A very smart and very successful businessman once said that “if you can get everyone in an organization pulling in the same direction, you will dominate any market, in any business at any time.” You could easily apply this maxim to communities. The most successful ones are those in which most people are pulling in the same direction.
We don’t see a lot of that these days in our country. On the mainland, divisions based on race, class, region and political beliefs sometimes feel as if they are deeper than ever. Whether this is true or not is not clear because our views are shaped by the anger and division-driven voices of television and radio talk shows.
Anger and resentment are now seen as positive values. In what is still the richest country on earth, those who are best off are regularly told that they should be angry because they are being abused and denied their birthright of always getting more. It is hard to imagine getting everyone pulling in the same direction anytime soon, especially since the preferred direction for a lot of people is wherever the other guys are not going. If President Obama says that BP is the bad guy, then, by God, they must be good guys.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are variations on this theme of fanning divisions. But it seems equally hard to imagine Virgin Islanders coming together to achieve some big goal. The divisions among islands, races and classes are a lot like those between the North and South, black and white and rich and everyone else on the mainland.
The big difference is that they are kept below the surface more than they are in the states. And, there seems to be less prejudice against immigrants than we have on the mainland, unless you view “continentals” as immigrants, which changes the picture in a fairly negative direction.
Hard times almost always produce an increase in intolerance for the “others.” During the Great Depression, people like Father Coughlin and Huey Long had huge followings and were the Glen Becks, Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins of their time. In Europe, the Depression greased the skids for the Nazis and Fascists to come to power.
How did it happen? It happened, in part, because in hard times, there is an increased indifference to others, to those who are not part of our group. And there is a real failure to imagine the possible consequences. Sure we hated them, but we never intended for that to happen. Because of our sense of superiority and uniqueness, Americans are more prone to failures of imagination of this kind than are other peoples.
If you read local newspapers that allow posted comments on their articles, the picture that emerges can be absolutely frightening. It is important to realize that these comments probably come from a very small portion of the population, at least I hope so. But they reveal a lack of feeling and, not infrequently, hatred for those who are different, especially racial minorities and immigrants.
These comments should give everyone pause. Terms like “extermination,” “animals” and “human garbage” can be regularly found in these comments, all of which are conveniently anonymous. And there is always an underlying threat of violence. All of this has been ratcheted up since President Obama came into office. And the Internet and social networks have helped make it all viral.
We also live in an age of exaggerated “slippery slope” think. If you extend unemployment benefits, they will just sit on their asses instead of getting a (non-existent) job. If you reform health care, the government will control everything and put grandma in front of the death panel. If you allow gay marriage, pretty soon people will be marrying sheep.
It is all bull. Except it isn’t in the area of deepening divisions. The more we accept and get used to this kind of language, the easier it is to think about the next step, since we have successfully “otherized” the others.
But what can we do? How can we help get people pulling in the same direction to get all of the benefits of acting together, and avoid the great dangers of going in the other direction? Not an easy question because there are no easy answers. But here are a couple of ideas.
The starting point is building trust across groups and communities, step by step. And the best way to do that is not through feel-good exercises, but by getting them to work together toward a common vision and some achievable goal. In the territory, that could be a set of environmental, community revitalization or anti-violence and community peace goals. These goals have to be concrete and produce visible benefits across groups.
Who can lead such an effort? Normally, we look to – and think of – politics and political leaders as the source of leadership. I do not believe that it will work for this kind of change. There is a need to look to those who are already trusted and who can reach across groups. Who is respected in these ways? Religious leaders? Business leaders? Community leaders?
Finally, there needs to be a forum or place to meet that is comfortable for everyone, a willingness to discuss difficult issues in a non-blaming way and a commitment to sticking with something for the long haul. But the heart of the effort is a concrete vision of a better community, especially one in which people who are different live together in peace and mutual trust.
When Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, it chose as its motto, “Out of many, one people.” That motto, whatever the failings that have occurred along the way, is more than just a slogan. It represents a beautiful vision for the kinds of communities that most people want to live in. As we know, writing mottoes is a lot easier than living them, but many Jamaicans have internalized this vision. Working at it is worth the price because it makes good things happen and, equally important, prevents a lot bad things from happening.
June 22, 2010