Our national conversation is dominated by polarity politics – left or right, blue or red, liberal or conservative. Is this two dimensional linear view the way we should discuss problems?

A few years ago there was a popular management book by Joel Barker on “Paradigms” and paradigm shifts. It was a useful foray into our mental models and how they change over time. Mental models, which are often reflected in our language, can create either competitive advantage or disadvantage.

Consider the paradigm or mental model that must exist in the minds of young Muslim men educated in the madrasa schools run by clerics who have little or no education beyond their own Holy Book. Just as software conditions the processing of data, mental paradigms condition the processing of information in the human brain.

How are Americans trained to think? Do we assume our paradigms are the one and only “right” way to think about issues. What paradigms are making us economically competitive or damaging our position in the world? And, how does that affect behavior in the corporate world? The answers to those questions could fill a book, but a few quick thoughts.

It seems that every television news show has become “Crossfire” with someone on the left and someone on the right. Every issue is discussed with the assumption that there is a liberal view and a conservative view; a red state and blue state perspective. All you have to do is choose which your team is and you can root for someone to win the contest! It has become the national sport.

Are issues really defined by this bi-polar paradigm? Is there any other model that may more fully describe reality? Instead of a two dimensional, left-right paradigm, could reality be more multi-dimensional, perhaps up and down, as well as left and right? Is there a matrix of possible views, or even a three dimensional model? Is the solution to funding social security in the future, a future when on average people will be living to over a hundred, one defined simply by left or right? Is the fight against terrorism one that belongs to left or right? Is the growing deficit, an effective tax on our children, solved by simple left/right knee jerk solutions? I don’t think so.

Left and right, liberal and conservative, is not only an inadequate paradigm, it is mental laziness, simplistic thinking, and it can draw groups, even our nation, into false choices and bad decisions. On MSNBC today, on “Connected Coast-to-Coast” a talk show host, representing the “right” said to Ron Reagan “you on the left are all God hating…” Can anyone actually be so simple minded as to believe that everyone who considers them self liberal is “God hating?” It is not possible!

Unfortunately, political discourse today (and it is done on both sides) seeks to label the other side in the worst possible way. This is how the game is played. This process of irrational labeling should cause our citizens serious concern. Hitler labeled Jews as “vermin”; during WWII the Japanese had similar labels for the Chinese; and we called our enemies “gooks” in Vietnam. The process of labeling makes it easier to hate, to kill an enemy or scapegoat. Why not kill “vermin”? It happened in Bosnia and Rwanda. And with language that defines almost half the country as “God hating” this labeling is a danger to our culture, if not our democracy.

Perhaps instead of simply liberal/conservative there is a matrix with those who seek to divide others on the bottom; and those who seek to create unity on the top. Great leaders seek unity, not division. Alexander the Great made great efforts to unify Persian and Greeks by wearing Persian clothes and marrying 1000 inter-racial couples. George Washington was a unifier and feared the effect of political parties and the division they would cause. Leaders like Sloban Milosevic rose to power by creating fear in one half of the citizens against the other half. Ethnic cleansing and the death of tens of thousands followed.

Consider that the mental paradigm of division versus that of unity may be much more significant than that of right and left. The strength and survival of the United States may depend on expanding our paradigm possibilities beyond the simple minded linear dialogue that dominates our dialy landscape.

New products, new technologies, new management processes, the innovation that has been the fuel of the American economy, is founded on “out-of-the-box” thinking, the refusal to adhere to simple and traditional thought patterns. If the American economy is going to continue to thrive we must develop new generations of revolutionary thinkers who refuse to be hyptnotized the boringly repititious nightly debates. And if we can somehow get our political and media leaders to practice some pattern of conversation that breaks out of the restrictions of the current lef/right assumptions, we might just solve some of the pressing public policy issues facing this country.