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Making Social Change: Promote Civility

by on November 3, 2017

As many know, I am a sociologist.  Burned out and frustrated, I left academia years ago, completed an M.L.S., and found my home doing social service as a librarian.  In recent months, I find myself returning to my sociological roots more frequently.  I find myself asking:  How can I help heal my community?  How can I assist in bringing two angry and divergent sides to discussion and compromise?  More importantly, how can I promote civility?

In asking myself these questions two experiences from my past came back to me.  The first, I recalled teaching women’s studies classes, watching talented, smart, capable, young women become alienated by a strident, authoritarian and narrowly defined dogma.  It wasn’t even that these young women disagreed with feminism, but that the manner in which it was presented, they found abrasive and unyielding.  The result, “feminism” became another bad F-word and the ideology and goals of the movement were set back in many frightening ways.  The second recollection was my favorite Star Wars quote.  Princess Leia looks to her capturers and says, “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

I see both of these memories as highly relevant in today’s world.  No one can deny that polarization of our country is present. There are groups with radically opposing views, but each believes their position to be morally correct. Even those who fundamentally agree are swiping at each other for how stridently positions should be put forth. Everyone’s grip seems white knuckle tight. I venture to say, all side are terrified.

Fear is a dangerous thing.  It makes us think dumb things, say hurtful things, and behave in ways we cannot explain.  It triggers flight or fight responses, each equally fatal for improving the situation. Ultimately what is needed is to show that fear is not warranted, but this requires time and the ability for opposing views to coexist. It is highly unlikely society will reach universal agreement.  But we can respond with sympathy and empathy. We can be strong enough in our beliefs to allow the beliefs of others to exist.  Like it or not, each side must listen to the other respectfully and reach an arrangement in which each side is allowed basic human rights and freedoms.  This includes the right to say what we think, feel, and believe.

The tighter the grip, the less flexible and more strident in our views we become, the more dangerous the situation becomes.  Social changes occur but in ways that ultimately are detrimental to all, as both sides use identical tactics to silence the other.

The public library by our mission and place within communities across the country is in a position to help facilitate positive social change. By illustrating and accepting multiple viewpoints and personalities, opinions and ideas, and treating ALL people as equal, we set an example. We can set a tone for our communities. We can, through our programs and daily interactions, educate on practicing civility. We can model appropriate responses to opposing viewpoints. We can show how by loosening the grip, we catch many more star systems.

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