I was struck recently by how much anxiety a meeting provokes and how this leads to counterintuitive behaviour, even by very intelligent people.
At a seminar, one which was convened to discuss power and politics, we were at various stages forced to play games, or to disrupt our conversations to take part in exercises which were supposed to encourage alternative thinking. Instead of being allowed to let our discussion follow its course, which might well have led to alternative thinking, we were given instructions to stop what we were doing after half an hour and to send an emissary to another group, which would also send one to us. We were told in advance how we were supposed to respond to the emissary when they came, which was to listen to what they said and then to criticise them severely.
We might have questioned this task, the seminar was after all about power and politics, but some of our group became very anxious about fulfilling the requirements of what we had been asked to do. We spent some time, then, discussing how we would do what we had been asked, and after we had interacted with the other group, whether they had also played by the rules or not. The disruptive task and its fulfiment became more important to us than what we were talking about.
Of course it would have been an interesting topic to talk about in the seminar itself, particularly as we were discussing the way that dominant ways of working come to shape what it is and is not possible to do. We had in our own way given a very good demonstration of how we had internalised authority with our own anxiety, and more or less willingly become complicit in a way of working that was disrupting what we would have liked to have been doing. The way we had reacted was a very good example of how dominant ways of working become dominant – we ourselves were taken over by our own anxiety about not offending, about doing what we were told, about being obliging.
One aspect of human behaviour that most worried Hannah Arendt was our tendency to undertake tasks in an unthinking way. This, she said, gave us the potential for evil, which was not necessarily something grotesque or melodramatic for her, but could consist in the daily habit of oppressing or subjugating others in a routine and unthinking way, what she termed ‘the banality of evil’.
I am not for a moment suggesting that the exercise we were obliged to undertake was in any way evil: it was very well intentioned. However, our ability to jump straight into it without for a moment questioning what we were doing, particularly in an evironment where we had gathered to talk about hegemonic ways of working, was very instructive.
We never did find a way of talking about it in the seminar though.