The Smoke Screen of Being Right

I have not been able to touch the destruction within me.  But unless I learn to use the difference between poetry and rhetoric my power too will run corrupt.  – Audre Lorde

During the last year we have had the opportunity to work with a number of corporate executives in leadership positions, as well as thought leaders in the management space. This experience has been revealing. We had begun with the assumption that these leaders, particularly those facing down intense levels of turbulence and unpredictability in both their personal and business lives, would be more open than ever before to deep self-reflection, if for no other reason than the world was demanding more of their leadership and capacity than ever before.

For the most part we found this assumption to be wrong. We had assumed, with many institutional structures in global free fall, that a greater number of thought leaders and executives in the business world would be eager for the opportunity to enter into a reflective process that would allow them to question the foundational elements of a world and market that, if not in outright collapse, was surely working differently than traditional norms and expectations would lead one to expect.

With this experience as a backdrop it was powerful and instructive to come across the exchange on the topic of “philanthrocapitalism” between Kavita Ramdas and Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in The Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Not so much for the content of their arguments but for the play of the exchange between the team of Bishop and Green and Ramdas. Our attention was particularly drawn to the aggressive tone of Bishop and Green’s counter argument, and the subtly ad-hominem nature of Bishop and Greens’ response. The tone and manner in which Bishop and Green responded, which is highly familiar in today’s world,  allowed them to largely avoid engaging Ramdas’ core argument. And it is representative of a style of discourse prevailing today that substitutes competitive argumentativeness—a need-to-be-right-at-all-costs—for any deeper and more collaborative conversation.

Reading Ramdas’ critique of philanthrocapitalism, it’s hard to miss her primary point, which is the one Bishop and Green chose to evade: that people of wealth who bring their money to the table of philanthrocapitalism need to ask deeper questions of themselves and their role in the world. They need to examine the underpinnings of our current economic development model and their place in it.  She is asking for an engaged and deliberate process of self-reflection on the part of the giver to accompany the philanthropic giving.  Otherwise, the tragic and unjust elements of the current economic model remain unseen and unchallenged, and philanthropy remains a tool of the status quo rather than an agent for change.

It’s a simple argument really. If reality is incoherent, the core assumptions behind the thoughts that created and sustain it are also incoherent. If you want to change reality you must penetrate your inquiry to the level where these assumptions are formed, then hidden, and then taken for granted as commonsensical and absolutely true.

I couldn’t help but feel a direct affinity with the dynamics of this exchange between  Ramdas and Bishop and Green. It reflects our own experience working with many of today’s business executives and thought leaders—and this is not to say that I think that all of Ramdas’ arguments are on-point, or that Green and Bishop have nothing important to add to the conversation about philanthropy. They do. But what their exchange  exemplifies is just how difficult it is for people to see the value in questioning reality on foundational levels. When asked to do so their immediate reflex is to push back, often with either veiled or direct aggression, as a way to defend themselves from the difficult and uncomfortable questions such an activity presents.

This is why it is time to move beyond the customary formats used to challenge and generate ideas, such as argumentation and debate, and into something more embodied, liberating, fun, and heartfelt. We need new training and new tools, training and tools that take us beyond the exchange of intellectual ideas into the realm of deep inquiry and reflection. Step one in this process requires an understanding that detached intellectual thinking, no matter how smart, is incapable of exposing one’s deepest assumptions.

This work will engage people physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. It will support people as they travel beneath the level of awareness to where all ideas, structure, and assumptions are born. It will provide the orientation and support people need to simultaneously challenge and transform the status quo.

Bishop and Green contracted in the face of their challenge, and instead of the exchange taking on a spirit of collaboration and innovation it took on the posture of defending and arguing. This move is so common as to be taken for granted and even applauded as fine intellectual work. What if instead they were trained to approach the situation differently? What if the context for the presentation of ideas were transformed? What if, for her part, Ramdas were able to demonstrate a new approach by writing in a different way, one that elevated above the old game of thesis, argument, and conclusion, one that was less concerned with convincing and being right?

What we are saying is that the current economic consciousness – the one that many of us find terribly destructive to life on this planet – is supported not so much by the power elite as it is by each and every one of us in a myriad of ways. We argue, we debate, we push our ideas, we defend, and we stand behind our beliefs and values. Which is simply another way of saying that if  changing the world is what we are after then we must each start with ourselves. We must redesign ourselves so that we are equipped with the kind of internal power that we will need to successfully engage the accelerating complexity that threatens to overwhelm every last institutional structure of society.