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An Ode to Humility

~by Michael Wilcox

Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Associate Director / North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)


Are you experiencing the same thing I am?

I am uncertain if it is politics or the pandemic, but polarization appears to be winning the day.

There was a time when communities, and the people living in them, solved pressing issues using dialogue. Yes, there were moments when dialogue did not move us towards a solution, and people sometimes resorted to extreme measures. But, there have also been moments where dialogue wasn’t even needed, and people came together to “do the right thing.”

Determining what the “right thing” is can be fraught with challenges. In our Department of Agricultural Economics here at Purdue University, we have historically adopted the philosophy/model of alternatives and consequences. This model assumes that we, as applied economists, are best suited to help our stakeholders make decisions by identifying alternatives and quantifying the potential impacts of choosing one over the other. Many times, our stakeholders want a clear answer, but we relent, as it is their purview to choose not ours. Sometimes, our stakeholders have an answer in mind and want us to use our tools and expertise to prove them right. To this, we respond, “No, thank you.” Most of the time, however, our stakeholders ask our opinion and (aggravatingly to some) our response is always, “It depends.”

Our communities face a myriad of challenges. Polarization has driven us to a point where we cannot agree on what those challenges are (or if they are challenges in the first place!) and what the possible solutions might be.

Polarization an iterative process that drives an ever-growing wedge between sides. In Community Development, we describe this as the erosion of bridging social capital. As common ground erodes, each side loses connection, and dialogue eventually turns to silence. The band Vampire Weekend sums it up in their song, “Harmony Hall,”

“Anger wants a voice
Voices want to sing
Singers harmonize
‘Til they can’t hear anything”
Harmony Hall lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Universal Music Publishing Group

Polarization threatens our alternatives and consequences model because we assume that people will be able to understand and use the information that we provide. Furthermore, we assume that those with standing[i] know and value it and that those without standing will stay out of the decision-making process. This isn’t always the case and polarization serves to exacerbate the problem.

The polarization process can be unsettling, to say the least. Even issues that appear to have one side (Everyone is against racism…, Everyone wants to minimize pollution…, etc.), can turn sideways quickly if the sides are too entrenched and the dialogue is not facilitated well. Black and white turn grey, dialogue devolves into defensiveness, and empathy is misconstrued as hubris.

And yet, all is not lost for our alternatives and consequences model.

Enter, Humility.

Around 2016, I had the honor and privilege to work with a team from Purdue in Colombia. We were working with Colombian partners on a project that sought to “strengthen Colombia’s key agricultural institutions in the public and private sector for cacao with cooperative research, technical assistance and Extension education.” Dr. Tamara Benjamin was our project leader. She recruited an incredible team of faculty, staff, and students from Purdue to work on the project and magically created a vast network in Colombia that would be key to our success.

One of the team members was Dr. Philip C. Abbott. Phil and I knew each other well. Almost too well. You see, he was my mentor, my Ph.D. advisor, and (eventually) my friend. Throughout the project, Phil would launch grenades into our Mondongo soup of common knowledge. He questioned everything and, as always, forced us to consider all of the alternatives and to reconcile all of the potential consequences.

I should have seen it coming.

Back in the Department, Phil was well known for sitting at the back of Krannert Building, Room 661, during academic presentations, dissertation defenses, and all other Departmental activities. If things were going well for the person at the front of the room, Phil would sit back in his chair and listen. When things started going sideways, the process would begin – first, Phil’s face would turn red, then, his head would go into his hand and, finally (this was the last straw…run!), Phil would let out a deep frustrated sigh. We all knew what was coming next.

“What was coming next” was always filled with passion, intellect, authority, caring, and empathy. Phil was an eminent scholar. To many, he was a towering giant. To Phil? He was an engineer turned economist who wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. This was the source of his humility. (As an aside, he was also enjoying cars, building high-end stereo speakers, and making pretty darn good wine with Dr. Otto Doering).

His feedback and criticism always came from a solid theoretical and analytical foundation. It also came from a good heart. To ensure that he was making a difference, he never held back when someone made a mistake or was about to make a bad choice. He defended those he thought were right and was always willing to listen to the other side, even if it meant getting to the point of “what was coming next” all over again.

Phil always had data on hand. It was his armor and weapon. It might be three simple data points, but his deep intellect drew the story out. His analytical capacity was boundless. Yet, Phil was always clear about the certainty or uncertainty associated with the alternatives and consequences being discussed. He always had stakeholders in mind and he was willing to recognize his limitations (for the record, he was the only Agricultural Economics faculty member brave enough to wear a hat that said “Born to Farm” with a pin on it that read, “No Farm Background”).

Phil’s secret weapon is what keeps the tradition of the alternative and consequences model alive, humbly speak what you know to be true, and help others learn from what you have to say. The alternatives are based on facts, not alternative facts. And, the consequences take into account the potential economic, social, and environmental effects.

Polarization tries to subvert Phil’s secret weapon by moving the discussion away from the issue at hand and towards something unrelated in an effort to maintain the status quo or to deflect the light being shone on the weaknesses of an argument.

Since the utility of words diminishes if they fall on deaf ears of those unwilling to learn, our collective challenge is to continue being fueled by empathic concern and finding innovative ways to employ our intellectual and cultural humility effectively.

Sadly, Phil has left us. He passed away on February 16, 2022. However, his lessons carry on through our actions.

Phil was always more analytical than sentimental. But, since he passed, I have kept replaying this song by XTC in my head:

“Some folks see the world as a stone
Concrete daubed in dull monotone
Your heart is the big box of paints
And others, the canvas we’re dealt…

Awaken, you dreamers
Adrift in your beds
Balloons and streamers
Decorate the inside of your heads
Please let some out
Do it today
But don’t let the loveless ones sell you
A world wrapped in grey.”
©1992 Virgin Music (Publishers) Ltd.

It is time to open that big box of paints.

[i] The term standing is used in cost-benefit analysis to “distinguish those whose preferences are to be counted.” See Whittington and MacRae (1986), Trumbull (1990) and Whittington and MacRae (1990).


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