As we wade through a period of history defined by levels of opposition, fear, and disrespect not seen since the Cold War era, people are increasingly seeking the exclusive company of those whose values and beliefs mirror their own. Whether it’s on social media, the college campus, or in the political arena, those with different opinions are treated as enemies who seek to pillage that which we hold true and dear.
So we build walls, both physical and mental, and keep the gates locked tight. This, we believe, is the way we will preserve our own vision of the world and vanquish ‘the other’.
But we are wrong. And if we continue on this path, we’ll soon stumble into a new age of tribalism that will only further the divide.
To define the future of humanity, we must look to the elements of society resisting such progress. Only then can we create change with honesty, humility, and wisdom.
In 2016, Williams College student Zachary R. Wood attempted to prove this by inviting two political commentators, Charles Murray and John Derbyshire, to speak on campus. The decision was controversial; both men had written deeply offensive content suggesting black people were naturally less intelligent than white people, and more prone to lives of crime.
At the time, Wood – who is African-American himself – was the president of Uncomfortable Learnings, a student-run lecture series designed to open up discussion around controversial, even harmful topics. By allowing these figures to talk, he believed he was empowering those amongst his peers who sought a way to overcome such prejudices in the community.
Many of his peers would not listen, however. Wood was insulted and attacked by those who refused to acknowledge his intentions. Eventually, the outrage grew so loud (especially on social media) that the college administration cancelled Derbyshire’s presentation.
“I was deeply disappointed by this”, explained Wood, “because, as I saw it, there would be nothing that any of my peers or I could do to silence someone who agreed with him in the office environment of our future employers”.
Wood was right to be disappointed. Those whose actions led to Derbyshire being uninvited might have seen it as a victory, but what they had actually done is refused an opportunity for deeper understanding. An opportunity to engage. An opportunity to learn.
Wood knows that listening to offensive ideas isn’t easy. It’s not any easier for him than anyone else. But each time he does, he takes a step on what he calls “a journey of uncomfortable learning” that will make his own contributions to the future of society more valuable, and nuanced.
The solution to division is not more division. Positive, lasting change can only be made when it is founded on common ground. So we must let others speak even when their words cause us anger and pain. We must learn to listen if we expect the same of them. Then, and only then, can we look to the healing of our world.