By André Wang — Living in Portland, Oregon these last six months has been, to put it mildly, interesting. Once hailed as one of America’s most livable cities, during the summer of 2020, Portland endured more than 100 consecutive nights of racial-injustice protests marred by vandalism, chaos, and even loss of life. Every night, the area surrounding the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland became a war zone. Violence erupted. Property was destroyed. Businesses were looted.
A riot is the language of the unheard. ~Dr. Martin Luther King
American history is teeming with periods of social mobilization when communities of citizens rise up against injustice with the objective of replacing the existing social order with a more just society. Whether the subject of the movement is based on economics (Occupy Wall Street), race (Black Lives Matter), gender (Women’s Suffrage), the environment (Earth Day), or politics (Tea Party), each movement firmly believes in the moral position upon which it is based.
Social justice movements are a quest, not only for change, but radical change; change that is not incremental, but immediate. According to cultural anthropologist David. F. Aberle, social justice movements can be distilled to two fundamental questions: (1) Who is the movement attempting to change? (2) How much change is being advocated? Change can be focused on an individual level (e.g., addiction recovery) or a societal level (e.g., Black Lives Matter). Movements can also advocate for minor change, such as enacting new legislation or restrictions, or radical change, such as anti-globalization.
Nevertheless, America is an incremental nation. Change— or progress—takes time. Hearts and minds need persuasion. Cultures need to acclimate, and older generations need to adapt. But the form, substance, and timing of the change also depends on the type of change being advocated. According to Dr. Aberle, social justice movements fall into one of four categories: redemptive movements, reform movements, revolutionary movements, and alternative movements.
Sometimes called “religious movements,” these endeavors seek “meaning.” They are usually focused on a specific segment of the community with the goal of provoking personal inner change, philosophy, or individual spiritual growth.
These are the most common. These movements seek to bring specific change to the social structure. While they are limited in scope and subject matter, they are targeted at the entire population. Environmental movements, women’s suffrage, and Black Lives Matter are examples of reformative movements.
Sometimes called “resistance movements,” revolutionary movements seek to bring wholesale change to every aspect of society, with the change being sweeping and dramatic. It is a “resistance” against the status quo. Examples include the Civil Rights Movement or one of the myriad political movements, such as the Abolitionist Movement.
These movements are typically focused on self-improvement and limited, specific changes to individual beliefs and behavior. Examples include coaching and support programs such as Tony Robbins, Weight Watchers, or Alcoholics Anonymous.
The lifecycle of a social justice movement is also critically important to its effectiveness. According to sociologists Herbert Blumer and Charles Tilly, the longevity of a movement occurs in four stages: (1) preliminary, (2) coalescence, (3) institutionalization, and (4) decline.
In the preliminary stage, people become aware of an issue, decide action is needed, and leaders emerge. Movements al- ways develop organically; they are never contrived or manufactured and are often triggered by an event. Examples of “triggering events” can range from a personal decision to break an addiction to the dramatic death of George Floyd. The coalescence stage is where a community of people bands together and organizes to expose the issue and raise awareness. The institutionalization stage is where the movement has momentum with widespread support. Grassroots volunteerism is no longer necessary as the movement is now organized, typically with substantial financial backing and even paid staff. Last, is the decline stage where the movement loses momentum or just simply concludes. Perhaps the movement success- fully brought about the change that it sought. Perhaps people lost interest, adopted a new cause, or no longer take the issue seriously.
So, if social justice movements are meant to address and, ostensibly, correct societal injustice, why have they become so divisive? Aren’t we all in support of saving the planet? Don’t we all want everyone to have access to health care? Isn’t racial equality something we should have achieved by now?
From my observation of the protests in Portland, there are three factors to the divisiveness. First, everything has become politicized. Everything is now a partisan issue with two polar-opposite sides. For example, take the current issue of mask- wearing in the U.S. in the fight to curb COVID-19. One side sees it as a basic public health action. To others, it is an unreasonable intrusion on individual liberty.
“We’re in this space in the U.S. where the two [political] sides just really hate each other, and that extends to information. So, it’s not just ‘I don’t like you.’ It’s ‘I don’t like your values, I don’t like your facts,’” explains Dr. Peter Ditto, professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine.
Most interestingly, issues that normally would be a non- political, common challenge for all of society becomes political when proponents and opponents of a cause weaponize it as a wedge issue. According to Dr. Ditto, we’re in a completely different and polarizing time in history. Humanity, he says, has “a long history . . . that some kind of external threat will bring people together. We may fight and fight and fight when the stakes are low. But when a serious threat happens, we pull together.” But, he soberingly concludes, “That just doesn’t seem to be happening, though.”
Second, “cancel culture” has become an important tool of social justice. Popularized over the last decade, cancel culture is a “modern form of ostracism” that refers to the practice of not only withdrawing support from an individual or business that one disagrees with, but even going so far as to destroy them socially and professionally. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be “canceled.”
Because people feel disenfranchised and powerless, cancel culture in the social justice context serves as an equalizer for the sense of powerlessness that many people feel. As ideological divisions seem more and more insurmountable, the line be- tween the personal and the political is vanishing. Even though cancel culture seems to generate few lasting consequences for many—we are, after all, resilient and able to move on—it appears to be part of a deeper trend: an inability to dialogue, listen and extend courtesy to those that hold opposite views.
Most “canceling” is horizontal; that is, it is not done to justifiably or constructively criticize someone with the opposite point of view, but to score bragging points against people who mean no harm. As one friend put it, the people doing the canceling “become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.”
Third, civility in discourse is a lost attribute. Somewhere along the way, we abandoned civility and today, people are demeaned, derided and ridiculed for who they are or what they believe. People have gotten bitter and angry; and not just bitter and angry with those who don’t agree with them—they get bitter and angry with those who aren’t as bitter and angry as they are.
Merriam-Webster defines civility as “politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” It has its etymology in the Latin word civilis, meaning citizen or person; hence the term civilization. By its very origin, civility recognizes the inherent dignity of the individual and derives from it the basic code of social interaction.
Civility in discourse requires an immense humility. It is not only an acknowledgment that there is another perspective, but that one could be wrong. But it goes even further than that. Humility mandates that we view our counterparts as our moral and intellectual equals.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul sought to quell a theological conflict raging amongst the citizenry. In his plea for civility in discourse, he writes this: I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle. Be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called. One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Whatever social justice movement we undertake, whether global or local, partisan or non-partisan, let us remember that we are all children of God and stewards of His creation—and to live a life worthy of that calling.
–André M. Wang serves as general counsel and director of public affairs and religious liberty for the North Pacific Union Conference. He writes from Portland, Oregon. Email him at: [email protected]