Anger In Online Interactions

The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have set people across the nation on edge. People are shocked, grieving, angry, confused, frightened, and more. People are reaching out to one another. In person (on the street, in coffee houses) and on social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog comment threads) people are conversing.

As a proponent of dialogue throughout my career, in some ways this is heartening. We don’t engage in serious conversation about public issues nearly enough. Still, it is dispiriting to think it takes a national tragedy of such magnitude to get us talking.

scream and shout
Scream and Shout, by Flickr user mdanys

More troubling, though, is to observe how difficult it seems to be for people to be civil to one another. I see thread after thread (especially on Facebook) devolve into name calling. This is not new, of course. It comes with the territory online — people are not really themselves online. Or, rather: they are themselves without the filters we usually have to enable us to operate in polite company. I will say something online that I would not say to your face.

This is a challenge those of us who try to hold open spaces for people to talk about difficult issues often face. Over the past few days, I found myself reliving my time as publisher of the local news site, Rockville Central — which my friend Cynthia Cotte Griffiths and I ran in order to provide a space for dialogue. One of the reasons that we shut it down after a number of successful years was the sheer nervous energy we had to expend maintaining the norms and decorum. On Facebook, I have experienced the same anxiety as I watch personal friends who don’t know one another go at it on threads I established. Then, sometimes, when I ask them to be civil, they attack me in turn.

I like to believe that, as a society, we have not yet adapted to social media as a medium of conversation. We behave in very crude ways to one another because we haven’t collectively figured out what the rules are.

However, I often fear I am wrong — that, in fact, we have figured out what the rules are and, in general, they are anything goes.

Photo credit: Flickr user mdanys.

Time For A Conversation

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses
By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

Creating Values Skeptics: My Latest Column at Ethics Newsline

I write 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 “ethics fatigue” that has grown up around today’s young people, as they are constantly bombarded with aspirational messages and lists of important values and virtues.

Ethics Newsline

I recently had the good fortune to lead a session on leadership and ethics for a group of high school students. It went well — all except for one part, which fell sort of flat. As I reflected on the ups and downs of the talk, I realized that I had been having the same experience with high schoolers for some time.

I’ve been giving addresses on ethics and leadership in public life for many years and in front of many audiences. These events almost always go well and generate insights in the attendees. I liberally mix my experience with the Institute for Global Ethics, my experience in civic engagement, and my experience in politics to make the basic point that, in public life, we ought to root our decision-making in shared values rather than solely in policy or law. A part of these sessions often includes an exercise in which people identify and discuss what their shared, core values might be. Later in my address, I typically use this as a foundation for other points about how to analyze situations and make decisions.

It is this “shared values” portion that fell flat with my high school audience — as it has been for some time. Why? Students these days continually are bombarded with messages throughout school and extracurricular activities that remind them of what their “core values” ought to be. There are posters in the hallways with acronyms designed to generate pep and morals all at once. There are T-shirts, stickers, decals, pencils, and more — all boasting aspirational lists of values and virtues to be memorized, abided by, and spread the message.

What’s more, many students also have been subjected to meetings, classes, lectures, and rallies designed to underscore these values. They’ve broken into small groups, shared their feelings, written on white boards, and addressed postcards to themselves as reminders, all in workshops designed with the same attention to psychology that an adult-education specialist might use when designing a high-stakes board retreat.

The end result increasingly appears to be cynicism and fatigue.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.

The University of Virginia and The New Transparency: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

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.

Only Divided Because We Think We Are: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

As some know, I have begun 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 recent research that sheds light on just how divided we are — in public vs. in private life.

Ethics Newsline

Only Divided Because We Think We Are

It is conventional wisdom among those who worry about the strength of civil society that Americans are polarized due in large part to the rhetoric of the political and media elites. Deep down, we are not so different from our neighbors, but the messages we hear from the news shows and from political podiums is that we must vanquish our foes lest the nation spiral ever downward.

New research by the Pew Research Center adds nuance to that, and provides a troubling counterpoint. According to this new report, Americans have remained moderately divided on important issues when traditional demographic measures are taken into account — race, gender, age, income status, etc. The differences have remained steady at (depending on the marker) between 4 and 14 percent from 1987 to 2012.

During this same period, however, the difference between Democrats and Republicans has climbed rather steadily and steeply, from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent today.

Put simply, the parties are pulling farther and farther apart.

And it’s not just the parties. While it is true that people have been abandoning both parties in public opinion surveys, so that “Independent” is now an important designation, the truth is that most Independents lean one way or another.

“Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012,” according to the researchers.

That’s the bad news. But there is also good news, mixed with a warning call, when we look more closely. Because it is not truly the case that people are drifting apart when it comes to values — it is our institutions drifting apart, leaving us behind.

(Continued . . .)

Read the full piece here.

When The Curtain Parts: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

As some know, I have begun 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 to be drawn for leaders from the Secret Service and DEA scandals.

Ethics Newsline

When The Curtain Parts

Last week, two figures at the heart of separate scandals spoke up, adding another side to each of their stories. Together, they offer a sobering view to those who lead organizations about what can happen when the curtains are parted.

The first: A woman who appears to be the Cartagena prostitute whose early morning dispute over payment with a U.S. Secret Service officer touched off a controversy that already has claimed the careers of nine officers came forward and spoke to Caracol News in Cartagena. Dania Suarez described a night of carousing with more than one American on the night in question. Her interview has spurred members of Congress to ask why the Secret Service had not been able to interview her in their own investigation, which they now say is closed.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the University of California San Diego student who was forgotten in a holding cell for five days and who barely survived by drinking his own urine, told his story. He was swept up in a raid as U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers cracked down on a major Ecstasy distribution ring. Daniel Chong, however, appeared to be at the raided house in order to smoke some marijuana. DEA agents later decided to cut him loose, along with others who had been picked up in the raid, but never returned to his cell after telling him he would soon be free to go. He says he could hear agents outside of his cell and called for their help. They either never heard him or ignored his pleas. When he finally was discovered, he was near kidney failure and had to be hospitalized. This event is building momentum, there are investigations pending, and he is suing.

Each of these situations was touched off by one unfortunate event: an early morning dispute over payment, a misplaced prisoner. Each event then pulled the covers off of what may be bigger problems. . . .

Read the full piece here.

Writing For The Institute For Global Ethics

Friends and colleagues know that, for a number of years, I lived in Camden, Maine and led a large election-ethics initiative for the Institute for Global Ethics. Going to IGE was a decisive moment in my career, which up to that point had consisted primarily of work in government and politics (and some lobbying) in California. My work at IGE cemented my interest in and affection for work improving American democracy, which has continued to this day.

Rushworth M. Kidder

It also introduced me to IGE founder and president, Rushworth M. Kidder.

Rush passed away in early March. His passing reminded me of the massive role he played in my development as a worker, as a writer, and as a person. As my boss, he managed me with grace. As my editor, he taught me to write. As my mentor, he guided me to a deeper understanding of what it means to live ethically in the day-to-day of the workplace. While I had not been in close touch with Rush for some time, his loss leaves a hole in my life.

In 1998, Rush and I had the idea to start an online-only publication devoted to ethics. We began publishing what was then “Business Ethics Newsline” weekly in February 1998, if I recall correctly. Each edition contained a number of recaps of ethics-related stories, a link to some recent research of note . . . and a column on ethics by Rush. I remember that, when we were discussing the idea in the first place, one of the attractive elements to Rush was that the publication would give him reason to write again, regularly, in the essay form he had come to love as a journalist at The Christian Science Monitor.

Every week, for Ethics Newsline (as we eventually renamed it), Rush would pen a column touching on some aspect of ethics as it appeared in the week’s news. Sometimes, when vacation schedules or other things made that impossible, Rush allowed me to pinch hit for him. I learned so very much from deciphering his edits to my awkward, early prose.

With Rush’s passing, the Institue for Global Ethics has determined that it is important for Ethics Newsline to live on. Its editors (the same team of Jeff Spaulding and Carl Hausman who were its earliest editors) have reached out to a handful of people to contribute commentary on an occasional basis.

I am proud to say that I’m included in that group. My first such column was published in today’s edition. Here is an excerpt:

[A]s I sauntered into my local polling place last Tuesday . . ., [t]here were eight poll workers, and two voters. The campaigns? Lackluster. The issues? Small and nonexistent. The discourse, such as it was? By turns harsh and vacuous.

Small wonder turnout was abysmal. Yet, why should this be? In a seemingly unimportant primary with low turnout, my voice as a voter is magnified. I have no real say in who gets to run for president. But I do have plenty of say when it comes to local issues and candidates. Why are there not more people taking advantage of this? Why do we, instead, bemoan “politics” as if it were a dirty word, and just stay home?

Go here to read the rest of the column. I encourage you to subscribe to Ethics Newsline, which is free. If you do, you will receive a weekly (Monday) email with a terrific overview of the week’s important news, with a special emphasis on its ethical dimensions.

And, from time to time, you will see columns by me.

Hope to see you over there.