by Kevin Wiebe
“Problems can be solved, conflicts can be resolved, but polarization can only be managed.”
This phrase resonated with me as the instructor began her lecture about the nature of polarization. As she unpacked this sentence for the class, the wisdom in it became even more profound.
When something breaks in our church buildings we can rally a team of people to find a solution and fix it: problem solved. When conflict begins, many times a single conversation between two parties can deal with the friction: conflict resolved. When there is polarization, there is no quick and easy solution.
In every polarized situation you have people with remarkably different values, perspectives, and worldviews. Most of the time it isn’t wrong, it is just different—and not easily changed.
Someone with a love of freedom and a higher than average tolerance for risk will balk at government interventions of any sort, scared that these will lead to the curtailing of one’s ability to do as they please. Others with a love of stability and a lower than average tolerance for risk will gladly accept government regulations if it will mean more security. Neither perspective is wrong, they are just different.
Another example in our faith-based communities is our approach to helping those suffering from poverty. Some folks prefer the actions and donations of individuals, together with the work of charities. Others try to work with governments to improve the systems in which these individuals and organizations function. Once again, both are trying to help others, but have drastically different ways of going about it. Neither one is wrong; in fact, both are needed. But they are most certainly different.
When in a polarizing situation, the tricky part to addressing it is in finding which value(s) are at opposing ends of the ideological spectrum. Often there are several at play all at the same time. Once they are identified, we can see the value and wisdom that those of the opposite end of the spectrum bring to the table. We can also begin to see the dangers of our own position.
We naturally see the value of our own positions and the weaknesses of the other side. But when situations become polarized we would all do well to observe the weaknesses of our own situation and the wisdom of our opponents.
In these kinds of situations, we should in fact have an either/or mindset, but not in the way you might think. Typically we see these situation as, “Either we get our way, or they get theirs.” That is not the kind of thing we need. The truth, however, is that either we recognize the weaknesses and dangers of our own position, or we will likely fall prey to those weaknesses. Either we learn to see the wisdom of the other side, or we forfeit their help in preventing the dangers within our camp.
While we can’t—and shouldn’t—seek uniformity in all matters, what we can do is begin to manage our own hearts as we approach polarized situations and learn to not only understand, but also respect those on the opposite side of the spectrum. If we only succeed through the domination of those we oppose, then I’m not sure we have succeeded at all.