In a May 2010 interview on Larry King Live, Laura Bush named that which shall not be named. She used the phrase, “the social issue that energizes an election.” This is a powerful political manipulation which is rarely identified and to which way too little public attention and analysis is given. In 2000, Bush said, the issue was abortion. In ‘04 and ‘08, it was gay marriage. The former First Lady went on to say that she supports both gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose.
Bush noted, gay marriage is inevitable. With next generations, it simply will come. When any two people love each other and are committed to each other, she says, those people deserve a way to formalize their commitment. As early as the first day of her husband’s presidency, she also said publicly that she was not in favor of overturning Roe v Wade. Yet it’s clear that abortion is the social issue that some intend will energize the next election.
Social issues as red herrings.
This phrase, “the social issue that energizes an election” is a beautiful euphemism for a red herring: a deliberate attempt to divert attention. These issues are selected for their ability to elicit the strongest emotions and opinions; to activate people’s “lizard brain” and distract otherwise thoughtful folks from considering matters that affect the greater good. It’s not that these issues are not complex and important. But if people allow themselves to become deeply distracted by what is usually someone else’s primary concern, then attention is diverted from shared and perhaps imminent workplace, community and national interests.
“Distraction is chiefly an inability to identify, attend to or attain what is valuable, even when we are hard-working or content,” says Damon Young, a contemporary Australian philosopher who also notes that the human tendency toward distraction predates our current technologies by centuries. Distractions can leave us unproductive, muddled and fettered Young says in an article for BBC Magazine, and “distractions wrench us from what’s best in ourselves.”
The Latin root for distraction means to “draw away” or “pull asunder”. This is what’s happened in U.S. political discourse and, increasingly, in U.S. culture generally. These words also describe current workplace engagement and performance obstacles across many sectors.
Build inclusion, build engagement.
There are plenty of reasons to steer clear of controversial topics in the workplace but there are occasions when it may also be useful to consider a different approach. Even the most controversial topics can be defused with a well-designed and well-facilitated employee development program. The most divisive topics, if handled appropriately, can bring about surprising alliances and can be used to build a more productive, engaged and inclusive workplace culture.
When distractions become destructive, putting them on the table in a positively structured way can help reclaim focus. Identifying and having tools to avoid unnecessary distraction can truly energize – can invigorate and activate people toward generating new solutions and achieving a shared purpose, even in the most turbulent times.
Personal learning tool: At the end of 2010, MTV aired a special on abortion. The 30-minute video embedded at the end of an article published in Salon is worth some uninterrupted time.
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