Beyond the White Coat

Productively working together


Recently, some liberal colleagues urged a boycott of a conference in Orlando, Fla., because of various actions by its Republican state governor. At the same time, conservative colleagues advocated the boycott because business actions of Disney have become too leftist. Concerns about spreading COVID-19 at the national gathering have become small, compared with the desire to virtue-signal political viewpoints.

The 1960s in the United States were a time of social upheaval and polarization with many similarities to modern America. One difference is that, after a few years of social revolution, society emphasized bridging the differences. Politicians talked about reaching across the aisle. Religious groups sought ecumenical and interfaith ventures. Business and educational institutions promoted equal opportunity programs. The emphasis was finding common ground.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

A half century later, the polarized work environment of medical organizations in 2022 has led to emphasis on cancel culture, litmus tests, and finding reasons not to work with others and to silence dissent. A professional working in a polarized environment faces frequent challenges that pit ethical and political principles against the pragmatic need to set and accomplish team goals that productively care for patients and support staff. One of the worst things societies can do for children’s health is to perpetuate the paralyzing divisiveness of modern politics.

As Justice Stephen Breyer nears retirement from the Supreme Court, I reflect back to 1994 when, on the day of his nomination to the court by President Clinton, Justice Breyer at a press conference said, “What [the law is] supposed to do seen as a whole is allow all people, all people, to live together in a society where they have so many different views, so many different needs, but to live together in a way that is more harmonious, that is better so that they can work productively together.”

I generally reject secondary boycotts and the hatred they spew. True inclusivity does not divide. True inclusivity is very messy. It rejects tyrants who insist on litmus tests to prove wokeness. Every red state has Democrats and every blue state has Republicans. If you are dedicated to loving your neighbor, I think it is necessary professionally to focus on who you will work with to improve the world. If woke extremism says you can only work with someone who echoes the same end of the blue or red political spectrum as yourself, that is not loving, not inclusive, and not productive.

My advice is to focus on the values, goals, and pathways you share with colleagues rather than using political or social differences to prejudice you against working with someone toward a common goal. The old adage is that politics makes strange bedfellows. People with diverse, divergent, and even opposed life views can work together to build schools and roads that benefit the community, contrary to the polarized examples that have flooded Washington, D.C., for the past 2 decades. (Generation Z: Take this as testimony from a Boomer who saw how politics used to work, especially in small towns.)

My other advice is to believe in free speech, but it requires a long civics lesson to understand what that means. Facebook promulgating unvetted posts as news feeds is not free speech. Facebook creating profiles so the app creates tailored echo chambers of misinformation is not free speech. President Obama ignoring the problem for 8 years as the iPhone became ubiquitous did not help. President Trump’s outreach to the masses via Twitter did not model responsible free speech. Surreptitiously promoting certain political viewpoints in math textbooks is not responsible behavior and has generated mistrust and the replacement of boards of education. Elon Musk wanting to buy Twitter is an unknown.

I won’t attempt to offer any pearls of wisdom on free speech in this column. It is a complex subject. I will suggest that doing a better job with free speech will save far more lives than eliminating crib bumpers.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at

Next Article: