When things go wrong and people are angry, the natural tendency is to look for someone or something to blame. We hold a public inquiry to make sure we know who’s fault it was, why it went wrong, and to make sure it never happens again.
The anger is stoked into a blaze of blame which gets so hot we step back from our own responsibilities. Instead of looking at ourselves, we glare at the unfortunates tied to the stake while opportunities for useful learning get incinerated.
Right now, there’s a scorched clearing where political leadership used to be. The whole tinderbox set alight when the match of a very poor question was struck. The flames were fanned to great intensity by people frantically waving their fears, enthusiastically fuelled by the most fearful of all – those who dread the differences in people ‘not like me’.
With political leadership up in smoke, the politicians we’re left with are in a state of shock, running about with frayed nerves and feeling a desperate need to be in control. They’re still clutching matches, have no idea how to put out the fire and have no maps or survival equipment. It’s a recipe for edgy panic and they’re making us all feel nervous. Realistically, they need to be removed from the scene for treatment.
We’re all desperately keen to see hope rise from the ashes – and for that to happen, we have to see something new. Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that virtually everyone in the nation seems to have launched their own personal public inquiry on social media and in the pub.
Here’s the result of mine, which distills into two questions – who now? and what could be different?
1. Who would I like to see step into the centre of political life?
My experience of politics is that it tends to focus on big P politics at the direct expense of progress in the common ground. The default position of the political establishment seems based on an underlying assumption that we live in a binary world. Left or Right, right or wrong, things are two dimensional and political powers must always oppose. This belief promotes a focus on problems, invites disrespect, and encourages people to posture for the sake of appearing to have the upper hand.
In practice, I know politicians can be very practical and collaborative across parties – but if in public, they only ever describe each other as untrustworthy, misguided or just plain wrong, the public have nothing else to believe. Undermining each other, they dig the ground from under their own feet.
I’d like to see those who are well equipped to tackle this toxic form of politics step into the space – not career politicians schooled in theory for power, but campaigners, activists and changemakers who’ve learned different skills. These are people who love to ‘make a difference’ in practical ways. They’re the ones who are good facilitators, can bridge cultural divides, are quick to praise and keen on collaboration. Knowing things are hardly ever fixed and never simple, they are champions of learning together.
We can’t all step into political roles, but we CAN take personal responsibility for promoting these skills. The more widespread they are, and the better the quality of our political leadership and debate. We’ll still have fires, but we should be able to control them and get the benefit of the heat.
So the answer to who now? is us – or at least those of us prepared to be creative collaborators.
2. What could be different? – lessons to be learned from the Brexit fire
Since we’re entirely contained by and made of Nature, it seems to me the best place to look when attempting to make sense of the world. All this talk of fire got me thinking about the similarities between great forests of the world and human societies. Here’s how it helped me make sense of what’s happened.
i) The fire was inevitable
Forests choked by overcrowding, undergrowth and dead wood are prone to pests and diseases – they need fires (occasionally) to unclog the system, nourish the forest floor, open space for sunlight and encourage healthy new growth that’s better food for wildlife. As this lovely little fact sheet on the Benefits of Fire from California shows, overall – the habitat for life improves.
Humans use bureaucracy to manage society. No matter how well intentioned, nor how brilliantly and simply crafted the rules of government are in principle – rules tend to build on rules until things become so impossibly complex they’re unworkable.
At the last budget in the UK, the press made a show of the implausibility of Britain’s 17,000 page tax code – a clear example the natural urge of every administration to grow more complex over time. Special advisers make a killing (not just tax, think law, policy-making and finance) because the administrative undergrowth is so dense. Although specialists complain about the system, they also depend upon our dependency on them – they can’t be relied on to keep cutting and clearing to make things easier.
So both Britain and the EU have become tinderboxes, all set for a firestorm which could just as easily have been set off by something other than Brexit. For all the talk of ‘tackling red tape’, no government in my memory has ever effectively kept the undergrowth in check, making space for the sun to shine on the core principles buried under layer upon layer of complexity.
I’d like to see us all debate and develop our understanding of First Principles. We need to build trust in our own judgement if we want the system to stay lean and workable.
ii) Arsonists need educating
Questions are phenomenally powerful tools – used well, they direct our efforts with intelligence towards good results. Poorly handled, however, and questions become actively unhelpful or simply incendiary. This makes anyone with a pocketful of bad questions an unwitting arsonist.
Whether or not society is a forest, that’s not a good thing.
The British Public were asked to make a ‘simple choice’ – should the UK be In or Out of the European Union? It was not, as more people now appreciate, a simple thing at all. Einstein famously said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes’.
The question itself was a fair one – it was really a question of identity – which could have been posed in a more searching way like ‘Do we belong’? or ‘How are we in relation to people in Europe’? We had an invitation to strip back the undergrowth and remind ourselves what the European Union was for.
And yet none of us (journalists, politicians, the crowd) challenged the purpose of the question. We knew the referendum was posed from the middle of a brawl in progress and knew too that both sides were deeply entrenched in fiercely fixed opposition. The European Union was just an excuse to fight.
The country went to the polls pumped with emotion, emphatic in their beliefs, and without any clear understanding of the consequences of their choice. Better questions from those shaping or participating in debate would have explored the value of the EU, making the potential consequences of the vote far clearer and exposing false assumptions along the way.
I’d like to see more emphasis on the power of questions, and in particular, the use of Appreciative Inquiry techniques to promote constructive understanding.
And so my inquest concludes.
The real cause of the battle? I think it was the age old conflict between individual gain (The Right) and social equity (The Left). There IS a middle ground – but it’s not fixed – it’s a place of balance.
We can find better balance only when we embrace a New Order of thinking – a paradigm shift which makes the flourishing of people and planet our First Principle. This shift needs to be facilitated by much better questioning skills and led by people with the grace to appreciate our inter-dependence.
There is an abundance of people with the skill and experience to bring a New Order like this to life, and I believe they’re ready to step into that empty leadership space. We will all recognise them when they come.
Whether or not you count yourself among them, let’s reject the two dimensional future on offer from the establishment and roar our encouragement in deed and word to those who would be the change. We all need to apply within.
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