Thursday, 26 February 2015

Finding common ground--the second step in effecting culture change

No matter what message you are about to deliver somewhere, whether it is holding out a hand of friendship, or making clear that you disapprove of something, is the fact that the person sitting across the table is a human being, so the goal is to always establish common ground.
Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State

I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy, and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.
Mohsin Hamid, Pakistani novelist

While attending seminary in Illinois in the 1970s, I was exposed to some of the more curious American Christian leaders whose reputations had not crossed into the Great White North. These included such notable fundamentalist Protestants as John R. Rice, Bob Jones (both Sr. and Jr.), and Carl McIntire. 

John R. Rice was particularly intriguing to me. He struck me as a flat-out nutbar, but he had a considerable following among very conservative fundamentalist Americans. His books included such titles as What's Wrong with the Dance? (plenty, apparently), What is Wrong with Movies?, and the unforgettable Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers. His newspaper, The Sword of the Lord, hit a high of 100,000 circulation.

In addition to their fundamentalist understanding of New Testament teaching, all of the aforementioned leaders had this in common--they dismissed the iconic Billy Graham as a traitor to the true faith. He was hopelessly compromised because of his willingness to cavort with the dreaded liberals (see

One would assume that the set of common beliefs, values, and religious objectives that Billy Graham shared with these men would be sufficient for them to get along while agreeing to disagree on that one significant issue; i.e., that Graham was willing to work with non-evangelical Christians in putting together his famous crusades. But this was not possible for the fundamentalists. Either there had to be total agreement on all points, or no common ground could be found.

Seems ridiculous, doesn't it?

Many people who have been successful in achieving important goals--whether religious, political, even economic--strongly argue that finding common ground with other parties who might have an interest in the matter at hand, even if they bring very different values and practices to the discussion, is indispensable to achieving that success (see the quote from Madeleine Albright above).

That has caused me to wonder what common ground I, as a member of the life sub-culture, could find with, say, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Planned Parenthood, or the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. Could I learn anything from  organizations such as these? Should I ever consider borrowing from their ideas? Or should I shun and condemn them at every turn?--which is in fact what the pro-life movement tends to do (while getting it back in spades).

Do I do the John R. Rice thing? Or go Billy Graham?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Street cred--the first step in effecting culture change

I can't quite define my aversion to asking questions of strangers. From snatches of family battles which I have heard drifting up from railway stations and street corners, I gather that there are a great many men who share my dislike for it, as well as an equal number of women who ... believe it to be the solution to most of this world's problems.

Robert Benchley (1889–1945), U.S. writer, humorist.

I have worked for two different faith-based universities. Both had very good faculties, especially when one considers how much more money, and discretionary time, most of the professors could have had working for public post-secondary institutions, for which the vast majority were suitably qualified. 

The professors fell into three camps, in my opinion (for what that's worth). There were those who chose a private university with an emphasis on teaching rather than research because their interests were decidedly in the former direction. Some of these people, in my experience, were rather fearful of attempting to publish in academic journals, while others simply felt called to be instructors. The downside is that they remain retailers of second-hand ideas.

A second group enjoyed doing a least a little research and publishing, as well as attending academic conferences. But they tended to limit their arena of academic activity primarily (or even exclusively) to faith-based circles; i.e., journals and conferences run by, and for, faculty members of faith-based institutions, sometimes all within their own denomination.
The third group were drawn to the journals and conferences relevant to their academic disciplines, regardless of whether there were any faith element involved. Some attracted large research grants and even Canada Council chairs.  

As a Dean, I was content with having colleagues in the first two categories provided that there were a goodly number in the third. There is a tendency for faith-related institutions to stay within their "ghettos" and not be inclined to mix it up in the broader culture. This is regrettable for three reasons:
  1. If we believe that our faith-informed perspective brings some unique and creative approaches to our disciplines, we should find outlets for these that don't amount to "singing to the choir."
  2. Hiding in a ghetto of any sort arbitrarily cuts one off from what others, who employ different worldviews or approaches, have to offer. No one has the corner on all good insights.
  3. Academics who don't encounter professors from the private universities will come to any number of conclusions about why they never meet these people, and will tend to fall back on stereotypes and uninformed biases that are seldom complimentary. 
In a nutshell, what I wanted the faculty to have was street cred--I wanted our university to be seen as contributors to the broader discussion, and as having earned the credibility to be listened to by the mainstream universities.

I feel exactly the same way about what I have been calling the "life sub-culture". If we are to have any influence upon behaviour, to have any recommendations that could be viewed as viable alternatives, and to be taken seriously by the all-pervasive media--we must spend our time on Main Street, not just Church Street. 

That's why I quoted writer Robert Benchley above. He was talking about the differences between men and women, not life groups. But what he was saying was that there are individuals (and I'm adding groups) who avoid the unknown, and don't seek out interactions with those with whom they feel they have nothing in common. Then there are those who are drawn to asking questions outside of their comfort zone; in fact, they see this as indispensable to addressing life's problems.

That's my first criterion for engaging in the broader public culture--credibility. The second is finding common ground. I'll deal with this next.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Culture conversion

Because culture is learned, members of a given society seldom question the culture of which they are a part, unless for some reason they become outsiders or establish some critical distance from the usual cultural expectations. People engage unthinkingly in hundreds of specifically cultural practices every day; culture makes these practices seem "normal." If you suddenly stopped participating in your culture and questioned each belief and every behavior, you would soon find yourself feeling detached and perhaps a little disoriented; you would also become increasingly ineffective at functioning within your group.
MARGARET L. ANDERSON, Sociology: The Essentials

In my last post (waaaayyy back on Jan. 11), I went into a long, piteous vent about how I feel somewhat to the outside of my culture--a status which I blame in equal degrees on my understanding of the principles of my faith, along with a tendency to non-conformity which appears to be almost hard-wired. I dressed up this behaviour by calling it the spiritual gift of prophecy. Others, of course, might simply regard it as either grumpiness, cynicism, or lack of social graces.

[Insert reassuring response here.]

But if I do not always feel like a mainstream player in the Canadian culture generally, I find that I'm sometimes on the outside of my beloved "life" sub-culture as well. My experience with the average Joe/Jill Blow in the pews is one of lip service to the notion that all of these abortions are not a good thing, but with little interest in addressing further what they see as primarily a political problem.

Even within the life movement, a good deal of effort goes into attempting to influence the political system to effect the desired change. Most notable among such groups in Canada is the "We Need a Law" campaign.

[Just as an aside, I also believe that Canada needs a law. But as I argued in my series of posts on the separation of church and state, I don't believe any law will be forthcoming before a major cultural shift in views on abortions occurs. See and following posts.]
As for the image of the life sub-culture, its public face is perceived to be a highly moralistic and judgmental one. Our years of sign-waving have convinced the public that what are typically viewed as anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-equal rights fanatics (that's us) have nothing in common with Canadian values. While in some instances the signs have begun to change to feature more gentle messages in the last few years, our reputation is set and the protestors have been pigeon-holed. 

Yet many pro-life groups continue to give all kind of verbal support, and some money as well, to the likes of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), that specializes in outfitting abortion trucks covered with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, such as the one on the right. They are parked where not only young female university students (a common target group) and other adults can see them, but also any little children that happen to be walking by at the time.

Secondly, as I mentioned above, the preferred response in the life camp to what is seen as a culture that cheapens life, and often harms women, through aborting its children (nearly 100,000 in Canada each year; around 1 million in the Excited States), is to elect politicians to change the legal picture. In Canada, that would mean filling the existing legal vacuum by passing anti-abortion legislation, and in the U.S. repealing Roe v. Wade. See on the left another of CCBR's explicit pictures, this one aimed at Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Donning my prophetic cloak, as it were, I have argued in earlier posts that laws are seldom changed unless there is a grassroots call for such. I have also suggested that politicians of all stripes seek the political middle ground once in power, making the parties nearly indistinguishable (see That current middle is pro-choice and is highly likely to stay this way unless something is done to change culture.

[Consider this quote, for instance, from a young person responding to a pro-life ad expressing concern for the number of abortions: Are you going to be personally responsible for all the unwanted children? Are you going to make sure no-one gets pregnant from getting raped, and that every one has free access and education for birth control? What will you do for all the back alley botched abortions? Anti-choice thinking is NOT thinking--pro-choice all the way! I suggest that this response--as uninformed in some ways as it is--would be the mainstream view.]
I have not made a lot of headway with my arguments about changing culture versus street and political action. Waving signs and demonstrating for new laws require a certain amount of courage (given the typical reaction to such attempts, whether on the streets or in the media), but are otherwise fairly easy to do. But changing culture?--My opening quote suggests just how difficult that is. I just happen to believe that it is the only long-range strategy that is likely to be effective.

But this is why I said in the last post that I'm ticked. I've been taking this stand re: culture for years, and no one is inviting me to speak at their pro-life conferences. But now I find a well-regarded Canadian political commentator, Mark Steyn, saying the same thing, and he gets half a page in a national newspaper. The article, by Robert Fulford, is entitled "As Steyn Sees It", and it first appeared in the National Post on January 3, 2015, p. A14. Oh, the envy!!

Here is the quote I have in mind, taken from Steyn's book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn: Don't Say You Weren't Warned.
[Steyn's] careful observation of American life has brought him to a grim (for a conservative) conclusion: "You can't have a conservative government in a liberal culture." Schools in the U.S. are liberal and churches are liberal, he argues. The hip, groovy elite is liberal. Makers of movies and pop songs are liberal. Liberalism fills the air; it is the climate. 

Culture trumps politics, and in his view the U.S. proves it. "Liberals expend tremendous effort changing the culture. Conservatives expend tremendous effort changing elected officials every other November--and then are surprised that it doesn't make much difference." 

Nevertheless, there are life groups attempting to go the culture-change route, and doing some excellent work. I hope to highlight some of those in subsequent posts.