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A role for business in healing fragmented societies

In the United States and many other places around the world, we are seeing the fragmentation of societies, the emergence of extremism, populism, and the clustering of like-minded people into hostile camps deeply suspicious of the other’s values and motives. 

One result of this fragmentation has been a kind of governmental paralysis in which major problems go unsolved. Yet polling data tell us that on any of a number of supposedly intractable issues, there is in fact a broad consensus. We see it in the immigration debate, in health care, in taxation, gun violence and even abortion. Why are we unable to translate consensus into policy, and policy into action? 

Many have offered explanations, ranging from globalization, gerrymandering, social media, cable news, automation and an inadequate educational system. Whatever the reason, it is driving people out of the debate, leaving the vacuum to be filled by more extreme voices. 

We cannot afford to continue down this road. And while there has been much talk lately about restoring civility to our public life — a worthy goal, to be sure — we need something more: a genuine willingness and ability to engage constructively with people we disagree with. 

I believe that communications professionals and our companies have a major role to play in restoring constructive civic engagement. Why companies? Edelman’s most recent trust barometer said business is now expected to be an agent of change. The employer is “the new safe house in global governance.” In our fragmented societies, work may be the last place where we engage on more than a superficial level with people who have viewpoints different from our own. 

Many companies have already responded to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s admonition to articulate a higher corporate purpose. Surely the elevation of our civic discourse is a purpose worthy of serious commitment. There are undoubtedly lots of ways to accomplish that. Here are three: 

1. Facilitate dialogue between adversaries

I’ve been active in the organization Seeds of Peace, a remarkable organization that brings together extraordinary young people in their teens and 20s from the Middle East. The centerpiece of the Seeds of Peace program is a summer camp in Maine at which hundreds of young Palestinians, Israelis, Egyptians and others come together for the first time and learn to listen and better understand “the other side.” 

Leslie Lewin, its executive director, says it is essential to start with values, not issues. Through professional facilitation and time, participants develop the capacity to genuinely listen, understand, and even begin to respect the other person’s opinion. Corporations can embrace this approach to manage conflict within the organization and to train people to be more effective citizens outside it. 

2. Support education and critical thinking

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not to one’s own facts.” But when people increasingly get their “facts” from ideologically driven news outlets, they just talk past each other. To help people broaden their base of information, and their skills in evaluating it, we need to do more to support education, scientific literacy, and critical thinking. We also need to encourage and support information consumption habits that will get people out of their bubbles and encouraged to see things from different perspectives. 

3. Apply the principles of corporate character

The Arthur W. Page Society, an association composed of chief communications officers of large companies and agency CEOs, has emphasized the importance of corporate character and the activation of values. These values include respecting the needs and values of all stakeholders, inclusivity and a commitment to live those values. We need to live them outside our corporate roles, in every aspect of our social interactions and encourage others to do the same. 

These are only a few ideas. I’m sure there are more worth trying. 

The stakes are high. Around the world, we once again face the challenge of making compromise, tolerance and moderation more appealing than the seductive fantasies of extremists. Who better to take up the challenge than those of us who communicate for a living?

To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.