Most of us are still stuck in a conception of vertical power. How can we truly find a voice for the wider population, rather than simply seeking to replace the current leaders as sources of knowledge and wisdom? And how can we avoid celebrity cults in our own network?
What counts as UK news over this past week? Dominating the headlines has been the question of whether Boris Johnson is guilty or not guilty of breaking the law for attending illegal parties over the COVID lock-down period. This is not a trivial question since trust is the most valuable kind of capital in political power: without it you have little authority.
At the same time, there is something amiss that this should be a relevant topic. What kind of political culture holds us in thrall with this question again and again, throughout Boris’s tenancy at Downing St? Claiming so much of our precious time, in a moment in history when time matters?
While our planet is literally on fire, we are transfixed with the behaviour of the man in charge of Britain. Some would say we should be. On the same pages, there is the suggestion that he would do anything to throw his persecutors off the scent - including inciting international conflict. Margaret Thatcher was accused of the same.
Yet we aren’t just being distracted by shallow politicians. Within this media structure, dominated by the Murdoch press (yet also reflected in relatively independent papers), pictures of singer Adele crying share the scarce real estate for headlines. They’re not in sympathy for her dilemma (forced to cancel shows in Las Vegas), but instead report the fury that her UK fans feel at the short notice. Competing for this territory is the death of singer Meat Loaf, famous for the line “I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do that”. Sadly, his ultimate act of defiance was to refuse the Covid vaccine.
Why do readers of the mainstream news accept this level of infantilization? It’s as if editors the world over have decided that our emotional lives are still centered on the actions of those in charge. Like adolescent children, our emotional goals are stuck in complaint against our parents – or anyone else that appears to have more power than we do. The editorial elites are not yet ready to make real appeals to the emotions that move us into action or help us discover our agency.
But maybe the editors are simply calling it accurately: maybe most of us are still stuck in a conception of vertical power. Where the real race - even in our own networks - is not to see and bring to life the full diversity of human agency. But to simply replace the current leaders as the source of knowledge and wisdom. To become the new gurus of a future civilization keeping people in thrall to our words, rather than emphasizing the importance of finding a voice for the wider population? Is that you? To what extent are any of us – or all of us – guilty of this daily motivation?
Of course, this is not a simple question with black and white judgements on offer. There’s a continuum along which we all stand that is defined by more than just personality. For example, a wise man or woman has much to offer those who need direction. To offer the fruits of one’s privilege – through education, experience, or talent – can be a generous act.
Yet within a structure that only allows for one voice (or the dialogue between two people) to be heard, it can unwittingly maintain the status quo.
People follow celebrities (political or otherwise), entranced by the cultural capital – we can call it beauty - on display. It’s often brought in the guise of a certain modesty or humility, which is in fact the fruit of profound inner confidence. Or they bring a story of vulnerability, which actually displays their strength of character. When the audience isn't able to script their sensitivity in public this way - lacking either opportunity or training - they remain subjected and passive. And this at a time when the empowering of exponentially more people is our only chance in the battle for planetary survival.
This can be true for celebrities sharing their emotional back story in a competition to win a trophy (from X Factor to Emma Radacanu). The audience is invited to imagine that ‘they struggle just like I do’ – a feeling that answers our emotional need for belonging. Yet it is essentially false, a deliberate manipulation by skilled professionals who have their eyes on getting us addicted to their output.
In reality, those celebrities live in a multiplicity of structures (class, colour, gender, age) which selected their talent over that of others. Matters were organised for them to become the subject of your attention. More and more we understand that the ‘American Dream’ is exactly that – a Dream of equality. Where hard work, on its own, leads to riches. In reality, the hardest working people don’t have a chance. Not because they have no skills worth developing, but because our socio-economic system is structured to continue favouring the already privileged.
Most of us reading will know this is an old dilemma that has been playing out over centuries. But how many of us believe we are addressing that inequality, while in truth we are largely maintaining it? We devise new initiatives that are deliberately one-directional; we display our insights, but we are never open to the insights of those whose intelligence has been systematically marginalized. We stay with the assumption that those with privilege own the solutions, landing them as gifts on others who know very little.
A good example might be the offer of resilience training in schools. How many of these programmes are designed by men who have come through public school education and elite universities? Words like ‘grit’ and ‘determination’ remain high on the list of ‘character’ qualities required: blunt instruments designed to dominate. If there is emotional intelligence here, too often it’s of the strategic and manipulative kind that teaches pupils how to step up a ladder to the top. At another point of the career journey, successful entrepreneurs coach resilience as the key to remaining buoyant in turbulent times. It’s helpful and fascinating to learn how those with power can stay strong.
On the contrary, parents and social workers are largely blamed for the failures of those in power to bring about better solutions for the whole of society. While those who are really responsible hang on to their social, cultural and relational capital, so they can remain the arbiters of right and wrong.
This structure is not easily remedied: those with privilege (which includes this writer and you readers) cannot simply stand aside and give up our responsibility for the house we built. But we all can make room for the previously excluded to occupy that house of decision-making with us. Move on from the idea that ‘the people’ know nothing and need to be instructed. Allow that our knowledge is partial – all of us – and we need more insights from the edge to change the trajectory of power.
Alternatively, we can begin the project of co-designing and co-creating the future with a multiplicity of others in ways that are feasible. Not at national level, where the key requirement of building relationship and trust between the most and least privileged is too hard. But in neighbourhoods, towns and even cities: where we are at once contained in communities and - at the same time - can learn from each other.
In these spaces, we can put the whole idea of society into play - without losing the infrastructure which we currently rely on for our basic services from the state. Experiment with new forms of decision-making. Design new economies. Re-imagine what kind of education might equip us all for a future which is looking tumultuous. Design technology that helps us all to use our particular kind of intelligence – your unique experience of the world - to contribute to the flourishing of our whole species.s Giving agency to young people who are already best adapted to the tools – and multiple intelligences - of change now coming into play.
Our sense is that most of the energy will be with the alternative. Your space, your ingenuity, your platform. The more we all invest our dreams into this emerging co-owned space, developing the real-time infrastructure to deliver real-time results urgently needed, the more attraction is generated. Government and business will eventually compete to be champions of this growing story of human flourishing.
Without an empirical record to draw on - meaning experiments and adventures in whole and diverse human flourishing - there is no system change possible. Time to check whether you are set up to listen as much as you speak.
This text was originally published as The Alternative UK's alternative editorial on 24 January 2022.
Words by Indra Adnan
Indra Adnan is a psychosocial therapist and Co-Inititator of The Alternative UK, a political platform which responds to the question: if politics is broken, what’s the alternative? She is also a lifelong Buddhist and the founder of the Soft Power Network, consulting to Finnish, Brazilian, Danish and British governments.