January 16, 2021

There’s no middle in the middle

Posted on 30. Mar, 2011 by Administrator in Social/Cultural

I can hear Walter Winchell now, “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships and clippers at sea. Flash! America has lost its middle and it’s nowhere to be found!” Used to be we all tried to find a ‘happy medium’, a balance in our lives.

Right after WWII, Americans settled into a new, more peaceful world that included more freedom, jobs, leisure time, and families. There was a move towards the center of the economic and social spectrum to a safe harbor called, the middle class. This was as much an attitude as a physical place, and its currency was the personal pride associated with movement up the socio-economic ladder, away from the government welfare that engulfed many of their parents.

Middle class was something to aspire to because it represented progress, free from invective and hyperbole: plain people talking plainly without raising their voices. These days that sounds like jabberwocky from Alice in Wonderland.

Let’s talk about talk

Nowadays it’s hard to find a conversation on television that doesn’t sound like the 1812 overture. They start off  pianissimo with phrases like ‘with all due respect’ but move quickly to double forte as they verbally thrash their opponent within an inch of his life for simply disagreeing with them.

We needn’t look any farther than our political campaigns for proof of concept here. There, the operating philosophy is: Hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em often, right from the start. Does this also apply to business? You bet. Do you think ‘Wall Street’ stock magnate, Gordon Gecko was totally fictitious? Nope.

He took no prisoners and made American greed and one-sidedness seem like mom’s apple pie. Wall Street the place talks the same talk. It gives no awards for moderate performance. When was the last time you heard the term, ‘middle management’ used with reverence? Fact is, many believe that middle managers are just one tick up from the guppie on the corporate food chain. (CEOs aren’t looking for cloning subjects in this group!) So how, why and when did we come to the conclusion that the middle of anything was somehow less valuable than the bottom or the top (or the start or the finish)?

When did we give up our quest for moderate thought and civility in our dealings with one another? In America, I think it happened right after Joe McCarthy’s attacks on ‘liberal’ Hollywood and his Communist witch-hunting of the early 50s. His House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) engendered enormous fear in the hearts of many, and moved people quickly away from the center (or middle) to either defend or attack McCarthy’s targets. After McCarthy’s self-destruction, people didn’t move back to fill the void of the middle.

They became the new two-party system: the ‘fors’ and ‘againsts.’ And while these parties have flirted with middle-ground positions many times over the passed 50 years, they never managed to create a platform that could move people in from the edges. Neither have the unions nor the companies, though one moment in time stands out – the ‘empowering times’ of the 90s when a huge middle class of investors was created during the stock market’s boom.

Our middle literally sagged with all the weight of those investors until the boom turned into a bubble and then burst, wiping out the middle class’ gains.

Civility and moderation = success

It seems strange to me that we can fawn over the good breeding of foreigners but can’t seem to incorporate it into our work lives or understand how important it is to our success. You’d think that good manners and moderation were anathema to progress and that we have to be tough and self-centered to get to the top (or stay there).

I submit, that if that were the case, our image of the ideal parents wouldn’t be a Rockwellian couple talking with their children at the dinner table but Ozzie Ozborn and Rosie O’Donnell mixing it up on the kitchen floor.

Finally, lest anyone think that moderation is selling out, I would simply point to some great overachievers who couldn’t find that ‘road less traveled’: Genghis Khan, Stalin and Mao, to name a few. Those fellows needed a little more down time and a membership in the ‘Middletarian Club’.  Why not step back from the edge and give it some thought yourself? Remember, there can never be a good beginning nor a great end without a terrific middle!

Stephan Helgesen is a former diplomat who spent 25 years working overseas. He is Honorary Consul for Germany and CEO of his own high-tech consultancy, Second Opinion Marketing & Communications.

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