The most important lesson I have learned in the fifty years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within. It begins inside your own heart and mind, because the battleground of human transformation is really, more than any other thing, the struggle within the human consciousness to believe and accept what is true. . . . to revolutionize society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. ~John Lewis, United States Congressman and Conscious Elder
Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being, is one of my favorites. Her in-depth conversations with the most interesting people shower me with wisdom. Not wanting to miss a word, I almost always listen to the longer, unedited version.
I found Krista’s May 17 conversation riveting. Held at the request of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in a room that included many Holocaust survivors, she interviewed two young men in their late 20s about how their friendship during their college years transformed them.
When Derek Black was outed at their college for his white nationalist background, Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew, noticed how some on campus made a “misguided attempt to change the situation” by making Derek’s life miserable.
Every message really has two components. There is the content of the message, and then there’s also the way in which that message is delivered. And there is a difference between being aggressive and being strong. There’s a difference between being vociferously opposed … and taking steps to harm an individual who subscribes to those ideologies. …violating the humanity of another person. ~Matthew Stevenson
Matthew realized Derek probably didn’t know any people who are despised by his ideology. As an orthodox Jew, no one would think of him as being a white nationalist. He recognized that this gave him a unique opportunity. Matthew invited Derek to the Shabbat dinners he held in his dorm room, laying out ground rules for his regular guests: Derek’s background and beliefs were NOT to be a topic of discussion around the table. The two men went on to develop a genuinely close friendship.
Derek admits he would have been more comfortable if the group had grilled him. He had all his arguments lined up and was skilled at presenting them. Instead, he had to sit with the discomfort of being befriended by people his ideology opposed. He came to like and respect them.
Over the next two to three years Derek and Matthew’s “face-to-face” friendship deepened and Derek began to have honest conversations with some of the Shabbat dinner participants outside the confines of the dinner. As a result of these interactions, he grew less certain about his beliefs, provoking a crisis of identity.
Derek eventually renounced his beliefs publically in a long e-mail published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Quiet conversations and speaking up loudly and condemning something that is wrong are both essential. The quiet conversations couldn’t have happened without the outrage. Outrage alone would have made me a more firm adherent to being a white nationalist. But I would never have begun my conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those with whom I interacted. The context for those conversations was that an entire community of people that I had gotten to know … who I respected, clearly had come to a very intelligent conclusion that what I was advocating was morally wrong, was factually wrong. ~Derek Black
Salient points made by Krista:
- Befriending a “so-called enemy” = Sophisticated Discernment
- Being willing to step into the uncomfortable place of allowing yourself to be befriended by people your ideology opposes = Social Intelligence
… it’s one thing to say that people could change, but it’s another to see somebody who had been engaged in enormously destructive behaviors not only cease doing those behaviors but do a complete about-face and to actively help other people in the same situation; actively try to make the world a better place. …Derek’s example convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter how deeply involved somebody is in a negative pattern of behavior or a negative ideology, they’re never in too deep. There is always a chance for redemption. ~Matthew Stevenson
A significant learning and challenge for me = the importance of expressing outrage as well as extending friendship to those I fear. Once again, my therapist training gives me the skills to express anger appropriately. I still struggle with having the courage.
I would be interested in hearing what you learned and whether or not you found yourself challenged by Derek and Matthew’s stories of transformation.