The challenge of saying what you think

I have never underestimated the challenge of saying what you think in writing, in public that social media presents. This challenge has been the focus of much of my work. How does someone representing BP, or The UN, “find their voice” and speak to the rest of us in a way that we can relate to and respond to? Can they? Is it inevitable that they resort to bland marketing corporate speak that fills our networks with more signal than noise?

And what about inside work? Is it unreasonable to expect people who are nervous about what their boss or peers might think to open up and share their thoughts and insights about what they do without protecting themselves by hiding behind the usual veneer of management bollocks.

And what about us, here, now. Not at work, representing no one but ourselves. Why does it feel so scary to so many to engage, to post more than holiday snaps, to respond in comment threads, to question what we see?

I understand. I feel scared. I feel exposed when I write these posts. I risk disagreement, disapproval, scorn or just being ignored. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for what I learn about me, about the people who respond, about the world around us, and how we might get better at living in it.

The same rewards are there for those brave enough to find their voice at work or representing their work to others. After all these years, I still think it is worth trying. If anything the need gets greater by the day.

On punching Nazis

In a recent post I shared a cartoon based on Karl Popper’s paradox that intolerance needs stood up to, that you need to be intolerant of intolerance. There is an image of someone kicking Hitler in the cartoon. This has caused some of my friends to question the use of force. I share their concern. I worry about polarisation, I worry about vigilantism. I worry about righteous indignation being an excuse for fighting fire with fire.

But I have also visited Auschwitz. I have seen what happens “when good men remain silent”. I have seen what happens when bullying and intimidation become political instruments. I know that there comes a point when it seems that you need to use force to resist.

But then I also know what Ghandi achieved in India with passive resistance. I know that once you have resorted to force you have lost, you become as bad as them.

What to do, what to do... ?

Not giving up on people

There are people I know who hold racist and sexist views. I have tried discussing with them, arguing with them, expressing everything from frustration to disgust at their worst extremes, and in the end I sometimes have to walk away from them.

But I go back. I can’t give up. I have to find a way to reach out, to not judge, to feel compassion for whatever deep seated fear or hurt has led them to feel so angry about other people.

When my daughters and I are trying to understand violence in the news, or grappling with what motivates some Neanderthal who has grunted at them in the street, I often say “Try to imagine what it is like to go around with a head that thinks that such behaviour is ok, to be so unhappy and dysfunctional that you project vile nastiness onto the rest of the world and don’t even realise that you are doing it.”

I don’t believe that people are born sexist or racist. They become that way because of the things that happen to them, the ways they see others around them behaving, and, perhaps most importantly, because they are not challenged and held to account for their views early enough while they are still forming.

Holding them to account means making them face up to the consequences of their actions. It means standing up to them face to face or ultimately invoking policy or the law to protect the vulnerable from their poison.

But if we want to prevent them acting the same way again, or being seen as a martyr or role model by others, we have to get close to them. Closer than we would probably like. Giving up on them is giving up on ourselves.

So, would I punch a Nazi? You bet if I saw them threatening someone else. But I might want to buy them a coffee afterwards.

Where the thread goes, nobody knows.

It fascinates me the way comments threads on posts twist and turn in ways that I didn’t anticipate. I try to write in as clear a way as I can, and it’s not as if there is a right and wrong way to interpret what I’ve said, and yet there are reactions that come out of the blue and even sometimes disagree with something I didn’t think I had said!

This used to frustrate me but I’ve learned to love it, to go with the flow, to wonder what the different direction says about the people responding, what it says about me, what is says about our relationship, what it says about life.

Sometimes it is challenging, sometimes, it hurts, but overall I love it.

Airbrushed reality?

I love scrolling through people's photos on Instagram, enjoying the fabulous landscapes, happy faces, and interesting looking food. Doing so this morning I found myself thinking of those who sneer at what is often dismissed as airbrushed reality. The judgemental tone with which they deride what they see as a tendency to only show the good bits of our lives on social media.

My own experience is different. The people I follow do tend to talk about the ups and downs of life. But even if they did want to share only the good bits - why the hell not? Isn't the real problem jealousy on the part of those who make this an issue?

Civil discourse

It has been fascinating watching the “debate” about Google sacking an employee who made disparaging comments about women coders and the fuss about the BBC allowing Nigel Lawson air time to deny climate change. Many are saying that Google shouldn’t sack someone for expressing their views and as many are saying that the BBC shouldn’t have given Lawson air time.

Lots of strongly expressed “shouldn’t”. But where do we end up if we try to silence people we disagree with - even if we feel justified in doing so? If they haven’t broken any laws what gives us the right to shut them up? And if we shut them up where do we stop?

The historian Mary Beard faced a bewildering degree of online aggression triggered by the argument over whether or not Britain’s roman conquerors were from different ethnic backgrounds. In cases like this there are some positions that seem so bizarre and illogical that the temptation is to shut them up and make them go away. But to do so has consequences that go far beyond the initial incident. Once you start silencing dissenting voices where do you stop, and who decides? Isn’t it better to give people who take extreme positions the rope to hang themselves (metaphorically speaking!)? To let their views be seen and scrutinised, to open up the, often very slight, possibility that they might come to change their views.

In his book Free Speech Tim Garton Ash repeatedly makes the point that we all have a responsibility to cultivate effective, civil discourse online. His book is like a much longer version of my aphorism that “we all have a volume control on mob rule”. Expecting someone else to sort out people we find challenging is problematic. Introducing legislation is incredibly difficult and likely to cause unforeseen consequences that do wider damage than the original incident.

We need to find a way to engage with those we find difficult and to seek mutual understanding. It is far from easy, and can seem weak or overly liberal, but there is no other way. The alternatives are much worse.

Helping or hindering?

Helping or hindering?

Yesterday I took part in a conference call with folks in the US on the topic of scarcity. For one participant that triggered thoughts about how to help those at the bottom of the economic pile. Their comments reminded me of a radio programme about a food bank in Newcastle in which one of the recipients became emotional while explaining that the biggest difference his visits made was not the food so much as being treated with respect as a fellow human being by the volunteers and not as a victim or a statistic.

I am currently reading Carne Ross's book [The Leaderless Revolution][2]. In it he has just referred to the common assumption that "most people don't want to take responsibility", the idea that we are meant to leave change to politicians, to simply vote and then trust them to get on with it. He contrasts this with the power each of us has to change the world with relatively small actions that trigger huge change - Rosa Parks on the bus, the first person who boo'd Ceaușescu at his rally, and others.

Both of these incidents reminded me of the quote "to rescue someone is to oppress them". They made me wonder, yet again, about the assumptions we make about "other people" and whether they really need our help or not. In our instincts to help do we take away their agency and reduce their ability to help themselves? Are we merely doing it to increase our own sense of importance at their expense?

How do we avoid this and intervene in a way that genuinely increases collective capability rather than reduces it? How do we help each other in ways that increase mutual respect and at the same time reduce dependency? How do we do this in our own spheres of influence—within our families or places of work?

Righteous Indignation

It feels good doesn’t it? That moment when someone has wronged you in a way that makes you feel entitled to let rip. “The bastards.” “How could they?” “That is so unfair.” ”They deserve…” Carte blanche to really have a go, to release all that pent up testosterone, to be seen to be someone who stands up for themselves.

But isn’t it funny when you watch someone else reacting like this? Doesn’t it appear childish? Doesn’t is seem so, so obvious that their righteous indignation says more about them than it does about the other person, that their buttons have clearly been pressed? Why can’t they see that themselves?

And isn’t it the same in here, in Facebook? When you see someone ranting online it looks so obvious that they are exposing their own weaknesses and sore points more than they are exposing those of the other person.

Look back over some of your own posts and see how they appear. Take in and live again those moments when you indulged yourself. It’s not pretty is it?

Obligation

I have never been very good at should. “You should finish your dinner”, “You should go to church”, and the overall gotcha ”You should be a good boy”.

Our heads are filed from an early stage with these shoulds yet paradoxically they actually make it harder to do the right thing. Filling our heads with other people’s voices makes it more difficult to hear our own. One of the attractions of Buddhist thinking is the idea that we practice stilling those other voices, allow what is really happening at any moment to be more fully grasped, and make our next move based on that information.

If this sounds like a recipe for an amoral free for all consider the situation where you are asked by a Nazi if anyone else is in the house and you know that Anne Frank and her family are hiding upstairs. You know the right thing to do. We all know the right thing to do. Even those brainwashed by Nazi propaganda know the right thing to do. In fact losing our ability to make our own decisions about what we know is the right thing to do is what gives ideologues and despots their power.

Guilt at telling a lie is unhelpful. Taking the time to work through other people’s ideas of what we should or should do is a distraction. For this good reason we break received moral codes all of the time.

If we can do it some of the time, if we can do it when it really matters, then maybe we should stop pretending that we don’t, get better at stilling the voices in our heads, and get better at doing what we know deep down is the right thing.

The good old days

I’ve just been listening to dana boyd being interviewed by Krista Tippett on the ever excellent On Being. She recounts a couple of life changing conversations she had on BBS and Usenet - as she said “before we learned to be scared of other people”.

This brought back my own experiences on those early platforms where it somehow seemed easier to “meet” people from totally different backgrounds and learn from them.

Sadly this seems to have become harder since someone called it social media.

Wriggle room

When dealing with a call centre we all appreciate it when they are willing to come off script to treat us like a fellow human being and help us. Our problem might not be as neat as they'd prefer and their flexibility says a lot about both the individual and the organisation they work for.

Equally when people nit pick about details in a bureaucratic procedure when you know they could tolerate imprecision - that too says something about the individual and the organisation they work for.

Some rules need rigidly adhered to - most don't. Too rigid a system, and people who are too tightly constrained, both snap under pressure.

We need to assert our right to wriggle a bit.

People who are too inflexible and don't exercise judgement can be replaced by robots.

Wriggle room might be humanity's USP.

Oh FFS

I often think we could do with an "Oh FFS" button on Facebook or LinkedIn for those moments when you think you have carefully crafted a post and then the first comment comes completely out of left field and takes the ensuing comment thread in what feels like the wrong direction.

But is it the wrong direction?

Is the frustration you feel caused by your failure to write the post carefully enough to close off other views? To win the argument before you even knew there was one?

Or is it because you are resisting the discomfort caused by the fact that the commenter sees the world so differently from you?

They appear stupid because they "don't get it" but they actually trigger something. Something you don't like. Something revealing. Something more revealing about you than about them?

Anarchism

As those of you who have read any of my posts will know, I have a firm belief that if we work out how to make the best use of the amazing communication technology we have at your fingertips, learn the skills of civil exchange, and use these skills to achieve productive collective effect, then we will be able to deal with the significant challenges we currently face. This is at a time when we watch the old, hierarchical, institutional world collapsing around us. The inability of those in charge of large corporations and governments to keep up with and adapt to the changes affecting us is becoming more and more obvious by the day.

My sense of what is possible were largely formed through the work I did inside the BBC encouraging our internal online community to grow and thrive. I realised that it didn’t really need management in a conventional sense. If I trusted people, and gave them the time and space to work out how to use the platform to work together, they would do so. At the time someone, I think I it might have been +Eddie Black, called me an organisational anarchist. I was slightly uncomfortable with the connotations but at the same time quietly chuffed. This incident triggered in an interest in the topic and I began delving into original thinking by the likes of Kropotkin and others. But my focus on the topic reduced and I found other things to worry about.

However the more I worked with organisations of all sorts, commercial or governmental, not for profit or entrepreneurial, and heard people struggle to maintain confidence in a world view that is increasingly irrelevant while lacking a convincing new one to replace it, I realised that we need to learn how to see the world and operate in it in fundamentally new ways, and we need to learn quickly.

I am currently revisiting some of the books on anarchism that I set aside all those years ago and adding as much new thinking as I can to my understanding of the topic. It is still a very loaded word. Partly through the actions of those in the early 19th century who believed that direct action was the way to bring about change, and partly due to the now familiar black garbed disruptors who turn out at any significantly large demonstration in the UK, many people have an understandably negative view of anarchism. But in fact when you start to dig into the subject it is in essence the ultimate in democracy. It is based on the belief that humankind wants to learn, develop, be creative, and be productive together without the need for higher authority.

The perceived need for hierarchy and control has been taught to us consciously and deliberately for centuries if not millennia. We feel that without someone in charge we will descend into chaos. This is not true. The need for authority is not inevitable. We can learn to do better. Anarchism might not be the whole answer, and not for everyone, but the ideas behind it should, I believe, be part of the mix.

This documentary from BBC four called "The Accidental Anarchist" tracks the development in understanding of former British diplomat Carne Ross as he transitions from the world of international politics and strategy, to the amazing story of the Kurdish fighters fighting ISIS and the anarchic principles of the society that they are defending and which supports them. In the process he help explains some of the ideas, history, and potential of anarchism and compares the Kurds’ achievements to those of the Spanish anarchists of the thirties famously described in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

[If for no other reason please do watch the documentary to the end to see the inspiring women Kurdish fighters literally on the front line in their battle agains Isis. As one of them says “Without having free women you can’t have a free society”.]

When I get around to writing another book I am going to call it "Changing the World, One Conversation At A Time". I need to keep up the focus in my research and get on with writing it quickly because the need for us to learn how to do this stuff is becoming more pressing by the day.

Artifice

Artifice

Funny how we all expect to agree about things that have happened.

When I was in Cuba last week seeing their perspective of the revolution there compared to my previous understanding of it was fascinating.

Last night I had a very different response to the film Dunkirk from many of my friends and I have enjoyed the resulting conversations about why. In helping me understand my reaction Patrick Lambe used the word "artifice" and Dave Snowden added "...the movie, which is of course an artefact so should demonstrate artifice ..."

Having done two stints of jury duty I am forever aware that even our own stories about what we think we saw happen in real life are artifice.

I am currently thoroughly enjoying Tim Garton Ash's book Free Speech much of which is about the challenge of agreeing to disagree in what he calls "cosmopolis" - the highly connected but fragmented world we live in where we are having to learn to deal with difference and often extremely polarised perspectives.

We fret about being in a "post truth" world. Was there ever a truly shared version of the truth? Can there ever be? Should we treat it all as artifice?

The Origins Of Totalitarianism

I have just finished listening to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism on Audible. All 23 hours of it. Fascinating insights into the political and philosophical shifts through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The growth of “the masses”, the birth and distortions of the idea of nation states, mass unemployment and statelessness, the differences between parties and movements, and the parallels between Hitler and Stalin, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.

This latter point about movements was the most telling given our current political climate. The idea that in order to establish a totalitarian state those in power had to keep everything moving, to be in constant flux, to be perpetually unpredictable. Even those in the Nazi and Communist state systems were at perpetual risk of being restructured out of power and even existence. The dehumanising intent of all of this, the central place of the concentration camps as the epitome of systematically abusing large chunks of the population to meet the self fulfilling prophecy of some groups being less than human. It was all too modern.

But in its own way Arendt’s book was reassuring. We are not living in the 30s. We are less gullible and more sceptical about the mechanisms of state power. We are less trusting. In the long run this is a good thing. Sure there is a downside which manifests in all the current angst about “post truth” and “fake news”, but as I have said so often it is forcing us to assume a responsibility that was always potentially ours. Despots and totalitarianism rely on infantilising the population, on people’s willingness to leave things to the grown ups, on our inclination to be too lazy to think for ourselves.

The Age Of Nothing

Having been so impressed by his previous book, "A Terrible Beauty", I was a little worried that Peter Watson's other weighty tome "The Age Of Nothing" would disappoint. I needn't have worried.

What a fabulous book. As before; thorough, comprehensive, mind stretching, authoritative, and compelling. My one consistent thought while reading it, no doubt as a result of the amount I am reading at the moment about Buddhist philosophy, was that many of the ideas expressed – about cosmic unity, individual happiness, concern for each other, a phenomenological appreciation of the world around us – all chimed with my current reading but were largely missing from Watson's book.

Nonetheless highly recommended again.

Up the workers

Find myself thinking about the nervousness that the middle class still feels about socialism and the "up the workers" history of the radical left.

The irony is that it is those very same bureaucrats, administrators, and "knowledge workers", who make up the bulk of the middle class, whose jobs will be most significantly impacted by artificial intelligence over the coming decades.

They will fnd themselves becoming "the workers" discarded by an increasingly small elite who control the immensely powerful machines and algorithms that will dominate the world of conventional work in the future.

They are going to get very confused...

A Mass Outbreak Of Common Sense

I heard this phrase in conversation with a client today (stated as an aspiration rather than something already achieved I hasten to add!) I wrote it down immediately. It resonated. It excited me. In many ways it is helping people work towards this potential that motivates me.

But why limit the idea to an organisation? How about a mass outbreak of common sense nationally? Why not globally?

Naïve? Simplistic? We know what makes us happy and what causes us pain. We know what harms others and what nurtures them.

What do we need to stop doing to allow this outbreak to happen?

Unreal Friends

I have just had a fantastic "sort the world out" lunch with Darryl Carr who instigated this whole trip by recommending me to the conference organizers here in Perth a few months ago. Our paths have only crossed "in real life" once before five years ago in Sydney. Similarly, most of the people who reached out when I was in Melbourne and Sydney are "unreal internet friends" who I get to see once in a blue moon.

There are those who would claim that we can't be real friends if we only ever meet online. And yet when we do meet there is real affection, real connection, real understanding. In many ways a more intense friendship than some of the ones I maintain in real life.

What's not to like? What are those who are so suspicious of these online friendships so afraid of?

One world

Sitting in a cafe in Sydney watching the world go by. The same world I watched yesterday in Hong Kong. The same world we all inhabit with the same core needs and values.

I wonder if we would have need of nuclear arsenals if travel was obligatory.