Who Do We Think We Are?

Has there ever been a year we wanted to end faster than 2020, or one we were more ready for than 2021? Not in my lifetime. After a devastating, intensely polarizing 2020, a new start was something everyone seemed to agree on, regardless of political affiliation.

Well, Happy New Year. Here we are. Did you really think we could do all that drinking and avoid the hangover?

Yesterday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol was both completely shocking and absolutely predictable. And it was terrifying, and infuriating, and depressing, and scary. For years now, we’ve allowed ourselves to be swept up in maddeningly polarizing political rhetoric, to surround ourselves with people, news sources, and TV stations that tell us what we want to hear, regardless of whether or not it’s true. What did we think was going to happen? And what does the fact that we let it happen tell us about who we are? Many world leaders, including U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and lots of our congress people, have commented that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are.”

I’m not sure I agree with them. I’d argue that after these last several years, the scenes of chaos at the Capitol reflect exactly who were are. I’m just not sure it reflects who most of us want to be.

Who are we?

In his speech yesterday, President-elect Joe Biden said:

America is about honor. Decency, respect, tolerance — that’s who we are, that’s who we’ve always been.

[…] For nearly two and a half centuries, we the people, in search of a more perfect union, have kept our eyes on that common good. America is so much better than what we’ve seen today.

(https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/01/06/transcript-joe-biden-capitol-chaos)

This is a hopeful view of what America stands for, but it’s not an accurate assessment of who we are. If we really want to be a nation that values decency, respect, and tolerance, we have a lot of work to do, and we have to be honest with ourselves. We can start by educating ourselves with great books like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, or by acknowledging the differences between the way police treated yesterday’s armed white insurgents, opening doors and taking selfies, and the way they treated peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors just a few short months ago, with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Are we capable of being decent, respectful, and tolerant to people who don’t look, think, or act like we do, or do we only embody these qualities when we’re surrounded by people who are just like us? Can we tolerate facts even when we don’t like them? And if we don’t respect each other or the rules, will we be held accountable for our actions? Right now the answer to all of these questions appears to be “no.”

How do we go on?

While our elected representatives in Washington D.C. debate how to repair our broken nation and hold those responsible accountable, the rest of us have to figure out how to do our part – and go on with our lives – from our home offices. Lots of us have to go back to work, developing code, completing projects, providing support, and leading teams. We can’t spend the week watching CNN or Fox News. We can’t quit our jobs and dedicate our lives to a better government or police force. We can’t crawl into a hole and wait this out. Depending on our jobs, maybe we can’t even say what we really think. How do we go on?

The first thing we can do is acknowledge that we’re all in this together, regardless of our politics. Some things, like trying to overthrow our democracy, encouraging racist behavior, or promoting conspiracy theories that are demonstrably false, are issues of human decency and ethics, not politics. We don’t have to agree on everything (I’m strangely excited for the time when we can go back to arguing about taxes and legalizing marijuana), but we can agree on a few things, including what we will and won’t tolerate from ourselves and each other. We can also acknowledge that there are times in life when standing on the sidelines is not a viable option, and that some topics once considered taboo – like systemic racism, misogyny, sedition, and lies – need to be confronted consistently and openly regardless of politics. We need to have the courage to be who we are, even at work.

And if work isn’t the best place to share our thoughts on what’s happening in the world, there are other places that are. I’m not advocating preaching to the echo chamber on social media. I’m suggesting that each of us take a look at how our elected representatives behaved yesterday and what they’re saying today. These people work for us. They need to know what we think, and that we will remember and hold them accountable for their actions, both good and bad. My wife and I still remember which of our senators voted for and against issues that were important to us 10 years ago – remembering how each our representatives responded to an attempted government coup is worth the effort. Making a few calls to your local representatives now, while you’re fired up, couldn’t hurt either.

The next thing we can do is admit that these last 12 months have been hard in ways in which many of us have been completely unprepared, and to show more empathy for each other than we ever thought possible. For employees, that means understanding that emotions, fears, despair, and anger come in waves over time and that they will get in the way of everything else you’re trying to do. It means knowing your family may need you now more than ever. It means making sure your work gets done and your coworkers aren’t left holding the bag … but it also means giving yourself and others the space to be human, regardless of work pressures and deadlines.

For leaders, it means acknowledging that all of the things I just described are true not just for your teams, but also for you. It means taking the time to process your thoughts and feelings so you can be there for your teams. It means knowing when you need to get some perspective, take a walk around the block, and come back ready to kick ass. The emotional roller coaster we’re all on, and the logistical challenges we face given the pandemic, can’t be controlled or wished away, but if we work hard at it, they can be understood and managed. We need to take care of ourselves.

Who do we want to be?

Questions about who we are and who we want to be are important ones to wrestle with. In some ways, the country is not all that different from a company that needs to review its mission, vision, and core values on a regular basis to make sure everyone still agrees on where we’re heading, how we’ll get there, and the rules of engagement. It’s hard work, but it needs to be done. We can be aspirational, as long as we’re honest. And no good leader would tolerate an employee who openly flouted their company’s – or their country’s – values. This applies to our congresspeople at least as much as it does to our administrative assistants. Those who actively and openly lied to our people in order to fan the flames of hatred and undermine our democracy need to be held accountable, and they need to go.

But if we’re honest about who we are and who we want to be, and if we all agree and are aligned, then our actions will speak for themselves. When that happens, in the words of President-elect Joe Biden:

And this godawful display today, let’s bring it home to every Republican and Democrat and Independent in the nation, that we must step up. This is the United States of America. There’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever been a thing we’ve tried to do that when we’ve done it together, we’ve not been able to do it.

(https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/01/06/transcript-joe-biden-capitol-chaos)

We just have to agree on what we’re doing first.

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