Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why we can’t get along

Dr. Laura just channeled her inner Sarah Palin. She just quit her 32 year #3 rated radio show. Buh-Bye. I’ve never actually listened to Dr. Laura, or Rush, or Sean or Howard or any talk show personality but that won’t stop me from blogging about it! So there’s no mistake: I’m offended by Dr. Laura’s use of the “N” word (11 times!) and her ignorance on a range of issues (especially GLBTQ) and her simple-minded approach to complex issues. Imagine my surprise to find myself agreeing with her departing statement.

“When I first started out in radio," she said, "people would disagree — they disagreed, they didn't hate. They didn't try to censor, they didn't try to destroy an opposing point of view. Instead, they just argued and debated, and argued and disagreed, and debated and argued." Now, she continued, "self-appointed activist types breed hate, breed anger, breed destruction should anyone hold up a mirror or dare to disagree.” It’s an interesting point of view from somebody who used her show to spout against individuals and groups of people whom she doesn’t understand or like. Setting aside the hypocrisy, though, she makes a valid point about the venom which populates our discourse.

There is an intolerance of opposing opinions that has emerged in my lifetime. President Obama (and others) has said that we can have our own opinions, but not our own facts. It’s a catchy truism that doesn’t do much to help distinguish between the two. 18 months into unemployment I tend to talk about the 10% unemployment rate rather than the 90% employment rate. Both facts are true. Whichever focus one puts on the issue begins to frame the fact. It’s inevitable and understandable, the question is how to do it without hyperbole.

While managing a company’s turn-around a few years back I evaluated their training program. They had a customized and intense program that lasted four to six weeks before a new hire could be put into the day-to-day operations. It ensured that the highest possible skill level was attained before billable work began. It was also extremely expensive with 40% of the people not making it through and a lot of resources dedicated to training and learning. Lots of spirited discussion ensued before a new plan was put in place. The program was recreated and capped out at 3 days training with more than 80% making it through the program. Making this transition meant that some who disagreed left the company (voluntarily or not). They lost their jobs because of their actions, not their agreement or disagreement. Several who continue today at the company were the most resistant, but they were willing to try it if only to prove me wrong!  Those whose communications lacked respect for the need for change and the messengers of change didn't make it.

Lack of respect is reflected in many businesses. Customers are often a means to an end. “Buy this pill and your life will be perfect.” (Don’t worry about those pesky side-effects.) Brokers telling clients to invest in a fund their corporate parent simultaneously short-sells. Airlines may be the most egregious – from monitoring your searches (to see how often you’ve looked for a route and raising the prices each time you come back to the same route) to Spirit Airlines charging for carry-on bags ($45). Individual response ranges but often includes backlash, a sense of entitlement but mostly a matched level of respect that mirrors what we experience.

Government fosters the sense of entitlement. Programs exist to assist those in need. The distinction between who is in need and thus deserves government’s largess is where disagreements exist. The conflict over which group government should help manifests in strident and apocalyptic communications. (“Don’t take away my farm subsidy.” “Don’t touch my Social Security.”)

What’s your last experience with the DMV? Did you have an “appointment” (as I did) and arrive on time only to wait 15 minutes in the line to check in and another 20 minutes to do the 2 minute task? Or did yours go perfectly and you were done in 4 minutes flat --- or better yet --- perhaps your state allows mundane tasks to be done online (for free)? Or perhaps you just stopped by at lunch and spent the afternoon getting the car registered. It’s not a slam against the DMV, it’s an example of how we’re treated reflects how we treat ourselves and others. Put another way “Love our neighbors as ourselves.”

“Can’t we all get along?” Rodney King famously asked during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. We can’t. We shouldn’t. Of course we shouldn’t be beating each other up. I deplore violence. I cherish freedom of speech..for everybody, and especially those whom I disagree. I cherish my ability to criticize, challenge and congratulate. I don’t have to be respectful, but I choose to be. Freedom of Speech is messy, it’s unpleasant and it is the essence of being an American.  It sets us apart.

Translating freedom of speech to freedom of action is where it gets tricky. I am guided by the Libertarian Party’s Statement of Principles that is on my Membership Card. “We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

I used to love Crossfire on CNN. In the early days the “left” and “right” hosts would actually talk with their guests and often “cross” over traditional lines. By the late-1980 and into the 90’s the political system evolved from policy disagreements to nothing more than a marketing effort for a brand candidate or party. On the show discussions became a tedious back and forth of sound bites and talking points. Today on cable news that’s nearly all that exists – a recitation of opinions with little listening or dialogue. Many listen and appreciate hearing their views reflected, but many many more just aren’t tuning in.  I think people are tuned out because of the rancor, not the complexity or because of apathy.

For about 25 years I have effected change within organizations – large, small, for-profit, not-for-profit. Engaging stakeholders and having effective two-way communication about what works, what doesn’t work and what will work seems straight forward enough. Putting it into daily practice in all areas of our lives is the challenge. Like all of us, I prefer to engage with something that aligns with my thinking rather than having to be uncomfortable and look at something in a different way. That bubble gets old, though. I’m stimulated in looking at businesses, people and the world from multiple points of view. I have little tolerance for blather.

I agree, don’t you?!?!

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