It’s election time in Tennessee. Like dandelions, campaign posters have sprung up across the state. Many of these signs advertise “Conservative” prominently. Some even state “Conservative Republican” as if there were currently any other Republican species. “Conservative” is obviously seen as a virtue. The basis of these campaign appeals is less obvious.
A “Conservative” is usually defined as someone averse to change and who holds traditional values (whatever their tradition may be). Fundamentally, a “conservative” mindset means resistance to change. This resistance creates a dilemma for those so predisposed.
Paradoxically, change is constant. From the vibrations of subatomic particles to tidal waves to human actions and thoughts to the movements of planets and star systems, nothing ever is as it was or will be. All life exists in a kaleidoscope of change. For millennia on our planet, most societal changes humans experienced were from unpredictable conflict and natural events or so slow as to be irrelevant to daily life.
No more. As interpersonal communication has exponentially increased, the pace of societal change has increased exponentially. Our indispensable cellphones are the primary impetus for this current rapidly increasing change. These devices connect us to everyone in the world every day and their experience of change is our experience. This knowledge of rapid change is overwhelming for those who fear change. The greater the pace of change, the greater the resistance to change by those who fear change.
In their book, “Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide,” authors Jonathan Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington describe psychological keys to deadlocked politics. They assert that fear is perhaps our most primal instinct. Their extensive research shows that our divisions arise from personality characteristics they describe as “fluid” and “fixed.”
According to Weiler and Hetherington, those who are “fixed” are warier of cultural and social change, more suspicious of those they perceive as different, and desire the familiar and predictable. Those with more “fluid” personalities tend to support cultural changes, are excited by new experiences, and typically are less fearful of those who appear different. They define those who fall between the two bases as “mixed.”
The research supporting “Prius or Pickup?” has been duplicated by numerous other researchers with similar results. These studies indicate that fear of change is like fear of failure. A great quantity of research reveals that this fear arises in the structure of our brain—think brain wiring, if you will.,
My introduction to Prius and pickup mindsets occurred when I was about 7 or 8 years old. The first episode occurred when my uncle and aunt took me to the Sears Roebuck store in Greenville, S.C. Visiting Sears from our rural community in western North Carolina was a big treat in the early ‘50s. While there, my uncle motioned toward the water fountains and restroom doors nearby and asked: “Do you see those signs over there?” I looked at the signs “White” and “Colored” above the two water fountains and on the two sets of doors. He then remarked “That’s wrong. It shouldn’t be that way.”
The second incident occurred around the same time frame. My dad had three workers, two white and one Black, at our home to repair a septic system. At lunchtime, my dad invited the two white men inside to eat with us. The Black worker was given the same food, but he was not invited to dine with us. After lunch, as my mother was washing dishes, I asked: “Mama, why did those men eat inside with us, and that other man ate outside next to the tree.” She replied: “Because that’s the way it is.”
There have been significant changes in American society since 1776. Racial slavery no longer exists. Women can vote. Racist signs dividing the use of restrooms and water fountains are gone. Voting rights have been extended. Lunch counters are integrated. Schools are no longer segregated by law. Interracial marriage is now legal. Gay Americans can marry.
These transformations occurred on a long, hard road from the formerly existing “way it is” to the now recalled “way it was.” All happened relatively recently in the context of human existence and were facilitated by quickened communications and the courage of those willing to face fear of change, think and say and act upon “That’s wrong. It shouldn’t be that way.” Every one of these changes was feared and resisted by the social “conservatives” of their era.
Societal transformations inevitably will continue. As it is, opportunity often depends on race and gender. As it is, health care is largely employment or wealth dependent. As it is, vast differences exist between education, income levels, and wealth, determined not by ability, but by circumstances of parental environment and genes none of us choose. As it is, discrimination by race, gender and sexual orientation still exists. As it is, demagogues who challenge truth and peddle fear are still followed.
The late American singer and songwriter Kate Wolf, in her song “Across the Great Divide” wrote: “The finest hour that I have ever seen is the one that comes between the edge of night and the break of day when the darkness rolls away.” For we Americans, our finest hour is when the “way it is” becomes “the way it was.” Courage and effort ring the bells for that hour.
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