Loneliness, Love, Anger and Activism

Spent a morning at the Ashridge Business School Masters in Sustainability and Responsibility last week. The School

Hogwarts Business School
Hogwarts Business School

is extraordinary – a Hogwarts-esque stately home full of statues and vaulted ceilings, formerly Henry VIII’s crib, set in a country park dotted with croquet lawns and mighty oaks. The conversation was also pretty good – 15 Masters students from every continent/walk of life. Only a couple of aid types – there were people from banking, oil and lots of other sectors there, and what struck me was how much the conversation focussed on psychology and emotion, which are often barely mentioned in aid industry discussions dominated by plain vanilla exchanges of stats and policy recommendations that often ignore the emotions in the room. It got a bit bean baggy at times, but I think there was something important there too. Impressions:

The loneliness of the long distance change-maker: working in an NGO, you take for granted that your colleagues will care about issues like rights and justice. The world outside can be very different and several speakers spoke of their loneliness in swimming against the tide on issues like sustainability or fossil fuel investment. One ex-lawyer talked of ‘the persona you have to assume between prêt a manger and the office door’. Here’s a banker-turned-Oxfamer recalling his past alienation. Building supportive networks has played a huge personal role in enabling them to keep going. Reminded me a bit of the Cambodian pink phones project (see video) – can/should NGOs do more to help build up these supportive communities of practice within the private sector or the state?

CEO as critical juncture: I’d forgotten what a big moment in a firm’s life is produced by a change of CEO. These are trigger points when policies and practices can change, as when Paul Polman’s first act on taking over at Unilever was to abandon quarterly reporting to try and free the firm from short term investor pressures. Could activists (both inside and outside a company) trying to influence corporates more consciously plan and respond to changes at the top as windows of opportunity?

Candidate for best initial question after a presentation of How Change Happens: ‘do you lie a lot?’ To which my answer has to be ‘depends what you mean by lying’. There’s lots of varieties of, (how shall I put it?) constructive ambiguity and selective truthiness, but in my defence, some of them come down to building bridges not walls:

  • Correction of power imbalances: I may think that my ideas/Oxfam are great, but if I’m the one doing the speaking, there’s already a power imbalance in the room, and bigging myself/my organization up will only make it worse. So ‘tactical self-deprecation’, focussing on the flaws, whether personal or institutional, makes sense (and to be fair, there’s plenty of both)
  • Accentuating common ground, rather than speaking truth to power. It’s easy to ‘other’ people from other institutions – bankers, oil reps, officials. You may have profound disagreements with what they do for a living, and saying so can be cathartic, but turning people into ‘targets’ and wagging your finger at them doesn’t constitute much of an influencing strategy. Often more effective to put your scruples to one side and try and empathise with the person in front of you.

But there are also plenty of bad reasons for lying, in my book. Keeping things ridiculously simple (presumably


because you think your listeners/readers are stupid); or recycling ‘political facts’ because you like their message, even though you know they are either incorrect or unprovable (‘70% of the world’s poor are women’ anyone?) Those kinds of manipulation are born of intellectual laziness, and are likely to come back to haunt us at some point.

Perhaps most insidious of all are the lies you aren’t even aware of. When you filter the world through your preconceptions, see/hear what you expect to see/hear, miss new ideas or possibilities, keep churning out the same old stuff. Contrarianism helps – if I hear the same thing too often, or too uncritically stated, then I instinctively start looking for the flaws or alternatives. But contrarianism is also a kind of lie. Aagh, turtles all the way down.

But what about anger? Anger motivates a lot of activists – rage at injustice, the state of the world, or how personal mistreatment. Authenticity, as we have seen in recent elections, is a huge plus in politics, so should activists get out there and vent? Or should you hide the anger in order to try and build the bridges with people with whom you deeply disagree? One Indian student, who lives in Europe, complained that ‘in Denmark no-one shows their anger. But showing it allows us to let go of the negativity inside us- it frees us’. She added a useful insight: ‘it depends on who is wagging the finger or clenching the fist’ – it’s one thing for the poor and excluded to express their anger, but perhaps another for middle class activists to do so on their behalf. One (fairly angry) environmentalist conceded that it was necessary to retake ‘control of the anger knob’ and know how to mix anger and love.

As I say, not the usual aid conversation.

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One Response to “Loneliness, Love, Anger and Activism”
  1. Daniel F. Bassill

    Thanks for another stimulating article. I understand the “The loneliness of the long distance change-maker” and have often described my own efforts as being like “John the Baptist with a message of hope and I’m just trying not to get my head chopped off.” I spend time daily in on-line spaces looking for others who are on the same journey who might connect and give support to myself and each other. Even that is difficult since each person is so focused on her own vision and struggles.