Posted by: Ken Homer | March 29, 2008

Can Political Discourse Become More Collaborative?

“In politics, stupidity is not a handicap. “

“In politics, never, retreat, never retract, never admit a mistake.”

“Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self-interest.”  

All of the quotes above seem to pertinent to several dimensions of the contemporary political scene here in the USA.

Interesting that they are all attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, eh? 

Elsewhere, I have asserted that a Collaborative Conversation is one where people engage authentically around issues they care deeply about, in ways that create more, rather than fewer, possibilities for a better, more satisfying future.

And, that collaborative conversations are those that increase the pool of available intelligence to participants in those conversations.

By that criteria, the political arena seems to be almost the opposite of a collaborative conversation. 

But since politics = government, the need to take steps to make our political discourse collaborative is pretty self-evident. 

To transform today’s political discourse into a collaborative conversation, it will be necessary to stop side-stepping, ignoring and denying the elephants (and donkeys) in the room because of social conventions that require us to be polite, or because we fear failure or reprisal for speaking up. 

Such steps might be very dangerous of course. Depending on where one is in the political system, taking such steps could amount to political suicide or, in some instances perhaps much worse, if mishandled or misinterpreted.

To speak authentically, especially when the people whom you might upset or offend have the power to make or break your professional, public or even private life, is a risky affair.

But as we witness the failure of so many politically influenced institutions, the need for authentic speaking has rarely been greater. We need to interrupt some very destructive patterns and to do so will require calling some people out to account for their behavior.

What does justice look like when you have a relatively small number of  people in positions of public trust who violate that trust and cause great harm to those whose welfare they are responsible in the process? 

How do we speak about this in ways that do not further polarize an already highly charged situation? 

What would it look like to begin to, as the Quakers say, “Speak Truth to Power”? 

As Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others saw clearly when they were attempting to heal the wounds of racism after the fall of the apartheid system in South Africa, labeling people monsters and calling for their heads only fuels the cycle of violence and destruction.

They chose instead a risk of enormous magnitude: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

They created a way for the truth to be spoken from the side of the perpetrators of great horrors with no fear on the part the accused of governmental reprisal.

They did it in the hopes that such speaking and listening of dark hard truths could reconcile – literally: to make friendly again – those who had been wronged with those who were the doers of wrong.

It was hardly a popular choice, many were stunned to think that people could get away with murder simply by telling the truth. And it was something with very little of a proven track record of success in the history of governing a nation. 

And it did not solve all the problems of violence.

But it did allow A People to reflect deeply enough to see that individually and collectively they had the seeds of hatred and horror within them, and that knowledge, publicly admitted and witnessed, changed the character of the country in ways that brought forth and continue to bring forth more possibilities for a better more fulfilling future.  

Sometimes I marvel at the courage this must have demanded of them. 

To cast out of their hearts and refuse reentry to their entirely justified anger and rage at the outrages perpetrated on their families and friends, to turn away from the revulsion and hatred that such barbaric actions must have stirred within them, is to me, an act of supreme courage – and trust in something larger.

Since I opened quoting Napoleon here are two more quotes of his that seem appropriate:

“Music is the voice that tells the Human Race that we are greater than we know.”  

“There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run, the spirit will always conquer the sword.”

Iraq war note:  Any seasoned military officer will tell you that using “The Surge” strategy of violence only works to perpetuate violence, not subdue it. 

It’s time we mustered up the courage to name some elephants (and donkeys) and risk the threat and challenge of turning away the the violence inside of ourselves in order to prevent it from surging out into the world. 

So if we want to learn to Speak Truth to Power, we have to begin to open ourselves to the possibility that the “Truth” we are holding may not actually be “The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth.” 

Because of the risks entailed in such openings, it might be good to take small steps and build a little strength and capacity before taking on the larger issues which are pressing on us.

I am not suggesting anything too dangerous here… Just a little foray to what may or may not be “the other side” for you.

I promise the only danger you’ll face might be to have a preconceived notion or unexamined assumption find itself threatened and in need of a reality check.

Oh and you are also at risk of learning something, so be prepared for that too.

I am a middle-aged heterosexual white male.

So I am tying on, to the best of my ability for  a few minutes, the shoes of a middle-aged black lesbian – which seem surprisingly sensible.

I invite you to take a few strides in them yourself.

I am not asking you to agree with her. I am asking you to observe your reactions to what she has to say, and see what that says about you.

Some of you may have visited the Time Goes By: What its like to grow older, blog – linked on this site.

If you have not, now’s your chance to give it a try. I think its a great way  to build a little more collaboration into your political conversations.

Her post is a tad longish, and I hope you find it worthy of your time

I did.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.



  1. Thanks for the link, Ken, and the thoughts on political discourse. It’s a good thing to try on other people’s shoes now and again and maybe this year, with so much at stake in the election, more people are doing so.

  2. […] Historical Discourses As mentioned in my last post, I am a middle aged (about to turn 51) white heterosexual male. Yep, one of the tribe most […]

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