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Nov 9, 2007

Junior high politics

Junior high politics can be brutal. Adolescents discover the world of relationships, and engage in it with enthusiasm of zealots. One essential feature of human relationships is their selectiveness. Being a friend with certain people means you’re not friends with other people. If you are friends with everyone, this removes any meaning from the concept of friendship and renders it empty.

Of course, by definition, adolescents have not yet established long-term relationships; they are trying it out. So, there is the constant sense of being unsure. The affiliations and alliances change, shift, they fail and are reestablished, and consequently, not much trust exists among adolescent friends. And because power comes with the quantity and quality of friends one has, the constant fears of betrayal are only heightened.

What comes with mistrust and insecurity? It is constant demands to prove loyalty, and to dispel suspicion. For example, if Lucy your best friend, and Sarah is your worst enemy, Lucy may not be friendly with Sarah, even in passing, even briefly. And if she is, she has some explaining to do. This is about the appearance of friendliness. However, if Lucy openly suggests that she would like to be friends with both you and Sarah, well, that is an open invitation to break the friendship.

Adults develop a lot more sophisticated understanding of relationships. First, they will learn the shades and gradations of friendship, and will develop a repertoire or f relationships that is much richer than friend/enemy dichotomy. Second, they will realize that no relationship is truly inclusive, even the most intimate ones like marriage: spouses must still have their own friends, and a whole range of other working and personal relationships. Healthy relationships of all kinds require certain amount of trust and predictability. Adults also learn to calibrate their assessment of relationships. Someone who disagrees with you, or who even has lost temper with you, is not necessarily your enemy or dislikes you. We learn this one way or another, to a different degree.

This is how things normally work. However, when adults experience certain traumatic, dysfunctional communities, they sometimes revert to junior high level of politics. This has little to do with individuals, or their maturity. It’s just the lack of trust that comes from past experiences. If you do not believe the relationship you develop with someone is safe, you will be scrutinizing the other person’s behavior for signs of betrayal. You will interpret her or his friendliness with your enemies as a worrisome sign.

Whoever is in the position of leadership has to be careful treading the relational waters. She needs a support group, those people who most close to her in outlook, and just simply people she draws emotional support from. However the leader cannot engage in junior high politics. He cannot ensure the support of his base by alienating the others. The temptation to anoint friends and enemies is great, especially if there is some genuine dispute within the group, and especially if the leaders feels he has the majority’s support. Nothing unifies your base group as a defined enemy, the others. Nothing brings people closer than a warm discussion about shortcomings of those not currently present. But that is exactly the strategy that would erode trust and plunge the whole group into junior high politics. This has to do with power asymmetry. Although in an academic setting administrators’ power is severely limited by faculty governance, faculty and administrators still have different kinds of powers to balance each other. It all goes wrong when an administrator or a faculty member attempt to tilt that balance by augmenting their powers by personal relations.

Social systems are powerful, but not all-powerful. Systemic problems can nudge a person towards reverting to junior-high politics, but we all have the choice to remain adults.

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