The view from history

25 02 2014

I wonder what the next generation will think when they look back over this particular period in history. Will people think that we were trying to do our best for the world and those who share it? Will they think that we made mistakes, but that was understandable because in 2014 we simply didn’t know any better?

The German philosopher Georg Hegel believed that we could only understand history retrospectively. By taking the long view of the way we came through the years we are able to see the routes we took, the decisions we made, the plans, projects and people that were important to us at the time. For Hegel the unfolding of history is a way of showing us who we are and what we are made of.  By his understanding, history is not just a series of events, history is human progress. History is the way we move towards greater awareness, evolution and personal freedom.

Hegel believed that there would come a time when the world was free from conflict. In this new dawn there would be no more slavery, no human trafficking, no child labour, no corrupt governments, no use of starvation as a weapon of war, no prejudice, no human rights abuses. By rigorously and systematically challenging our old ways we would come to realise what we could keep and what we could chuck into the dustbin of history. We’d carry on like this, refining and polishing our ways until we had no more improvements to make. Only then would we be actually free to follow our destinies.

Does this sound like an impossible ideal? For many critics of Hegel, it certainly does and there are plenty of examples of terrible situations in the world that illustrate how humanity seems to be moving backwards. Sometimes, on days like today when I cannot get the image of the Syrian camps out of my mind, I cannot bear to listen to the news, but equally I cannot make myself tune to something less distressing because it feels like a betrayal of all those who are desperate that the world should not turn a deaf ear to their suffering.

I don’t blame people for tuning out. There is only so much that people can take and even the Radio 4 reporter sounded choked this morning by what she had witnessed among those families starving to death in the camps that have been under siege for months.  The word she used was ‘overwhelming,’ and that was the word that kept me listening and got me thinking of how people in starvation situations become so weakened that they cannot help themselves. Take food from people and you take their will to live. Cruel and corrupt regimes use starvation as a weapon of war. It is less direct than shooting protestors on the streets, and far less costly. Those who starve their people do not dignify them with opposition; they simply disregard them. They give them nothing so that they will become nothing.

The question we must ask is why do some regimes fear people so much that they must starve them into silence? What history are such regimes trying to prevent? We know from the gulag, from the death camps, from the mass exterminations that these acts are remembered and documented. The names of the silenced and the starved will be forgotten, but their suffering will not because there are people who witnessed it, and can never forget it. Those who suffer as the warriors of atrocity are those who become the new history. 

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Lessons in leadership

2 02 2014

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When I first started secondary school teaching I was given advice on how to manage my classes. I was told that I mustn’t be too soft or the students would take advantage. Ideally, I wanted them a little afraid of me, and that way, I was assured, I would always get what I wanted, which was complete control of my groups.

The advice was well-meaning and intended to be supportive. Soon after receiving it, I decided that I would ignore it. The way I looked at it the last thing I wanted was to walk into my work place every morning and feel the students retreat from me in fear.

I had several reasons for not wanting to use fear in establishing my authority as a class room leader. The first is that I’m not an especially frightening person. I’m not very tall; I have a small frame and I don’t have a loud voice.  I have an open and enquiring approach to life and my style of engaging with people is part of my approach. Before I entered teaching I worked as a journalist and author and had developed a communication style that was collaborative and compassionate. I knew that actively listening to people and being prepared to work with them to find creative solutions to obstacles and problems had proved invaluable in interviews and in the news rooms where I worked to fierce deadlines.

You cannot survive as a national newspaper journalist if you are soft. My previous working life had demonstrated that I was not a pushover, so it was a bit of a shock to discover that a teacher who doesn’t use fear is a teacher who doesn’t get respected. In the early days of teaching, I often felt compromised. When democratic rule failed and I had to resort to using some tough tactics, it felt wrong. I believed that there was a better way to lead than merely acting scary and so I began to study leadership as an art rather than as a tool.

The Italian thinker Machiavelli (1469-1527) would have derided my early attempts to bring my students on side without resorting to brutality. Machiavelli believed that that it was better to be feared than to be loved. As far as Machiavelli was concerned Cesare Borgia, who appointed a tough commander for a particularly unruly part of Italy, allowed him to rule with an iron fist and then had him dismembered and put on display for all to see in the town square, was exactly the role model Machiavelli was looking for. His view was that given half a chance people would lie, cheat and act out of greed and self-interest; it was unfortunate, but people were just made that way and couldn’t be trusted. Incredible as it seems to me, this line of thinking is still prevalent in many institutions today.

As Machiavelli’s examples testify, undoubtedly fear as a form of control works. It makes people listen and it makes people behave. A whole generation of people schooled under corporal punishment understand the dynamic of fear and obedience. With this philosophy the ends justify the means.

The consequence of Machiavellian thinking, however, is that obedience shuts people down. Entire nations were shut down and suppressed under fascist and communist rule. If rule by fear was truly as successful as Machiavelli believed it could be then those nations would have remained under control to this day. Machiavelli failed to see that rule by fear only works temporarily. After a while people get used to brutality and even become bored with it. Brian Keenan’s illuminating study of the mind and personalities of hostage and captor in An Evil Cradling writes of daily beatings and torture becoming ‘insignificant, a mere passing inconvenience.’ The real hurts are ‘psychic’ although if the trauma is too deep and too prolonged then there is the refuge of insanity, against which Keenan fought.

It seems to me that Machiavelli did not believe in courage. He did not understand that people could be inspired either by their own determination or by courageous leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Perhaps the only role models available to him were demented and murderous ones: Macbeth as opposed to Henry V. And we know what happened to Macbeth, whose act of diabolical treachery against mild King Duncan turned against him and plunged him into the deepest form of paranoid fear. If you rule with fear, then fear to some extent will also rule you.

Machiavelli was forced into exile by the Medici family who believed that he was part of a plot to overthrow them, and so we must view his ideas on leadership with an awareness of his own desperation to return to public life. More enlightened philosophers such as Kant recognised that it is not necessary to act like a beast in order to be respected. Human beings could thrive if they were treated as an end in themselves. With Kant we have the beginnings of humane philosophy.

Nevertheless Machiavelli’s ideas are still influential and The Prince is still read by many politicians. The stream of meanness that runs through the popular entrepreneurial show Dragon’s Den has elements of Machiavellian thinking. On television and through social media cruelty is as popular as it ever was for creating an entertaining spectacle.

The enjoyment of cruelty is perhaps part of the self-interest and greed that Machiavelli identified as basic human nature. It is challenging to do some hard thinking about what we truly admire over and above what we find frivolously entertaining. We perhaps understand cruelty too well.

What we so often fail to stand up for is that leaders who treat their troops, their workers, their students, their followers as if they matter will always win over leaders who threaten and bully and use shame to diminish. Fear so easily ignites rebellion as shown by countless testimonies from the underground resistance movements of the Second World War.  

I also recognise this truth from teaching. Rebellion is a healthy way of testing whether fear is real. It lets the leader know that she is on the wrong track and needs to either change her leadership style or listen a bit more attentively.

Rebellion also creates an opportunity for some mischief and this, too, can be valuable. Reindeer travel in large herds across wintry landscapes. The herds are led by the elders who know all the snow-covered tracks and have the wisdom of experience to navigate the way through. When it is time to rest, the elders can bring the entire herd to a halt to lie down in the snow. Sometimes, though, the younger reindeer want to carry on and they can get a bit playful and move to the front. In his study of leadership The New Leaders the Daniel Goleman describes such a scene in which the elders patiently get up and move the subordinates back in line. After a couple more tries, the elders give up and let the youngsters ‘take the lead.’ This is a fine example of a discerning leader who knows how to temper discipline with tolerance. Machiavelli could have learned a lot from watching reindeer.