‘Our country is broken, our society irreparably polarized.’ Is the word we’re hearing on the street all over America, Britain and much of the European Union, with not many ideas being floated about how to piece us all back together again.
But try telling that to Don Beck. Beck is convinced that, if he’d been alive in 1860 and had a conversation with Abraham Lincoln, he might have been able to prevent the Civil War.
A former professor of social psychology at University of North Texas, Beck, a florid 82-year-old Texan, is most known for a system he has developed called Spiral Dynamics, which identifies the fine gradations of belief systems and their level of complexity of any given society.
He considers his work a continuation of his doctoral dissertation, which examined the polarization of Americans just prior to the Civil War. Beck discovered no less than eight positions about slavery — from those in favor of unpaid servitude to those desiring full abolition – not unlike all the diverse views about Brexit or American politics.
Back then, when the moderate position disappeared from both sides, he says, the country polarized and the war began.
“If we had done certain things in 1860, we would have ended slavery and we wouldn’t have lost 700,000 people,” says Beck. “And we wouldn’t still be fighting the Civil War.”
A human heat-seeking missile
As a political consultant on resolving societal conflict, Beck has referred to himself a human “heat-seeking missile,” drawn to the world’s hot spots: South Africa, Palestine, Afghanistan, Israel. His work has attempted to break up the thinking that fuels us-versus-them prejudice by showing people on one side that those on the other side are not all the same – and indeed don’t think the same.
In Beck’s experience, what often polarizes people or pulls societies apart is a simple lack of appreciation of the spectrum of different beliefs that exist in cultures outside their own.
“We don’t have the language of difference, so we tend to stereotype,” he says.
During his sixty-three trips to South Africa in the 1980s, Beck became known as a bridge builder between the country’s black and white populations; as a consequence, he played a behind-the-scenes role in helping to smooth the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy.
In his dealings with the business community, he began to realize that many of the pro-apartheid Afrikaners, the dominant white group, were unable to differentiate between various black tribes, while members of the African National Congress, the party led by Nelson Mandela, also had difficulty distinguishing between different types of Afrikaners.
Beck began delivering presentations all over South Africa to educate whites and blacks in the fine distinctions between the many different Zulu tribes and white groups.
“I was able to break up,” he says, “the definitional systems that fueled prejudice.”
Sport as a unifier
It was Beck who first came up with the idea of using South Africa’s entry into the World Cup rugby play-offs in 1995, depicted in the film Invictus, as a means of creating nation-building euphoria, in order to unify a country emerging from apartheid.
Beck had a special fascination with the psychology of premier-league games, and through his experiences working with the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints, he had developed a belief in the power of sports as a peacemaker.
This was a bold idea, given that the Springboks, the South African rugby team, were the very symbol of apartheid.
Rugby was considered a white man’s sport. Virtually all players were Afrikaners, the white pro-apartheid minority; rugby coaches even shouted out plays in Afrikaans. English-speaking or black players seldom made the team, and consequently, the black population in South Africa actively boycotted the sport.
In 1995, Beck presented Kitch Christie, the Springboks coach, with a paper entitled Six Games to Glory.
Besides the strategies for winning the game, Beck’s paper included ways that the Springboks could stand as a focal point of pride for the fledgling country and connect the township blacks with the Afrikaners.
As the games progressed, Beck’s plan began to infect the country; young blacks from the township tore down anti-rugby signs and hung photos of their Springbok heroes.
During the World Cup, which the Springboks went on to win, Mandela was persuaded to appear in a Springbok green and gold shirt — the colors that had always symbolized his oppressors — as a tangible sign of unity and forgiveness.
In his work, Beck often meets with both sides in an area of conflict and shows them a positive vision of future possibility, but one that requires that both sides work together and use their common geography and resources to create a solution for all who live there.
Beck likes to talk in sports metaphors. “You focus on relentless pragmatism,” he says in a heavy Texas drawl, “the progress that can be made to move the game forward.”
A vision of the Middle East
Much of Beck’s most recent work has been presenting Arabs and Israelis with a plan to make occupied Palestine “the Hong Kong of the Middle East,” an affluent society with both sides sharing resources for services such as education and health care.
To this end, Don Beck once attended a large investment conference in Bethlehem where a number of western multinationals were recommending high-tech investment in Palestine. To their astonishment, Beck insisted that they invest in a cement factory.
The potential investors were alarmed by the idea of investing in Industrial-Age technology until Beck convinced them to look through Palestinian eyes.
The refugees were living without permanent homes; what they needed most was not computers or mobile phones, but materials for housing, predictable, blue-collar work, an industry with a constant market and a source of building materials inside their own borders.
Once you see past your own assumptions you begin to see beyond differences to our common humanity — and the space that binds us all together.