Archives for the month of: July, 2012

Don’t argue with me by Flickr user ClaraDon

I was recently asked to respond to the question, “What trends have you been seeing in democracy?” I thought I might share my response more broadly.

One of the core experiences when it comes to democracy in the U.S. context is the effect of hyperpolarization. This is a pathology that goes beyond simple ”partisanship” (which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing). Hyperpolarization refers to the inability or refusal to consider other ”tribe’s” views as valid and to (at the same time) actively seek out tribal markers.

This plays out in the most obvious way in presidential-year politics. To a liberal, anything Romney says ought to be parsed so it can be seen as showing how anti-worker he is. Similarly, a conservative (under this model) will seek out reasons to find Obama to be a government-first softie.

But it matters beyond presidential electoral politics. In a hyperpolarized world, citizens on an individual level are constantly looking for cues to see what tribe people belong to. And, once the tribe is identified, we scour the person’s words and deeds for reasons to hate or love them. I have seen this play out on a local level, as people examine one another’s speech to determine if they are for or against a certain housing development (for example). Once the judgment is made, everything that person says is either agreed with and defended, or subject to ridicule and derision . . . entirely due to which ”tribe” or ”team” we believe them to be on.

This hyperpolarization stands in the way of productive choice-making in communities and is one of the key pathologies we currently face. (Not the only.)

As many friends know, I have a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the lessons organizational leaders should take from the recent University of Virginia contretemps.

Ethics Newsline

One email caught my eye recently. On Sunday morning, June 10, I received an announcement that the University of Virginia’s president was stepping down. The announcement was terse. “On behalf of the Board of Visitors, we are writing to tell you that the Board and President Teresa Sullivan today mutually agreed that she will step down as president of the University of Virginia effective August 15, 2012.” Later in the announcement, a statement from President Sullivan referred to “a philosophical difference of opinion.”

Odd, I thought to myself. She’s new on the job. This sounds like she was fired.

Odd indeed. The announcement email, which had been sent under the name of Helen Dragas, Rector of the Board of Visitors (akin to board chair), turned out to be just the opening act of an intense drama that played out over the next 16 days.

This drama has forever changed how the university of Virginia will do its business. Beyond that, however, it also perfectly illustrates a new set of institutional ethics that leaders must deal with.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.