How easy is it to be good?

The Oscar-winning film Crash (2004) shows us how in Los Angeles every day in every way the interactions between ordinary people are powerfully constrained by the theme of race. Even those who are conscious of the phenomenon and would like to behave in a non-racist way, even those who are objects of racism find themselves caught up in the actions of others that propel them to behave in unexpected or unwanted ways with unpredictable results. The black film director finds himself giving way to the racial stereotyping of his financial backer, the non-racist policeman ends up by shooting a black man because he wrongly suspects him of pulling a gun on him, the racist policeman ends up by saving the life of a black woman he has previously harassed.

Although we would like to be good (or bad) our freedom to be so is constrained, but by no means determined, by the society into which we are born and the powerful social forces that form us and which we are forming. So in a country where I worked recently, which has endured more than thirty years of conflict and civil war, one powerful social dynamic is another form of racism, between different groups within the country. This is a racial distinction that goes back hundreds of years. It has caused civil war, and has led to violence. Much aid and many welfare organisations have flooded in over the years, which to a certain extent has amplified the problem as well as bringing relief. In a poor country, who does and who does not get resources becomes a big talking point. Everyone is watching to see who is being favoured.

When problems arise in organisations, just as in the rest of society there is always the potential for triggering a racial or ethnic polarisation. In a particular organisation I worked with there arose a personal problem between managers, and the issue of racism was quickly been pulled into the argument. Over time both have made appeals, at least indirectly, to the bigger social questions that are disciplining the relations between people in the country. Both sides in the dispute allude to a conspiracy against them, and in doing so look for allies. If these ‘allies’ are not careful, they find themselves lining up along ethnic lines. The dynamic between two people quickly becomes a dynamic between everybody and potentially mirrors the broader social dynamic.

Something similar seemed to be happening  in London this week with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square of British Jews who turned up to protest in support of the siege of Gaza. When the conversation becomes polarised it is easy to try and fly to those with whom we feel we belong. Tensions between opposing views become amplified, further contributing to the polarisation. It is hard to find a way to oppose what’s going on when there is a movement amongst people you would normally identify with calling for your support. Are you with us or against us?

If they are not pulled directly into the dispute other managers in this organisation feel paralysed. Anything they say or do could be interpreted by one side or the other as either supporting them or being opposed to them. Everyone is caught in a double bind: to speak or to act might be construed by one side or the other as support or opposition, not to speak or act allows the situation to continue. It takes bravery and detachment to be able to speak and act towards both and to let them know where you think they are acting wisely and where they are not. To do so dispassionately when one is subject to exactly the same kinds of social pressures demands almost superhuman ability.

It is hard for a manager from outside the country to know how to deal with this. Firstly, s/he is unlikely to speak the language. Secondly, not being from the culture it is hard to know exactly what is going on. As outsiders we are largely blind to the cultural nuances, the nod of the head, the inclination of the voice, the language used, to know exactly what is being said or implied. Appealing to a broad set of ideals, “we should always put the interests of the organisation first” is not enough on its own. That’s what everyone would say they were doing already.

So how to work? Well one way to work is to try and find opportunities and ways of talking about what is going on. Having tried this over a number of days, and in a number of ways there was something of an explosion between the two managers concerned. It became a talking point. People were shocked at the size of the explosion: some were embarrassed, others relieved. They began to talk about what they had allowed to happen between them, day to day discord that had begun to feel normal, a habitual pattern that they felt they had to live with.

Something has shifted as a result of the explosion but it is too early to say what. As a result relations between people have begun to move, but it is hard to know how. From being shared and submerged, the issue is now shared and public. To a certain extent it has triggered a recognition that this is a problem which affects everyone, so everyone needs to be involved in working against it. What will happen is unpredictable in the sense that the power of the social dynamic we are dealing with has survived for centuries and is an enduring theme of social relating.

In small ways, though, it is possible to act differently.

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