Negativity and Self-Limiting AdvocacyJuly 28, 2011 Leave a comment
“When the only tool you have is a hammer,
every problem begins to resemble a nail.”
Someone once said, “Advocates can be hell to work with, but they make good ancestors.” Agreed. And . . .
Much of the work that we do at the Interaction Institute for Social Change entails advocates of one shape or form. Not surprising since our work is that of social change. Many of us on staff have been advocates in our past lives. Whether the issue is racial justice, educational equity, sustainable development, public health . . . we are often linked with those fighting in formal and informal ways to bring about important policy and structural changes. What I’ve found is that s0me of these advocates and allies can prove to be the most challenging people to work with. Some of this difficulty may be a by-product of these change agents often taking an adversarial stance against the status quo and entrenched interests. When one is used to having to fight for every bit of progress, it must be hard to turn this drive off or down. And yet, I find that there are some whose orientation of “my way or the highway” ends up detracting from their ability to make change and chipping away at the promise of collaboration.
I’ve invoked the name and work of Barbara Fredrickson, the positive psychologist, a number of times on this blog. Her rigorous clinical research points to the power of positive emotions in not simply making people happy and healthy, but also more creative and able to see new possibilities. When our positive to negative emotional ratio tips back from the tipping point of 3:1 towards 1:1, innovation and productivity rapidly diminish (again, negativity is not meant to disappear as it serves a vital purpose). One of Fredrickson’s former graduate students, Kareem Johnson, has done research that suggests that a higher positivity ratio may even eliminate aspects of “own race bias.” In other words, it appears to be a key towards pushing us in a direction of flourishing. And it would appear that “old school” advocacy stands as a big impediment to this potential.
This came up in a conversation with a group in San Francisco last week, with some indication that there may be a generational shift in attitude towards advocacy. ‘This new generation doesn’t want to be so rooted in anger,” said one person. At which point IISC board member Jeremy Liu stepped in to talk about what he perceives as the difference between anger and bitterness. Anger, from his perspective, can be positive fuel for the fight. Bitterness, on the other hand, is rooted in a sense of loss and ultimately detracts from one’s potential because it is stuck in the past. Certainly it makes sense to identify sources of bitterness, but not necessarily to act from them. Check out the National Bitter Melon Council for more discussion on this front.
All of this would seem to have relevance to what we are seeing go on in Washington, DC right now. The other day, economist Paul Krugman made a comment that basically relegated the impasse between the two sides to seeing “the devil” in the other side. Whatever is or are the deeper roots, clearly this is not an example of humanity at its best. I can’t help but think there may be some bitterness in the mix, some old hard feelings, that make this more about the people around the table than the larger cause for which we elected them. I am thinking of putting a copy of Positivity in the mail to a few select Congresspeople (especially chapters 10 and 11 which talk about strategies such as cultivating genuine connections, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, learning to slow down and savor what is good, creating a higher sense of purpose, and embracing a learning orientation) and suggest they pass it around, and may well be traveling with a dog-eared copy or two to lend so that we can all learn to be better ancestors.