Common Ground and the Politics of Power

In a recent conversation with a revered mentor and leader in the profession, we both lamented the painful, fractious positioning that often passes for debate in chiropractic. I have long been puzzled by the dynamic that seeks to force people take one side or the other instead of a working toward a commonly-held solution. Taking sides may some times be unavoidable, but I think that often it’s a false choice, with consequences of that are corrosive and ultimately damaging to our profession’s survival.

It’s hard not to see it in the world today; it is seemingly everywhere and infuses every social ill. It seems that every problem can only be viewed as a political issue. If that world view holds, power can be the only goal and we are lost. This aspect of our lives has seemed to have grown in proportion over the last decade or two, and now crowds out any possible alternative for discourse. If someone and I are having a disagreement and we are more interested in the power to enforce our solution than to seek a common one, why bother even talking? In that case, the only thing worth expending energy on is the pursuit of power. (See “Congress” and “joke”.)

It fascinates and pains me that it seems this dynamic is playing out more and more in chiropractic. We, as a profession, have never really held any power. We’ve been a minority in the healing arts and have never established cultural authority. We’ve endured–fostered, in many ways–an internal schism over practices, values and philosophy. We’ve frequently found enough common ground to fend off external threats, but failed to agree on the need for the same consensus to address internal ones. For a profession so familiar with the issues related to powerlessness, we seem remarkably interested in playing out those dynamics within our own ranks. Without reflection, the powerless impose further powerlessness on those it can.

We love rallying cries around our own causes, and take comfort in our own sense of distinction from those we disagree with. Our ability to pull people to us who share some aspect of identity or goal can enhance our sense of belonging and offer satisfaction through strength in numbers. But a consequence of that act can be further polarization within a group, and that polarization can have unintended consequences.

An example is a description I have seen frequently of chiropractors who describe themselves as ‘principled.’ I find that a very appealing term, personally. I like to think of myself as principled. The converse does not seem appealing: I certainly don’t want to think of myself as unprincipled. Yet if I gather with other principled chiropractors, what of those who are not there? Not with us? How can I not think of them as unprincipled? They have chosen to not be in our midst. But how can they themselves agree with that designation? They are likely to reject the designation. So by not exploring how the term can be applied to all, I have forced a schism into a group, and alienated a portion with whom I may actually have great agreement with. But I have framed my relationship to that portion in terms that force a choice before we have had an opportunity to first establish what we hold in common.

Seen in nature, an ecosystem is only vital if it is characterized by diversity. Whether its members understand it or not, or whether there is consciousness of it or not, there is a mutual interdependence that suffers when diversity diminishes. As a profession, we have tolerated a diversity of expression for more than a century, yet have never come to terms with the need to explicitly acknowledge the common foundation we all stand on. I came out of the ‘non-philosophical side’ of the profession, and now work with ‘the philosophical side.’ And I am grateful for the opportunity, because I now understand how much we actually have in common. But I am pained by the fact that we are unable to articulate, explore and celebrate that common bond.

To me it is reflective of a spiritual poverty, a dimension we seem to suffer from broadly in our country these days. It seems incongruent to me that we seek to function as healers while at the same time disparaging our peers. It can be painful and frustrating to see choices some make. Yet if we lose the ability to still see a connection with those we disagree with, we don’t just diminish chiropractic; we diminish ourselves.

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