“The psychology of change”

The resistance by many in the South to taking the Stars & Bars down from state capitols and public sites likely has nothing to do with heritage OR hatred.

It has to do with — psychology.

In recent years, evangelicals have tried to get high schools and colleges to change their mascots — if their mascots are devils.  In a village near where I used to live in Wisconsin, there was a high school team whose nickname is the Demons.  Deerfield High has had to contend with the biblical literalists who maintain that the school nickname honors the occult.

But — God-fearing people all — the Deerfield parents and students stuck by the school’s nickname, the Demons.

It was simply a matter of  — psychology.

“Demons” has been the nickname of the high school teams, it’s been that way for years, people identify with the name — that’s it.  They kept it.

Same thing with the Stars & Bars.  People in the South have identified with it.  For any number of reasons.  In my view, the main reason is — if it gets Northerners angry, that’s reason enough for may  the South to stick by the Confederate flag.

An episode of Modern Family had Claire talking with her young step-brother, Manny.  Claire was wondering why her younger daughter doesn’t want to go shopping for a dress (something the older daughter doesn’t need to be encouraged to do).  Manny offers this reason:  Alex, the younger sister, doesn’t want to BE like her older sister Hayley.  Alex has her own identity. She resists her mother’s efforts to change her into a different type of person.  Manny says, “I wouldn’t want to give up my identity for ten seconds.”

People have invested their identity into school nicknames and the Southern flag and their favorite sports teams — and that is why they (me included) become so emotionally charged when any of these symbols of their identity are put down.

If removal is warranted, the challenge for all involved is not merely to remove — but to replace — a symbol of one’s identity.

Some decades ago, there was a debate in Pittsburgh over the integration of the public schools.  I attended one such meeting.  I remember a man standing up and saying, “What about neighborhood pride?”  The schools would be getting kids not just from their neighborhood but from all over the city.  I remember a school-board member responding:  ‘Neighborhood pride is something you’re going to have to give up.”

I thought that was an inadequate answer.  I thought a much better response would have been not merely to remove a symbol of identity — but to replace it.  I wish the school-board member had said, “Rather than take pride only in your neighborhood, why not take pride in the entire city of Pittsburgh?  Why not show the nation that we here in Pittsburgh can make it work — black and white together?”

There is psychology involved in creating change.

This was the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He did not simply call for removal of old ways — but a replacement.  People in this country were very regional, parochial, narrow, protective…Dr. King challenged us to take a wider view of who we are — not just Southerners or Northerners or Westerners — but Americans.  He appealed to the values of our nation, and prodded people to live up to those ideals as members of the nation, rather than merely hunkering down defensively as inhabitants of a region.

The psychology of change requires that a symbol not simply be removed — but replaced.

We are approaching the 4th of July.  If you’ve never read the entire song America the Beautiful, it is worth doing.  Katharine Lee Bates, a young English professor at Wellesley College near Boston, wrote the opening stanza to describe what America looks like on the outside:  purple mountains’ majesty, amber waves of grain…But the two interior stanzas describe what America looks like on the inside — the American character.  Her most beautiful line is when she says that of all that Americans may accomplish, the American character will fulfill its purpose when “all success is nobleness.”


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