Category Archives: Ordinary Ethics

10 Thoughts and A Poem (For times of crisis and political despair)

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General thoughts if you didn’t vote for the people who are now in charge of the professional political power structures that govern you, when it is also pretty clear they don’t care about how many people get harmed or killed in their pursuit of the economic- or power-grabbing interests of the privileged few:

1. You may feel overwhelmed. You may feel like you can’t do anything, like it’s all gone to hell. If this is the case, you are losing sight of yourself, and of your place in the world. Sometimes people influence us to do that. Sometimes we do that ourselves. Either way, bring it all back home. You are sufficient, more than sufficient. Everything you need to be strong and courageous has always been available to you. Remember where you are. Who you’re with. What you love. Who you love. Where you love. The anthem of resilience is the beating of the human heart.

2. Trust the way things run against your grain. Resistance is first and foremost a physiological reaction. Anger is often a helpful response to extreme conditions.

3. Anger as a response to conditions doesn’t last. If you are staying angry, you’re generating that yourself, and that’s not healthy.

4. The worst administrations thrive on hype. Totalizing hype. If you allow yourself to believe that they have totally saturated your life with hate and bile and doubletalk, then they have convinced you of the power that they aspire to but can never have. Step away from their hype, step away from the hype that gets generated in opposition to their hype.

5. Be wary of the way your language may have changed as you get drawn into the whirlpool. The way this crap works is that, as the intensity and toxicity rises, all will feel drawn to battle at the altar of pro and con, for and anti. This tends to escalate language to stereotype, at best, and gross misrepresentation based on dehumanisation, racism, and hate, at worst. Don’t become what you despise through despising.

6. They is us. They are all human beings. If I deny them humanity, whether through caricature, mockery, unspoken assumption or explicit declaration, then they have won more than a political victory. At this point, they have made me complicit in the co-optation of my soul and the displacement of vital aspects of my own humanity. If I radically separate myself from them I grossly misrepresent our shared humanity. I also make it impossible for myself to:

  • imagine how the quality of your relationship with them might ever  be helpfully changed by them or by me;

accept that some of the worst I identify in them could sometimes just as easily be identified in me in some form. Assuming that I am on the Side of the Angels doesn’t give me a free pass.

7. Damage limitation is important. Make transparent your resistance. Speak out. Organise. But never make that most of what you do. Do not allow resistance to dominate your life, because that is when what you oppose becomes the most important thing in your life. And you didn’t want that, did you? They did, though.

8. Self-care comes first. That includes health, family, friends, community, work. Wherever you happen to be, nourishing the best that humanity has to offer in nurturing, loving, enhancing, is the most vital, effective, helpful resistance you can ever sustain for the long term. Enhance your life so that the lives of others may also be enhanced. Make joyful, loving humanity most of what you aspire to.

9. Proximity. Fear, anger, dismay and despair draw us out of our lives. Imagining worst case scenarios or smiley utopias will do the same. Keep it real. Respond to what’s in front of you, beside you, behind you, above you, below you. Stay where you are. It’s the only place you’re always going to be. It is your place of being-in-the-world and being-of-the-world. Make it your home.

10. The gentle aspects of humanity can helpfully change the world, but they take much longer and aren’t as visible or as flashy as the short-term, noisy bluster of pomp and circumstance. The faster change happens, the less likely it is to be helpful in the long term. Patience. Healing takes time. Rush it and it becomes less than healing. Be strategic when required, but don’t let that become you. Trust in ordinary. Trust in smiles, in laughter, in the pleasures of good company. Trust that humanity doesn’t have to beat inhumanity to be humanity. Humanity isn’t going anywhere. Just give it room, and start where you are.

I think of it like living with chronic illness (this isn’t a random thought – my wife lives with chronic illness and I’m her carer). It’s not a nightmare, it’s life. Often energy-sucking, bloody difficult, painful life. But it only makes it more difficult if we think of it as a constant battle. it’s not a constant battle. It’s an occasional battle, maybe even a frequent battle. But it’s everyday, ordinary, mundane, even in the  battle.

We do violence to ourselves in the face of pain, suffering, and challenge if we succumb to language and metaphors that make us powerless to respond – nightmares happen to us, we become victims. We’re not victims. We’re strong, somewhere in there, always. And we can speak from that place of ordinary strength, because it never leaves us. And it’s there in the people we love. Always. And we have the daily opportunity to support them (and ourselves) in their strength and their pain. Sometimes at the same time.

We cannot allow ourselves to become swamped with thoughts and fears about the worst that humanity has to offer. Joe Hill. Joe Hill. We cannot drape ourselves in pain and despair. It doesn’t suit us to wear such ill-fitting clothing if we also say we live in hope. Not waiting for hope. IN hope. Now. Here. Today. If despair is hanging around, if hopelessness is hanging around, then I’ve been feeding it hot chocolate and cookies. I do that sometimes, but I’d generally rather not.

Someone has suggested that I am advocating ‘moving on from anger’ and that this might be a way of normalizing what we need to not normalize. I don’t mean it in that way. I simply mean that anger has a natural arc of intensity when we encounter a situation that we experience anger in. Anger, like any intense emotional response, naturally de-escalates over time. To maintain the intensity of anger (or any intense emotion) beyond it’s own arc of intensity we need to feed it with thoughts and/or language that are not immediately responsive to the particular situation, and are often pre-packaged from our own or another’s past experience.

The flipside of that is that maintaining the intensity of anger or despair with the aid of inner resources tends to diminish our responsiveness to immediate conditions as they unfold. We become less (not more) power-active. Less response-able. And less able to gauge what may or may not be helpful.

Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. Trust that it is a powerful, powerful form of politics.

Not Our Circus, Not Our Monkeys #GE2017

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It’s a really important time in Northern Ireland.

It is now that we can refocus on the possibilities of politics as a hard-edged commitment to nurturing, inclusiveness, and openness.

At a shallow level, Northern Irish politics has recently been driven into cul-de-sacs by certain members of an increasingly well-remunerated political class, who often seem to find themselves having too much fun engaging in ritualised battle to concern themselves with the work of transforming Northern Ireland that they have actually been tasked with, and for which they are being paid.

All of the patient work of the peace process was in order to achieve structural change in governance following a long period of conflict, killings, sectarian exclusion, discrimination, corruption, and state-sanctioned murder. Some (not me) would argue that at least one side of the paramilitary activity was a normal response to all of that under abnormal conditions, and others (not me) would likely argue something similar about the paramilitary responses from the other side in retaliation.

Either way, almost all of the structural gains can be wiped out overnight if certain things happen over the next few days as they seem to be shaping up. If the Conservatives form a government with the DUP, a terrible beauty is born. The centre may not hold.

That’s 30, 40, 50 years of solid peacemaking, peacebuilding, and hard won advances at grassroots level to achieve subtle and carefully planned structural change in governance here, down South, and across the water in London.

Imagine where that leaves us in terms of the morale of the real (rather than industrial and professional) peace workers in the region. Imagine where that leaves us in terms of the concessions that paramilitaries made to achieve parity of esteem for their political representatives in the NI Assembly.

I’m trying not to dwell too much on this, but it’s serious stuff. And more serious when the socially-conscious and historically linchpinning middle ground of politics in Northern Ireland was pretty much wiped out of party politics last night. Think how important John Hume was in the peace process. Now imagine if he or other members of the SDLP hadn’t been in that conversation. We live in interesting times.

The already intense political life of Northern Ireland has been escalated by divisive rhetorical, fundamentalist identity politics, and oppositional competitiveness at every level. The further intensification of the political climate in Northern Ireland has effectively left us with a two-party conversation in which the two parties are explicitly committed to talking and implicitly committed to non-cooperation.

I remember being deeply inspired by John Hume when I was younger, and by David Ervine before he passed away, and I was deeply affected by both their pragmatism and their commitment to a politics that was first and foremost about people and their living conditions, not about ideologies.

David Ervine may have been a violent paramilitary at one point, but he epitomised in his later life what for me is the best kind of political attitude – a powerful, pragmatic, responsive gentleness.

For both of them, John Hume and David Ervine, working to improve people’s lives took priority in their politics over point scoring or tribal victories. There were lives at stake, and future lives could be saved by approaching politics with integrity, humility, intelligence, and an open heart.

There are a number of people in professional politics in Northern Ireland who do actually work for the common good, and not just the common good of ‘their own people’. Unfortunately, the election results have made it pretty clear that politicians who put the conditions of people’s lives before profit, before status, or before single-identity flag-waving have come to be considered inappropriate to the political games in Northern Ireland in the eyes of the majority of voters here.

This means that we are now in a very crucial period.

In Northern Ireland we need a focus on socio-economic change, healthy and nurturing community development, systemic changes in healthcare and education, and seismic shifts in the climate of our political life. We also need an Assembly, now more than ever.  A properly functioning one.

The politicians most likely to work on all of that, in the cause of all of the people of Northern Ireland, are now those who have been left out in the cold, and, more importantly, out of the room where it happens, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton might say.

Once you become inappropriate in the face of a majority your existence can be very quickly rendered irrelevant, and your voice, ideas, and aspirations can be ruthlessly rendered implausible, and even, eventually, erased from history.

What is vital is that we do not allow the apparent political implausibility of truly responsive, inclusive, humanised political activism in Northern Ireland to lead us to the assumption that it is impossible here as a political option. A politics built on the most helpful art of being human is entirely possible. But it might be time to stop only planting trees where they are going to be cut down. It might also be time to search for safer fields.

We need a broader and more radical social democratic conversation in the Wee North.  More than this we need what England seems to have had – a revitalisation of grassroots politics as a lively conversation about supporting the most vulnerable people and any of us at our most vulnerable times, nurturing the lives of our children, breaking down the barriers of identity while respecting difference, and nourishing communities, spaces, and places in ways that enhance us all.

Every moment of contention is an opportunity for enhanced personal and political awareness.

We have a real opportunity in Northern Ireland right now. It was always there as an opportunity, but now it’s slapping us in the face and telling us to wise the fuck up. Maybe the lesson of all of this may be that the professional power games that the DUP and Sinn Féin play may not be our circus nor our monkeys.

There are powerful differences to be made elsewhere, every day, beyond the grandstanding of political display – in the power of the small and the ordinary; in the magic of people taking time for each other in good company; in the legacies of hospitality and humour; in the pleasures of a well-timed listening ear; in the understanding that turning up in person to acknowledge a death in your community is a recognition of the support we can find in sharing common humanity, beyond our labels, beyond our disputes.

Despite our reputation for being good at many more violent ways of being human, we have tended to do decency, kindness, and hospitality well in Northern Ireland.

Politics doesn’t have to negate that legacy. It can arise from it.

The time of possibility was always now.

Performing The Heart of Care (Compassionate Care conference presentation)

Here’s a link to a PDF of the presentation I gave at the Compassionate Care conference at Teeside University in April. The presentation develops on some of the points I made in earlier talks I gave in Toronto and Tasmania with regards to our attempts to practice kindness, compassion, and healing care in culturally unsustainable and toxic environments. The programme of the Compassionate Care conference is below.

McCann The Heart of Care Teesside 2015
Cultural Toolkit for Compassionate Care Teesside 2015

 

 

Double Listening

I am interested in the coaching possibilities opened up by Winslade and Monk’s mediation technique of “double listening”. Drawing on the work of Michael White, they make note of the “absent but implicit” story of hope that sits alongside the voicing of a story of conflict:

“Mediators can give this story of hope for something better a chance if they first of all hear this absent but implicit hope and then begin to inquire into the story that it is a part of. The story may often by subordinate to the story of the outrage and pain, but it perhaps speaks to the person’s better intentions in relation to the other party. If given the chance for expression, these better intentions can give rise to a different story of the future” (Winslade and Monk 2008:10-11).

The expression of pain and suffering through remembered events and feelings can become a seed for hopeful reflections, not as a utopian aspiration, but as an awareness of the desire for a more positive experience that the pain and conflict reveal. I think the lessons of this “double listening” are not just relevant to formal mediation, but are also helpful in invitations to transformation more generally. What Winslade and Monk’s work draws attention to is how stories of the past also shape our stories of the future. It may be that “double listening” can further open up what John Paul Lederach (2005) calls our “moral imagination”, allowing for even deeper understandings of the complexities, paradoxes, and possibilities of being human.

In very simple terms, double listening opens up the notion that ‘complaint is a window on aspiration’, that every complaint that I utter can also be turned on its head as an aspiration to a better situation, an improvement on what is. Staying with the complaint and hanging out there can lead to a lot of negative energy that can easily suck hope dry. Turning a complaint on its head to work out what it tells me about my aspirations, hopes, and values can provide me with an opportunity for reflection, a window to the otherwise, a doorway to new possibilities.

Complaint or conflict can become, then, a diagnostic opportunity for new perspectives, rather than the direct route to blame and denigration that they can often be.

References

John Paul Lederach. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: OUP.

John Winslade and Gerald Monk. 2008. Practicing Narrative Mediation: Loosening the Grip of Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The 2015 Behavioural Finance Forum

Behavioural Finance Forum

I won’t be able to get over to it myself, but tomorrow morning (8am – 10am) there is a very interesting Culture Change event happening in London, the 2015 Behavioural Finance Forum:

“Since the financial crash of 2007 and 2008 there has been huge pressure for reform and change in the culture of the financial services industry – and how it recruits, rewards and motivates its people, how it treats its customers, and how it communicates with its shareholders.

The Forum will bring together thought leaders from the leading financial and professional services companies, universities, business schools and the media, to discuss and debate:

  • A war for talent: why recruitment models need to change
  • Culture change in action: the balance of ethics, risk and profit
  • Serving, not selling: culture change and customer relationships
  • Big Data tsunami: HR, technology, change”

For more information and some interesting Culture Change resources, visit:  http://www.behaviouralfinanceforum.com

The He(art) of Care: Changing the Cultural Climate Equation (full text)

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This is the text of a keynote address for the Enhancing Practice 14 conference for Practice Development in Toronto in 2014.

 

 

 

 

The audio recording of the talk is available here:

http://soundcloud.com/dr-anthony-mccann/the-heart-of-care-changing-the-culture-change-equation.

***

I’d like to thank Nadine and the organisers for the invitation to speak here today.

If keynotes are anything like giving a speech at a wedding, I suppose I’m obliged to start with a joke. Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says, “How do you drive this thing?”

My relationship with healthcare goes back a long way.

I was born in a hospital.

And I wouldn’t have been born at all if my Dad, a young seminarian training for the priesthood, hadn’t fallen in love with the good-looking nurse that tended to him while he was waiting for an operation.

And on behalf of my family, thanks to all of you who work in hospitals as nurses and doctors. You’re awesome. My wife is chronically ill and lives with a myriad of complications that come with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, and epilepsy, and we have two kids under two. Without the support of health workers our lives would be very, very hard indeed. You make our lives and the lives of many others less difficult and more meaningful. Thank you.

*****

Would you like a cup of tea?

Imagine we’re having a cup of tea and a chat, just you and me in a kitchen. We’ve munched through a few biscuits, or cookies if you prefer, and the tea in my cup has gone a little cold. I don’t like cold tea. If pushed, I can struggle through, but you’re sitting beside the tea pot, and chances are there’s still a drop of hot tea left in the pot. You’re beside the teapot. I’m not. From my perspective, you’re in an active position to be helpful on account of your possibilities of proximity. You are here, you are now, you are with, and you are near, and in a position to help, and likely to help, I would hope.

You are in a place of garaíocht.

I came across the word garaíocht while reading the Irish-language short stories of the Donegal writer Séamus Ó Grianna from the turn of the last century. It was a simple, colloquial word that I missed the first twenty times I read the text. Lately, however, it jumped off the page and called for my attention.

The word “garaíocht” tends to be used in the phrase, “bheith in áit na garaíochta.” It roughly means, “to be in the place where you are close enough to help.” The word “garaíocht” is derived from the adjective “gar”, meaning “near”, and possibly also from the noun “gar”, meaning favour, and then by extension from the adjective “garach” or “garaí”, meaning “helpful”. The “ocht” part also signals that “garaíocht” is a verbal noun, a noun with the quality of an action, something that you don’t get in English, meaning that garaíocht always-already involves action, activity, happening, participation.

This term “garaíocht” resonated with me, because I realised it could reach far beyond the kitchen table and serve to encapsulate the best of what I would like to think it means to be human.

Garaíocht has become for me a way to speak of a particular quality of relationship, a particular tone, atmosphere, disposition, or texture of relationship in which the most helpful aspects of the he(art) of being human are most likely to happen. Kindness, caring, generosity, gentleness, trust, nurturing, sharing, gratitude, honesty, creativity, gentle humour. All of these feel more appropriate in an environment of garaíocht. When garaíocht is present, they tend to simply happen. It’s a quality of being human.

I once had the privilege to spend a year with a Fulbright Award at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington DC. As part of the award, I was invited one night to attend a reception at the Irish Embassy. I wasn’t all that used to formal receptions, and I have always been quite nervous in crowds of people I don’t know, but I managed to get through the night clutching onto short conversations as one might clutch random flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat in the open ocean. Eventually I got to meet the Irish Ambassador, and he asked me what I was studying. I told him I was doing a Ph.D. focusing on the social and ethical dynamics in Irish traditional music, and that I was using the increasing influence of copyright thinking and practice as a way to highlight the ethics that I felt were now being displaced. As it happened, the Ambassador was a major fan of Irish traditional music. We had a nice chat, parted ways, and I eventually made my way home with that uncanny feeling that you get when you step from a formal evening event into dark and empty city streets, with just a little sparkly from the free wine and just an edge of hunger from the inability of canapés to truly hit the spot.
Soon afterwards, I was surprised to receive a personal invitation to join the Ambassador for drinks in the Embassy. He wanted to chat more about the traditional music and copyright issue, so I happily went along. It was an interesting evening. I had no idea how incredibly erudite the Ambassador would turn out to be. He was able to recite 18th-century poetry by the poets Antoine Ó Raifteirí and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin verbatim in the original Irish language. He would drop in proverbs in the original ancient Greek. And he knew how to pour Irish whiskey of excellent vintage.

A few glasses of whiskey into the evening the conversation turned to Irish traditional music. While playing a CD of his favourite musicians playing his favourite tunes, he spoke of the sublime beauty of the music and he turned to me with a degree of earnestness that immediately raised the intensity of the evening.

“Promise me,” he said “that you will tell people what’s beautiful about the music. Will you do that?”

Feeling slightly pressured, and slightly inebriated, and philosophically slightly resistant to the essential beauty of anything, but not at all in disagreement with the sentiment, I said, “I will.”
After all, I was an ethnomusicologist, an anthropologist of music. Surely it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that this was something I could do.

“Promise me,” he said “that you will tell people what’s beautiful about the music. Will you do that?”

I’ve loved tunes. I’ve loved songs. I’ve loved musicians. I’ve loved singers. Sometimes all of the above have broken my heart with a joyful, glorious, and beautiful sadness.

What I find most beautiful about Irish traditional music is something that isn’t at all exclusive to Irish traditional music. Studying the social and ethical dynamics among musicians and singers has opened my eyes to a powerful form of politics that persists at the heart of everyday life, a powerful form of politics that tends to remain largely unnoticed and unspoken, but which cradles the heart of what it means to be human.

What’s beautiful for me about Irish traditional music and song is what is also beautiful to me about watching my Mum hold my Dad’s hand in silence during his final year before he died, or watching my wife blow bubbles as our two-yr-old Aodan’s eyes light up, or watching that old lady in the café come up to our newborn son, Owen, smile, and place a coin in his hand for luck. Or the unquestioning love and support we have received from family members in times of difficulty. Or the help, support, and deeply personal care and attention we have experienced in visit after visit to the antenatal clinic and maternity wards of the Royal Victoria Hospital.
In some ways, I wouldn’t care if I woke up tomorrow and found all of the tunes and songs were gone, as long as we had retained the gentle, generous, uncommodifying qualities of relationship and social life from which they emerged in the first place.

While I can personally recognise and validate quieter, gentler, kinder and more patient practitioners of the art of being human, and personally value those beautiful moments of social encounter, in my studies I found it very hard to find anything in the serious books I was reading that allowed those people and those moments to be possible. Maybe I was reading the wrong books, but there was nothing that I could find in standard social, political, legal, and economic theory that acknowledged that such people or qualities of relationship that I had personally experienced and often loved even existed.

Gentle, generous, uncommodifying qualities of relationship and social life, the warp core of the he(art) of being human and of the he(art) of care more specifically, tend to suffer in orthodox social, political, legal, and economic theory from the triple silencing of cultural illegibililty, discursive invisibility, and political irrelevancy. What for many cannot even be possible within social, political, and economic theory cannot easily, then, become plausible as a viable option for transformative action in the discursive and institutional orthodoxies of regulated and regulating life.

I would invite you to close your eyes. Remember one of your healthiest and most helpful moments of relationship where you felt most comfortable, most welcome, most supported, and most generous within yourself. It may have been with other people. It may have been in the company of a favourite animal, or even in the company of a favourite object. You may even have been on your own. Try to feel again how it felt to be in that moment.

Garaíocht.

If we were to build our lives, our relationships, our organisations, institutions, and political systems on our understanding of such possible moments, what would they look like?
How would we get there from here?

Why would we want to?

For me, Garaíocht is the organisational form, or rather self-organisational form of human flourishing, where every moment becomes a moment of possibility, every interaction becomes a resource for collaborative and critical imaginations.

*****

There is a story often told in Ireland about these tourists who have managed to get themselves lost while driving around on Irish country roads. They have a map, but of course it’s not much help to them as most of the roads they’re on don’t exist on the map. Feeling a little panicky about the lack of signage and their inability to tell one hedge from another, one cow from another, one country lane from another, they keep their eyes peeled for someone they can ask for directions. Time passes, daylight starts to fade, and they are just about to lose hope when they spy an auld country farmer with a tweed cap, a walking stick, and, inevitably, a sheep dog. They bring the car to a stop and roll down the window.

“Good evenin’ to ya,” says the farmer, “tis’ a fine evenin’ to be out and about”
“Good evening. We were wondering if you could help us. We’re trying to make our way back to Belfast and we’re terribly lost. Is there any chance you might be able to tell us the best way to go from here.”
“Och,” he says, “to be honest, if I were you, and I was wanting to go to Belfast, I wouldn’t be startin’ from here.”

It’s an old one, and it’s a little hackneyed, but I can‘t help thinking that when it comes to leadership and culture change in the organisations and institutions of healthcare it’s a story that rings somewhat true.

For all the wonderful intentions of universal healthcare as an aspiration, we are the first generations of the human race to have successfully created and constructed systems for healing and healthcare which seem to be, by the logics of their very construction, culturally unsustainable. Not only that, but “healthcare” has largely become a synonym for sickness, illness, trauma, and death. Internationally, healthcare has also become a synonym for crisis.

On the way over on the plane I watched a movie called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. It was uncomfortable viewing, as Robin Williams plays a man who has been told he has 90 minutes to live, and at one point his character jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge in an attempt to end his life. I found it a very sad and very bizarre last movie for Robin Williams to have made. The reason I bring it up, however, is because of the Mila Kunis character, a young doctor called Sharon. To the image of Sharon squeezing her way through the horribly crowded waiting room in a threadbare city hospital, Mila Kunis recites in third-person voiceover that Sharon went to medical school to save the world. “No-one told her,” the voiceover continues, “that care does not equal need; care being finite, need being infinite.”

That’s the kind of equation that can easily drive you to hopelessness.

If you were to design healing places, healing spaces from scratch you probably wouldn’t start from a centralised administration, make budgetary considerations the main priority, or design buildings that are more or less identical. You probably wouldn’t have people working 60-100 hours a week, putting in double shifts, or carrying extra workloads to cover for colleagues who are off work with stress and work-related illness. You probably wouldn’t use a trauma or infectious medicine model to frame and organise every level of healthcare. You probably wouldn’t consider lack of psychological safety as the regrettable but inevitable collateral of the healthcare battlefield.

The sensationalism of newspaper headlines aside, healthcare internationally is increasing being trapped in a bottleneck of enclosing industrial logics that are all-too-familiar in many other sectors – managerialism; bureaucracy; administration; accountancy; risk management; transactional and command-and-control leadership; neo-classical, neo-liberal, and neo-conservative economics; litigious legal consciousness; risk management; project management; the pharmaceutical industry; privatization generally. And many more.

If I were you, and I was wanting to get to a place of healing, I wouldn’t want to start from here.
Of course, we are starting from here, and you work hard to do your best with what you’ve got. And every now and then you do a great job. But you’d like to have the wiggle room to do a better job, one where being a healer is what you get on and do, not what you have to fight to defend.

If we want to get to a different here, one that feels differently most of the time, that works better most of the time for what we say we want to do, a hereness that is the best hereness for healing and support and helpfulness, a hereness where healing doesn’t take as much work and energy as it does now, then it’s important to have a clear vision, a clear understanding of how we want it to feel for ourselves and others when we get there, and how that’s significantly distinct from what we are already involved in. Otherwise, we have little to guide us in truly changing the cultural climate equation.

I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Edward De Bono: “Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether bigger holes. But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place.” I think a lot of the holes we’re digging are in the wrong place, and it ain’t necessarily so.

There are lots of people trying to make a difference, but consultant’s report after consultant’s report we find ourselves with ever more detailed descriptions of what’s happening, with very little indication of how to do things differently in a way that truly makes a difference.

Audre Lorde famously wrote: “For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. (Audre Lorde “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”). When thinking about culture change in healthcare systems, people are feeling stuck because, to echo Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never heal the master’s house, and certainly not in the middle of a cultural climate traffic jam.

***

The most significant unhelpful changes in any environment aren’t usually heralded by drumrolls or the sound of trumpet fanfares. Although it would be terribly helpful if they were.

Frog soup.

It is widely reported that if you take a frog and drop it into a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out of it before it has a chance to say “rebbit!” (I also do a very good donkey) Frog. Boiling water. Jumps out. However, if you were to put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the temperature of the water in increments, the wee frog will swim about quite comfortably in the water, not noticing the subtle changes as the temperature rises, until such time as he’s not noticing anything at all, having been boiled alive.

I’m guessing this story may not have been tested under laboratory conditions, or even have been certified by the Humane Society, but the meaning of it is hard to ignore – if changes and escalations are small, slow, and subtle, it is very easy to miss the wood for the trees and not be aware of the bigger picture, that conditions can become harmful to us without us even noticing.
If we’re going to be frogs we need a temperature gauge.

Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says, “How do you drive this thing?”

That joke, which gets even funnier the second time you hear it, reminds me of two things. One, that we can start off just wanting to go for a swim and very easily find ourselves driving a tank. Two, that once we find ourselves driving a tank, we can easily just decide to get with the program and become better drivers of tanks.

If we’re going to be fish, we need to work out whether or not we want to be driving a tank, and what we’re going to do if we take a look around and find we’re already driving one.

It may be the world’s only culture change joke.

***

I’m not sure this needs to be said, but change isn’t the aim of culture change. Change happens: It just does. And it doesn’t stop. And it doesn’t always look like change. And it’s not always helpful. But it can be.

If change simply happens, then the aim of culture change isn’t change, but, rather, particular kinds of change – it is important to be clear about what qualities of change you want to happen, and, perhaps more importantly, what kinds of change you don’t want. If the purpose for culture change isn’t clear and transparent, the culture change process can be confused, frustrating, and divisive. The phrase should really be, “Helpful Culture Change”.

The unhelpful trajectories of cultural climate change are just as real and just as potentially catastrophic as the unhelpful trajectories of environmental climate change.

The sensitive presence of a healing relationship doesn’t flourish in just any environment. In some environments we get crushed; skin shrivels, muscles atrophy, blood thickens, trust collapses, collaboration founders, cynicism runs riot, ideas shut down, vulnerabilities are targeted, denied, or ignored. In some environments we fly; bodies shimmer with energy, hearts respond adaptively, muscles pulse, people build on each other’s insights, help each other out, nurture each other in a common spirit, make space for physical and emotional vulnerabilities.
It is important to know how and why this happens.

If we’re going to be frogs we need a temperature gauge.

I was born a theorist, so I got to theorising.

The task was to design a model that could handle transitions from the best of what it means to be human to the toxicities of humans at our worst and, maybe more importantly, transitions from our most toxic selves to the helpful transformations of human flourishing, and all points in between.

Cultural climate is the term I use for what most people refer to loosely and colloquially as ‘culture’ when speaking about organisations or institutions, for example, in terms such as ‘a culture of bullying’, ‘a culture of excellence’, or ‘a culture of misogyny’.

I make a clear distinction between culture and cultural climate.

To speak of “an organisational culture”, for me, is to speak of “what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in a particular environment (specified by location(s) over a designated time)“. This includes the everyday details of our organisational lives, an infinitely rich context of habits, gestures, norms, rules, learned behaviours, aversions, attractions, fears, hopes, language, beliefs, memories, expectations, values, and many other dimensions of being human, down to the clothes we wear and the food we eat.

This is incredibly broad, classically anthropological, and, of course, covers just about everything, It’s a lot to get your head around, and, analytically, it’s about as helpful as a squashed banana. So, to avoid getting overwhelmed, the most crucial aspect in the analysis of the cultures of organisations or institutions is the identification of appropriate variables on which to focus analysis.

How, why, and with what consequences do patterns of attitude, behaviour, and social interaction vary from situation to situation? What are the general principles which govern variations in thinking, feeling, and doing from situation to situation? What is the specific character of what is happening, understood in comparative relation to other situations, and why does it matter?

When I speak of “cultural climate” I speak of the dispositional quality, the tone, the texture, the colour, the temperature, the ‘feel’ of a particular organisational culture, considered in comparison to other organisational cultures or to other times or places within the same organisation. In colloquial terms, the cultural climate of an organisation here means, “what has tended to happen, what tends to happen, and what will tend to happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time). Cultural climates in organisations differ in the way that each person has a different personality, that is, a dynamic pattern of variation in attitude, behaviour, and social interaction that tends to be consistent over long periods. The better you understand the personality of your organisation, the better you will be able to respond to the challenges you face within it.

I turned to sociolinguistic register theory to help me make sense of this.

As Michael Halliday has written:

“The notion of register is at once very simple and very powerful. It refers to the fact that the language we speak or write varies according to the type of situation. This is itself is no more than stating the obvious. What the theory of register does is to attempt to uncover the general principles which govern this variation, so that we can begin to understand what situational factors determine what linguistic features.” (Halliday 1978:31-32).

Register theory allows sociolinguists to compare particular qualities of language, and I found it provided a useful launching-off point for comparing particular qualities of relationship across different contexts. When transforming a theory of linguistic register into a theory of cultural climate I found it helpful, though, to take language away from the centre of the model.

The heart of my work as a coach and consultant is the identification of three key variables in situations which I regard as the most important governing variables in the structuring of expectation in social interaction, social environments, and social behaviour, and by extension, in cultural climate and culture change:

  • Intensity of affect or emotion (ranging from more intense to less intense)
  • Character of power or influencing (ranging from more directive to less directive)
  • Discursive relationship to uncertainty (ranging from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty to the acceptance of fluidity, ambiguity, and emergence)

The most important point in this work is that I have found these three variables to be direct correlates.

Cultural Change Trident Basic July 2013

For example, the more intense the affectual environment, the more appropriate highly directive influencing becomes, and the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is likely to dominate within the situation. Likewise, the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is used within a particular situation, the more likely it is that responses will be highly directive and the affectual environment will intensify.

In effect, it’s a map of human nature that is both dynamic and variable, pathologically particularist in it’s application. Or should that be mapplication? It can also be read as a map of escalation and de-escalation, mapping and tracking particular kinds of change, and mapping and tracking my own participation in and contribution to those changes.

As I use it, the notion of cultural climate implies that the most important questions you can ask might be, “how does it feel?” and “how do I want it to feel for myself and others?”

A core insight of my work is that within any particular cultural climate it becomes appropriate for only certain kinds of thinking, feeling, and doing to happen. A sensitivity to the poetics of appropriateness-to-context becomes one of the most valuable skills in analysis and leadership.

Cultural Climate speaks to how certain climates will foster, nourish, and sustain particular ways of thinking, feeling, and doing and render other ways of thinking, feeling, and doing inappropriate, illegible, irrelevant, and, often, invisible.

Most organisations committed to culture change focus on changing visible norms, customs, and behaviours within their organisation, which tend to have little impact on performance. A large number of small-scale changes may not effect the necessary shifts in the organisational environment to embed true, lasting, meaningful change.

Because the present is also pre-sent. The cultural climates of situations, places, and gatherings of people have always-already settled into emotional patterns that constrain and guide our expectations. Within institutions and organisations this is even more the case.
To transpose Karl Marx, we make our own organisations, but not quite as we please.
Within any particular cultural system, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that system or upon having moved to another). Within particular qualities of environment people tend to default to particular kinds of change. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I’ve developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex and adaptive systems researcher. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility, “the range of biochemical changes that any living system … could reach without destroying its internal organization.” (Peter H Jones 2013:324). As interpreted by Stephen Johnson (2010), “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of the Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit, and it doesn’t matter whether our intention is supportive or oppositional. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

For me, cultural climate is not only the dynamic pattern of behaviour and expectations but also the key driver of behaviour and expectations within an environment. The biggest driver of change, whether helpful or unhelpful, is the dominant quality of relationship within an environment, the dispositional quality of an environment – how it feels.

In some environments we get crushed.

How does an environment designed for and, at least initially, conducive to healing and human flourishing become culturally unsustainable?

Enclosure.

The term “enclosure” is frequently used to speak of broad social processes and pervasive social change, and variously equated with commodification, privatisation, commercialisation, and the marketisation of everyday life. In this way, “enclosure” has become very much about the identification of the threat of unwelcome social changes, driven by often anonymous corporate agents, fueled by the expansionary logic of free-market capitalism.

For me, enclosure is the broader process in play when good situations go bad and when bad situations get worse.

Three primary drivers of enclosure stand out, which I have come to think of as the Enclosure Triad –

  • The Elimination of Uncertainty
  • Heightened Affectual Intensity
  • Heightened Directivity

While I have identified many more features of enclosing environments, these three are, for me, the primary drivers of unhelpful change within a cultural system. These features, more than any others, are what will most affect the relational climate of an organisation, being both symptomatic of and constitutive of the unhelpful dynamics of enclosure.

I’ve found that the process of enclosure, in turn, leads, beyond a certain point, to the emergence of what I call ‘environments of enclosure’ or ‘enclosing environments’. These tend to be culturally unsustainable, even toxic environments, which tend towards crisis.

February 2013 saw the presentation to parliament in London of the Francis Report into the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. As I’m sure you know, this was the last in a series of inquiries and reports responding to concerns of poor care and high mortality rates at Stafford Hospital.

Inquiries included, and I quote, “harrowing personal stories from patients and patients’ families about the appalling care received at the Trust.” As the report states clearly, “The extensive system of checks and balances intended to detect and prevent such failures did not work. Large numbers of patients were left unprotected, exposed to risk, and subjected to quite unacceptable risks of harm and indignity over a period of years.” (Francis Report 2013 Executive Summary para 73 p25)

Reports speak of,

“a lack of basic care across a number of wards and departments at the Trust; The culture at the Trust was not conducive to providing good care for patients or providing a supportive working environment for staff; there was an atmosphere of fear of adverse repercussions; a high priority was placed on the achievement of targets; the consultant body largely dissociated itself from management; there was low morale amongst staff; there was a lack of openness and an acceptance of poor standards; Management thinking during the period under review was dominated by financial pressures … to the detriment of quality of care.”

The epitome of an environment of enclosure.

Of crucial importance is the suggestion in the Francis Report that Stafford should not at all be considered an anomalous exception to current practice. Francis writes that:

“Stafford was not an event of such rarity or improbability that it would be safe to assume that it has not been and will not be repeated or that the risk of a recurrence was so low that major preventative measures would be disproportionate. The consequences for patients are such that it would be quite wrong to use a belief that it was unique or very rare to justify inaction.” (Francis Report 2013 Executive Summary para 76 p25)

Neither rare, unique, nor improbable.

There comes a tipping point in the escalation of dynamics of enclosure where human flourishing simply becomes inappropriate.

In many places, there seems to be little room for garaíocht in institutionally managed healthcare. As Ivan Illich phrased it in Medical Nemesis, beyond a certain intensity, “what was meant to constitute health care will turn into a specific form of health denial”.

We have constructed institutions, organisations, and management systems for the purposes of healing, nurturing, and caring in which the qualities of relationship most conducive to healing, nurturing, and caring have increasingly come to feel inappropriate, improbable, unlikely, and a struggle to achieve.

The words of Peta Bowden back in 1997 still hold true, “The nexus of formal knowledge, authority and institutional control has characteristically overwhelmed the claims of personal, experiential and responsive caring that are so central to ethical excellence in nursing” 
(Peta Bowden, Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics, 1997:140).

This is deeply counterintuitive for people who are vocationally drawn to be carers and healers. Part of the core difficulty of national healthcare systems is that the need felt by a decent carer or a practised healer to reduce intensity, reduce uncertainty, reduce directivity, tends to be caged within practices, logics, habits, norms, and traditions designed in principle to increase intensity and increase directivity.

If the administrators, managers, and accountants within a health service system cannot conceive of themselves as healers, then they are in the wrong job.

The rhythm of illness is not the rhythm of documentation, spreadsheets, bottom lines, and project management. You do what you can when you can, as best you can. Often as patiently as you can. Life with illness is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

The three elements of the enclosure triad are frequently to be found in the heart of workaday orthodoxies in accepted organisational, institutional, economic, or political practice. The logics of the triad are embedded and nested within the language, habits, norms, and rules of much standard, recommended, and even “best” practice.

I have found that enclosure tends to be the underlying logic of “business as usual”, a structural logic that consistently undermines best intentions. When the tenor of the cultural climate is driven by goal-achievement, command-and-control, chronic high pressure, and financial growth rather than a more integrative understanding of cultural sustainability and systemic wellbeing, the intensifications of enclosure will follow like night follows day. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational, institutional, and political practice within an environment of enclosure are what take their toll on employee engagement, strategic direction, and the health of a system’s future.

Enclosure also frequently provides the underlying logic of first responses to the need for helpful culture change. The interventions of culture change are called for in times of difficulty, stagnation, or crisis. However, in culture change interventions within cultural climates of enclosure we often systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid.

To effect a dispositional shift in the cultural climate of an organisation or institution takes time. It also takes sensitive leadership. Until the cultural climate, the personality, of an organisation changes, nothing substantially changes.

The faster the change happens, the more likely it is that very little has changed.

Culture change is about people – what they think, how they feel, what they do. You can restructure, rebrand, and reorganise, you can change the language of the workplace and re-arrange the furniture; but if the cultural climate of the organisation doesn’t substantially shift, then all you are left with are a series of very expensive cosmetic changes, even higher levels of employee cynicism, most likely high levels of emotional estrangement (as people’s sense of how it actually feels goes against the grain of how they are professionally obliged to feel), and a greater culture-change challenge. In healthcare you are also increasing the possibility that people will get harmed or die.

Unless the assertion and declaration of positive values is met with dispositional change within people and across organisational policy and practice, then, in time, the enclosing gravities of organisational and institutional practice will come back around, moving cyclically through the exciting and inspiring semblance of revolution to eventually settle back into the rebranded reproduction of enclosing dynamics, now wearing a different and more attractive mask, but nonetheless the smiling mask of enclosure.

How can we helpfully respond to our participation in challenging environments in a way that reforms, reimagines, renews, and nurtures environments for optimal human flourishing rather than making them worse in spite of our best intentions?

How can we preventatively identify the threatening possibilities of unhelpful change before they start to gather speed and become all too significant?

The paradox of garaíocht is that you cannot prescribe, plan, or legislate it into existence. The harder you push to make it happen, the less likely it is to happen. Often efforts are made within an enclosing work environment to perform some equivalent of garaíocht as a visible behaviour before the necessary shift in cultural climate has taken place to support it as a lived experience. This is an easy road to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Having outlined the Cultural Climate Framework and the dynamics of enclosure, I can now revisit garaíocht as:

“A dispositional quality of relationships and environments (i.e. a particular cultural climate) in which we tend to experience as probable a willingness, desire, and ability for sensitive, responsive, and adaptive presence, thereby influencing, supporting, sustaining, and nurturing helpful change. This optimal dispositional quality for human flourishing becomes most available when the “elimination of uncertainty”, heightened intensity, and heightened directivity do not dominate as dispositional qualities in any particular situation.”

To champion garaíocht as an aspiration in relationship is by default to adopt a position of critique, resistance, and response to the structural violences and dynamic hegemonies of enclosure.

Garaíocht, which in English I sometimes refer to as ‘ordinary ethics’, is a way to talk about the invitation of withness, being-with, the call to a culturally sustainable future.

After all of it, after all I’ve heard and all I’ve seen, what I’ve come to believe is most beautiful about Irish traditional music and song is something I neither hear nor see. It is something I feel. I have a word for it now. Garaíocht.

If defaulting to the adjacent probable of a particular cultural climate runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure and further crisis, the need for interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural climate equation.

To construct healing environments, the key is to create and maintain an environment in which the qualities appropriate to healing are felt to be the “adjacent probables” of personal endeavour, social interaction, and working life, as possible, plausible, and desirable in the quest to design optimal conditions for human flourishing.

It is possible for us to integratively design and engineer conditions that contribute to healing and human flourishing, across entire systems, that can persist without the threat of crisis, simply because we designed them that way.

But that calls for us to do more than damage-limitation work within environments of enclosure, as crucially important as that is.

Our responsibility to the generations yet to come is an enormous opportunity. I have a dream that across the world seven generations from now we will have universal healthcare that has been integratively designed from the ground up according to what appropriately supports and nourishes environments for healing. All that’s required is that we not succumb to failures of our imagination, plant seeds now wherever we can, and trust that most of what we want has already been imagined and is being practised somewhere, probably somewhere quiet, unnoticed, and undervalued.

There is plenty of hope. Remembering to remember the best of what it means to be human is the he(art) of care, the he(art) of culture change, and the he(art) of leadership.
You are here, you are now, you are with, and you are near, and in a position to help.

I’ll finish with two poems …

The He(art) of Care
Good morning, Sadie
How did you sleep?
The other 129 people I’m looking after have stories
Just as sad as yours.
Those are lovely flowers, did your daughter bring those in?
Just as courageous as yours.
Sorry, this vein’s hard to find. I’ll have to try that again.
Just as wounded as yours
Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. We’ll soon get you cleaned up.
Just as funny as yours.
Would you like me to bring you a cup of tea?
Just as feckin’ unfair as yours.
Looks like we might get some sun today.
And if I listen, really listen
Visit,
Stay a while,
Cradle the silences between us like I would a sleeping baby
Sit till the rhythm of my breathing matches yours
All of your stories
All of their stories
Will break my heart
So I just go about my business.
But not so much that you’d know.
Listen, really listen.

Bhí Mé Réidh Leis (a folklorist who cared)
Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary,
and left, off on his bicycle,
Leather satchel bulging at the seams,
off to the next
National Treasure
by the sea,
near a field
without a cow.

Bhí mé réidh leis.
Too easily translated as
“I was finished with him.”
Time spent.
Proverbs listed.
Songs recorded.
Stories transcribed.
Tunes notated.
Resources extracted.
Surveillance completed.
Primary target acquired.

Primo Levi once wrote:
“To give a name to a thing
is as gratifying
as giving a name to an island,
but it is also dangerous:
the danger consists
in one’s becoming convinced
that all is taken care of
and that once named
the phenomenon has also been explained.”

Double danger
When naming people.
When watching people.
When describing people.
Triple danger
When making a good living from
Naming people
Watching people
Describing people.

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary.
He could have meant
“I was ready with him,”
and stayed.
To talk like neighbours.
To keep good company.
To be with.
To sit in silence.
To chat about those near and dear to him.
To share a cup of tea.
To wile away the hours
Where words matter less
than the heart that dances.

I wonder if
Séamus the Folklorist
ever wished
(as he cocked his leg over his bike
and wiggled his bum
and uilleann pipes
into position for the rocky road)
that he was carrying
a leather satchel bulging at the seams,
chock-full of the sparkling delights of
proverbs unlisted
songs unrecorded
stories untranscribed
tunes unnotated.

For, in truth, he loved that man.
And sometimes
just sometimes
it didn’t feel right.
And sometimes, late at night,
He would stay behind
After a paperful day
And walk through the stacks
Drenching himself in the names
of old friends, dear friends,
Showering himself in half-glances
warm cups of tea
a devilish drop of poitín
a dirty joke
And a broad choir of grins.

And in the light of morning
In office hours
At the start of another paperful day
while walking his fingers through
the cabinet of the card catalogue
for references to that stirring tune
He would again feel a stirring of regret
that there was no card for “love”.

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The following talk was given at Peace House in Oxford on the 21st November, 2013, during a workshop on Gentleness, Trust, and Activism, as part of the Northumbria University project, “Effectiveness in Action: Exploring the role of the Durkheimian ‘sacred’ in motivating community action, using reflexive and gently disruptive co-research methodologies.”

The talk covers a lot of the ground from which the cultural climate work of Hummingbird Culture Change emerges, and, in particular, the emphasis on a ‘politics of gentleness’ prefigures the later change of emphasis to focus on garaíocht and ‘ordinary ethics’. The use of the term ‘vernacular’ was a nod to its use as a common term among folklorists to refer to informal and uninstitutional registers of social life, and also to the work of Ivan Illich, for whom ‘vernacular’ refers to an uncommodifying register of relationship (see especially his collection Shadow Work (1981) and the earlier form of this work in Co-Evolution Quarterly: http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Vernacular.html). I have since turned away from the term vernacular, following the discovery that the etymology of the term is rooted in the Latin vernaculus meaning ‘domestic, native’, from verna ‘home-born slave’. In the words of Iñigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

The talk includes discussions of:

– What I mean by ‘gentleness’
– What I mean by ‘power’
– What I mean by a ‘politics of gentleness’
– What I mean by ‘enclosure’
– What role the ‘elimination of uncertainty’ plays in enclosure
– What I mean by a ‘critical vernacular ecology’ and its relevance to the practice of everyday life

The following link will direct you to the soundcloud page where you can listen to the talk in its entirety:

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The (slightly edited) transcription follows below:

Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, I am an advocate of gentleness. I am not an advocate of non-violence. I’ll explain that later, maybe, if you ask me.

Right, for many years I’ve been doing many things. I did a lot of ethnography among people who do Irish music and Irish singing for quite a while during the 1990s. During the mid-1990s I was very interested in social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musician, particularly the ways in which the social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musicians were under pressure from the encroachments of intellectual property thinking and copyright thinking.

Around 1995 to the year 2000 was a real cauldron time for the commodification of Irish musical practice, in terms of commercialisation, in terms of education, in terms of performance, in terms of copyright. Lots of things between 1995 and the year 2000 coalesced, and that cauldron of change is, I suppose, the origin story for a lot of the work that I’ve since done.

My main interests at the moment are what I call cultural climate (which other people might call emotional climate), the quality of relationship, the quality of spaces that we have at various times, the ways in which these change from one way to another way, the way in which they might, in some people’s eyes, get worse and in other people’s eyes get better.

I’m also very much focused at the moment on the issue of culture change. When I talk about culture change I mean it very much from the perspective of what for me are the functions of theory. And when I say theory I simply mean thoughtful practice. But I also mean theory in the sense that theory, thoughtful practice, hopefully helps me reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination and oppression in my own relationships and, by invitation, in the relationships of others, and, secondly, hopefully allows me to come to a greater understanding of what the conditions for human flourishing might be and how we might work towards actually establishing those within our own lives, our own relationships, and, by invitation, in the lives or relationships of others.

At the heart of my work is this word “gentleness”. I don’t have a definition for gentleness but I will say what I mean by gentleness. What I mean by gentleness is the quality of relationship that happens when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate in relationship in a particular environment. It is the quality of relationship that simply happens. It’s the quality of relationship that we can trust will likely happen when the elimination of uncertainty in its various forms does not dominate in a particular environment.

And when I say gentleness I also work on the principal of “multiple vocabularies”. I understand the concerns about the etymology of the term gentleness and its relationship to class structure and class histories. So, one of the ways in which I talk about gentleness is with the idea of multiple vocabularies. I might say “gentleness” but other people might say “kindness” or “couthiness” or “decency” or “generosity” or “hospitality” or “trust”. What’s of interest to me isn’t so much the word or the words that I use but the quality of relationship that is being spoken about behind or underneath those words. [Lift the words up and look underneath them]. And for me it’s that quality of relationship that comes from the withness and the hereness of people in space when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate as an ethic within that space.
Now I imagine when I say the elimination of uncertainty that I’m not just talking in terms of kind of heady, cerebral philosophers like Descartes who seek to eliminate uncertainty and eliminate all doubt in everything they do, I’m talking about the quest for perfection, the quest for control, the quest for saturating, the quest to fix. You know, many things which are frequently associated with patriarchal qualities but which can be found in many forms and many places and in my own life and many other people’s lives. That quality of the elimination of uncertainty, for me, is the driving factor of the shitty stuff. It’s the heart of what makes things crap. It’s also the heart of what makes things-crap have an expansionary quality to them, and that is a core part of what I’m going to be talking about for the next few minutes. It isn’t just that things get bad. Is it when things are bad they get worse when they work within their own gravities and their own logic, and that is crucial to all of this. It’s why it’s not enough to just stand there and say, “I don’t like that”. Things get worse if we don’t do something about them when they are based around the elimination of uncertainty.

The elimination of uncertainty for me is the engine of enclosure. When I studied enclosure for quite a number of years I tried to study enclosure historically, looking at enclosure of the commons, and I stayed away from the notion of the commons eventually because I noticed that a lot of the ways in which people would talk about the commons for me were actually versions of enclosure, so I found the rhetoric of the commons was frequently misleading and I sort of moved away from it. I’ve now moved back to it in a different form but I’ll maybe talk about that later.

The notion of enclosure for me refers to an expansionary dynamic that happens when the elimination of uncertainty ethic dominates. It involves a very key thing and something that is to be found across many different situations where things simply get worse. The expansion comes from … [I pick this up later].

I’d found a lot of people who described enclosure historically and currently. But in terms of explaining it … how will I know when I’m participating in it? That’s the key problem. How can I understand something psychologically enough that I know that I myself am participating in it, whether it’s enclosure or commodification or what have you. Show me somebody out there who talks about commodification in a way that I can understand when I am participating in it. I haven’t been able to find anyone. And so that was a part of my core quest as a thinker was to try and understand commodification and enclosure in a way that I could understand my own participation in it. How was I making things worse when they were getting worse? How was I making things worse when they were getting worse, even when I thought I was making them better? How could I understand the misguided (sometimes) best intentions that I might bring to something, and still make things worse? So that was at the heart of what I was trying to make sense of.

And at the heart of it as well, bringing us back to [Clare Cochrane and] your exploration of activism … at the heart of it for me was the assumption that there is no time when activism does not happen. There is not activism and non-activism. There’s not action and non-action. And this gets to the heart of what people might understand as the notion of power.

If you look at the literature you generally find that power means either the ability to control resources, or the ability to engage in goal-directed action, or the ability to control behaviour of others, or variations on those. So, power is generally a very directive way of thinking about how we engage relationships with other people.

If you follow that line of thinking then you come to the first of what I think of as 4 points of a “critical vernacular ecology”. “Vernacular” in the sense of “ordinary-life” ecology.

First point is … if you go to the orthodoxies of political and social thinking, and economic thinking … the quieter forms of life, the people who are gentle, the people who are hospitable, the people who are generous, the people I have admired most in my lifetime whether as relatives or as friends, those people are not visible within social and political theory. Not only are they not visible, they are not possible within social and political theory. They’re neither visible nor possible and they’re not possible because they’re not plausible. They’re not visible, they’re not plausible, they’re not possible, therefore they tend to be rendered automatically irrelevant to social and political theory in terms of the orthodoxies that are present in the academic world, and by association irrelevant to influence in governmental state politics and in various other forms of life. And to our school system, and God knows what else.

One of the key things for me has been to think, okay, hold on a second, and this is the second point, that not only are these quieter forms of politics for me invisible, impossible, implausible, and irrelevant for a lot of people, but they are also a deeply deeply human and deeply, deeply powerful, and I think the most powerful way of being human. They have deep within them huge potential for us to learn about the realities of politics, the realities of making a difference.
And at the heart of trying to understand that I came to a new understanding of power. To step away from the idea of control and step away from the idea of goal-directed action. To step away from the idea of controlling other people’s behaviour. To move towards something that doesn’t fall into the logic that says: only those who seek to control are powerful; those who do not seek to control are powerless. Therefore those people who I look to for power and influence and example within that framework would be powerless. How [in contrast] could I work from a position where I would never be powerless, and the people I admire would never be considered powerless but would in fact be considered the height of power and the height of how we could and maybe should – that’s questionable – but how we could be making a difference in this world to achieve the optimal conditions for human flourishing in any particular environment.

And I came to the understanding of power as “the ability to vary experience”, whether the experience of oneself or the experience of others. That’s all. Power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others, in an anthropocentric sense, but you could expand that, of course, to the environment and to nature and to everything else around us, but within a kind of a social sense, I understand power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Like John Cassavetes, the filmmaker, who talked about “the power of small emotions”, or like Michel Foucault who talked about that sense of micro-politics, while also being really specific about it.

So this … [I move a glass on the table] is an act of power. Silence becomes an act of power. The interest isn’t whether something [or someone] is powerful or not, the interest is what the effects of power are. But saying somebody is powerless within that makes no sense whatever. So, the idea of powerlessness and powerfulness, and the idea of the state as the centre of power, for me, is just uninteresting. The question for me becomes … where is power happening? when is it happening? with what effects is it happening? and who’s involved?

Because within that framework we always-already make a difference, so to consider ourselves helpless is to misread the situation. The only question is, how do we make the difference that we make? How can we listen more to the possibilities of the differences that we might make within that situation? How can we identify the opportunities for making a difference in a more helpful way that increases the possibility of human flourishing and decreases and reduces the possibilities of domination, oppression, coercion and violence?

When I talked about non-violence earlier what I was referring to was the idea that for me the elimination of uncertainty is the core act of violence. It is a claim made in language about a reality which for me is always imbued with uncertainty and ambiguity and fuzziness and relationship and movement and flux. To eliminate uncertainty is to eliminate all of those things from your consideration. That for me is the core act of violence and I believe we always participate in it to some extent within the structures in our lives. So, for me, non-violence is not possible. Less violence is always possible.

For me, it’s about dominance. It’s about the dominance of the elimination of uncertainty. We can’t make ourselves pure and uncontaminated from a lot of the structures of violence that we find ourselves surrounded by, but we can reduce the influence of them within our own lives by becoming more self-aware and more community-aware in the way that we actually think about what we do.

So, one of the ways in which I was thinking about power was – I tend to think very visually … Generally when we think about power we think about power as control, usually in terms of state power and state authority. In terms of a centre of power. That’s very much the idea behind “speaking back to power.” When we say that, for the most part that’s the type of power that we’re talking about. We speak back to the centre of authority, the centre of those people who say things which shall not be challenged.

And [within this centre-periphery model of power] we occupy a very marginal place when we talk about the likes of gentleness or kindness or hospitality. We regard it as a very, very marginal part of the power conversation if it’s at all relevant. It’s probably actually way out here somewhere in this part [at or beyond the margin of the circle].

What I’m interested in saying is if you look at the vast majority of people and do an inventory of the amount of hours that people spend doing what they do, the vast majorities of people’s lives are spent, and this is crucially important to the education conversation, the vast majority of people’s lives are spent in informal [qualities of] relationship, in the quieter forms of life. If you were to do an inventory of what you do all day every day, most of it is pretty quiet and of low intensity. The vast majority of human life is informal, casual, non-institutional. That’s where most of the power in the world happens. That’s where most of the difference in the world is actually happening all day every day, and what we [normally] consider the centre of power is, actually, if you were to use a margins framework (which I’m not too happy about, but I’ll use it anyway), is marginal to that conversation of power [understood] as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another.

So it inverts the conversation about power, and it says that placing a piece of paper in a box once every 4 years or 5 years or 7 years depending on which election you’re talking about, in whichever country, that’s not the vast amount of the difference that you’re going to make, within a framework of making a difference. I’m not saying democracy, I’m not saying citizenship. Within a framework of making a difference the vast majority of the power that you’re going to engage in will be in things like … when your husband is dying of cancer, placing your hand on his hand and wiping his brow … holding your one-year-old son’s hand as you walk across the road, saying “take daddy’s hand” to make sure he doesn’t get killed as he walks across the road, waking up every morning to find your son [staring at you lovingly] and then spontaneously giving you a big slobbery kiss because he doesn’t know how to close his mouth yet.

Times when people are making a huge difference in each other’s lives but are not counted, these are not put in the reckoning of Politics with a capital ‘P’. What I would suggest is, that this [formal, institutional qualities of power] could be called politics with a small ‘p’, and this [quieter, informal qualities of power] could be thought of as Politics with a capital ‘P’. I think it is really important to continually reassert that in the ways that we think about things.

So that’s the second point, that this is a very fertile way for making sense of how politics can be reconsidered. The third point is that these forms of life, of relationship, these qualities of relationship are deeply powerful and deeply important ways of identifying, critiquing and challenging elimination of uncertainty in politics.

The elimination of uncertainty, enclosure, has an expansionary heart. The way in which expansion happens within elimination-of-uncertainty enclosing politics is the extension of authority-as-certitude. Basically somebody comes along and says “this is the way it is”. you take something off the supermarket shelf of thinking and you go, “Oh yeah I’ll get that, it’s great. I won’t look at the ingredients list on the side of the can, that’s grand. I’ll just take that, consume it, eat it, go home, be grand.” Or you say, “Hold on a second … Certitude is the absence of doubt, absence of uncertainty. That’s just misrepresenting, grossly misrepresenting the way the world works, the way that experience happens, the way that relationships happen.”

The identification of the elimination of uncertainty is about saying, “Hold on a second, I disagree, I think differently.” This first of all automatically identifies the expansionary quality of it. If nobody turns up and says hold on a second then you will never know that expansion is taking place, you’ll get the gentrification without dissent, for example. With the expansion of enclosure you will get the complete change of a community, the displacement of people’s values and ways of life and of people themselves around the world in wars all over the place. As a result of that vast power of people saying, “This is the way it is,” and people acquiescing and they themselves again in turn saying, “This is the way it is,” and living “This is the way it is,” and that expansion happening person by person by person by person.

But that quieter quality of politics is a way to actually make that visible. It is only really through the quieter politics that you can make that visible in any way that changes the equation.
Generally people start with the idea of human nature. Human nature is self interest; human nature is altruism; human nature is whatever it is, social, whatever. This is a huge frustration to me. It is one of the big traps of thinking in the English language, the idea that something is such and such; that it’s an equation, human nature equals such and such. It avoids the challenge of diversity, it avoids the challenge of variety and one of the things that’s crucial in any understanding of social life and politics is to understand that human nature can be many, many things. Human character can be many, many things.

What I ended coming up with in terms of looking at different contexts, looking at how people work, looking at human behaviour, looking at environmental design, and various other things … You can look at everything and drive yourself crazy or you can look at a few particular things and try and find key variables in what happens to make sense of stuff. So I came up with 3 key variables.

The 3 key variables were intensity of affect or emotion, the way in which that changes from moment to moment. The intensity of affect or emotion will change in different circumstances.
A second key variable is directivity, things being more or less directive, more or less pushy and pully in terms of the gravities they have, either within us or around us, or from us or to us.
And then the third one is the way in which we relate to uncertainty, our relationship to uncertainty in language and thought, remembering that the elimination of uncertainty is merely a language claim that we make about the world.

What I discovered, though, is that these are direct correlates. [see The Cultural Climate Framework]

The more we try to eliminate uncertainty the more intensity we generate. The more we try to be intense the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate. The more highly directive ways of doing things become appropriate the more we try to be directive in terms of obligation, law, should, must, need to, have to. The more intense it becomes, the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate.

It’s about appropriateness-to-context. The idea is that if you were in an environment, and this is where it becomes core to understanding, if you’re in an environment which is dominated by the elimination of uncertainty, be it a highly controlled, highly ordered, probably a very top down organised environment, what will feel most appropriate within that environment, whether you’re for or against it, will be elimination-of-uncertainty thinking.

Opposition is one of the key responses to whatever happens in such an environment. Opposition tends to be an elimination-of-uncertainty response, the idea that somebody is not you, and that you will oppose them.

The gravities increase the more you move towards the elimination of uncertainty and intensify and double back into themselves. Crucially, because working with the elimination of uncertainty brings us to misrepresent what’s going on, the more we think in terms of elimination of uncertainty, the more we think in terms of enemies and targets and things to fix and so on an so forth, things to be erased, the more blind we become to what’s actually going on, and, more importantly, blind to our participation in what’s going on.

So, one of the things that I’ve been very interested in as a fourth point of the critical vernacular ecology is the idea that we need new theory. We need new theory from old wisdoms. We need new ways of talking about what’s going on based on understandings that we have already had. This is my attempt, my contribution.

Core to this is an idea that is very familiar within Aikido, the notion that to improve a situation you “sidestep, enter and turn.” Sidestep – when there’s a truck coming down the road you get out of the bloody way because it will run you over. So you sidestep. Then you go back into the situation at a point of lower intensity and you move with the situation in a way which will bring it to a lower intensity.

I’ve taken advice from a friend in Australia many times, don’t plant trees where they’re going to get cut down. Two strikes and I’m out, now three strikes and I’m out now. I’ll try twice and if I find that the trees are going to get cut down I’m going to move to somewhere where it’s more fertile because the importance is to keep the energy at a high level in terms of being out there rather than going in to places where damage-limitation will suck you dry.

Damage-limitation is crucially important, but if you spend most of your time up doing that in elimination-of-uncertainty zones you’re going to burn yourself out. What’s really, really important is to make forays into the difficult places and find a way to keep yourself balanced and not burn yourself out. To keep that balance, work-life balance I suppose, in a sense, so that, when you make your forays, now you have your armour, you are prepared, you are able to, in a sense, engage in some sort of martial art when you do damage limitation work. But when you come out of it, you yourself are not being defined by the logic of that which you are seeking to make better.

There’s a guy called Simon Sinek who does leadership work and he talks about how most people in leadership start with what they want to do, and then they identify how they’re going to do it, and then they think, “Oh I’m kind of doing something some particular way, I’m going to think about why I’m doing it now.” Sinek went around looking at all the different leaders … Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, and he was looking at the way in which people who had a very clear purpose (“the why”) for what they were doing were often more successful in drawing other people to what they were doing.

Now I have misgivings about this because often people who are successful in drawing people to follow them are people who are all about the elimination of uncertainty. I watched a documentary the other day about Hitler. He was a superb, a superb speaker. He was superb at drawing followers behind him. The faster your movement grows the more you should be suspicious of what quality it has. Very simple. Invitational movements grow really really slowly. Trauma happens really, really quickly but it takes year to actually heal from that trauma. The quicker what you are doing is spreading the more you need to question what you are doing. But what I would suggest, is what I call “How 2.0”, very pretentious of me. How 2.0 is not “how am I doing it?” but, “how do I want it to feel when it happens?”. “How do I want it to feel when it happens?” And that for me is the core. That is the core of this work.

In thinking about the elimination of uncertainty, and thinking about enclosure, and thinking about gentleness, or kindness, or whatever, when you lift the words up and look underneath, and look below those multiple vocabularies, the important thing is to think about “how do I want it to feel?”, and then when it’s happening “how does it actually feel?”. If it feels really, really intense than you’re into the “enclosure triad” – High intensity. High directivity and elimination of uncertainty thinking. If what you are doing feels like that, it’s time to rethink.

Anthony McCann

“How Wall Street Corrodes Your Soul” – The Cultural Priming of Enclosure

Cultural climate matters. There are lots of buzzwords in the consultancy wordpool at the moment – among them, employee engagement, employee cynicism, intrinsic motivation – but what it comes down to is that how a workplace feels, generally, makes a difference to how a person will feel, specifically, while working there. That sounds like a rather banal truism, but it’s a rather banal truism that makes a huge difference in practice.

As indicated in a previous post, I was in Toronto last week giving a keynote on cultural climate and culture change. On the morning of my talk I was delighted to see that Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, had an article in the National Post entitled “How Wall Street Corrodes Your Soul”Wall Street Michael Lewis pic

I find that the article resonates nicely with some of my work on the process of what I call ‘enclosure’ (simplistically, how good situations go bad and how bad situations get worse) and the emergence of ‘environments of enclosure’ (culturally unsustainable environments). The core of the article is the statement,

“People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment, and often the best a person can do, if he wants to behave in a certain manner, is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on their characters.”

That’s a lot of jumping between singulars and plurals, but the basic message is pretty much what I was saying in the keynote.

Be careful who you pretend to be, for that is who you may become.
Be careful who you spend time with, for that is who you may become.
Be careful what cultural climates you frequent, for that is who you may become.

Michael Lewis lists what he sees as some of the occupational hazards of Wall Street:

“Some are obvious — for instance, the temptation, when deciding how to behave, to place too much weight on the very short term and not enough on the long term. Or the temptation, if you make a lot of money, to deploy financial success as an excuse for failure in other aspects of your life. But some of the occupational hazards on Wall Street are less obvious …”

  • Anyone who works in finance will feel pressured to pretend to know more than he does.
  • Anyone who works in big finance will find it hard to form deep attachments to anything greater than himself.
  • Anyone who works in big finance will feel pressure to not challenge existing arrangements.

Lewis ties it up at the end:

“The intense pressure to conform, to not make waves, has got to be the most depressing part of all, for a genuinely ambitious young person. It’s pretty clear that the government lacks the power to force serious change upon the financial sector. There’s a big role for Silicon Valley-style scorched-earth entrepreneurship on Wall Street right now, and the people most likely to innovate are newcomers to the industry who have no real stake in the parts of it that need scorching.

“As a new employee on Wall Street, you might think this has nothing to do with you. You would be wrong. Your new environment’s resistance to market forces, and to the possibility of doing things differently and more efficiently, will soon become your own. When you start your career you might think you are setting out to change the world, but the world is far more likely to change you.”

This is a good example of what I mean by the heightened directivity and gravities of an environment of enclosure. In particular, the cultural priming that happens in intense environments like so-called Big Finance.

As I stated it in the keynote

“Within any particular cultural system, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that system or upon having moved to another). Within particular qualities of environment people tend to default to particular kinds of change. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

“I’ve developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex and adaptive systems researcher. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility, “the range of biochemical changes that any living system … could reach without destroying its internal organization.” (Peter H Jones 2013:324). As interpreted by Stephen Johnson (2010), “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

“In the context of the Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit, and it doesn’t matter whether our intention is supportive or oppositional. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.”

This isn’t really anything to worry about in a healthy environment, where the cultural priming process can strengthen and support the life and community that’s there. Anyway, in healthy environments the priming process tends to have a quiet enough character, being experienced more as invitational than highly directive.

Where it becomes a serious issue, and a key element of cultural unsustainability and personal unsustainability, is in an enclosing (often toxic) environment. To enter such an environment without the emotional preparedness or emotional self-defence skills that would otherwise protect you is to risk having your own perspective, your own positioning, your own sense of response-ability and accountability displaced by the unquestioned authorities, gravities, and rule structures of the situation. Sometimes it’s just experienced as getting swept up in and away by the energy, speed, and, perhaps literally, intoxication of the moment.

 

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The following talk was given by Dr. Anthony McCann at Peace House in Oxford on the 21st November, 2013, during a workshop on Gentleness, Trust, and Activism, as part of the Northumbria University project, “Effectiveness in Action: Exploring the role of the Durkheimian ‘sacred’ in motivating community action, using reflexive and gently disruptive co-research methodologies.”

The following link will direct you to the Soundcloud page where you can listen to the talk in its entirety:

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The (slightly edited) transcription follows below:

Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, I am an advocate of gentleness.  I am not an advocate of non-violence.  I’ll explain that later, maybe, if you ask me.

Right, for many years I’ve been doing many things. I did a lot of ethnography among people who do Irish music and Irish singing for quite a while during the 1990s. During the mid-1990s I was very interested in social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musician, particularly the ways in which the social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musicians were under pressure from the encroachments of intellectual property thinking and copyright thinking. Around 1995 to the year 2000 was a real cauldron time for the commodification of Irish musical practice, in terms of commercialisation, in terms of education, in terms of performance, in terms of copyright. Lots of things between 1995 and the year 2000 coalesced, and that cauldron of change is, I suppose, the origin story for a lot of the work that I’ve since done.

My main interests at the moment are what I call cultural climate (which other people might call emotional climate), the quality of relationship, the quality of spaces that we have at various times, the ways in which these change from one way to another way, the way in which they might, in some people’s eyes, get worse and in other people’s eyes get better.

I’m also very much focused at the moment on the issue of culture change. When I talk about culture change I mean it very much from the perspective of what for me are the functions of theory.  And when I say theory I simply mean thoughtful practice. But I also mean theory in the sense that theory, thoughtful practice, hopefully helps me reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination and oppression in my own relationships and, by invitation, in the relationships of others, and, secondly, hopefully allows me to come to a greater understanding of what the conditions for human flourishing might be and how we might work towards actually establishing those within our own lives, our own relationships, and, by invitation, in the lives or relationships of others.

At the heart of my work is this word “gentleness”.  I don’t have a definition for gentleness but I will say what I mean by gentleness.  What I mean by gentleness is the quality of relationship that happens when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate in relationship in a particular environment.  It is the quality of relationship that simply happens.  It’s the quality of relationship that we can trust will likely happen when the elimination of uncertainty in its various forms does not dominate in a particular environment.

And when I say gentleness I also work on the principal of “multiple vocabularies”.  I understand the concerns about the etymology of the term gentleness and its relationship to class structure and class histories.  So, one of the ways in which I talk about gentleness is with the idea of multiple vocabularies.  I might say “gentleness” but other people might say “kindness” or “couthiness” or “decency” or “generosity” or “hospitality” or “trust”. What’s of interest to me isn’t so much the word or the words that I use but the quality of relationship that is being spoken about behind or underneath those words. [Lift the words up and look underneath them]. And for me it’s that quality of relationship that comes from the withness and the hereness of people in space when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate as an ethic within that space.

Now I imagine when I say the elimination of uncertainty that I’m not just talking in terms of kind of heady, cerebral philosophers like Descartes who seek to eliminate uncertainty and eliminate all doubt in everything they do, I’m talking about the quest for perfection, the quest for control, the quest for saturating, the quest to fix.  You know, many things which are frequently associated with patriarchal qualities but which can be found in many forms and many places and in my own life and many other people’s lives. That quality of the elimination of uncertainty, for me, is the driving factor of the shitty stuff. It’s the heart of what makes things crap.  It’s also the heart of what makes things-crap have an expansionary quality to them, and that is a core part of what I’m going to be talking about for the next few minutes.  It isn’t just that things get bad.  Is it when things are bad they get worse when they work within their own gravities and their own logic, and that is crucial to all of this. It’s why it’s not enough to just stand there and say, “I don’t like that”.  Things get worse if we don’t do something about them when they are based around the elimination of uncertainty.

The elimination of uncertainty for me is the engine of enclosure. When I studied enclosure for quite a number of years I tried to study enclosure historically, looking at enclosure of the commons, and I stayed away from the notion of the commons eventually because I noticed that a lot of the ways in which people would talk about the commons for me were actually versions of enclosure, so I found the rhetoric of the commons was frequently misleading and I sort of moved away from it. I’ve now moved back to it in a different form but I’ll maybe talk about that later.

The notion of enclosure for me refers to an expansionary dynamic that happens when the elimination of uncertainty ethic dominates. It involves a very key thing and something that is to be found across many different situations where things simply get worse. The expansion comes from … [I pick this up later].

I’d found a lot of people who described enclosure historically and currently. But in terms of explaining it … how will I know when I’m participating in it? That’s the key problem. How can I understand something psychologically enough that I know that I myself am participating in it, whether it’s enclosure or commodification or what have you. Show me somebody out there who talks about commodification in a way that I can understand when I am participating in it. I haven’t been able to find anyone. And so that was a part of my core quest as a thinker was to try and understand commodification and enclosure in a way that I could understand my own participation in it.  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse?  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse, even when I thought I was making them better?  How could I understand the misguided (sometimes) best intentions that I might bring to something, and still make things worse?  So that was at the heart of what I was trying to make sense of.

And at the heart of it as well, bringing us back to [talking to Clare Cochrane] your exploration of activism … at the heart of it for me was the assumption that there is no time when activism does not happen. There is not activism and non-activism. There’s not action and non-action. And this gets to the heart of what people might understand as the notion of power.

If you look at the literature you generally find that power means either the ability to control resources, or the ability to engage in goal-directed action, or the ability to control behaviour of others, or variations on those.  So, power is generally a very directive way of thinking about how we engage relationships with other people.

If you follow that line of thinking then you come to the first of what I think of as 4 points of a “critical vernacular ecology”. “Vernacular” in the sense of “ordinary-life” ecology.

First point is … if you go to the orthodoxies of political and social thinking, and economic thinking … the quieter forms of life, the people who are gentle, the people who are hospitable, the people who are generous, the people I have admired most in my lifetime whether as relatives or as friends, those people are not visible within social and political theory.  Not only are they not visible, they are not possible within social and political theory. They’re neither visible nor possible and they’re not possible because they’re not plausible. They’re not visible, they’re not plausible, they’re not possible, therefore they tend to be rendered automatically irrelevant to social and political theory in terms of the orthodoxies that are present in the academic world, and by association irrelevant to influence in governmental state politics and in various other forms of life.  And to our school system, and God knows what else.

One of the key things for me has been to think, okay, hold on a second, and this is the second point, that not only are these quieter forms of politics for me invisible, impossible, implausible,  and irrelevant for a lot of people, but they are also a deeply deeply human and deeply, deeply powerful, and I think the most powerful way of being human. They have deep within them huge potential for us to learn about the realities of politics, the realities of making a difference.

And at the heart of trying to understand that I came to a new understanding of power. To step away from the idea of control and step away from the idea of goal-directed action. To step away from the idea of controlling other people’s behaviour. To move towards something that doesn’t fall into the logic that says: only those who seek to control are powerful; those who do not seek to control are powerless. Therefore those people who I look to for power and influence and example within that framework would be powerless.  How [in contrast] could I work from a position where I would never be powerless, and the people I admire would never be considered powerless but would in fact be considered the height of power and the height of how we could and maybe should – that’s questionable – but how we could be making a difference in this world to achieve the optimal conditions for human flourishing in any particular environment.

And I came to the understanding of power as “the ability to vary experience”, whether the experience of oneself or the experience of others. That’s all. Power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others, in an anthropocentric sense, but you could expand that, of course, to the environment and to nature and to everything else around us, but within a kind of a social sense, I understand power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Like John Cassavetes, the filmmaker, who talked about “the power of small emotions”, or like Michel Foucault who talked about that sense of micro-politics, while also being really specific about it.

So this … [I move a glass on the table] is an act of power.  Silence becomes an act of power.  The interest isn’t whether something [or someone] is powerful or not, the interest is what the effects of power are. But saying somebody is powerless within that makes no sense whatever. So, the idea of powerlessness and powerfulness, and the idea of the state as the centre of power, for me, is just uninteresting. The question for me becomes … where is power happening? when is it happening? with what effects is it happening? and who’s involved?

Because within that framework we always-already make a difference, so to consider ourselves helpless is to misread the situation. The only question is, how do we make the difference that we make? How can we listen more to the possibilities of the differences that we might make within that situation? How can we identify the opportunities for making a difference in a more helpful way that increases the possibility of human flourishing and decreases and reduces the possibilities of domination, oppression, coercion and violence?

When I talked about non-violence earlier what I was referring to was the idea that for me the elimination of uncertainty is the core act of violence. It is a claim made in language about a reality which for me is always imbued with uncertainty and ambiguity and fuzziness and relationship and movement and flux. To eliminate uncertainty is to eliminate all of those things from your consideration. That for me is the core act of violence and I believe we always participate in it to some extent within the structures in our lives. So, for me, non-violence is not possible. Less violence is always possible.

For me, it’s about dominance. It’s about the dominance of the elimination of uncertainty. We can’t make ourselves pure and uncontaminated from a lot of the structures of violence that we find ourselves surrounded by, but we can reduce the influence of them within our own lives by becoming more self-aware and more community-aware in the way that we actually think about what we do.

So, one of the ways in which I was thinking about power was – I tend to think very visually … Generally when we think about power we think about power as control, usually in terms of state power and state authority. In terms of a centreof power. That’s very much the idea behind “speaking back to power.” When we say that, for the most part that’s the type of power that we’re talking about. We speak back to the centre of authority, the centre of those people who say things which shall not be challenged.

And [within this centre-periphery model of power] we occupy a very marginal place when we talk about the likes of gentleness or kindness or hospitality. We regard it as a very, very marginal part of the power conversation if it’s at all relevant. It’s probably actually way out here somewhere in this part [at or beyond the margin of the circle].

What I’m interested in saying is if you look at the vast majority of people and do an inventory of the amount of hours that people spend doing what they do, the vast majorities of people’s lives are spent, and this is crucially important to the education conversation, the vast majority of people’s lives are spent in informal [qualities of] relationship, in the quieter forms of life. If you were to do an inventory of what you do all day every day, most of it is pretty quiet and of low intensity. The vast majority of human life is informal, casual, non-institutional. That’s where most of the power in the world happens. That’s where most of the difference in the world is actually happening all day every day, and what we [normally] consider the centre of power is, actually, if you were to use a margins framework (which I’m not too happy about, but I’ll use it anyway), is marginal to that conversation of power [understood] as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another.

So it inverts the conversation about power, and it says that placing a piece of paper in a box once every 4 years or 5 years or 7 years depending on which election you’re talking about, in whichever country, that’s not the vast amount of the difference that you’re going to make, within a framework of making a difference.  I’m not saying democracy, I’m not saying citizenship. Within a framework of making a difference the vast majority of the power that you’re going to engage in will be in things like … when your husband is dying of cancer, placing your hand on his hand and wiping his brow … holding your one-year-old son’s hand as you walk across the road, saying “take daddy’s hand” to make sure he doesn’t get killed as he walks across the road, waking up every morning to find your son [staring at you lovingly] and then spontaneously giving you a big slobbery kiss because he doesn’t know how to close his mouth yet.

Times when people are making a huge difference in each other’s lives but are not counted, these are not put in the reckoning of Politics with a capital ‘P’.  What I would suggest is, that this [formal, institutional qualities of power] could be called politics with a small ‘p’, and this [quieter, informal qualities of power] could be thought of as Politics with a capital ‘P’. I think it is really important to continually reassert that in the ways that we think about things.

So that’s the second point, that this is a very fertile way for making sense of how politics can be reconsidered. The third point is that these forms of life, of relationship, these qualities of relationship are deeply powerful and deeply important ways of identifying, critiquing and challenging elimination of uncertainty in politics.

The elimination of uncertainty, enclosure, has an expansionary heart. The way in which expansion happens within elimination-of-uncertainty enclosing politics is the extension of authority-as-certitude.  Basically somebody comes along and says “this is the way it is”. you take something off the supermarket shelf of thinking and you go, “Oh yeah I’ll get that, it’s great. I won’t look at the ingredients list on the side of the can, that’s grand. I’ll just take that, consume it, eat it, go home, be grand.”  Or you say, “Hold on a second … Certitude is the absence of doubt, absence of uncertainty. That’s just misrepresenting, grossly misrepresenting the way the world works, the way that experience happens, the way that relationships happen.”

The identification of the elimination of uncertainty is about saying, “Hold on a second, I disagree, I think differently.” This first of all automatically identifies the expansionary quality of it.  If nobody turns up and says hold on a second then you will never know that expansion is taking place, you’ll get the gentrification without dissent, for example. With the expansion of enclosure you will get the complete change of a community, the displacement of people’s values and ways of life and of people themselves around the world in wars all over the place. As a result of that vast power of people saying, “This is the way it is,” and people acquiescing and they themselves again in turn saying, “This is the way it is,” and living “This is the way it is,” and that expansion happening person by person by person by person.

But that quieter quality of politics is a way to actually make that visible. It is only really through the quieter politics that you can make that visible in any way that changes the equation.

Generally people start with the idea of human nature. Human nature is self interest; human nature is altruism; human nature is whatever it is, social, whatever. This is a huge frustration to me. It is one of the big traps of thinking in the English language, the idea that something is such and such; that it’s an equation, human nature equals such and such.  It avoids the challenge of diversity, it avoids the challenge of variety and one of the things that’s crucial in any understanding of social life and politics is to understand that human nature can be many, many things.  Human character can be many, many things.

What I ended coming up with in terms of looking at different contexts, looking at how people work, looking at human behaviour, looking at environmental design, and various other things …  You can look at everything and drive yourself crazy or you can look at a few particular things and try and find key variables in what happens to make sense of stuff.  So I came up with 3 key variables.

The 3 key variables were intensity of affect or emotion, the way in which that changes from moment to moment.  The intensity of affect or emotion will change in different circumstances.

A second key variable is directivity, things being more or less directive, more or less pushy and pully in terms of the gravities they have, either within us or around us, or from us or to us.

And then the third one is the way in which we relate to uncertainty, our relationship to uncertainty in language and thought, remembering that the elimination of uncertainty is merely a language claim that we make about the world.

What I discovered, though, is that these are direct correlates. [see The Cultural Climate Framework]

The more we try to eliminate uncertainty the more intensity we generate. The more we try to be intense the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate. The more highly directive ways of doing things become appropriate the more we try to be directive in terms of obligation, law, should, must, need to, have to. The more intense it becomes, the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate.

It’s about appropriateness-to-context. The idea is that if you were in an environment, and this is where it becomes core to understanding, if you’re in an environment which is dominated by the elimination of uncertainty, be it a highly controlled, highly ordered, probably a very top down organised environment, what will feel most appropriate within that environment, whether you’re for or against it, will be elimination-of-uncertainty thinking.

Opposition is one of the key responses to whatever happens in such an environment.  Opposition tends to be an elimination-of-uncertainty response, the idea that somebody is not you, and that you will oppose them.

The gravities increase the more you move towards the elimination of uncertainty and intensify and double back into themselves. Crucially, because working with the elimination of uncertainty brings us to misrepresent what’s going on, the more we think in terms of elimination of uncertainty, the more we think in terms of enemies and targets and things to fix and so on an so forth, things to be erased, the more blind we become to what’s actually going on, and, more importantly, blind to our participation in what’s going on.

So, one of the things that I’ve been very interested in as a fourth point of the critical vernacular ecology is the idea that we need new theory.  We need new theory from old wisdoms.  We need new ways of talking about what’s going on based on understandings that we have already had. This is my attempt, my contribution.

Core to this is an idea that is very familiar within Aikido, the notion that to improve a situation you “sidestep, enter and turn.”  Sidestep – when there’s a truck coming down the road you get out of the bloody way because it will run you over.  So you sidestep.  Then you go back into the situation at a point of lower intensity and you move with the situation in a way which will bring it to a lower intensity.

I’ve taken advice from a friend in Australia many times, don’t plant trees where they’re going to get cut down.  Two strikes and I’m out, now three strikes and I’m out now.  I’ll try twice and if I find that the trees are going to get cut down I’m going to move to somewhere where it’s more fertile because the importance is to keep the energy at a high level in terms of being out there rather than going in to places where damage-limitation will suck you dry.

Damage-limitation is crucially important, but if you spend most of your time up doing that in elimination-of-uncertainty zones you’re going to burn yourself out. What’s really, really important is to make forays into the difficult places and find a way to keep yourself balanced and not burn yourself out. To keep that balance, work-life balance I suppose, in a sense, so that, when you make your forays, now you have your armour, you are prepared, you are able to, in a sense, engage in some sort of martial art when you do damage limitation work. But when you come out of it, you yourself are not being defined by the logic of that which you are seeking to make better.

There’s a guy called Simon Sinek who does leadership work and he talks about how most people in leadership start with what they want to do, and then they identify how they’re going to do it, and then they think, “Oh I’m kind of doing something some particular way, I’m going to think about why I’m doing it now.” Sinek went around looking at all the different leaders … Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, you know, , and he was looking at the way in which people who had a very clear purpose (“the why”) for what they were doing were often more successful in drawing other people to what they were doing.

Now I have misgivings about this because often people who are successful in drawing people to follow them are people who are all about the elimination of uncertainty.  I watched a documentary the other day about Hitler. He was a superb, a superb speaker. He was superb at drawing followers behind him. The faster your movement grows the more you should be suspicious of what quality it has. Very simple. Invitational movements grow really really slowly. Trauma happens really, really quickly but it takes year to actually heal from that trauma. The quicker what you are doing is spreading the more you need to question what you are doing. But what I would suggest, is what I call “How 2.0”, very pretentious of me. How 2.0 is not “how am I doing it?” but, “how do I want it to feel when it happens?”. “How do I want it to feel when it happens?” And that for me is the core. That is the core of this work.

In thinking about the elimination of uncertainty, and thinking about enclosure, and thinking about gentleness, or kindness, or whatever, when you lift the words up and look underneath, and look below those multiple vocabularies, the important thing is to think about “how do I want it to feel?”, and then when it’s happening “how does it actually feel?”. If it feels really, really intense than you’re into the “enclosure triad” – High intensity.  High directivity and elimination of uncertainty thinking. If what you are doing feels like that, it’s time to rethink.

AM