Polarity Management by Joseph McCormick

I’ve found that my conditioning was to think in black/white, either/or terms. I am right, you are wrong. This is good, that is bad. This is the “stinking thinking” that has toxified our public conversations.

The antidote to either/or is both/and—more easily said than done, though. How many people do you know who truly can hold two seemingly polar opposite ideas in their mind and remain at peace? Very few of us, but this is precisely the state of being I must cultivate to walk the transpartisan talk. When I am able to do this—which isn’t always—I get to hear myself in the other person. I get to see myself reflected back; I get to change my story from us vs. them to us and them. I get to weave a new story, a story of synergy and integration, a story of wholeness and health.

Stories have power. They are the myths from which societies are created, and right now collectively we’re telling ourselves a war story.

There is a story of a Native American grandfather whose grandson says, “Grandfather I feel two wolves inside of me. One is cruel, selfish, dishonest, and greedy. The other is kind, courageous, peaceful, and cooperative; and they feel like they are in a battle to take over my life. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Which one is going to win?” And the grandfather replies, “Whichever one you feed.”

In transpartisan dialogue I constantly have the choice of which of these wolves to feed, and I too often feed the destructive one. This is not to say, however, that I can’t disagree, even disagree passionately. I do that all the time, but that is not necessarily feeding the destructive wolf. I feed the destructive wolf when I make “the other” my enemy; I decide that they are bad, wrong, and maybe even evil, and in making this conclusion, I give myself “permission” to not respect them.

This is an old cultural pattern: once someone gets labeled as “enemy,” we no longer need to tell them the truth, help them, communicate with them, or respect them. Once they are an enemy, I give myself permission to write them off as dead to me. This is how the “other” is dehumanized to the point where it becomes possible to murder them without conscience. After all, “those people” are barely human.

I am learning through this process not to make enemies of those with whom I disagree. Disagreement, when held within a container of trust, respect, and communication (i.e., using the Transpartisan Toolkit) becomes dynamic tension. It becomes creative rather than destructive. It adds the element of fire to the conversation that is needed to spark breakthrough insights. It creates new choices that are a higher order synthesis of old polarized positions.

This is one of the most exciting and dynamic aspects of transpartisan dialogue—the experience of standing in the fire of disagreement long enough, and in a healthy enough way that something unexpected emerges, something to which all sides can wholeheartedly say yes! This is the essence of win/win. It takes patience and courage, but it is precisely what is needed in this new era of complexity where the old solutions just won’t work anymore. (We know they haven’t worked: otherwise we wouldn’t still have the problem!)

This quality of conversation, this method of convening, is the foundational molecule in the new body politic that needs to emerge in America. To navigate the complex territory ahead, we can’t wait for the professionals. We, as a public, and only we as a public, have the unique capacity to create the spaces where we can re-learn how to learn together. We have to have a process for revealing solutions that come from a higher order than the solutions we’ve already come up with, which clearly aren’t solutions at all.

Excerpted from Reuniting America: A Toolkit for Changing the Political Game by Joseph McCormick and Steve Bhaerman

After nearly a decade as a Christian Coalition activist and Republican nominee for the U.S. Congress in one of the most conservative districts in America, Joseph McCormick learned firsthand the most destructive force in our country today is Americans taking sides against other Americans. The turning point in his life came in 2001 when his political career, marriage, business and reputation collapsed, his relationships having been eroded by mistrust and hatred of his enemies. The pain of this personal loss was transformative and he began slowly rebuilding his life on more solid ground, searching for a healthier way to engage in politics.

Since 2004 he has organized a series of ground breaking private retreats that brought over 145 national leaders representing over 70 million Americans into dialogue in search of opportunities to collaborate. His passion now is to apply the tools developed in these gatherings to facilitating cooperation between grassroots groups from all sides. In time, this informal citizen leader’s network will serve as a resource for local, state and national decision makers searching for innovative, bottom-up, win-win solutions in this time of crisis. He is a former officer in the U.S. Army Rangers and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and Yale University. For more information, click here.

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