Managing Polarities

This blog has been rumbling around in my brain for some time now, but a few things have happened lately, prompting me to set deliverables aside momentarily.

Unless you live under a rock, you cannot help but notice that the political world in which we live has become extremely polarized. A true understatement if ever there was one, right? Each party is scrambling as far as they can into their respective corner. The current presidential candidates reflect this fact.

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At the 2015 American Evaluation Association (AEA) in Chicago, I heard Sarah Stachowiak of ORS Impact and Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer from the Center for Evaluation Innovation present a session entitled, Developmental Evaluation Tools for Emergent Strategies. They shared an example of a developmental evaluation from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Project. The project is exploring the problem of political polarization in the U.S., with a special focus on Congress. The foundation is investing $50 million from 2014-2017 to see if they can help congress deliberate, negotiate and compromise in ways that benefit the American people. I was struck by the research presented that shows the ever-increasing polarization of opinions in our country and the reflection of that in congress. See this 2015 blog for some insight or some interesting work by the Pew Foundation.

A few nights ago I attended a community drug summit sponsored by one of our Drug Free Community clients. Afterwards, as I was talking to the new coalition director, a community member came up to us with THE answer to youth substance abuse – require urine screens from all county athletes. After all, he reasoned, the athletes are the leaders and the other students will follow their example. In my world, the answer to complex social problems is rarely as simple as this. The pros and cons of drug testing your child is a subject for another day, but I was struck by the calm demeanor of the director and her kind invitation for

the community member to come and channel his passion by joining the coalition (He promptly declined).

A few weeks ago, our pastor’s sermon mentioned a death penalty case in Georgia, that of Kenneth Fults. Our pastor used a quote attributed to someone who served on the jury. It is not a nice word (starts with N) but he was using the word to illustrate that although Fults’s actions were reprehensible, his defense and at least this one juror’s attitudes were questionable. After the service, as my family and I stood in line to greet our pastor, I realized he was being yelled at by another parishioner. The man was letting Monsignor know he in no way appreciated that his children had heard the n-word for the first time and that it was “damn liberals” like him that were pushing their agenda. The pastor calmly and quietly explained his reason for doing so – what better place for our children to hear about the reality of racism than in church? I stood amazed as this man yelled at our pastor. Now let me say, as a parent, I can get where this man was coming from; I understand the emotional reaction when you feel your child has been harmed. But, having attended a Catholic school for most of my childhood, no way would I ever speak to anyone like that, especially a clergy. Please believe me; there have been several times in my life when I have wanted to share a few choice words with men of the cloth, but to do so right there at church before literally — God and everyone— just, wow.

So that was the final push to write this blog. In graduate school at Georgia State, the chair of the psychology department, Dr. Walter Daves, often spoke about managing polarities. He was inspired by the work of Barry Johnston. Here is a brief video of Nick Petrie explaining this concept fairly succinctly.

It seems to me we would all be a lot better off if we could learn to speak with each other and not at each other. Wouldn’t searching for common ground rather than insisting on being correct be more productive? Until we all decide to meet on common ground, we will stay stuck in our respective corners. We should not be surprised if our political parties remain in conflict and congress stuck in perpetual gridlock. We will have no one but ourselves to blame. Just one evaluators opinion.