It has become a way of speaking in organisations that people feel compelled to say how ‘passionate and excited’ they are about a particular idea, an area of work, or if they are applying for a job. I have begun to experience this as a kind of tyranny, because it feels competitive and coercive, and ultimately, trite. It seems as though it has become impossible to apply for a job without saying how passionate and excited you are, and if it is a leadership position, to claim additionally that you are visionary and transformative. So many people are passionate about what they are doing (sandwich companies are passionate about the sandwiches they make, the truck which passes on the motorway heralds that the company is ‘passionate about logistics’) that it feels that something important has become trivialised and banal. It is just another saying to be tossed off lightly.
It also leaves those with a greater reluctance to give in to this kind of expressivism exposed to the accusation that if they can’t compete about how passionate they are then perhaps they are not committed to, or interested in, what they are doing. Being passionate and excited are surely not sufficient qualification on their own for doing anything well. I am reminded of the lines in WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: ‘The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.’ Sometimes it is being passionate that closes down opportunities for listening and noticing, and paying attention to the particular importance of context and difference. It is a claim for authenticity that deceives.
I was forced to reconsider the idea of being passionate when I listened to Aung San Suu Kyi’s first Reith lecture ‘Securing Freedom’, where she talks of her own passion for freedom, drawing on Max Weber and Vaclav Havel. In linking passion, power and political action she has helped me retrieve the word from its contemporary shallowness. Aung San Suu Kyi is using the term very differently from the way it has come to be taken up in contemporary organisational life, and she describes the consequences of being passionate in both practical and paradoxical ways.
The first thing to notice is the link that Daw Suu makes between passion and suffering, re-establishing the connection with the original Greek word παχω meaning to suffer; hence the Passion of Christ.
‘Passion translates as suffering and I would contend that in the political context, as in the religious one, it implies suffering by choice: a deliberate decision to grasp the cup that we would rather let pass. It is not a decision made lightly – we do not enjoy suffering; we are not masochists. it is because of the high value we put on the subject of our passion that we are able, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to choose suffering.’
In her case being passionate about freedom has impelled her into political activity and made her a dissident. It has thrown her into radical opposition, with all the hardship that this implies in a military dictatorship, which she takes up as a practical activity. It is not just about believing in things, or making statements, she says, but developing ‘a sense of freedom as something concrete that has to be gained through practical work, not just as a concept to be captured through philosophical argument.’ And with the practical work comes suffering and self-doubt, questioning whether she is capable of enduring what she has to endure, at the same time as realising that she has no other choice. Daw Suu expresses this as a paradox of conviction and doubting at the same time.
Daw Suu also brings in Weber’s essay on Politics as a Profession to try to explain two other facets of passion when taken up in political action: a sense of proportion and a feeling of responsibility. Weber argues that the sense of proportion and responsiblity for a cause, and one’s part in it, rescues the term passion from what he calls ‘sterile excitation’ , where people ‘intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations’. Passion is not just about you, but about the broader cause for which you are prepared to suffer, and those you implicate in your actions if you become a leader. And because of the dangers of blind passion, exposure of the self, and exposure of others, it needs a broader understanding of the social implications of what one is attempting:
‘that firm taming of the soul, which distinguishes the passionate politician and differentiates him from the ‘sterilely excited’ and mere political dilettante, is possible only through habituation to detachment in every sense of the word. The ‘strength’ of a political ‘personality’ means, in the first place, the possession of these qualities of passion, responsibility, and proportion.’
Weber argues that no politician would have changed things had s/he not been prepared to attempt the impossible. However, attempting the impossible is undertaken with a passionate detachment and a sense of responsiblity, to become a hero in ‘the sober sense of the word’. Weber, too, is pointing to a paradox that one needs to be detached in order to engage more intensively.
When I listened to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lecture I realised that she was using the term passion in a highly nuanced way, one that implies detachment from her drive for freedom at the same time , a practical engagement with the politics of the everyday, a sense of responsibility towards those who share the same passion, and a good deal of courage which ‘has to be renewed consciously from day to day and moment to moment.’
‘We engage in dissent for the sake of liberty and we are prepared to try again and again with passion, with a sense of responsibility and a sense of proportion to achieve what may seem impossible to some. We are struggling with open eyes to turn our dream of freedom into a reality.’