Cultural Differences

What is the difference between a culture of opposition and a culture of governance? This is the question my friend Randa Slim, vice president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, asked during a luncheon at The Harwood Institute a week or so ago. All of her work is done overseas, in such places Tajikistan, Russia, and the Middle East. But her question is relevant here at home.

In the countries where Randa works, people are seeking to cultivate new cultural norms of public engagement. This is no easy feat. People, once wedded to opposition, must now find ways to engage one another in give and take, problem solving, and the building of public life. People must combat their impulses to oppose one another – even physically battle one another. Her work is slow; small victories come hard; social transformation can take a generation or more.

Here in our country, I have come to believe that many of us must more actively cultivate a culture of governance, too. So much of our own political and public landscape has become overwhelmed by groups and efforts committed to opposition. Simply look at the newly-minted 527 organizations during the last presidential election; they mostly cared about the destruction of political figures, seldom putting forth any positive ideas – or ideals.

Much of the political and civic activity on the Internet is geared to instantaneously generating letters to members of Congress or other political bodies – all in the name of opposing one idea or another. The Social Security debate, like previous health care debates, now centers on the opposition to any movement – not the engagement of new ideas.

Many debates in local communities – around growth, race, public schools, and transportation issues – are mired in and stymied by the culture of opposition.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that America’s political and public life is nothing more than a culture of opposition. But I would argue that in public life we have created impulses that now place us squarely on a path of division, acrimony and negativity – a path of opposition. This path squeezes a sense of possibility and hope from politics and public life. It doesn’t have to be this way.

This is why I have become such an ardent proponent of the need to cultivate in public life leaders who hold a different set of public sensibilities and practices; more civic-minded organizations in various sectors of society; and individuals who see themselves in daily life as more than mere consumers, but as citizens too.

No doubt, a culture of opposition can help create an impasse that generates the conditions necessary for change; I have seen this occur in many U.S. communities, and we see it on the news from overseas. At times such opposition is needed to jumpstart progress. But for real and sustainable change to be realized – especially change rooted in common ideals and aspirations – those who stand in opposition must eventually turn to engagement.