Monday, May 4, 2015

“Don’t Say That! It’s Politically Incorrect!”

On the issue of speaking truth to power

I had a richly rewarding post Coffee House conversation the other day. The gentleman with whom I spoke had attended our last event, April 19, and I had wanted his feedback on it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was a bit, when the gentleman gently chastised me for something I had said at the event. (At these events I am the lead speaker and moderator.)

The comment in point had been one of those off the cuff remarks about my not liking our esteemed president, Barak Obama, that I make now and then.

Not only was I a bit taken aback by the man’s remarks but I was genuinely pleased he brought up his discomfort with my “leadership” style.

I do not aspire to compete with Jon Steward or any other Comedy Central player but I am definitely after a rise when I make certain statements. At best genuine dialogue would be the next step. This time the gentleman to whom I was speaking let me know that I had gotten a reaction from him but he definitely was up for continuing to engage in discussion with me.


Now he and I were really talking about stuff; the real stuff that’s at the root of our national race and police relations problems, the polarization that is everywhere from the White House down to my neighbor next door who killed two of my dogs with anti-freeze. (This, unfortunately, is my neighbor’s typical method of choice for handling displeasure rather than talking to me, in a neighborly, good will way.)

Subtley my conversation partner let me know, nonetheless, that he thought behavior such as I had exhibited in the instance in question at the Conversations’ event was poor leadership. Great we were now on our way! I appreciate critical feedback and, if given with gentleness, welcome it always.

Still I thought to myself after I had hung up from our phone interview, “Poor leadership!!??? Bah, humbug!!!!”

Obviously we had not gotten far enough in our discourse. On the other hand, perhaps the gentleman merely wanted to muzzle my expressions that were other than agreeable; “politically correct,” so to speak.

I thought, however, that he and I had come to somewhat of a meeting of minds after I shifted into vulnerable, straightforward, "always accountable Anastasia." And, perhaps we had. I had perceived that our conersation seemed affable, especially when I put aside my designed-to-be-evocative stint and spoke, instead, from my heart. He even agreed with some of my “not likes” in our president’s history of leadership.

We were not polarized then. I could feel the energy shift. Both of us had done our parts to ensure that, is my sense.

In any case, however, I triggered negativity in him again, I think, before our conversation ended with something else I said.

Once again I had felt that kind of body flinch that occurs when an interaction between oneself and another gets out of kilter.

Had I, again, failed to measure up to the yardstick he had of how leaders should act, applied to me? Or might it be that he had political aspirations? (I understand he has a key position next to our local reigning power.) Personally, I definitely have none. Maybe that would account for his being extra careful to use politically correct game strategies of discourse maneuvering – and – perhaps expect similarly of me.

Later I wondered if we hadn’t possibly split over the issue of what it means to “speak truth to power.”

James O’Toole, a noted journalist, has written extensively on the application to businesses and organizations of the Quaker philosophy of “speaking truth to power.” Speaking truth to power, as I understand the phrase, came into popular usage in our culture in 1955 through a publication of  the American Friends Service Committee entitled “Speak Truth To Power: A Quaker Search For An Alternative To Violence.”

It’s basic philosophy ”means saying something those in authority don’t want to hear.” It is also a common sense commitment to stand up for what one perceives and believes as a pathway to a peace made manifest in everything we do. Nonetheless, the practice is not without risk. As history has illustrated time and time again; a person can lose their head in some cultures, past and present, in applying the tenet.

Nonetheless in an article titled “A Culture Of Candor (Harvard Business Review, June, 2009),” O’Toole lays out his perspectives on the critical importance for healthy, contemporary busineeses, groups and organizations of “speaking truth to power by behaving in this highly ethical manner. Offering multiple aspects of applying the basic principle, O'Toole is quite precise in his explication of the essential role of telling the truth and the associated quality of transparency in the overall application of the general theory.

For my part, Einstein’s words, “I have a deep faith that the principle of the universe will be simple and beautiful,” lend credence to my belief that “Don’t say anything if you can’t say something nice,” is long outmoded, particularly in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” These words also affirm for me that truth is beautiful, even if sometimes uncomfortable, and much simpler than any of its alternatives.

Still, I am inclined to yearn for harmony as a rule. So I am asking myself, does defining who I genuinely am, telling the truth and being transparent mean that I need to pretend I like Mr. Obama, when I don’t?

I am not stuck on this position forever. But right now this stance is one from which I am learning a great deal, especially when I go public with it, now and again, witnessing myself as objectively as possible as I work through my emotions and judgements as I stand in it. Truthfully, I wouldn't "elect" to miss the adventure for anything. It is that close to my heart.

And, as an addendum, if I say nothing at all on the subject, which is also an option, am I hindering or helping the causes of peace and social justice that I build my life upon?

What’s your take?

Right now I am contemplating the issue?

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