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Grabbing Hold

It’s commonly observed these days that polarized attitudes haven’t helped the country, and that people in general are tired of politicians bickering. The opposite of polarization is working together, but it’s not instantly clear how to do that.

Customarily, people in different interest groups work on their own project until an obvious conflict occurs with other groups--contention over candidate selection, legislation, land use, or policies in the financial, social, military, educational, or geopolitical realms. Then, if we’re so motivated, we say “Let’s work together” insofar as the impact of the current situation requires that we do so or else we will surely suffer some unfortunate consequence.

In this model of “working together,“ by the time we even begin, other people have already shaped what’s possible. An ongoing example is the cost of the Iraq war estimated upwards of $2 trillion by different analysts. $2 trillion buys a lot of remedial education, job training, community college degrees, bridges, railcars, wetlands improvement, consumer protection, offender restoration to the community, and so forth. Yet were any of these needs even referred to when the decision to invade Iraq was made? Even by the opponents of the invasion?

They weren’t because the issue seizing today’s attention is what gets talked about. Those who are good at “the bully pulpit,” propaganda, advertising, public relations, and manipulation can typically set the stage for whatever discussion they want. Going to war then becomes the focus instead of children’s health and well-being.

The alternative to letting ourselves be seized by the current big idea is to have a better one already circulating that gives us a broader and longer perspective about the current issue. To say that a different way, an inescapable rationale operates. When a new idea appears before us, we have no way of judging its worth except in relation to something else we already know that has worth. The implication of this is that to prepare people to resist bad ideas, we have no alternative except to convey good ones and get them assimilated before the bad ones can displace them.

This poses the question, What ideas?

The answer can go in an unlimited number of directions because people’s choices that affect society can be influenced by so many of them. Their choice of one candidate over another in an election may hinge on no more than a single gaffe one of them makes, a single comment from a friend, a single ad or phone call, a single candidate position. When national direction may be determined by a one vote in just one election district, we’re presented with the task of affecting everything that can determine that outcome.

Attempting this omnipresent influence is one direction electioneering has taken under the name of micro-targeting; find out the unique preferences of voters one by one, and tailor-make your mailings and calls specifically to them. On the basis of the success of this method in the 2004 election, Karl Rove was led to predict the forming of a permanent conservative majority among elected officials.

We’re faced now as of late 2007 with a year of debate about the direction for America, yet we can confidently predict that people’s mental habits will not change. They will continue (98% of the time researchers tell us) to rehearse their old thinking, and carefully screen what they allow into the remaining 2%.

In this situation, it appears particularly urgent now to give energy to the ideas people can fall back on when assessing the worth of new ideas tossed their way. People do this already about ideas limited to their own special interest. About a new policy proposed by a government official, Hispanics, for instance, understandably apply the concept “Is this is good for Hispanics?“ As a group, their first concern isn’t about the spotted owl, the salmon, or the prairie, but how does this affect us? People of any state think “Is this is good for our state?“ Anyone with an identify defined by occupation, social class, ethnicity, gender, or income is likely to think “How does this affect my kind of people?” as their go-to criterion.

An obvious outcome of this kind of thinking is that all those who do not think in those terms have their interests displaced by others. The outsiders to this instinctive play for power potentially includes all living beings--flora and fauna--in the natural world, and all humans without power and influence: the poor, uneducated, mentally ill, incarcerated, and alienated. The current skewing of wealth and income in the country is an indicator of how the system has been designed for those with power and against those without it.

If we can agree tentatively on this rationale, it suggests a strategy to pursue in one’s contacts with others. Recalling how small the influences can be that nonetheless have vast impact on society, the strategy is to discuss a single idea in as much detail as possible:

We meet the widest array of needs
as we weigh each need against its impact
on the whole.

We can regard this as thinking systemically, ecologically, and sustainably with a long time horizon.

A timely example is the day’s news about the European Union--countries comprising a half-billion people stretching from the Mediterranean to Finland. It decided that it should look at the long term effects of the presence of particular metals in the computer components being produced when they eventually disintegrated and their materials returned to the earth. Because of their toxic effects on living things, six metals (e.g. among them chromium, cadmium, and lead) were banned. This confronted computer engineers to develop substitutes. The industry didn’t think of this doing this by itself, but were led to do so because an indispensable consumer of its wares decided to think long-term.

Few of us are in decision-making roles likely to have such direct impact, but a standard political axiom is that what people accept is what elected officials presume on. If enough people collectively say “We don’t accept that,” formal policies change.

If the idea in bold above is true and fitting just now, the next question is how to cause it to become a presumption in mainstream thought. The entry point, I believe, is not likely to be from public pronouncements by acknowledged leaders because they are always going to be regarded as operating from self-interest. Our task is much larger than changing their temporary opinion about a candidate. Instead it is not apply the idea of the good of the whole in myriad ways as tradeoffs between the impact of policies become apparent. We prepare people to think for the good of the whole society, in other words, as we develop a habit of thinking in this manner in our own personal and local situation. In other words,

We learn to think in terms of
the good of the whole by applying the idea
habitually in our own lives.

This suggests an avenue for personal conversation. The more of us who do this, the faster the basic idea can spread. We converse about questions like:
  • What social or political issues concern you?
  • How does their solution involve a re-allocation of resources--local, state, or federal?
  • What angles come to your mind for thinking about “the good of the whole“?
  • What comes to your mind when you think of life on the planet being sustainable and healthy?
  • What are the biggest threats against that?
  • What issues being debated these days present a conflict of priorities for you?

The questions above don’t have answers that are right or wrong. They’re important just by leading others to focus on a way of looking at all issues that come before them. The fundamental role of a person who wants change is to talk about good ideas with one person at a time, think about the conversation, return to it later with the same person and build on it, and discuss talking to others.

The critical thing is a common field of thought that’s rich with attention to all the possible goods that could occur from it.
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