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How to lead in intolerant times

  • Published at 12:01 am December 2nd, 2016
  • Last updated at 03:04 pm December 2nd, 2016
How to lead in intolerant times

What lies beyond tolerance? What is the space on the other side of tolerance?

Is it a breaking point, or a bursting of the dam, when you think: “I can’t put up this pretense anymore. I’m tired of being politically correct, tired of having to pretend that I don’t have concerns or fears in case I get branded a racist, xenophobic, or some other kind of phobic? Can I not just curl up in my post-truth blanket and enjoy my dislike for experts?”

Or is the space beyond tolerance filled with mutual understanding, empathy, the suspension of judgment, and a meaningful search for diversity?

The forces of polarisation are tearing at our social fabric. Sure, some of the sources of stress are real. There are serious economic, demographic, and technological challenges to address. It’s the all-encompassing Fourth Industrial Revolution. But at least some of the tensions are man-made. And I’m afraid to say, you and I are suckers for them.

We all have our biases, prejudices, fears, and grievances that are sometimes legitimate. But then, we let all of these get hijacked and whipped up from frustration to rage, from rage to hate and at times, from hate to violence.

We’ve become rusty at constructive conflict. Here’s what I mean: If you disagree with me, it must mean that I hate you. I will immediately question your integrity and motivation. I will not isolate the person from the issue of disagreement.

I also cannot separate or compartmentalise areas of disagreement. If you disagree with me on one topic, I will have to disagree with you on the next topic -- whatever that topic is -- just to retaliate.

We’ve seen this in parts of the Brexit debate, with fears around migration, the lampooning of judges who you don’t agree with, or even the generalised bashing of certain professions and apparently-evil-but-unnamed big businesses. This is not responsible leadership.

We’ve become rusty at constructive conflict. Here’s what I mean: If you disagree with me, it must mean that I hate you. I will immediately question your integrity and motivation. I will not isolate the person from the issue of disagreement

The license for all forms of generalised hate comes from the same place. This is true in all echo-chambers -- whether religious, secular, right-wing, or left-wing.

What do I wish to see beyond mere tolerance?

I’d like to know if we can stop ourselves, as individuals, from succumbing to some of the emotional triggers of polarisation. Furthermore, I’d like us, as a community, to become immunised against exploitative polarisation.

Next time, when someone comes to me with the language of “us and them,” I want to be able to say: “No we’re cool. We have problems, but we’re dealing with them constructively.”

Or, the next time someone says to me, “you’re excluded, you don’t belong here,” I can point to areas where I’ve been pro-actively included and say: “What are you talking about?” Or, the next time I read a headline in the media that is deliberately designed to get my goat, I don’t give them my custom.

Is all of this a bit too idealistic? Possibly. But I clearly don’t believe so.

Smoking was cool in my father’s generation. It isn’t so anymore. Our attitudes to climate change or towards LGBT communities are different from what it was two decades ago. All over the world, there are inspiring stories of real positive change that we need to magnify and replicate.

So, what lies beyond tolerance? I hope it’s constructive conflict and pro-active diversity.

Constructive conflict is about rising above false binaries. It is about transcending the labels of socialism, capitalism, globalism, nationalism, or any of the “isms” that strip serious issues from their nuances. I can be a Euro-sceptic and a Remain voter. I can be a feminist and not vote for Hillary Clinton.

I can dislike the hijab in some contexts and oppose the ban on hijabs. I can be a proponent of multi-cultural diversity and still have concerns about the pace of migration. I can believe in greater liberalisation of labour markets and a greater role of government in transitional welfare.

Constructive conflict is also about how we engage in debate. It’s about moving away from the Westminster-style of engagement where one side pretends that nothing is wrong while the other side argues that everything is wrong. This style of offence-defense generates heat but very little light and creates a façade of accountability. I have offered a list of “Seven Rules for Constructive Conflict” here.

Other suggestions include deliberate processes that focus on bringing out blind spots or highlighting each dimension of a debate (factual, emotional, positive, negative) separately. Many of these processes are practiced in corporations and in professional risk-management settings. Somehow, we allow for standards to drop when it comes to public and political discourse.

Not anymore.

This will be the new test of responsible and responsive leadership. Whatever your views and whatever your cause, you are not a leader if you don’t practice constructive conflict. Let the counter-insurgency begin.

This article is based on the author’s opening speech at The London School of Economics.

Lutfey Siddiqi is Visiting Professor, London School of Economics. This article previously appeared in weforum.org.

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