Language, Fear, & Leadership

Without notice or comment, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) recently removed from its mission statement a century-old introductory phrase… “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…”

At the same time, it added, “protecting Americans” and “securing the homeland” begging the question “From whom?”

The implication is that Americans all must of a sudden now be protected from refugees, asylum seekers, and those seeking freedom and opportunity – just as our own grandparents did. It’s a chilling shift in attitude.

The most destructive weapon against civil discourse lies in a leader’s effort to generate irrational fear. All the great autocrats have done this – fear of minorities, immigrants, women, the poor, intellectuals, the mentally handicapped, the “other.” A fearful citizenry stops reasoning, and discourse turns to diatribe.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand just how little I really know, but I believe children are born curious and, nourished properly, they remain so for life. The capacity to pay attention to others is natural in children raised in healthy families and communities, and the courage to speak an informed truth with kindness and respect becomes the endgame.

I don’t really believe we’ve lost this in America. I see examples every day among friends, talking with strangers, and from responsible media organizations. But leaders must be held accountable for modelling civil discourse rather than debasing it in pursuit of their own self-serving agenda.

The long-accepted stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As in grief, there are similar stages through which one must pass to acquire the wisdom and learning leadership demands.

As humans, we acquire perceptual data through our senses. We process this data into information by aggregating and contextualizing it. Knowledge comes only when that information is tested against other sources of information and fairly assessed. We graduate to wisdom when we measure our acquired knowledge against our life experience and against the lives of others we learn about through various means.

If these paths eventually lead us to acceptance and wisdom about life’s complexities, how might they apply in the current political standoff with its lack of, curiosity, comity, and compromise? Perhaps admitting how little, in fact, we know and learning to listen respectfully, process, and then speak will finally rekindle in us the wisdom true leadership demands.

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