to be sure where the rather obscure line marking the useful limits of polarization lies.  The psychological orientation of individuals and groups involved in polarization has much to do with the skill and sensitivity involved in finding and observing that limit.  The limit is much more likely to be discerned and observed when effectiveness is the honest goal; and much less when polarization is used for its own sake as some sort of psychological outlet.

 

            Now, perhaps, you have listened to all this and decided that I am taking a poke at one side or the other in our polarized society.  If you have, I suspect you are likely to feel that this critique of polarization is a criticism of those who seek change.  It is not so intended.  I submit that I have been as impartial as possible.  Your inclination to put me into one camp or the other may well be an indication of the degree to which the forces of polarization have claimed you for one side or the other.

 

            If it is easy to read more of an attack upon those who are polarized for change than upon those who are polarized for the status quo into what I have said, it is probably because of the nature of the case, not because I am trying to say (overtly or covertly) that change is wrong and the status quo is right.

 

            The nature of the case is that change requires that something be moved or become different.  In other words, change is change.  Those desiring it must take the initiative.  The status quo is here.  Change much be wrought.  The forces of attack (if we use the metaphor of conflict) must be more mobile and aggressive than the forces of defense.  Therefore the most apparent elements instigating polarization are the new issues introduced into the matrix of our society.  No new ideas or demands are required or sought by the defenders of the status quo.  Just as the appropriate demand for satisfactory homework falls more heavily on those who demand change than upon those who want things to remain the same, so the onus for polarizing society falls more heavily upon them, too; and a critique of polarization seems to be more of an attack upon them.

 

            Protagonists of the status quo are undoubtedly irked by the change demanders and blame them for the polarization of society.  If only they would leave well enough alone we would be polarized as we are!  True enough, of course.  But the proponents of change can say, with equal validity, if only the standpatters would give up resisting and accept the inevitability of change, we would not need to be polarized.  Both are right but neither is very helpful, for both are saying, in essence, "If everyone were just like me; if everyone would do just as I say, there would be no need for conflict.”

 

            It is not my intention to point the finger of blame at either.  If the public assumes that the major factor in polarization lies with those that take the initiative (who are primarily change seekers) this is simply the way it is in the kind of reality in which we find ourselves.  But no sooner is any voice raised or sentiment expressed blaming the change seekers for polarization than the argument is quickly shifted.  The argument becomes a case (usually colored with emotion) for the necessity, morality or rightness of the particular change in question.  This is no longer a discussion of polarization but an expression of it.

 

            I suggest that the designations of change oriented and status quo oriented which find expression in our polarizations are designations, in broad outline, of the familiar terms "liberal” and "conservative.”  I have been oriented for all of my adult life on the side of change and against the side of the status quo.  I feel that I have the right to speak critically of the polarizing activities of those who are members of my own team.

 

            We need to use a better way of achieving change than polarization because polarization is not an effective way.  In addition to introducing the undesirable characteristics I have been mentioning, it is a dangerous way.  The danger lies in the fact that polarization, if it is employed where its limited usefulness has run out, or if it is persisted in beyond its area of usefulness, feeds upon itself.  Unless some halt is called, polarization increases in intensity and intransigence.  Any halt will probably have to be called by the side which is the more responsible, both in that initiative lies with it and in that more and better homework is required of it.

 

            Many who are polarized for change (in the general pattern of increasing individual rights, privileges, values and powers, and a less rigidly structured society) are beginning to fear a reaction (sometimes called a backlash) which may well curtail the individual rights, privileges and values we already possess, and render the social structure far more rigid and intransigent than it is.  In other words, the cry is now often raised by polarizers for change that we may well be rushing toward fascism.  And we may well be.  It has occurred to me to wonder, during some of our more dramatic confrontations, how much the street disorders sparked by the Communist party in the Weimar Republic had to do with the rise of Nazism.

 

            The trouble with seeking change by polarization is that, since it seldom changes people’s minds it must effect change by force.  To go that route, change seekers need to be a great deal more sure than they are that they can muster enough force, or they will, indeed, calcify their opposition to the point of serious curtailment of individual right.

 

            And even if they should have, or be able to muster, enough force to prevail in some ultimate showdown, it is extremely unlikely that a free, open, flexible society guaranteeing an increase of individual rights and powers would result.  Presuming an overwhelming victory by the polarizers for change (the extreme such outcome being a successful violent revolution), it seems most unlikely that the processes of decision making and the guarantees of individuality (however imperfect) which we already possess as established patterns in our current society would survive.  In other words, especially with as vague, diverse and changing objectives dominating the thrust for change as they do, even a successful crusade for complete change would probably lead to a totalitarian system as ruthless of individual rights as a backlash inspired fascism.  Even a victory (in terms of polarization) would destroy much of what the change seekers profess to want.  If polarization continues, then win or lose, it seems to me that liberals will lose.  In more pessimistic moments I sometimes have the feeling that we may be living in the final golden age of plenty and civil rights and liberties; that future historians may note our thrust for individual values as a winsome and pleasant dream the human race was simply unable to realize.

 

            The theoretical speculation that complete victory for either side in a polarized conflict would be a major loss if not a complete loss for both is an intriguing idea.  I do not believe that I am prepared to demonstrate this conclusion, but it seems likely enough to condemn polarization as a way of resolving human differences.  Change-thrusters and standpatters each have something to contribute to total human value; and to cast either into outer darkness by the force of polarization is to destroy human value.  There should be a better and more fruitful way to resolve human differences.  And, of course, there is—a different and more effective way for diverse and opposing ideas to engage one another.

 

            Perhaps one could say that so long as men arrive at different ideas about what they want and how to do what they want to do, there is polarization of ideas.  OK, say it that way if you must!  Personally, I prefer not to use this term polarization to refer to such differences in ideas, per se.  Polarization seems to me to represent a pair of opposed and almost irresistible attractions, which gather and hold with a potent force ideas, plans and actions in two opposite and irreconcilable clusters.  Polarization, it seems to me, leaves little room for intellectual flexibility.  Once polarization has run to completion in this sense there is no way to avoid a conflict which will have to be resolved, not in terms of which polarized cluster contains the most good, good will, wisdom, promise or value, but only in terms of which contains the greatest strength—whatever kind of strength is able to prevail.  Hence I prefer not to speak of even the extremes of the wide spectrum of human ideas and thought as polarized.  Let us call this simply a diversity.

 

            Out of the human diversity of ideas, which has been the basis for a diversity of plans, proposals and actions, there has emerged throughout history, a very great deal of change.  Little, if any of it, has emerged as a consequence of intransigent polarization.  Actually, the fruitful approach to a balance between change and non-change is the reconciliation of diverse ideas, rather than a polarization of them which leads to confrontation, showdown and resolution by force.

 

            The human race has had a lot of experience with reconciliation, for wherever and whenever a bargain has been struck it has been the result of reconciliation.  In small ways and large, men have continually wrought changes in their affairs, relationships and systems by reconciliation.  Indeed, the fairly workable system of relationships we have here in our American society is based upon one of the great historic documents that was achieved only by reconciliation—the Constitution of the United States.  In creating it, many conflicting and diverse ideas were brought together into a coherent whole.  But in achieving this coherent whole many interests, groups and clusters had to give a little and take a little many times.  Insofar as it represented a change from the status quo, and insofar as it retained values inherent in the status quo, those who went into conference (as contrasted with confrontation) had to do their homework pretty diligently.  They had to inform themselves both about the details and expected consequences of what they wanted, about the real nature of what their opponents wanted, and why, in order to be able to examine the whole situation and come up with a workable proposal (undoubtedly a compromise) which would reconcile the differences enough to be acceptable to all.

 

            Hence, if we are to avoid, or at least to diminish polarization—and I believe we must, or suffer incalculable losses for everyone—we need to learn how to reconcile our difference; how to achieve reconciliation.  Reconciliation does not emerge from a situation which relies upon force; even self-proclaimed moral force.  Reconciliation is not a matter of you being reconciled to my position because I have more force, or because I presume absolute morality for my position.  Reconciliation is an attempt at real mutual understanding of differences; something which appears to be increasingly rare in our troubled age; and a give and take adjustment insofar as some kind of action must ensue.

 

            We of the clergy profess to be important functionaries in the creation of the good life, particularly we of the Unitarian Universalist clergy.  We conceive of ourselves as having a role to play in saving the world.  If that seems a bit grandiloquent, we believe our role is to improve the relationships among people so that greater total value will be achieved.  Probably most of us believe that changes in our pattern of relationships, capital structure and manipulation of resources are needed if this end is to be furthered or accomplished.  Some of us may believe the values already possessed are of such worth in the contributions they make to the good life that we are more concerned with conserving than changing them.

 

            Be that as it may, the role we have chosen is a more demanding one than some of us are willing to recognize, for it deals with the sinews of human relationships in society—either to change them or to conserve them or both.  To deal effectively with these, one must be devoted to reconciliation, and able to bring enough know-how to the task so that a measure of effective reconciliation can be achieved through his ministrations.  This is not any easy thing of simply denouncing wrong—although wrong may need to be denounced sometimes.  It is not any easy thing of condemning the obvious evils of society—although this may have its place in the total process.  It is the much more difficult task of understanding, both where you propose to go—or stay—and how; of understanding what your opposition (in his own terms) is really trying to get at and why.  Reconciliation in society is really our only hope of avoiding ultimate divisiveness and the loss (either through one outcome of polarization or the other) of much, probably too much, of our working and workable social structure.  To achieve it in our society will require wise and effective leadership of public opinion.

 

            It would seem that among ourselves as people in a church concerned with achieving a good life on earth, and covenanted upon the free mind principle and the use of reason as methods to serve that end, we ought to be able to achieve effective reconciliation among ourselves, and play a role in achieving it in our society.  A wise leadership ought to enable us to be effective in reconciling our own diversities and in establishing some measure of reconciliation in society.  We are, unfortunately, still waiting for a demonstration that such an outcome is, if not universally at least predominantly, visible in our churches and in our association.

 

            I would hope that you who are my colleagues—the leadership of this movement whose hope lags so far from realization—would thoughtfully and earnestly consider your appropriate role in all this.  If we really want change toward the good life, to make ourselves agents of polarization is not the way to get it.  Shouting, damning, confronting, moralizing—the elements of polarization—are not only not enough but they drive us away from our goal.  We have a responsibility to learn and teach the ways of reconciliation.  It is much more difficult to reconcile than to polarize.  Not only is the task less glamorous, not only does it offer fewer chances to strike dramatic poses; but it requires much diligence and devotion, thought, homework, understanding, a measure of spiritual modesty, and a great deal of human concern.  I would hope that we might commit ourselves wholly to reconciliation and thereby not contribute further to the increasing problem of our times, but make ourselves, instead, a part of its only hopeful solution.