I was all rearing to go, excited to deliver to you a passionate argument about why we should have more political conversations at work.
I’ve been experiencing a reenergized pull toward social justice lately, but it’s been met with resistance where it nudges our norm of professional “objectivity.”
I asked my Facebook friends for their thoughts, like I do, and reached out to former gender studies professor friends for some theory-inspired and historically conscious wisdom, as well.
I was gathering examples of the progress we have made when people brought their full humanity, beliefs, values and visions to work (many of which are compelling, for what it’s worth).
But then I got snagged on a tangential thought: Our challenge might also be that we’re not particularly productive at disagreeing. (Hi, Twitter.)
And I’m afraid it’s a real problem, one that swirls around workplace conversations and interactions with family and really just about every conversation we have.
I’m part of it, too. I admit to having my own sordid affair with the desire to win a debate rather than learn from it. I mean, winning feels awesome, and accepting new facts that change my mind can be less than comfortable.
And when we are not trying to CRUSH OUR OPPONENTS in a debate, politeness suggests we try to avoid conversations where disagreement is likely altogether. It’s why we’ve chosen to squelch political talk with extended family (sometimes even immediate family), at church, at work, etc. Certainly nobody wants to ruin Bob-in-finance’s birthday or agitate grandma’s heart condition.
But aside from keeping us from each other’s throats, I can’t see how this politeness is actually serving us.
We’ve put a premium on being agreeable in a world rich with cause for disagreement. As a result, we deny ourselves the opportunity to freely explore differing views in the very places we might be most likely to succeed at civility, empathy and greater understanding: with the people we choose to be around, and with the ones we don’t necessarily have the choice to escape.
But our avoidance isn’t eroding controversy; it’s accelerating it — all the while diminishing our capacity to articulate our perspectives, to listen and to consider things that might expand our consciousness.
I worry we are remarkably underprepared for the marathon of productive dialogue our contentious and polarized culture currently requires. I mean, we’re even having difficulty keeping it together as we debate face masks during a pandemic. It’s like we need to shave three minutes off our mile, but we’ve decided only to train two days every three weeks.
I’m more aware than ever, too, that until we purposefully dip our oar in the water, we’ll never have control over our direction. In other words, our reluctance to engage on any issue will only fuel its status quo — one that benefits from our silence, frankly. It’s why I have quotes around “objectivity” above; our inaction does not equate to neutrality.
So, while I started out wanting carte blanche openness to political discourse, I’m better understanding the sincere reticence.
The thing is, I don’t want to leave the critical conversations about how our society should function just to debate clubs, pundits and politicians. Most of us have at least one issue we deeply care about, but we bench ourselves from weighing in where it might matter most. It’s time we got in the game. Sports!
I’m not sure how we’ll start or where (I welcome input from those trained in rhetorical discourse or civil disagreement), but I think we can safely assume it’ll be messy at first.
Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” and I’d add that they seldom affect it much either.
This is going to take all of us choosing progress over politeness in order to navigate a better future.
But disagree with me — I’m ready to hear it.
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.