Meetings: Getting Them Right by Getting Them Wrong

Today the eyes of the world are turned to Hamburg and the expected meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. For our friends in the Church of England, the opening meeting of the General Synod is possibly more to the forefront because of the thorny questions that are to be discussed later. Media pundits have informed us that it won’t be words alone that everyone will be watching for, but body language and the other little giveaways that signal winning or conceding. All very entertaining at one level, and fruitful ground for the business psychologist and teacher of management techniques to exploit, but not necessarily the point.

Most of us have unconsciously absorbed the idea that we ought to win an argument; and we go into meetings determined to present our case as persuasively — or forcefully — as possible. Thus, we wait to see whether Mr Putin or Mr Trump will ‘triumph’. We do not wait to see who will prove the most wise, prudent or constructive, whose vision for the future offers the best hope for humanity, who is willing to concede something in order to obtain a greater good for us all. We think in absolutes, in terms of winning or losing, national or personal self-interest, and I think that may be why we so often get meetings wrong. We miss the opportunity they give us and settle for something much less.

No one, alas, is going to ask the opinion of an obscure British nun, but I’d like to suggest that there is a way of getting meetings right — basically, by getting them wrong. If we go into a meeting prepared to accept that the other party has reasonable grounds for holding his or her opinions, is as keen as we are to obtain the best possible outcome for everyone (and go on believing this no matter how irritating or confused may be their way of expressing themselves); if we really listen to the other, then try to respond constructively, even if it means we have to shift our own stance, then there is a chance that something good will be achieved. This isn’t at all the same as saying that we should bow to every wind or abandon what we believe to be true and necessary. It is much more what St Benedict alludes to in chapter three of the Rule, a way of discerning. That word is so much used by ‘religious’ types that we have probably forgotten that in origin it means to separate, to distinguish. For a meeting to be successful, we have to distinguish between the accidents of froth and presentation and the substance of intention and content. We have to exercise judgement, and that is best done coolly and with an awareness of the consequences for others.

I shall certainly be praying today for the meetings of the G20 members, especially that between the leaders of Russia and the USA. I hope they will have the courage to get things wrong so that they can get them right — for all of us.

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Conservatives, Liberals and Populists

To an Englishwoman of my generation and background, the use of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse or condemnation is incomprehensible. They are descriptive terms only, and although one may sympathize with one or the other according to context, the idea of their representing an individual’s moral standing is questionable. As far as I can see, there is probably more sin in spewing contempt and hatred over someone who holds different opinions from oneself than there is in holding those opinions. I say ‘probably’ because, of course, the argument must be nuanced.

To give an example to make that last point clearer. If someone argues that women have a right to abortion, I part company with them because I do not believe we have the right to destroy life in the womb. I believe it is wrong, very wrong, and during the years when I was active in the Life movement, I did what I could not only to provide practical alternatives but also to try to help others see why abortion is wrong. What I did not do was hurl anger and abuse at those who argued for abortion, still less did I talk about women who had abortions in terms of  wickedness and sin. In other words, I made a pragmatic judgement — abortion is wrong and to be condemned — but did not equate that with a moral judgement of the person  — you are to be condemned because you support abortion.

So, on the question of abortion, I am to be labelled a conservative; on other matters, such as  the desirability of some form of state-sponsored  healthcare and social welfare, I daresay I am to be labelled a liberal. In different degrees, and with different mixes, that is true of most people. We hold a wide range of opinions, some of which may appear to others inconsistent but which to us make sense and are part of our outlook on life. A problem comes when this cheerful mix is overlaid with dark notions of populism and democracy run riot, and it becomes neither acceptable nor even possible to hold opinions different from the mainstream. That is the point at which genuine freedom is lost; but before then it dies a thousand deaths as it becomes more and more circumscribed by those who argue loudly for the current fashionable orthodoxy. To take one example, it seems to be slightly easier in the U.K. to wear a hijab in the workplace than it is a cross, yet both are, for their wearers, a sign of their religious adherence. We can see an erosion of freedom in the name of, well, what exactly? A vague, well-meaning attempt to secularise the workplace has become something quite different, a form of petty discrimination.

A couple of BBC Newsnight presentations on Plato’s Republic as an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump as President of the U.S.A. have been going the rounds and provoked some interesting reactions (you can see the second here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnzo9qXLFUo). Their reading of the text is selective, but to anyone familar with it, the trajectory traced is perfectly legitimate. There is an inherent tendency in democracy to become more and more liberal and for freedoms to multiply, so that, in the end, we all do as we please and all differences or inequalities are done away with. However, as that does not lead to happiness, we look for a saviour, drawn from the elite but who makes great play of being hostile to it and in favour of ‘the little man’, who solves our problems for us by gradually taking away the very freedoms that led us to desire a saviour in the first place. This is populism in action: the kidnapping of democracy by democratic means. As an explanation of the rise of tyranny, it is seductive; and to anyone who has read the nightmare vision of society in Plato’s mature work, The Laws, the vision of The Republic is, at least in its earlier account of democracy, infinitely preferable. But it makes several assumptions many of us would question. For example, self-interest isn’t the only value we admit. Pace Mr Trump, most of us see ourselves as part of a bigger world than that defined by the nation state. We have global responsibilities, whether we like it or not, although we may disagree on what those responsibilities are.

Where does all this leave the Christian when confronted with the moral and political upheavals of our time? I am not sure. What I do think is clear is that the need to live with integrity was never plainer or more important. Just as I don’t think we should join in the abuse-hurling that has begun to characterise every level of political debate, so I don’t think we should opt out of all the difficulties that living in a democratic society implies. We have a duty to engage, but how we do so is as important as that we do so. Today’s gospel, Mark 3.22-30, has much to say on the destructiveness of division and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. It makes uncomfortable reading. I am reminded that tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva at a critical time, of whom one of the Calvinists against whom he argued said that, if ever they were to honour a saint, it would be he. He is the patron saint of writers and debaters. We are all now writers and debaters on blogs and Social Media. Prehaps if we spent less time shouting at one another and more time, like St Francis de Sales, thinking and praying, we might see more clearly what we have to do. In the end, labels are a minor matter; it is what we are that counts.

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The Problem With Good Advice

The problem with good advice is that it is often contradictory. Only yesterday I asked the opinion of my Facebook friends about planting a lilac at the end of the garden. The gardeners among them responded with enthusiasm, some endorsing my putative choice (Syringa Vulgaris Belle de Nancy), others suggesting alternatives and talking about autumn colour/winter delights, and one even warning that some people are allergic to lilac. Now I am all of a dither — insofar as I am ever in a dither, that is — and busy researching the alternatives suggested and thinking some more. It comes as a relief to be re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel, especially verse 2 which states, ‘After he has heard the brethren’s advice, [the abbot] should reflect upon it, then do what he judges best.’ In the end, you see, a decision has to be made and its consequences borne with.

Very often chapter 3 of the Rule is taken as a kind of democratic charter, especially by the young whom Benedict singles out as frequently having a vision and acuteness their elders lack. Anyone who has lived in community for any length of time will know that the great reverence given to seniority needs to be balanced by openness to the insights of relative newcomers. It is, after all, a community enterprise on which we are engaged and God makes  some surprising choices. But Benedict was not a democrat, and chapter 3 is really about giving the abbot all the help he needs to formulate the response a difficult situation requires. Is there anything we can take from this that may be useful in the world beyond the cloister? I think there is.

Whether we are talking about the management of a household, a business, a corporation or a country, consultation and reflection are essential if we are to secure a result that will best meet the needs of the situation. But the right to be consulted, to give one’s opinion freely, does not necessarily mean the right to insist that one’s advice is followed. Occasionally, one reads of protests that go beyond a legitimate protest and assume a right to change something that has been determined by due democratic process. For example, one may not like the person put in office by one’s fellow electors, but trying to force him/her out of office by anything but the proper democratic process is to arrogate to oneself a power one does not have. Dictatorships often begin with the intention of putting right a perceived wrong or grievance. It is only in retrospect that we see the full implications.

Benedict’s abbot is far from being a dictator, however, and the workings of the community assembly or chapter are to be open and frank. Ultimately, the abbot must make the decision. Note, however, the obligation Benedict places on the abbot with respect to the advice given him. He is to listen carefully and ‘arrange matters prudently and fairly.’ (RB 3. 6) There should be no arbitrariness, no self-serving abuse of power — and no recklessness. His decisions must be for the greater good of those he serves.

This week will see several meetings and events that will have consequences for all of us. It is a pity that RB3 is unlikely to be on the reading-list of Donald Trump or those at Davos. To be rich and powerful is to bear a great responsibility, and comparatively few truly live up to it. Let us pray for them all, for unless we do, we have no one to blame but ourselves if our best hopes are dashed and our worst fears realised.

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Skewed Values?

I lamented the departure of Martin Roth from the V & A and greeted the news that he is to be succeeded by Tristram Hunt with muted enthusiasm (he is, after all, not exactly nun-friendly). But the reaction of the British media has made me wonder what we really value. Is it more useful to be a Labour M.P. with little obvious likelihood of government for many years to come or Director of one of the world’s leading museums (my personal favourite among those in London, which may prejudice me)? I’d opt for being Director of the V & A, with all the opportunities it offers to conserve, educate and enthrall; but then, I suppose I’m convinced of the lasting value of culture and am rather more sceptical of the value of party politics.

I was mulling over this less than original thought when I encountered yet another barrage of pro-Trump/anti-Trump opinion on Facebook. With the Inauguration only a few days away, it is inevitable that feeling should run high. Eight years ago I was slapped down by some of this blog’s readers when I said I thought the expectations of Barack Obama were inordinately high, that he would be unable to achieve all that some hoped and others feared. It is rather the same with Donald Trump. It is easy to get caught up in the froth of public debate and lose sight of why that debate exists in the first place. We elect politicians to government in the expectation that they will govern in accordance with values to which we subscribe. Muddled thinking, short-termism and the dire ‘what’s in it for me’ approach tend to lead to strife and inequality of the most unjust kind. When we are uncertain about the values held by our leaders, we have to mine a deeper core within ourselves and find there what we truly value and wish to live by.

I know that some will misread what I’ve written as a kind of quietism, an opting-out. In fact, what I am suggesting is an opting-in. Each of us has a personal responsibility to live well — that is to say, to live with integrity and purpose. When the public expression of values seems skewed or confusing, we need to be very clear about our own position. What we choose to live by, how we express our own values, is, ultimately, our contribution to society and to the good of all — and it is a contribution each of us can and must make.

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