The Radical Middle, Willie Nelson and Authenticity

The signs indicate that a majority of Americans are getting tired of bi-partisanship, and especially tired of phony positions and policies designed only to win elections (and to increase the power and wealth of the proponents).

The Radical Middle is one name for the movement to unite diverse perspectives into a collective search for truth and best solutions. (I first came across this term from an Utne collection in Sept. 04.)

Spreading a radical middle is a noble and necessary goal, but a tough one amid the natural complexity we all face, and the intentionally confusing noise of position jockeys trying to get votes and eyeballs.

What are the traits needed by those who can be genuinely respected by people from diverse perspectives? The main trait seems to be authenticity. In our complex times authenticity is, ironically, often expressed as irony. But there is also a type of authenticity that is much more simple and straight-forward. Just now I came across a relatively simple example in this excerpt of a review of a book about Willie Nelson:

“In parts of the country that are culturally and politically conservative — Texas being the most obvious case in point — he is often more likely to be greeted with a smile than a frown. Probably this has something to do with his passionate embrace of the cowboy myth … but my own hunch is that across the political and cultural spectrum, people simply understand that he’s totally genuine, devoid of artifice, and that this defuses whatever negative feelings they may harbor about the way he lives his life.”

A major key to success for the Radical Middle is the ability to defuse negativity. David Bohm, the renowned physicist and proponent of dialogue talked about the need… to teach people to shift from debating positions to embracing true dialogue within groups with divergent perspectives. He taught that a prerequisite to dialogue is the reduction of emotional temperature – by giving people a chance to let off steam and then encouraging them to suspend assumptions, listen for shared goals, and search together for truth. He drew some of these insights from his discovery of the startling effects of superconductivity in the absence of friction.

And yet I understand that political candidates often get the small shifts they need by relentless use of ridicule and half-truths. And even MoveOn, which I respect, reaped record donations after its “General Betrayus” ad. While the content of the Betrayus ad may not have used half-truths, its headline did use name-calling ridicule worthy of six year olds. Ach! it will be hard to give up the short-term gains from intentionally raising the heat.

Authenticity seems to help lower the temperature and increase coherence. This election, I hope, indicates, that authenticity will be rewarded.

As another kind of baby step towards reducing the current incoherence of political debate, how I would love to see more of our social media exposing and countering inflammatory attacks based on half-truths, and encouraging discussion at higher levels. The old tactics are guaranteed to worsen the current echo-chambers and hostile divisions that thwart intelligent, much needed solutions. New tactics, once they gain a hold, have enormous promise for reducing the heat (another kind of global warming) and unleashing the collective intelligence of nations.

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