Ripening Issues

Ronald R. Heifetz says social change can
occur once issues “ripen.” Ripening is the process of broad conversation and
sometimes of direct confrontation between the values that we claim and the
practices that conflict with them. Coming to terms with our inconsistency is
the work of adapting, Heifetz writes, and it’s the task of leaders to manage the
stress to enable all the voices in the community in the lead-up to

If we think
(the people)
not enlightened
enough to
exercise their
control with
a wholesome
discretion, the
remedy is not
to take it
from them,
but to inform
their discretion.
–Thomas Jefferson

When a society holds a set of values but betrays them in practice, a process of change must occur to allow people to confront the inconsistencies and adapt to changed behavior.

Ronald R. Heifetz says in his excellent book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, that broad conversation and a safe “holding environment” for dissent must be available to engage the best thinking of a society. Heifetz says leadership is the activity of identifying the adaptive challenge (the inherent conflict between values and practice), keeping distress within a productive range, directing attention to ripening issues and not diversions, giving work back to people to do (getting people involved in the discussion and engaged in creating the change), and protecting the voices of leadership in the community. (p. 207)

This raises an interesting responsibility for a communicator. If the story is consistently told as a conflict between polarized advocates (which is often very accurate) how does the issue ripen and how does a range of voices get into the conversation that will lead to constructive change?

Heifitz says the activity of leadership is managing the tension between a ripening issue and the stress it creates so that the interchange can continue without becoming so disruptive that people pull back and settle into comfortable but untenable equilibrium. It’s a process of finding your way as you go and it’s a delicate dance. Heifetz de-constructs the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., Pres. Lyndon Johnson, Ghandi, Margaret Sanger and others to illustrate.

From the perspective of a communicator, one can see how the coverage of conflict can both reflect the accuracy of polarized positions and also influence the course of conversation. If the only voices heard are those at the extremes the options for those in the middle are limited. There are many examples of this, but because I’m giving attention to global health in this set of posts, I think of the conflict about a range of issues related to HIVAIDS.

For many years there was debate about condom distribution vs. abstinence, needle distribution vs. drug treatment, generic vs. patent medications, and a whole raft of other conflicting issues. The issue ripened, unfortunately, as millions of people became infected. When it became clear that no single facet of the complicated issue could contain the whole pandemic the world began to see that no single track–prevention, behavioral change, treatment, research–approach is adequate. It will require attention to all of these and more to get this disease under control. We’re still a long way from doing that, but the fact that the debate has changed may signal that the policy issues will now change more comprehensively as well.

A story can be told from a single focus, but social policy must be more flexible. The conversation about equity, fairness and the inclusion of those at risk into the debate requires a full conversation with many voices. Therefore, coverage that reduces issues to their barest extremes can have different results. It may sharpen the poles but limit the options. It may also highlight the values in conflict, and the negative results, making clear that change has to take place if the society is to live up to its ideals, as in the case of the Civil Rights movement under Dr. King’s leadership.

Journalists are not necessarily leaders as Heifetz describes leadership. However, journalists by their role as the storytellers who help to frame the issues, are a part of the holding environment. How well they do their job has a direct bearing on the quality of the conversation, I believe. We need only to remember the lack of critical coverage of the WMDs, for example, to see how coverage can influence public perception, or misperception.

Heifetz leads me to think about the role of communicators as those who bring as many of the voices to the table as possible, not only the extremists who will gladly shape the debate to their ends, but also those in the middle who will compromise and adapt. Sound journalistic practice can enable adaptive response. It can assist in the ripening process. It can ensure that at the very least, the conversation includes all the voices that need to be heard.

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