Good night and good luck

November 23, 2006

One of the first plays I saw at the Chester Gateway in my youth was The Crucible, the famous use of the Salem Witch trials by Arthur Miller as mechanism for an attack on McCarthyism. Readers will recognise that the title of this blog is that of a recent film directed by George Clooney. Made atmospherically in black and white it magnificently tells the story of Edward R Murrow’s decision to take on McCarthy.

One of the key messages I took on board from both of these quasi-fictional accounts is that one of the signs of a lack of confidence in what you believe or value, is an intolerance of any challenge to the assumptions of that belief system. In effect it is a form of fear. There is an old saying: Why is it that Catholics and Jews tell jokes about their religion, to which the answer is: Because they both know they are right. The point being that if you are confident about what you are ,you can maintain a sense of humour and perspective.

Now I previously promised to report on my experience post KM World of being accused of being Anti-American. In thinking of how to introduce it, the fear that McCarthy engendered and the attacks on that fear naturally came to mind. I should make it very clear that my own experience is in no way of the same order of magnitude as the victims of McCarthyism. Any comparison would be as between and ant and an elephant in terms of size. However I do see the irrational and vitriolic nature of the attack as representing a similar form of fear and intolerance.

Enough of introduction – what was the attack? One of my blog entries made passing reference to KM World. This resulted in a comment being posted to me for authorization. Checking these and posting them is a part of my daily routine. I also resolved when I started this enterprise back in July that I would not censor postings in other than the most extreme of circumstances. The comment in question read as follows:

Working dawn to dusk? Hardly! All you did at KM World is spew what you hope some people might think of as wisdom but was thinly veiled political banter. If you don’t like the United States, then don’t come here. We didn’t need to have our corporations pay thousands of dollars to hear you talk about how screwed up the USA is. You don’t like Britian either? Fine. Maybe you should find some small island that works exactly as you want it to, buy it, and live out your days. After five minutes of your keynote, it didn’t matter what else you said. I wasn’t going to listen to another word. And after speaking with colleagues (American and from many other countries), I realize I didn’t miss anything.

Go home and stay there.

Now I must admit that this was a shock. I sent a quick email to the poster which basically said What did I say to deserve this? I also said that I would happily authorize the comment and response but first wanted to check there was not a misunderstanding. I also did a quick search on the name of the poster and discovered that she worked in a responsible position for a major US corporation. One that would not take kindly to one of its employees taking such an intemperate position. So for all of those reasons I decided to check before authorizing the posting.

An email dialogue ensued which did become more reasonable over time. I persistently said that I would only publish the blog with permission and the final response of the poster was that she did not want her name in any way associated with mine. I have therefore published the text here, but not the original comment which would identify her and, with one google search her position and the company she works for.

So, to the cause of the attack. In my keynote I showed the Basket ball movie and stated that the way we see the world is determined by the patterns stored in our long term memory. I further made the point that those patterns are heavily influenced by the stories we are told. By way of illustration I compared the acceptable range of political opinion in the US and Europe. For someone from Britain, the Republicans are the right wing of the Conservative Party, the Democrats the left wing of the same Party or the right wing of the Labour Party. The range is narrower. There is nothing right or wrong about this, it just is. It results from the stories told and retold in a society over time. It turns out that it was this supposed lumping together of the two main political parties in the US which caused the offense. I was probably also guilty of using irony (a British form of humour which is not always appreciated in the US who interpret it as sarcasm).

Now to make a strong point: I will happily apologize for any offense that I caused as my comments were in no way intended as an attack on the US. It is a country where I have a great many friends, have done much work and also received a lot of support from some surprising quarters. So if any other readers of the blog were at KM World and think I over stepped the mark then I freely offer an apology. If the person had posted a comment to the effect that she had found this offensive and wrong I would (I think) have responded with a comment to the effect that I was sorry about the offense, but that none was intended.

That said I have no intention of not speaking to what I consider to be a truth and to pointing out some of the implications. One should always be sensitive of culture, but not to the point of saying nothing but bland platitudes. Also this sort of tirade deserves a response.

Now to a degree the post is obvioulsy a violent outpouring. It is not even coherent in parts:
the idea that saying something controversial means that one is not working hard is absurd. But that aside, the more serious issues are for me the following:

  1. The statement any one with any critical comment (not that it was, but lets assume it was for the moment) should not be allowed to make it at an international conference
  2. The idea that if you say something that someone does not like in the first five minutes that everything else you might say is worthless

I checked with the conference organisers and several American friends who were there. They were as surprised as I was. Also from that keynote I received several invitations to speak to US organisations and got a lot of positive feedback both directly at the event and through email and blogs. Interestingly the organisation the individual works for is looking to use some of the methods and software that I talked about after the first five minutes. No one at the event came up and in any way challenged or questioned what I had said. I have elaborated this by way of explanation as to why I was so surprised to receive the comment in the first place.

What really worries me about the comment, is that an intelligent person so can be so sensitive that any comment that implies, even weakly, some form of criticism can create this sort of response. Yes it was at the time of the recent elections, and yes I can see that a Democrat might not like any possible linkage to the Republicans, but to interpret it as Anti-American seems sensitive as best, paranoid at worst.

Of course I know this is not typical. The satirical side of American humour is healthy and well developed. However its a very small step from being told to go home, to being sent home. Or for that matter being picked up and sent to a foreign country for interrogation without due process of law (and yes that is a criticism of both the US and of my own government for going along with it).

Insularity, with the consequent absence of criticism further reinforces the limitation of perspectives and subsequent intolerance. It seems to me that one of the most important things that we all need, particularly those in positions of power, to to see our selves as others see us. To be challenged and to embrace diversity. My reading of history is that the US throw out the British Empire in order to allow such diversity of thought, amoungst other reasons.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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