Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Talking Between Groups


Everybody knows that normally, here in North America, we believe in democracy, “freedom of speech” and dialogue. Lately? Not so much.

I remember… One afternoon in the early 1990’s I found myself at the “women’s club,” the Woman’s Collective and Resource Centre at the university. It was crowded that day as we were hearing a presentation, with a bit of a meeting, before mingling for wine and snack food. I might have been the only male.

This was in the Student Building, a little ways down the hall from my “favorite club,” the Student Newspaper, the Gauntlet. We were sitting in a circle, of course—for maximum empowerment—and it was shortly before we broke for food that some people expressed their strong dislike of the newspaper. “Why is the Gauntlet so… ” I offered quietly, “I can answer that.” More disapproval expressed, and I softly repeated myself, and the conversation swirled on. I knew enough group dynamics theory to be soft voiced as I sensed the group was not ready to hear me. In a few minutes we all got up and swirled around the room snacking and mingling and having drinks.

The few who were being so negative about the newspaper were mainly strangers to me, being mainly of the classic (to me) age of feminists: early thirties. My own peers in the Centre were the keen regulars, mostly young undergraduates. They had encouraged me to attend their club meetings, adding, “Just don’t vote.” That day, after mingling for a bit, I stepped out to go down the hall. I entered the Gauntlet office and said, “Hello Carey.” This young man, age 26, sitting in the editor’s chair, was someone I knew well from sharing the work of cranking out the weekly newspaper. He had a life; I remember seeing him when he was the night manager of a skid row hotel. He was a liberal; he still had flowing long hair years after most males had gone back to short hair. And he had typical student idealism; this while the Gauntlet was known for being, out of all the other western campus newspapers, the most redneck—er, conservative. Needless to say, rednecks have their ideals too.

I knew all about the Gauntlet because I was then a volunteer reporter, doing at least one story every week. That takes a lot of man-hours. It was not unknown for me to briefly saunter from the Gauntlet to the Woman’s Centre for a while and then return. Back then the newspaper was male dominated. When the fellows saw me emerge they’d look wide-eyed. “What were you doing in there?” I might tease them with a line my chaplain and I shared: “You know, the most attractive babes on campus are in the Centre.” Or better yet, say “I just had a real good time laughing: We were telling men jokes… But hey, we weren’t male-bashing; we were venting!” Sometimes in the bullpen I’d hear negative feelings about the feminists, but it was rather baseless, more “just because” than for any coherent reason. I asked Carey if he’d like to meet some women to explain why the Gauntlet was so…

I returned to the Centre and mingled to cut out from the herd a few young ladies I knew. They all expressed interest in meeting the editor. As I recall, they were all younger than Carey, typical vulnerable students, with not a single bra-burning harridan in the bunch. Once I had enough idealistic volunteers I gathered them and led them down to see Carey.

It’s a strange thing, to be seen as “one of us” by two “opposed” groups. Perhaps that’s why I sensed it would be best to immediately excuse myself and return to the party. That day, I’m sure, both sides said their piece, and, whether or not any minds were changed, they made their peace with each other. The remarkable thing is how they reported back to me later. Both sides, with considerable anxiety, asked me what the other(s) had thought of them. Neither side wanted to be personally despised or disrespected. Unlike a harridan, both sides cared. Call it the human factor.

This was in my adopted home province of Alberta, known as the most redneck (of ten) in Canada, and with Calgary known as the most redneck city—much more than our capital—and of course around these parts the cowboys are said to be the most redneck of all. The concept “redneck” means conservative, bigoted and stupid. My niece, who also lives in cattle country, but over in the next time zone, once asked me in the kitchen, “Uncle, are you a redneck?” Her parents laughed and one answered, “He’s an intellectual redneck.”

Here in Alberta, according to science—not religion—we have the same percentage of homosexuals as in any other province. And yes, some gays live in small towns where they may not realize that, in fact, others do know about their orientation. But people get along.

They can get along, and they can talk between groups. One day the community college had “clubs day” and by sheer coincidence the rodeo club’s six-foot table was right next to the gay club. That morning I struck up a friendly conversation with the cowboys. They knew that, according to the science of statistics, I was probably a city slicker who had never been on a horse (although I had) but we found nice things to talk about. I probably didn’t let on that I knew by name the gay students seated at the next table. Then I included the next table in the conversation, and got the folks nicely talking together. It was easy to do.

This isn’t as remarkable as it might sound. After all, young students expect to be liked, and to like others. Call it the age group factor.

In fairness, I must add that although from the media you would expect that gays are just as oppressed here as they are down in the United States, I have been assured by “real live gays,” based on research, the prejudice up here is only about a tenth that of the US. This makes sense. Just because we watch the same TV shows doesn’t mean we have the same culture. Here we have nation-wide gay marriage without any damage to morals or the social fabric––  the home of the brave doesn’t. (Not at the federal level) We’ve had legal permission to be gay in the military for decades, without any hysteria. Needless to say, no Canadian soldier has ever wanted to wear a dress on parade or convert his peers. (Believe me, such a thing would have been big news) Thought: If Yankees are so rich, then why are they so isolationist? Why can't they afford to go be tourists in Canada and Europe and learn some common sense?

My older brother lives in the US, while visiting our parents enough to have an idea how the north is dysfunctional. I still haven’t forgotten a certain Canadian election upset. Of the party with a majority, abruptly, all but two people lost their seat in parliament. As for the US, I wonder if their system is “broken.” “You think yours is bad,” says my brother “Ours is crazy.” He was saying how the candidate for his favorite party is so bizarrely uninformed he might have to vote for the other guy. (Or maybe not so unusual, when I remember a certain female far north state governor) But such switching would be impossible for the rest of his neighborhood. It seems that the two “real” parties are evenly matched and all the party-believers are crazy-glued into their position. This means all the decision-making is by just the narrow middle of unaligned, or apathetic, voters. I suppose this means neither party could, to use that old Vietnam phrase, reach the “hearts and minds” of the middle of the road citizens. Such a pity.

While the “two-party system” has usually been functional down the generations, I think it has been on life support since, oh, at least the turn of the millennium. Since then, it’s been as if people have glue in their ears. From away up here in Canada, I can hear a lot of shrill despair, with no hope of any connection, any middle ground, or any two-way dialogue. In fact, especially since the last president got in, I keep hearing a fear that democracy will soon vanish due to the president’s “secret socialist agenda.” What certain folks “don’t get” is that if democracy means having open-minded dialogue, then partly thanks to their own efforts it has already been squished down to the vanishing point: They just don’t know it yet. My own humble attempt, as in that old Vietnam era phrase, to “be part of the solution, not the problem” has been to announce here on my essay site the book Time to Start Thinking, which includes an examination of “the dialogue of the deaf.” (See America Descending, June 2012)

I know from my study of group dynamics that a group in a meeting can generate a cyclone of energy yet get nothing done, as if the group is gripped by invisible forces it can’t understand. This is like when the group is unable to decide and move on, even as people repeat their earlier points with more force, more frustration. Fortunately, thanks to the work of Professor Herbert Thelen, I know what I could do if I was chairman of such a group. Sometimes the group will work free of the cyclone on its own, and return to healthy functioning, but this rarely happens. Usually the chairman has to reach into his bag of tricks. At this point the poor Americans know it can’t be coincidence they no longer talk, still, they are totally baffled. It’s painful to watch.

Will my US neighbors straighten out and get functional real soon, before their launch window closes for good, before they forgo forever the joy of having a decent-sized middle class? I don’t know. I wish their media could help. Although Americans claim to live in an age of media, with news at the-speed-of-light, you would never know the media was important. I mean you wouldn’t find the average man on the street to be able to explain “journalistic ethics,” nor explain TV news versus TV editorial.

It’s chilling to think that young people who became full voting citizens, age 21, in the year 2,000 A.D., will be 33 this year, raising children, and busy in their careers. If they’ve never known a nation with common sense, then how can they share any inspiration with their children?

Meanwhile, as life goes on, I’m sure I’m not the only citizen humbly showing myself that dialogue between groups is possible. As I’ve quoted (from Romain Gary) before, “Our greatest enemy is despair.”

God bless North America.

Sean Crawford
Three hours north of Montana

Footnote: In Mount Royal College (now MRU) my leadership class studied Herbert Thelen's Dynamics of Groups at Work. I return to it every few years.

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