Good campus debates have all but disappeared amid the latest Israel-Hamas conflict. Some of my peers seem to forget that the point of any protest or debate is to win support for their position not to shame everyone who expresses an unpopular opinion. Calling someone a racist xenophobe or a socialist hack because they don’t agree with you may feel sarcastic, but it usually prevents them from seeing things the way you want.
Observing such vitriol on campus and across the country reinforces my belief that easing the political divide in America will require millions of people changing their minds about each other. It also made me think of, of all things, thermodynamics.
I studied physics at college and recently qualified as a naval nuclear engineering officer, so I always think in scientific terms. In this case, I wonder how the temperature of things changes. This leads me to theorize that thermodynamic principles also apply to social change.
It starts with a current equation, known as Fouriers law, that describes the rate of heat transfer in a material: q= -kT
Here, q represents how fast heat flows through an area; k is the thermal conductivity, which is how quickly the temperature of the material changes; and T stands for the distance between adjacent temperature surfaces. The terms on the right are multiplied, and the minus sign indicates heat flowing from hot to cold.
This means that heat will be transferred faster when adjacent surfaces differ more in temperature and when the materials involved are more willing to change temperature.
Applied to human interactions, the equation illustrates an important lesson for our divided times: Change happens faster when like-minded people interact and are especially helpful. if the interactions are friendly. But if you are the same temperature as everyone around you, nothing will change.
This is the story of my life.
Growing up in a conservative Christian home in Tennessee, I can hardly remember a dinner table conversation that wasn’t about religion or politics. At the age of 12, I was knocking on doors for Republican Senator John McCains 2008 presidential campaign.
I truly believe that Democrats are a threat to most of the things I value, and I can’t imagine being friends with one.
Then, at the age of 18, I joined the Navy. Suddenly, I made friends based on proximity rather than mutual interest in sports and politics. One night, at dinner with my best friend, Craig, I made a joke about Democrats. Craig laughed, leaned on the table, and whispered: Hey man, I am truly a Democrat.
Craig is a great guy. We share the same occupation, education, and religion, but sit firmly on opposite sides of the political aisle. This surprised me, If he is a Democrat, what am I missing as to why anyone would vote like that?
A friendly conversation changed my view of half the country.
To put it back in thermodynamic terms, a shift in values (q) occurs because we have different starting values of (T0), and empathies to each of the views. In other words, our social conductivity (k) is very large.
Such is change. Conversations with people you care about are not arguments with strangers on the internet (where social conductivity is 0).
The vitriol in our society may be in part because Americans surround themselves with others who share similar views of where they live and who they spend time with. A recent study published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests that this type of arrangement causes people’s beliefs to deepen as a result of that social integration.
That’s a problem. Debates used to be more civilized because we knew people who were not like us. We value our equality and don’t just stereotype each other into oblivion.
In an upcoming election year, it’s important to have the courage and curiosity to make friends with people outside of your political or socioeconomic niche. Join a local rec sports league, book club, or church. Consider joining organizations like Braver Angels, which facilitates conversations between Americans across the political spectrum, or the American Exchange Project, which helps high school students experience life in a community apart from themselves.
And when you meet someone you disagree with, resist the urge to prove them wrong and consider the social conductivity of your conversation. Be genuinely interested in people who think differently than just looking for potential converts.
If any of us want to change the world, we must first change people’s minds which means we need to know and care about people who think very differently than us.
But what if, in trying to change someone else’s mind, they also change mine?
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Justin Barnard is an active duty submarine officer in the US Navy pursuing a masters degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. Send comments to email@example.com.
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