In college, I signed up for a class called “Social Psychology.” The professor must have been amazing, for I went to only one lecture before I had to drop-add to make my schedule work – and I remember his subject: “Familiarity Breeds Liking.” Yes, we’ve heard familiarity breeds contempt, but statistics and common sense and experience prove that familiarity does breed liking. You get to know someone, you perceive he’s doing his best, she has struggles like you do, you listen and get beneath the superficial – and you begin to like the other person. Or maybe even love.
Most of what bedevils us these days can be chalked up to a simple lack of familiarity with others. The other day, a white guy explained to me why he owns and cherishes the Confederate flag, and then he ventured an opinion: “I bet most black people don’t mind this flag at all.” I asked him if he had actually asked any black people about this, and of course he hadn’t. I have, and after a few dozen such inquiries, the verdict is unanimous: this flag means hate, it arouses fear, it wounds. Interestingly, my friend with the flag is really a fine, ethical person. He just wasn’t familiar with enough people.
The ruckus around same-sex marriage is similar. In many (but not all) churches like mine, this subject is being debated. When someone says to me, I am opposed to same-sex marriage, the Bible is against it, I’m sorry but it’s just wrong, I ask, Do you know any same-sex couples who wish to be (or are) married? Have you asked them, What is your life like? Why do you want to marry? What does God mean to you and your partner? Inevitably the answer is No.
Then I know liberals who are advocates of same-sex marriage, and they generally view their foes as narrow-minded bigots. I ask them, Do you know any conservatives on this? Have you asked them Why do you feel the way you feel? What does God mean to you in all this? What do you fear, and what are you protecting? Inevitably the answer is No. Lacking familiarity, we do not like, and therefore we certainly can’t love.
Guns: we have a standoff out there between those who loathe guns and can’t fathom why we can’t get some controls in place or even get rid of weapons entirely. But they generally only talk among themselves, and do not know or listen to gun owners or members of the NRA. We may think we know others, but usually all we’ve seen are caricatures: the worst NRA spokesman is the one we’ve heard, the most naïve gun opponent is the one we’ve heard quoted. No wonder we never move toward any rational solutions, but only talk past each other with ever intensifying rancor.
Race is that complication that just won’t go away. We watch the news, we shudder over Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and naively assume Charlotte could never become another byword for racial strife. But in this city, we do not know one another, we do not trust one another, and therefore we do not love one another. Familiarity breeds liking. I challenged my congregation this past Sunday to make just one friend of a different color. Our church alone, if we made these five thousand friendships, could alter the equation on race, unity and peace in our city, especially as we get closer to the Kerrick-Ferrell trial.
The police have become targets of derision, or at other times support for less than the best reasons. But do we know policemen, by name? Do we know their personal stories? In Charlotte, “Cops and Barbers” is a marvelous initiative whereby we just try to get to know each other. Our new police chief, Kerr Putney, has a riveting personal story that absolutely would cause you to like and even love – and trust him.
Is the solution to our problems more force? Or litigation? Or better policies? Or is it simply realizing my college professor was right: Familiarity breeds liking. If we like each other, and even love, we will figure out how to solve homelessness, inadequate health care, substandard education, and crime, for I won’t let anyone I love sleep under a bridge or not get to the doctor or go to school without lunch or supplies.
I applaud the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol in my hometown of Columbia, and some of the other changes in law and policy. Symbols matter. But the heart of all the problems whose symbols we struggle to address is terribly simple, entirely solvable, and excruciatingly difficult: we are not familiar with one another. Only when we find ways to know the other, only when we get over the childhood rule “Don’t talk to strangers,” only when we listen, find the unlikely friend, and stop chatting only with those who share our bias and ideology will we ever have any constructive change and peace in our society. Call me naïve, but familiarity really does breed liking, and builds community and therefore love.