What kind of change? Is it change at the personal level, or is it political, economic, social or other change? Do we talk about change of others, or is it my own change of opinions and values? And if we talk about the tempo of change, the short answer is generally: it takes time. Change is rarely sudden, especially not if it is deep change and sustainable change. It is hardly ever total and sweeping; it is usually partial to include some sectors or areas at a time.

Lars Roar Langslet, a former conservative Norwegian politician, now an old man, was a professor of philosophy before he became a politician, and a minister of education, science, culture and religion. A generation ago, he wrote an important book entitled ‘Forandre for a bevare’, in English, ‘Change to Preserve’. Langselt argued that change should take place, or perhaps more precisely, he argued for a constant renewal.

Like more or less all Norwegians that time (before Muslims and other immigrants had arrived), Langslet too had been brought up as a Christian in the Protestant Lutheran faith. But then as an adult, he studied Christianity in more detail, and changed, or converted, as the term is, to the more conservative and orthodox branch, notably Catholicism. He took an independent, intellectual and religious stand. He did not just flow with the tide. It was a quite brave thing to do even in Norway, which is a more secular country than Pakistan. But also here, we can draw lessons from his principled approach, making faith a matter of conscience between the individual and God, as it always is.

Langslet advised us to revisit old values in religion and philosophy, in moral and ethical fields, in politics and trade, and so on. We should think about existential and practical issues in our daily lives. We should reflect on and question fixed ways of thinking and doing things. We should discuss if there could be other roads to reach the goals we wanted. We shouldn’t just follow and advocate for one way either, because there is not just one set of standards, ‘one size that fits all’.

In our globalized world, we believe in diversity and multiculturalism. People from all corners of the globe may live in the same neighbourhood. At the same time, we expect people to change, at least in some ways, to fit into daily life, where there is usually a majority opinion and common standard. In the private sphere, people may have different religions, believes and habits.

In certain ways, we do not accept diversity at all. We do not like socialist or communist regimes in our world today, such as Cuba and North Korea; and the Soviet Union was forced into political and economic change well over twenty years ago. We can argue that it had to do with human rights issues, individual freedom and democracy. Yet, considerations related to ideological and economic issues, and indeed world leadership, power and control, weighed heavier. That is also more or less hidden behind the ‘war on terror’; countries and groups within countries are forced to change and accept the Western ideology and rules, with capitalist economic and political systems.

When the ‘Arab spring’ happened some three years ago, the West was eager to support it, although major world powers had for decades supported the regimes that were overthrown. The discontent had been growing for years, but the lid was taken off all of a sudden. In Egypt and other countries, the change was revolution-like. Many, inside and outside the countries, quickly saw the uprisings as forces to bring lasting change.

I was always skeptical, based on what I have said above: change is rarely sudden. We have seen that in recent months, especially in Egypt. We also begin to realize that to change a political system is not just to change the political leadership and top military and civil servants. It is the whole political and social culture that must change, and the people’s mindset, as we say – and that takes time. It has to take time otherwise the change will only be superficial and cosmetic. That we should have understood, shouldn’t we, with all the university and research institutes we have in political and other social sciences? And all the other ‘Besserwisser’ opinions and analyses we come up with on TV talk shows and conferences?

When South Sudan in July 2011 became an independent state, breaking loose from The Sudan, the largest country in Africa, we all somehow thought – or wanted to think – that it would lead to peace and prosperity for the new land. Yes, I believe many goals were right. Yet, why didn’t we realize that the level of education and enlightenment was so rudimentary among the masses that to create peaceful prosperity would have been a miracle? A few weeks ago, the internal conflict broke out, but we should have known that it was very likely to happen. After decades of war and oppression, where people had been living in a ‘culture of violence and war’, we should have realized that people build on what they know, and that was not peaceful development. The country had also been supported by outside Western powers, in many cases quite naively. Now, the United Nations representative and special envoy in the land, and all the other Western diplomats, must share the responsibility for the tragic events that have flared up.

When most colonies became independent some fifty years ago, they too had often had a violent and undemocratic pre-independence history, sometimes with freedom fights and wars. South Africa is a more recent example. Therefore, we should not be surprised when the new regimes soon fall into dictatorial and heavy-handed rule. It isn’t inevitable, but likely. Perhaps, on a positive note, the situation could have been much worse than what happened in many new states.

Change takes time, and new values and practices, with a new political and administrative culture, can only develop over time. It can only grow from below, with people’s participation, to be sustainable and lasting. Leaders, progressive groups and experts must all support change, because it is important to know that change builds on broad-based opinions and values. Yet, there is rarely total consensus. And if there were, I would also be worried because people might then be brainwashed or naively believe in ‘the new’; they might oppose to ‘the old’ more than agree on what to do in the future. Perhaps that was part of what happened with the ‘Arab spring’.

In the social sectors, too, we know that change takes time, indeed change that grows roots and is accepted by all. However, there are success stories, too! The role of women in society has changed dramatically in the last couple of generations, with women taking up all types of professions and leadership posts, not only in the West, but more and more also in other countries. Same sex partnerships, too, are beginning to become accepted.

Interestingly, as we move one, we discover that we may not want to turn the clock back even if we had doubts about new ways. That is how change happens and become lasting, not through abrupt and sudden events, but through slow evolution. But ordinary people have to accept and agree on the change, based on discussions, turning all stones, exploring what is under each, and place the stones in better positions.

In his major philosophical and political contributions, Lars Roar Langslet argued for the freedom of speech as the most important of all rights. He argued for the right to be oneself; to think, believe and speak freely; and make use of the means that one has at disposal. Yes, Langslet was a conservative, but he was also a liberal and open-minded conservative, who questioned prevailing thinking and searched for change and new ways. Isn’t that what we should all do?

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.