Archive - April, 2008

Caterpillar Divestment

Word came yesterday that Caterpillar has asked for continuing conversation with the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church about Caterpillar equipment being used in Palestine by the Israeli military to knock down houses of Palestinians. It’s a highly charged issue and it’s been debated across the mainline religious community.

The willingness of Caterpillar executives to continue the discussion is a positive step. Equally important is the response of the General Board of Church and Society to withdraw proposed legislation from the General Conference of The United Methodist Church calling on divestment from Caterpillar.

The Conference begins April 23 in Ft. Worth with delegates from around the world attending. Divestment had loomed as one of the issues with potential to generate considerable debate. Now that it’s off the table and into dialogue, a much more productive conversation can begin, one that will be helpful to all concerned.

Caterpillar expresses concern about the use of its products which is both a morally responsible position for the corporation to take and the first step to meaningful conversation.

On the whole, my hat’s off to those who have gotten us to the point–Caterpillar CEO James Owens, General Secretary James Winkler and The Rev. Timothy Bias. All have helped us reach higher ground and I think the conversation will be more fruitful as a result.

Toxic Niceness

Recently I watched a guy make an accusation, float a lie and shut down a meeting. Then he withdrew and read his email on a Treo. (I knew what he was saying was inaccurate as did a few others in the room. A couple of days later some notes surfaced on the Internet that confirmed this.)

However, it was not only a well-practiced tactic, it was effective. I attribute it to two basic ingredients. Some in the room had no clue what he was talking about. Others were too nice to challenge him. (One courageous soul did effectively raise a voice but the meeting had come to a halt after he dropped this bomb.)

When niceness is the prevailing value, this disruptive tactic works and it often goes unchallenged because under the constraints of niceness we don’t know how to respond. In certain settings–meetings between business leaders, faculty, advertising agency staff and their clients, and, yes, mainline religious groups–folks are supposed to be nice. Confrontation is anathema in these polite settings.

In my imagination I can hear good readers of this blog asking me, “Why did you write that post, and why did you use the word lie?” In some circles I travel in we don’t talk this way and we don’t name our demons. And that’s the point. It’s time. Good people are hurt and good work is denigrated when we don’t name bad behavior and deal with it.

If a response comes, it’s likely to be subtle if not oblique, and it will be delivered in words that require a PhD to understand and translate. I call these the non-sequiturs of toxicity because niceness that allows bullying is toxic.

A frontal response is more likely to be rebuffed as a violation of the code of niceness than received as an appropriate response to destructive behavior.

I talked recently with a teacher who confronted a psychologist about a dispute over the placement of a child in a remedial reading program. The child has shown no progress in reading scores for four years. She is functionally illiterate going into fifth grade.

The psychologist wanted to keep the child in her current setting. The teacher wanted to transfer her to a school with remedial support. When the teacher disagreed with the psychologist’s recommendation, she offended the school’s unwritten code of niceness and her behavior became an issue.

Forget the fact that the child’s well-being is at stake, the teacher was expected to make nice. So she spent the remainder of her day explaining her response and her recommendation for the child got lost in the shuffle.

I think this kind of niceness is more prevalent in middle and upper-middle class settings but it isn’t foreign to working class and poor working class folks, either. Children of abusive, authoritarian parents learn coping mechanisms like niceness to avoid beatings and psychological abuse.

It’s long been recognized that excessive niceness is a skill developed by children of alcoholics. Learning early that their behavior can trigger violent physical or verbal abuse, these children develop sophisticated use of silence and sublimate their emotions in order to keep family life on an even keel. They lie to the outside world to avoid embarrassment and parental backlash. Niceness is part of the mask.

It is toxic, of course, because it sublimates genuine emotions and propagates a lie. It covers shame, which is internalized and leaves terrible emotional wounds. When niceness allows lying to go unchallenged and bullies to bully, it creates an environment of silence, mistrust and under-the-surface hostility that renders an organization dysfunctional and damages individuals.

Niceness may be endemic in religious organizations. Vapid niceness is confused with compassion and even with love. It hides insidious oppressive behavior and can make us complicit in allowing manipulative people to run rough-shod over others who are afraid to speak the truth or confront them.

As early as 1979 sociologist John Murray Cuddihy wrote about an “ingenuous niceness” in mainline religious groups that sociologist Peter Berger later called a “sacrament of American civility.”

Prior to this, mainline Protestants endured a period of not being nice. The social revolution that gained steam in the Sixties produced a confrontational conversation that wasn’t “nice” but was instead prophetic and challenging.

However, as mainline denominations experienced decline they also began to lose their nerve and these strong voices faded and the dialogue turned nice again.

Niceness can be a form of cowed silence, which arises from fear and oppression, according to psychologist Evelyn Sommers. She calls it the “tyranny of niceness” and points out that “Niceness fails to live up to its reputation. It does not make relationships easier, does not guarantee a stamp of approval nor improve the quality of life.”

In fact, Sommers points to the damage this distorted niceness does to the authentic self and how it damages relationships because truth doesn’t get expressed. It puts distance between people who are seeking to protect themselves from the pain of confrontation and rejection, hardly the basis for effective relationships.

There is a place for niceness in the workplace and the family but it must be authentic and not a mask for false equilibrium. It shouldn’t cover up dysfunction. It must be accompanied by truthfulness, responsibility and accountability.

Willingly or innocently, we are all complicit when these conditions are not present, and niceness masks bullying or other destructive behaviors. A perceptive reader will discern that part of what I am writing is autobiographical. I’m still learning.

And one thing I’ve learned is this: when the bullying and the lying start, it’s not the time to be nice. Niceness can be toxic.

Youth Voices: Adobe

Growing up in the digital age is completely different from growing up in an analog world. But for all the talk of interactivity and participation, kids who grow up in families without adequate resources, no understanding of the value of education and no access to the tools are left out. They probably believe no would care enough to listen to them anyway. It’s a pretty stark existence.

When I received an email from Adobe about its new internet video offerings, I scanned through some of the library and came upon Adobe Youth Voices. It’s addressing this human concern and it’s worth a look.

Adobe is providing the opportunity to some youth to be creators of digital content, and more importantly, the ability to tell their own storie with digital tools. Being empowered to tell your own story, and to tell stories of others, is life-changing. I’ve seen this happen time and again when people who feel their voices are unheard discover how to project themselves.

It opens the doorway to education, personal growth, social responsibility and meaningful participation in society.

Thanks Adobe.

Do Donors Support Corruption?

Donors who focus on how much money they spend and not on how many people they serve, nor the benefits of their service, are contributing to corruption in Malawi, according to a report by Susan Marmion under the aegis of Global Integrity. Christine Gorman comments on the report at the Global Health Report Blog.

Marmion reports three-quarters of the government’s income is from foreign aid. Donor money isn’t tracked and this, coupled with outright corruption, has led to abuse of funds, failed programs in education and health and contributes to the continuing disbelief in the integrity of the systems that should be seen as helping lift people from poverty.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t limited to Malawi. It’s been documented in many countries with developing economies across the world. Gorman, who is currently in Malawi on a Nieman fellowship, is looking at health care in Malawi. She cites the investigative research of Global Integrity which works with journalists to document integrity issues in the use of donor aid.

In her most recent post she also links to an important article by Andrew Meldrum in The Lancet about the deteriorating health care system in Zimbabwe. Meldrum’s report offers a cautionary point. When Zimbabwe is able to begin recovering from its current disastrous state of political degeneration merely throwing dollars into health delivery could do more harm than good. After reading his report, and having been there and seen the conditions health professionals labor under, it is tempting to want to get as much money in as fast as possible to help the ailing system get back. But merely opening the spigot won’t be enough and it could do unintended harm.

After all Zimbabweans have been through, that would compound tragedy upon tragedy.

Those who have an interest in Africa, and in Malawi and Zimbabwe in particular, will find these reports very informative reading.

Damage Control: Know When to Fold Them

In crisis management damage control is a matter of knowing when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away and when to run. Don Schlitz’s lyrics in the song popularized by Kenny Rogers clarify the process perfectly. This post is a follow-up to one I wrote recently on Frank Rich’s description of “analog arrogance in a digital age.”

Having made a mistake or committed a misdeed that has been exposed, how does an individual or corporation limit the damage, manage the crisis it brings and start to repair reputation? Crisis manager Eric Dezenhall in his book Damage Control says, fix it. Explain your actions, apologize and make amends. This is what it means to be a responsible company, and public accountability is essential.

Dezenhall is noted for his in-your-face recommendations so this conciliatory approach carries extra weight with me.

He also says it’s best to act while the controversy is in its infancy. Making concessions and talking with the aggrieved early on works best, before antagonism grows and attitudes harden.

When the accusation comes from a sympathetic member of a core constituency–employee, consumer, shareholder, community member or another who is essential to the work of the corporation–Dezenhall says, deal with it. They can do the most short-term and long-term harm. This is the time to fold ’em, I think. He writes, “Don’t eat your own.” (p. 158)

He says a key challenge is to make concessions early enough to have real impact because the escalation of a crisis “does not rise at a steady 45-degree angle. It can accelerate suddenly, and often unpredictably.” (p. 159)

This recalls the handing of the recent controversy about sermons of Barack Obama’s pastor. Regardless of your opinion about them, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons on YouTube overtook the Obama campaign like wildfire. Wright’s fiery preaching was not unknown but once the YouTube spark ignited dry tinder, the wildfire exploded.

I’ve witnessed plenty of prairie wildfires growing up in the Great Plains. When a little grassfire touches a dry red cedar the tree literally explodes into a ball of flame. This creates its own wind, lifting up burning shards that carry the fire to other trees and grasslands. I’ve seen fires jump four-lane superhighways in seconds.

Barack Obama not only did the right thing, he did it supremely well. Remarkably, he wrested control of the crisis. The crisis that threatened to undo him was contained, but even his deftness, honesty and skill did not leave him unscathed.

In a bit of descriptive inelegance Dezenhall says, “In a category five crapstorm, make no mistake about it: The crisis is controlling you.” (p. 47) I prefer my analogy to Dezenhall’s, but the point’s the same.

Obama risked damage within his own constituency as well as in the wider audience. The folks who care most are also most outraged when things go south. If they feel betrayed and their outrage takes over there is no more powerful emotion, Dezenhall says.

Obama took a direct hit but he did not “eat his own.” Instead, he took a risk and talked about race and its importance to all of us and in doing so mitigated further risk. Further, he did not attempt to spin his audience. Dezenhall says you can’t spin an audience that doesn’t want to be spun and angry supporters don’t want spin. My own observation is they want truth, and if they feel they’re being handled, they want blood.

If it comes to this point, it’s time to run because you’re no longer in position to explain, apologize or ameliorate. You’d best duck and get out of the room because the roof is about to come down on your head. So, if possible it’s clearly better to fix things before they devolve to this point.

It comes down to this: you need to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, or when to run.

Whack TB

Among the diseases of poverty it seems to me TB gets the least attention. I don’t know if I’m accurate in this assessment, but it seems to me it’s not as widely covered as HIV/AIDS or malaria.

But one person is infected every second and drug resistance is growing. A more resistant strain of TB has caused concern among physicians globally. A few yeas ago I spoke with a doctor in New York who advised me to keep my chronically ill son away from crowds, such as during rush hours on the subway, because a resistant strain was circulating in Manhattan.

TB is a pernicious diseases because it starts a a low grade infection and develops over time. According to Families USA “TB is moving around the world—on planes, trains, buses—and in the air we breathe. There are almost 9 million new cases of TB each year; about 500,000 of these cases are resistant to the best TB drugs available to fight them.”

Unlike many diseases of poverty TB isn’t geographically contained. It can happen anywhere. It is airborne and moves from person to person.

March 24 was World TB Day and FamiliesUSA created the Whack TB game that provides information and links to information and action. Play the game and learn more about how to fight this disease.

Analog Arrogance in a Digital Age

Frank Rich has come up with a gem of a descriptive phrase. He wrote on Sunday that Hillary Clinton’s account of her Bosnia landing reveals the “political perils of 20th century analog arrogance in the digital age.”

What a phrase. I’ve been thinking about it all week. It describes reality in our time. Rich’s point–among other things–is that narrating your way out of a falsehood, or a mis-statement, is much more difficult, if not impossible, in the digital age.

Why? Because words can’t counter images. Mrs. Clinton was shown on the tarmac in Bosnia walking upright, not with her head down under threat of sniper fire as she had stated. She wasn’t ducking for cover, she was strolling and smiling. The footage showed up on You Tube. Her explanations seemed to add to the perception that she was misrepresenting the truth.

For a couple of days she tried to sustain the narrative. But as it became clear she couldn’t combat what we saw, she recanted. Even her recant seemed clumsy, however, as she depicted her earlier claims as “mis-statement.” Her words were not reassuring, they were desperate. So it goes in a digital culture.

Rich refers to images but his point is much broader.

“A bottom-up media culture is challenging any candidates control of a message,” he writes.

In an analog world words reined supreme. Things could be explained away and sometimes lies could be sustained because stories could be contained. Then the world changed.

Digital technology put the ability to share information broadly into the hands of nearly everyone–at least in most of the world. More people are empowered to send more information without restraint than ever before. The gatekeepers don’t control the story anymore. And neither do the fabricators.

Explanations of wrong-doing are more likely to meet suspicion and challenge if enough people want to challenge them. And refutation is much more likely to get lost in the same media chatter that takes allegation to the world.

Those pols who think they can tell falsehoods or behave inappropriately without being caught live in a world of analog arrogance that doesn’t recognize this change. And as Eliot Spitzer realized, it can be a fatal miscalculation. His claim that his traffic with prostitutes was a “private matter” was myopic.

There are two issues here, probably many more. The first is tactical. It centers on the idea that you can cover up misbehavior or explain it away. Bad tactic. Not to mention ethically and morally unacceptable.

Once a story is out in the ether it’s too late to wrest control. Scandalous stories have a life of their own. And this is fed not just by images, it’s also fed by the instantaneous reach of email. With the push of a button gossip is global today.

If it’s in a blog, search engines pick it up and make keyword associations and the damage is done, probably irreparably. From the moment of the first allegation, “Spitzer” became associated with “prostitution” and “scandal.” (Try a Google search on Spitzer and see what you get.)

And this will remain until someone finds a way to get it out of the system, which is nearly impossible with a big story and isn’t easy with small fry if it’s repeated and quoted widely.

The second issue: Why do people–smart, powerful, public people–engage in behavior that puts them at risk? Why is it often sexual behavior? And why do men, in particular, risk careers and families for sexual behaviors that are often contrary to their own personal values?

Social psychologist Martin Monto talked about this with Michelle Norris on NPR following the Spitzer revelation. He speaks of the disconnect between the actual risk involved in such behavior and the person’s recognition of the risk. Enter analog arrogance.

I suspect inappropriate behavior becomes internalized as it is repeated over time. It is also rationalized and becomes routine, if not an entitlement. How many commentators rationalized Spitzer’s behavior as an outgrowth of the intensity of his always-on public persona? Under this intense pressure, goes this line of reasoning, cavorting with prostitutes was a release.

When boundaries fall in this way, it’s inevitable mistakes will be made and the behavior exposed. I talked with one person who believes this blind arrogance may be so internalized among big-time public figures that it takes national humiliation to bring them to recognition. Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer.

Which leads to another question: How could associates close to this behavior not know about it? My guess is that a culture of denial evolves into a support system that enables it, not because people believe this is for the best but because they don’t know how to cope with it short of blowing the whistle. And blowing the whistle on powerful people is not exactly a career advancing strategy.

This is corrosive and toxic. It implicates others who wish not to be implicated and it sows seeds for its own destruction. In the digital age it seems inevitable that these “private matters” will implode like a star that throws off mass as its core burns away. Crises such as this throw off the innocent and the complicit in an eruption that burns all involved.

When the story is spun out we’re more cynical about the integrity of our leaders, our institutions and our public morality. The quality of our civic life is damaged because we are less trusting, we disinvest our best and highest passions and if we engage we do so cautiously and with reserve. And perhaps some of us, no matter how distant from the imploding core, feel sullied.

Analog arrogance in a digital world is a costly, hurtful malady.