Interlude

I left the apartment in time to drop Laura at school and then either double back to the Brown Line stop closer to our apartment or walk the extra block further down the line to Western stop. For over 30 minutes on two trains, then, I would listen to music or podcasts, text a friend. I’d spend “business hours” alternating between meetings and focused work on tasks, answering emails and socializing–each mode distinguished by corresponding physical cues: the colleagues seated on my left and right, the closed office door, the easy lean on a cubicle divider.

I’d leave there in time to ride those trains back to the school for pickup. After a brief interlude at home, I’d make sure dinner was prepared and then get Laura to cheer practice, then go do work or read at Starbucks til she finished. We’d get home after 9:00, then start getting ready to do it all over again the next day.

I appreciate what it’s going to take to go back to that. Long months now of doing a lot but in the same space and posture has trained the get-up-and-go out of me. I don’t check my watch so often anymore. As desperate as we all are to emerge from this long, miserable interlude, it’s probably time to start accounting for what we’ll need to exit it well.

Two Masters

In the same way that an institution attracted to a leader with a crowd is prone to overestimate it’s capacity to control that leader, a leader with a crowd overestimates their ability to control it, too.

We should ask: who or what does this crowd or this leader that we are so drawn to ultimately serve?

Telephone

I’ve had three good phone calls this week–informative, illuminating, entertaining, even difficult phone calls. They have been the best discretionary uses of my time since Sunday.

For my money, the phone is the most important modern tool for human-to-human communication we have. The subsequent inventions of email, text, and video chat have not improved on it.

Fight me about it.

Be A Good Partisan

Partisanship isn’t the problem. Partisanship just means you have your side and I have mine. I’m not mad about the way that you identify with your side, though you’re welcome to join mine, because, of course, I think mine is better. But I won’t begrudge you your loyalty to your side. It’s probably healthier when a collective is divided into competing sides.

But there are better and worse ways to be a partisan, and the difference between being a good or bad partisan is more than manners–it’s consequential for the aims of your side. Bad partisans isolate themselves from their opponents and refuse to listen, much less negotiate. This necessarily diminishes the information bad partisans have to work with and leads to a cycle of short-sighted decision making.

Good partisans recognize when the other side is bringing something of value to the table. They are willing to converse in good faith, because they know the power of relationships outside their tribe.

Here’s the thing about this for leaders: it seems to me that most of the pressure we face to be a bad partisan comes from our own side. This past week I’ve been recollecting my brief time in Northern Ireland in the months following the Good Friday Agreement. The pressure each community’s leaders were under to fight for their own side was crushing, and leaders were under constant threat from their co-partisans should they get to cozy with the enemy. It was a serious impediment to peace.

I’m learning a lot these days from leaders who are speaking hard truths to their own side (which is not my side). Going forward, they’re the ones I want to imitate.

Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics (And Activating Lies And Enabling Lies)

Yesterday I wrote that love requires that we tell those we love when they’re being lied to. Minutes after posting, I read David French’s Sunday newsletter, which offered a very helpful delineation between the kinds of lies presently seizing our civitas, enabling lies and activating lies.

“The Democrat party systematically attacked the Constitution and our election system” is an activating lie, a made-up charge that someone has done something they haven’t done, a lie which, if believed, calls for a response.

But the activating lie sprouts from the soil of enabling lies. French:

Here’s an enabling lie: America will end if Trump loses. That was the essence of the Flight 93 essay in 2016. That was the core of Eric Metaxas’s argument in our debates this spring and fall.

Here’s another enabling lie: The fate of the church is at stake if Joe Biden wins.

And here’s yet another: The left hates you (this sentence sometimes concludes with the phrase “and wants you dead.”)

I’ll add my own, a meme shared on Facebook by a family member just weeks ago: a picture of Nancy Pelosi covered with the text “100% Pure Evil.”

And what did I do with that meme? I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders but said nothing to the poster. What’s the point? Agree to disagree and all the rest.

We can do more than nothing. We must do more than nothing. Sadly, leaving comments feels like next to nothing. So does pasting links to fact checks. Enabling lies don’t exist because otherwise clear-minded people have weighed the facts and made a mistaken determination. On the left and the right, enabling lies nest in hearts and minds that want them. We participate in our own deception.

Maybe curiosity needs to replace assertion in the fight against the kinds of enabling lies that produced the siege of the Capitol last week. I mean curiosity about the people in our lives who are open to them. We probably all know someone who believes “The left hates you,” so I wonder what might change if we started to inquire, one at a time, “I wonder why you think that?” It’s Pollyanish, I know. It won’t solve the problem by itself. But what we’re doing now sure isn’t working.

Empathy And Honesty

What does love require in a time of upheaval, when forces in our national life divide us and incite us to attack one another and the institutions on which we depend in our common life?

Empathy, yes. Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad. A sincere attempt to stand in the shoes of those we don’t understand and don’t agree with is always worth the discomfort.

And

Honesty. Senator Romney’s words from Wednesday night keep ringing in my ears, that “The best way to show respect to the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth.” Love requires respect, and respect demands honesty. That means you tell me the truth and I’ll tell you the truth. But it also means that I am going to challenge lies people tell you, because I love you.

We have a serious problem with honesty. We have for a long time. Mass media has always invited its users to selectively edit, to spin, to amplify in ways that are disingenuous and deceptive. “The media” mislead, though not always on purpose. Even the most conscientious news organizations get things wrong–and issue retractions and corrections. There is no such thing as unbiased media. But biased does not equal dishonest. The most beneficial media are transparent about their biases and committed to the conventions of honest reporting, such as verifying sources and requiring multiple credible sources before publishing claims.

However, we are living now in the age when right wing media organizations feed their audiences of millions a steady stream of assertions that are not simply biased spin but actually have no basis in fact at all, and then they layer on hours and hours of grievance-stoking commentary based on those assertions. This is not spin. It’s not a “conservative” point of view. It is a fantasy in which right wing media audiences are framed as the virtuous, patriotic, downtrodden victims of evil liberal scorn and criminality. I watched a segment of one right wing personality yesterday, broadcast last Sunday night, in which he calmly explained that results of the November Presidential election like this: “The Democrat party systematically attacked the Constitution and our election system.” He set up that summary by blatantly misrepresenting the actions of multiple officials across several states, all of whom were Democrats. That personality is on the network with the largest audience in the history of cable news programming.

This is an impediment to love. When people we love are lied to, love will not permit us to shrug our shoulders and agree to disagree. Lies are harmful, but love rejoices in the truth.

Of course, how we bring the truth to bear is everything. As with mass media, so with love: the medium is the message.

Truth

I’m taking away some leadership lessons from the events of this week. Watching video of Lindsey Graham, head bowed and terrified, surrounded by police as angry Trump supporters scream “Traitor” and “Sex Trafficker” at him in an airport is all the illustration those lessons need.

These are the people Graham and many of his colleagues sought to placate these many months now with their subservience to a leader they previously called unfit as he lied and lied and lied. To oppose Trump with the truth would be to draw the ire of these constituents and imperil their chances at reelection.

This is where we end up when we trade the discomfort of telling those in our charge uncomfortable truths for the acclaim they give us when we reassure them with lies. Fed a steady diet of self-reinforcing lies, people lose their taste for truth. You can’t suddenly start feeding a child spinach who you’ve plied with Frito’s for months and months. They will vomit. On you. Then they will call you a traitor.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth,” said Mitt Romney on Wednesday night.

Telling people the truth is a better long-term bet every time.

The System

If you work in a system, you bear responsibility for what the system produces. “I didn’t know” and “that’s not my department” not only deny personal responsibility, but they also diminish opportunity. If you have a role in the system, you have some say in what the system does.

Systems don’t do anything automatically. They are built, maintained, and steered by people who use them to their desired purpose. The people steering the system today may have the same purpose as the people who built it, or they may not. So what is my purpose for the systems I occupy, and what can I do (like, tomorrow) to advance it?

Speech

Now more than ever we need to speak honestly, forcefully, and kindly. Falsehoods destroy. Do not traffick in them, yours or others. Mistrust the seductive tale that christens you and yours while making monsters of your opponents. Flood their deeds with day, but let the sunlight do the work.

Overhaul

I’ve never been part of a change process that chucked prevailing process for a total overhaul and actually worked. Soon enough, the same problems return. That’s as true for a diet as it is for an organization. The overhaul feels effective in its conception and it’s launch, but that feeling is deceptive.

It’s probably better in the long run to commit our energy to fixing the specific problems that are right in front of us, perhaps one at a time, then adjusting to fix the next one. Confidence and capability increase with each fix.