In 2020, America has been weighed.
America has been measured.
And America has been found wanting.
And one of the areas it has been found most wanting is in the dramatic leadership failures of many of our business and community leaders.
Four interrelated themes converged during 2020 to provide a perfect storm of dysfunction for America:
1) Post-factualism, sometimes called “truth decay.”
Post-factualism supports the notion that truth is irrelevant… that we don’t have to tell the truth, and/or that the truth is inconsequential or it can be defined by our notions of the way we want the world to be, rather than by observed reality.
In a post-factual world, real news is fake; fake news is real; lies and truth have equivalent value; science is indistinguishable from superstition; knowledge is indistinguishable from ignorance; facts are indistinguishable from rumors, falsehoods and conspiracy theories; calumny and defamation are embraced and widespread; logic and reasoning are replaced by gaslighting; learning and education become irrelevant; and historical facts are replaced by false narratives to suit the agenda of the storyteller.
2) The deterioration of the social norms of decency.
A world without truth is also a world without trust. It is a world without respect. And a world without trust and respect is one in which long-term collaboration and alliances become impossible, with people acting only out of perceived self-interest of the moment.
It is a world where the repercussions of our actions upon others are irrelevant. Atrocities like genocide and mass manslaughter become the fault of the victims, and not the perpetrators.
Nationalism replaces patriotism. Privilege replaces justice. Corruption and unethical conduct becomes acceptable when they benefit those on “your side.” Prejudice, racism, bigotry, and misogyny replace equality. Violence, brutality and enmity replace basic humanity. Malevolence replaces goodness. And kindness becomes weakness.
3) The global pandemic.
A global pandemic is a challenging scenario even in the best of times. A pandemic taking place in a post-factual world in which many have abandoned the social norms of decency has meant that that hundreds of thousands have and will continue to die needlessly.
A virus doesn’t care if someone doesn’t believe in science or if they fail to believe that the virus is real and deadly. A quote often attributed to Ayn Rand, but whose actual origin is uncertain, notes that: “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.”
4) The rejection of democracy.
On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and on December 25, 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. Thirty years ago, it appeared that the moral and economic benefits of democracy were so strong that it was only a matter of time until democracy would prevail on a global basis.
Today, a generation later, we find ourselves in a situation where so many have lost all understanding of the value of having a democratic government. Many have come to support the very fascism that our parents and grandparents fought to defeat during WW II.
As David Frum has written, “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” And this indeed has happened. Conservatism has abandoned the principles upon which it was once based, and replaced them with the idea that power must be maintained at any cost, even if it means an end to democracy.
Instead of conservatism changing its message to appeal to Americans in order to attract more votes, it has changed its platform to maintain power by supporting corruption, unethical conduct, attempting to prevent significant segments of the populace from voting, and corroding trust in the election process to create cynicism about democracy. Meanwhile, those supporting fascism have broadly and falsely labelled political opponents as supporting “socialism” in order to create fear and divert attention from their own illiberal agendas.
Courage and Cowardice
In the face of great adversity stemming from these four central themes, we have witnessed many profiles in courage, often coming from unlikely individuals in unlikely places. We’ve seen doctors, nurses, pastors, whistleblowers, diplomats, politicians, journalists, scientists, and even history professors who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary efforts. Some of them have even sacrificed their careers and their lives to fight for the preservation of American values and to save the lives of their fellow Americans.
But simultaneously, in America’s darkest of times, we have witnessed extraordinary failures from people in positions of leadership that we had expected would rise to the occasion, but who instead became shameful profiles in cowardice. These failures have been blatant and obvious in the political sphere, where we have seen so many elected officials who have (h/t Steve Schmidt) capitulated, collaborated, and submitted fully to the indecency, incompetence, corruption and rank dishonesty that they once decried.
But perhaps even more unexpected and disappointing are the failures in leadership from those in our personal network… the business and community leaders that we know personally who have so dramatically failed us. Unfortunately, our community leaders have often abandoned their responsibility to lead, and in fact have been far more likely to use their voices to wallow in self-privilege and exacerbate many of these issues.
Sometimes they have failed us because they are morally and/or ethically corrupt… we know this by witnessing them explicitly endorsing and supporting the destruction of American values, often hoping to profit from the situation to the detriment of their community.
But an even larger segment of our business and community leaders have failed us not because of corruption but because of cowardice.
These are people who largely appreciate the challenges that America faces, and who understand the difference between right and wrong and between good and evil. In private conversations, they will often reflect those values. Nonetheless, they have became complicit through their silence and dereliction of duty, failing to use their voices and positions of leadership to help set social standards for America. And in the void created by their stark silence, those actively using their voices for meretricious purposes have thrived and succeeded in gaslighting tens of millions of their fellow Americans, often with horrific consequences.
Perhaps such individuals worry that if they stand up and use their voice to defend American values that they will lose business clients or embroil themselves in controversy that they wish to avoid. Perhaps they think that it is not appropriate for them to impose their personal beliefs upon others.
In some situations, such a perspective might hold merit. But when the very fabric of our social trust, the foundations of truth, reality, core fundamental values of American democracy, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans are at risk, leaders face up to the challenge and do the right thing, even if it requires paying a personal price. And it is important to recognize that truth, social values and a viral pandemic are not inherently political subjects. Leaders also realize that these challenging times actually provide them an opportunity to rise to the occasion, help fix the socioeconomic conditions that gave rise to it, and in the process expand their position of leadership.
In such circumstances, leaders don’t avoid controversy and they don’t worry about losing a client… not when that client stands in favor of racism, authoritarianism, and the betrayal of American interests. Rather, they tell such people there is no place in their world for those who embrace such principles. They support the concept that we can and should offer all Americans an opportunity to play a role in moving our country forward, while at the same time making it clear that they will not placate, support or tolerate alternative realities and reprehensible value systems.
There are no instant solutions. This sad chapter of American culture is the result of thirty years of cultic programming, propaganda and disinformation spread through social media, FOX News, and other channels, causing tens of millions of people to abandon facts, social norms of decency, and the basic tenets of democracy. It may take another thirty years to fully change our cultural and educational systems to counter it, but the dominos can be aligned to fall in such a way that it will become possible, if we start the effort today.
Facebook, along with other social media outlets, must do better at facing the challenge of giving people a broad ability to share opinions, even unpopular ones, while at the same time alerting others when people try to share lies, falsehoods and disinformation. But the primary responsibility to address the challenge of social media is one that we must personally own, through our own actions, including the information and values that we share with others.
I am personally connected on Facebook to hundreds of business owners and community leaders, the majority of whom I know through the many years I spent both as a member and in leadership roles in a global organization called Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). EO unites 14,000+ leading entrepreneurs from around the world for continuing education, peer-to-peer networking, and the sharing of exceptional experiences.
What I have observed from the Facebook activity of my former EO colleagues over the past several years has been dreadfully disappointing: a fair portion of them spreading disinformation and gaslighting; a much larger portion of them active on Facebook but failing to show any leadership with regard to sharing or engaging in conversations related to spreading truth and positive values; and only a very small portion of them actively engaged in showing leadership on these issues to others who look to them for leadership.
For example, with regards to the pandemic, I often see people in a position of leadership set a negative example by posting comments and photos that reflect irresponsible personal behavior, spread falsehoods about the risks involved in the pandemic, and present a false narrative that safe behavior and economic recovery are competing objectives rather than synergistic ones.
Alternatively, one can show leadership in a global pandemic simply by posting a photo of themselves showing that they care enough about their fellow citizens to wear a mask in public. One can share articles from credible sources describing the seriousness of the pandemic and how one can reduce personal risks. One can support the idea that good public policy is one that is informed by science. One can support the sharing of science-based solutions that will facilitate economic recovery while also keeping people safe. Such information will help those in one’s network distinguish truth from fiction. It might perhaps even save many lives.
It would be wonderful if more people read books and newspapers, or watched credible fact-based news reporting on television. But the reality is that the vast majority of Americans often don’t. They obtain their information from community sharing on Facebook and from entertainment sources on television pretending to be “news”… shows that are actually sources of disinformation and gaslighting. Blaming them for getting their information from the wrong place doesn’t fix the problem.
Being a leader isn’t that complicated or difficult. Each day, for example, many tens of thousands of people share the fact-based assessments of current events posted each night on Facebook by historian Heather Cox Richardson. Each day, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people on Facebook share the columns of John Pavlovitz that explore our norms of social decency. Each day, on The Domino Principle Facebook page, I seek out and share a broad variety of timely fact-based and value-based articles so that the thousands of people who follow my page can in turn show leadership in sharing that content with those in their personal network. These numbers are small compared to the daily spread of disinformation on Facebook, but at least they represent progress in the right direction.
When many of us take such actions, it prevents those with nefarious agendas from being able to own the narrative and flood the zone with disinformation. It also tells people who we are, and what we stand for.
Doing so has never been more important.
Doing so shows courage.
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