11-20-13 Know Thyself OracleofDelphiWeb  


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The Polarization Paradox

image that reads "don't believe everything you think", polarization paradoxLast Sunday afternoon, my wife and I sat listening to 1960’s music, relishing the smell of the barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers, enjoying our annual neighborhood block party. When one of my friends returned to our table, from talking to a few of our local politicians, I told him that I wasn’t going to bother talking to the politicians this year. I expressed my disappointment that they never got back to me regarding the possibility of installing parking meters around our neighborhood park. I pointed out that the park is always overcrowded and that a small parking fee might make a little room for those of us who live within walking distance of the park (and help the budget woes).

My neighbor asserted that he would not be in favor of parking fees because he believed that a park should be for a wider/bigger community, not just our local neighborhood.

I replied that I felt this issue was in fact, a classic paradox – a tension between the Part (in this case, the needs of our local neighborhood) AND the Whole (the needs of the extended community). I thought a small parking fee might be one way to help manage the tension between these two opposing, yet interdependent issues.

I dropped the topic after he declared that even if it was a paradox, he favored meeting the needs of the extended community and opposed to any parking fee.

So, what’s the story really all about? The more I thought about it the more the story seemed to illustrate the growing polarization occurring across the United States. A recent Pew Research study of 10,013 Americans found that the percent of Democrats within the party who have mostly liberal or consistently liberal political values (like my friend and neighbor) has increased from 30% to 56% over the last 20 years. The percent of Republicans within their party with mostly conservative or consistently conservative political values has increased from 45% to 53% over that same period. This migration toward the polar extremes has left those in the middle (i.e., with equal liberal and conservative views) wondering where their neighbors went. These centrists have seen their numbers shrink from 49% in 2004 to 39% in 2014. (1)

As a leader (at home and/or at work), I hope you find this trend disturbing… for at least three reasons. First, the Bible teaches, “the truth shall set you free,” not your opinion. Neither liberals nor conservatives have a lock on the truth. Isn’t it usually better if both sides seek the truth together, rather than shout opposing opinions at each other?

Second, the architect of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison wrote that, “every word of the Constitution decides a question between power and liberty.” America’s version of democracy is based on managing paradox, not a polarized populace. Democracy works best when compromise and collaboration are compliments not violations of party platforms.

Finally, the job of a leader is to “unleash the energy of others toward worthy goals.” Leaders like you and me, as well as nations, cannot energize others if we demonize those with whom we disagree. Others won’t follow our lead if they don’t see our shining example leading the way. Therein lies the polarization paradox – by screaming loudly from distant shores nobody is heard and little is done.

You may have noticed that I did not reveal my political affiliations in this issue. That’s because this isn’t just about politics. Beneath the surface, it’s about leadership humility – our willingness to respect diverse opinions.

Today, I’m going to lighten my load by dropping one of my opinions. (Perhaps my parking meter idea is not the way to manage the part – whole paradox…) How about you? Are you strong enough to doubt yourself? What do you think?

Feel free to forward this (or any) microRave and keep stretching,

  1. Drew Desilver: Partisan polarization, in Congress and among public, is greater than ever. Pew Research Center. http://www.People-Press.org

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