In the space of a week, three unrelated conversations have given me pause for thought. Actually, that’s an understatement, for the triangulation of the points they raise has troubled me deeply, speaking as it does to the crisis of truth, trust, and freedom of expression that I fear is coming to define our age. Let me tell you a little of what I mean.
The first was an email from a friend in England in which she lambasted the current contest for the Conservative Party leadership and future Prime Minister of the UK. Her particular anger was the vacuity of the candidates’ promises and their blatant targeting of a mere fraction of the population. It was she said, a “race to the bottom” and not democracy as we know it or, deep down, believe it should be.
The second —and almost mirror image of these concerns —was a long overdue personal call with a former colleague. After catching up on family and putting the world to rights he told me, with a heavy heart, that his company is starting its annual reporting cycle. The next month he said, would be like a slowly deflating balloon, the process gradually sucking the energy of his team as they seek ever more contrived ways to evade the use of everyday language that might come back to bite. I know how he feels, for I have been there often.
As for the third conversation, I’ll come to that in a moment, for it was with myself and occurred only after I’d been pondering these first two. Meanwhile, the points my friends raised should concern us all, for they go to the heart of what it is to speak truthfully and with sufficient integrity to give us confidence in what’s being said.
On the one hand, under the veil of a democratic process, we have a political class (and this is not confined to the UK and US) that takes its responsibility for any sort of measurement and accountability with a pinch of salt. Theoretically, their disingenuity can come to roost at the ballot box, but in day-to-day terms, aided by spin doctors, a dysfunctional media, and the short memory of our collective consciousness, they carry on regardless. If they take us for fools, we are to some extent complicit.
At the other extreme, our largest corporations are now answerable to an ever-growing profusion of reporting requirements that are designed to ensure full transparency, but which in practice result in obfuscation and conditionality. Over the course of my career, the tone and content of stakeholder reporting have shifted from an open communication exercise to a cautious compliance process —and in so doing, it has lost its meaning to all but a few accountants and analysts. Read almost any listed company’s statements, and you’ll see what I mean — talk about hiding the wood with the trees!
But of course, to say as much, in either context is a sort of heresy.
This brings me to my third conversation, sparked by the horrific attack on the author Salmon Rushdie last week. If I don’t go into detail here, it’s not only because the assault has been widely reported and rightly condemned, but also that I won’t risk giving any oxygen to those who might seek to nuance our outrage.
Rather I’ll cut to the central thread, which is that limits to our freedom of speech don’t just impact those with the courage to speak up — in lessening what we hear and consider, they diminish us all. This is why I believe when committing to whatever values we believe in, chief among those should be an acknowledgment of the right of others to challenge — and importantly, to explore — without fear of being labeled an outcast.
We all know why President Putin tolerates no dissent to his descriptor of Russia’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine — but are we, I wonder, attentive enough to the verbal straightjacket we increasingly wear at home? How easily do we make it for colleagues to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy — and how many are reluctant to share concerns for fear of offending political correctness?
The proliferation of so-called ‘safe spaces’ in workplaces and academia is a case in point. Of course, all of us would like to live and work in environments where we can be ourselves and have our opinions respected. But this mustn’t be at the cost of removing the same right of others. The uncomfortable truth is that opinions, faiths, and values differ —and often in ways that are not entirely reconcilable. When it comes to values and ideas, the only truly safe space is the one in which all can be heard —no matter how nonconformist they may be — and then adopted, rejected, or even ridiculed on our assessment of their merits.
To return to my opening remarks, I have thought long and hard if it’s possible to learn from this triangle of concerns. Might we, for example, rebuild trust in our politics by insisting on more stringent measures and accountabilities? In the regulatory sphere, could we find some leeway for plain speaking and best intentions rather than nailing every syllable to the mast? And as for the workplace —and our communities —can we reach common cause in the proposition that being inclusive and sensitive, means also allowing for difference and dissent?
Ever the optimist, I believe that we can; ever the realist; I’m not confident we will.
This conclusion saddens me, not least because I want always to look forward with hope. But I’m buoyed by the thought that individual actions make a difference and reminded that my friends in speaking and emailing felt much the same. If wider society does not balance these forces then at least I can try, and by setting the best example we can — to my colleagues, families, and those others I connect with — make a small contribution to rebuilding the trust, truth, and freedom of expression that are hallmarks of the values I hold most dear.