Once viewed as a slang term when asking someone to go away, advising someone to take a hike these days could be a solution to the polarization that we observe in today’s world.
Last July, I attended a two-day online conference of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). Of the many presentations, “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization” was a session that really caught my interest.
Peter T. Coleman, a professor at Columbia University and author of a book with the same title as his FMCS presentation, led the session and cited a cycle of mistrust, poor health, and paranoia as reasons for the political divide that we currently see. While there have always been some people on the extreme sides of the political spectrum, we now have many on those edges and very few in the middle. This lack of middle majority is a major contributor to the state of toxicity that we are experiencing. In addition, the fact that the red and blue populations are separating from each other geographically supports the polarization.
Once he identified these concerns, Professor Coleman offered some solutions to the issue of polarization in our society. One of the solutions to break the cycle was to take a walk with someone who has an opposing viewpoint from your own, something that Coleman does on a regular basis. He suggested that people who physically move together could come together in other ways as well. In fact, last summer, Harvard Medical School published five surprise benefits of walking, ranging from boosting immunity to taming a sweet tooth (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/5-surprising-benefits-of-walking). If anything, just moving our bodies outdoors would have a health benefit, something that I aimed to do on a daily basis during the pandemic.
Since I had just planned four optional activities for attendees at this year’s ICSOM Conference in Grand Rapids, I was pleased to hear this advice at the FMCS conference. While those who chose to explore West Michigan on our evening of outings were not necessarily on opposite ends of the political spectrum, we benefited from getting out of the hotel for fresh air and a change of conference scenery. Sometimes the shared experience of a 20-minute hike to Lake Michigan’s sand dunes can go a long way.
What can this mean for orchestras? Perhaps something could be learned from a weekly walk with a staff or board member who might benefit from getting to know a musician of an ICSOM orchestra. In fact, this activity could occur within the bargaining unit, as there is always much to be gained from hearing opposing points of view. It can be healthy for the orchestral family to cross pollinate. I know I have learned so much by gathering ideas from my string colleagues.
Years ago, I made this Facebook post that gathered many likes and humorous comments: “Try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Because then you’ll be a mile away from them. Plus you’ll have their shoes.” But in 2022, let’s aim to keep our shoes on and walk that mile together (unless you are barefoot at Lake Michigan, that is).