Every now and then one is confronted with something so absurd that it makes one want to run off and sit in the meadow for a mass dandelion break.
In my talks on organizational culture, I use a video from a 2013 briefing by President Obama’s spokesperson Jay Carney, who stepped in front of reporters to explain the White House’s role in the IRS playing political favorites and the Department of Justice secretly obtaining the call logs of the Associated Press. This is not a Red Team/Blue Team commentary….forget the partisan talking points for a moment. What continually depresses most Americans is that this press conference was just another accepted routine bit of Theater Of The Absurd.
Jay Carney is a smart man. Has to be in order to get that high up the food chain. But everyone knows he didn’t believe half of what he was saying that day. He was Just Doing His Job. And the journalists sitting in the crowd that day. Also very smart people at the top of their industry. Not one willing to stand up and say “Oh this is just BS”. Instead they reported in dry terms the typical He Said/She Said “balanced” reporting. They were Just Doing Their Job.
In that context I came across Seth Godin’s recent post concerning Thomas Midgley, the man famous of his invention of CFCs and the idea of putting lead into gasoline in order to reduce engine knock…both environmentally destructive innovations. However, the patents on those ideas were worth billions.
Of course the introduction of lead immediately had serious health consequences for refinery workers. Yet Midgely and others quick downplayed the effects. As Godin notes:
An entrenched industry needs the public and its governments to ignore what they’re doing so they can defend their status quo and extract the maximum value from their assets.
I would add this also applies doubly so to entrenched government bureaucracies, media outlets, and even third sector advocacy organizations.
And we give them a pass. Because it’s their job, or because it’s our job, or because our culture has created a dividing line between individuals who create negative impacts and organizations that do.
People who just might, in other circumstances, stand up and speak up, decide to quietly stand by, or worse, actively lie as they engage in PR campaigns aimed at belittling or undermining those that are brave enough to point out just how damaging the status quo is.
Hannah Arendt described the ‘Banality Of Evil‘ of the Nazi empire as one where a lot of really smart people – ordinary people – who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view their actions were normal. So much of the BS we accept in life we do so because we think it normal. In general, people just want to be left alone to live their lives with as minimal hassle from The Power as possible. But that is increasingly hard in a world full of Midgleys who succeed in a society which rewards spin and obfuscation. Godin concludes:
We might consider erecting a statue of him in every lobbyist’s office (and college campus and public square and government bureau), a reminder to all of us that we’re ultimately responsible for what we make, that spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and industry with the costs to all concerned. I can’t imagine a better person as the symbol for a day that’s not about honoring or celebrating, but could be about vigilance, candor and outspokenness instead.
My suggestion: Use this post to contemplate not what they are doing, but to consider how you are defending a dangerous status quo.