God of Leadership

There are certain kinds of human activities that we observe behaviourally and then describe as ‘leadership.’ We call the people who do these activities ‘leaders.’ And as we describe leadership, we shape the parameters of what who recognize and ‘observe’ as leaders. Observation, description, and back again. Around and around it goes; a feedback loop. Along the way, we write lots of books and design conferences about how to be better leaders.

But what is leadership? Ask five different people, get ten different answers. In the meantime, there is apparently a lot of cash to be made by telling people the secrets of these mysterious ‘leadership skills.’ But who defines leadership? Who benefits the most by peddling concrete definitions about how ‘good leaders’ act in the world? Who gets to decide what makes a ‘great leader’ so ‘great’ in the first place?

To ponder… I’m thinking about leadership as something like reified cultural iconography. Like a cathedral, a ‘leadership conference’ is a brick and mortar edifice that converts a set of cultural ideas into physical infrastructure. The infrastructure is real. (And the take-home paycheque of leadership gurus — like the temple priests — is real, too.) But the concept of leadership, well, maybe it’s more like a god than anything else.

What do people mean when they say, ‘Science’?

What is science, exactly? Today we talk a lot about ‘evidence-based policy’ in government, academia, and in the media, but is there a widening gap in the way we define ‘evidence’ as a society?

Is ‘science’ just another segment on the evening news? How do we, as a general public, decide when to trust science? Do you believe the studies that say chocolate and coffee are good for you…or the other ones? How do you validate your beliefs about immunizing children?

Nadine Wathen (@nadinewathen) is a Full Professor in the Health Information Science Program in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. She is a Research Scholar at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children in Western’s Faculty of Education. Nadine holds an affiliate appointment in Western’s Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and is also cross-appointed to the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing. Her research develops and evaluates interventions for women and children experiencing violence, and seeks to enhance the science of knowledge translation and exchange (KTE) to ensure that new knowledge emerging from research is made available, in appropriate ways.

Do religious communities provide ‘something’ that no other kind of community can offer?

There are interesting implications however you answer the question.

Several writers — Alain De Botton and Peter Sloterdijk come to mind — have considered the plight and future of the secular practice of community. The fulcrum of the discussion seems to boil down to commitment. Membership in a religious community is ‘transactional’ — a declaration of faith/devotion to a creed/doctrine in ‘exchange’ for belonging/identity.

In a sense, of course, all communities are transactional. (If you punch your friends in the face every time you see them, you will undoubtedly be seeing less of them.) But one could argue that religious communities tap into something more primordial. For example, in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Violent Extremism and Sacred Values, anthropologist Scott Atran speculates about the possibility that belief in the spiritual served as the psychological basis for civilization itself. Perhaps believing in gods was the evolutionary precursor to collectively believing in things like states and constitutions. Before we could believe in kings, laws, and borders, perhaps we had to nurture the capacity to believe transcendent ideas by first believing in things like gods and the idea of order itself?

One could make the argument that a religious community is unlike any other kind of community and that a religious community ‘delivers’ something that no other group of humans can provide. If you move into a new city, as a person of faith, you can probably look up a list of religious communities that share the essential points of your beliefs. Amazingly, at least to some extent, your deepest, most cherished tenets — the convictions that orientate you to and in the world — find resonance and affirmation. Your creeds are sung.

Conversely, if you move into a new community as a nonreligious person, your ‘innermost circle’ typically forms around shared interests and experiences — work, hobbies, civics, etc. But do these associations ever reach ‘religious-grade’ community in the support, solidarity, and inclusion they provide?

Can you be a part of a ‘religious-grade’ community without ‘religious-grade’ commitment?

On the other hand, what if religion doesn’t have any exclusive claim to the depth or legitimacy of community? Anecdotally speaking, there seems to be a ‘scale’ of social integration that correlates with any shared values — especially shared values held in spite of external pressure. Consider the bonds of a military division or any high-stress, dangerous work that requires unequivocal trust among team members. A potential implication here is that the ‘thing’ to which people commitment in unison may not necessarily need to be a supernatural proposition, but perhaps just about any cause, narrative, rhetoric, or identity will do. What matters is sharing it in common.

Furthermore, a sense of ‘duty’ may superficially differentiate religious communities from ‘secular’ communities. Do people join chess clubs out of interest and churches out of duty? Or is participation in either simply and equally driven by the human need to belong? Or does the sense of duty felt by a detachment of soldiers create a connection deeper than any chess club or church can provide?

In the end, the relativity of our question creates more problems than it solves. If this is a research question, it is plagued with severe study design challenges. What seems evident is that people who need religious orders join churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, and people who need chess clubs join chess clubs. Defining a certain ‘type’ or ‘grade’ of community is arbitrary to the extent that we humans (apparently) have a diverse range of needs and desires of association and tribe.

So, do religious communities provide ‘something’ that no other kind of community can provide? Probably, yes. But chess clubs probably provide ‘something else’ that religious communities cannot deliver. Perhaps the question should be less about the particular nature of religious belief and more about the dynamic and diverse nature of human community in general.

That said, I think there are still lessons that the rest of us can learn from religious communities — even if for no other reason than that religious traditions have been sculpting and experimenting with community for centuries. With Alain De Botton, I suspect that there is something profound (and, yes, likely primordial and evolutionary selective) in the idea of scheduling ‘sacred’ times to gather and in the practice of preparing and sharing meals together. Religion effectively constructs a bureaucratic hierarchy that coordinates the dreary logistics of gathering for the faithful. Taking an intentional approach to organizing live, in-person sharing of ideas and meals is the critical lesson that religion has been evolving over millennia. But can we genuinely commit to community without the gods?

My Human Rights vs. Your Human Rights

Canada is full of legal examples where the rights to be free from discrimination based on creed, sexual orientation, or gender may be perceived to be at odds with one another in different circumstances. Whose rights ‘win’ when rights are in competition? In Canada’s increasingly diverse society, the question of competing human rights comes up often. Join us as we pick apart some legal cases to see how these conflicts are resolved in the court system.

  • Street preachers pronounce condemnation on passerby pedestrians — free speech versus freedom from harassment? One person’s right to express themselves versus another person’s right to not be verbally assaulted?
  • A Greek nursing home refuses admission to a non-Greek applicant who claims policy is discriminatory. Can you reject someone from an establishment on the basis of their ethnicity?
  • The child of same-sex parents is refused enrollment to a private Christian school. Religious freedom or discrimination? Which right supersedes the other?
  • Currently before the courts, Trinity Western University, a private school seeking accreditation for law degrees, simultaneously requires enrolling students to sign a statement of faith that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.

To help us navigate these cases, our good friend Susan Toth (@TothSusan) returns to the podcast. Susan is a partner at Polishuk Camman & Steele and serves on the board for the Urban League of London and the London Police Services Board. (Listen to her previous visit to the podcast, wherein she investigates the Oakes Test.)

[In this discussion, it struck me that ‘identity politics‘ could be seen as amplified and galvanized when human rights compete with one another. It raises an interesting question: do human rights inspire or incite a culture of identity politics? If you are curious to explore the topic of identity politics further, come to Discussing the Identity Politics Debate on Monday, December 4, 2017.]

Be Your True Authentic Self (and other doctrines of capitalism)

Let’s think of capitalism as a religion. If capitalism is a religion — if it needs disciples to adhere to and pass on certain doctrinal truths to survive as an ideology — what are its foundational precepts? For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s hypothesize that clues are found in some of the dominate secular tropes of capitalist societies.

In this post, I contemplate the idea that the so-called, unofficial ‘State Religion of Capitalism’ has evolved four central tenets:

  1. Be your authentic self
  2. Do what you love
  3. You only live once
  4. Follow your dreams

It is important to acknowledge that most adherents of this creed are inadvertent disciples. Devotees to this religion are not ‘born again’ so much as they are ‘born into’ the cult. Their beliefs are as invisible and ‘natural’ as they air they breathe; the truth of their tenets is as self-evident as the wind.

Be your authentic self

First, Be your authentic self serves as the basis for the whole religion. Capitalism requires a population that conflates consumption with identity. Stuff must equate to status. Nothing is more precious to capital than a population in need of differentiating themselves as distinct individuals. Therefore, as in most religions, disciples of capitalism are required to believe that they possess some special inner spirit seeking expression in a physical world. Accordingly, activities and purchases become the holy indulgences that give manifestation of this inner self.

Above all, a devoted follower of this religion must seek to find their ‘true self.’ This pursuit is paramount — the holiest of pilgrimages. The ambition to ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’ must be elevated to the status of spiritual conviction. To second-guess the presence of one’s inner deity amounts to doctrinal heresy and threatens to pave the road to hell itself: a psychological crisis of identity.

(The apex of religious indoctrination is achieved when supposedly avowed skeptics of capitalism signal their counter individuality through consumption — consumption that is branded to advertise opposition to capitalism itself.)

In the religion of capitalism, authenticity is the golden rule. To find and express your true self is the highest call. (Is your ‘true self’ the ‘self’ who does the searching or the ‘self’ you find? Ignore this blasphemous the doubt! Just keep searching! You’ll find the ‘authentic you’ eventually.) Your self-actualization is your promised land. Your nirvana. Your heaven. But until you reach it, you should try buying something else to see if it helps you express or uncover some ephemeral kernel of your essence. Individuality is the kool-aid. In the final analysis, the quest to find and express your ‘true self’ is mostly corporately-sponsored nonsense.

Do what you love

This holy preoccupation with self — its passions, its identity, its expression — leads to the second tenet of the religion: Do what you love. Once you have internalized the myth of an invisible, indivisible, sacred self, you must do what this inner god commands. After all, to do anything otherwise would be inauthentic — and nothing could be more sinful than inauthenticity.

The oxygen of capitalism thus becomes a mass neurosis: the desirability of some occupations above others. This cultural dogma declares that you can’t possibly live a happy and fulfilled life as a janitor or barista. No, you must do something more: you must do something you love. You must do something that rings true to the spirit of your inner entity. Failure to do this is failure to live fully.

The treadmill of capitalism is fuelled by insoluble discontentment. Chronic dissatisfaction gives power to the myth of eventual self-fulfillment. In this religion, you are not only compelled to find your imaginary, make-believe inner self, but you must also find a career that is worthy of your divine royalty. This goal, of course, impossible for everyone to achieve: at least as long as someone still needs to clean the toilets and spread the manure. If ‘salvation’ means crossing the finish line having achieved the promised nirvana of self-actualizing career, then the religion is a sentence to futility and purposelessness for far more people than for whom it serves as the liberating promise of equality and opportunity.

You only live once

The third doctrine in the canon of capitalism: You only live once. This statement, of course, is descriptively true, but capitalism turns the assertion into a value-laden, normative teaching. There is no objective reason why paying someone to jump out of an airplane with a parachute is necessitated by the fact that you only have one life to live. But slapping the #YOLO hashtag on the activity now gives it transcendent value. This attribution of spiritual meaning is the power of religious practice, and #YOLO is spiritual practice par excellence.

To survive and thrive, capitalism must co-opt #YOLO. In truth, there are an infinite number of ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ that arise every day — more potential opportunities than can be experienced in any lifetime — and there’s no reason why missing any of them somehow makes the rest of life any less worth living. In fact, one might see such ‘lost opportunities’ as salient reminders of one’s temporality and impermanence, pointing to the inherent limitations of existence itself. And this might lead one to contemplate the finitude of ‘experience.’ Capitalism can have none of this. Capitalism exists to commodify, package, and sell experience to us. Ergo, experience must be detrivialized in the name of self-identity. #YOLO thus becomes a currency to increase the net worth of the authentic self.

Follow your dreams

The final tenet of this religion is to Follow your dreams at all costs. At first, this doctrine seems benign — if for no other reason than for its sheer ambiguity — but it has startling implications.

If you were an alien explorer, investigating planet Earth for the first time, you might justifiably conclude that the Walt Disney enterprise is some cult, too. At the heart of all things Disney, you will find admonishment to believe in your dreams, no matter what. “If you keep on believing,” sang Cinderella in 1950, “The dream that you wish will come true.”

A few years ago, my family made the pilgrimage to the Disney World shrine in Florida. To be a guest of the Disney corporation is to be reminded at every turn that you are ‘a very special person’ and that you should ‘never give up on just being yourself.’ From the rides to the stage attractions, the clear mission of a Disney theme park to wrap you in a blanket of positivity before herding you through the turnstiles of endless souvenir shops. The idyllic and surreal design of everything manifests the Disney doctrine through sheer repetition: if you keep believing in your dreams, one day they will come true.

But is this true? What evidence supports this claim? What do we accept as evidence? More importantly, should we repeat this mantra to children as if it is gospel truth?

I might pray to God for my dreams come true. The fact that my dreams have not yet come true does not prove that God doesn’t exist. It just means I’m still waiting on God to answer my prayers. The Disney creed is equally unfalsifiable: there is nothing empirical that can disprove Cinderella’s dogmatic belief in the inevitability of her dreams, either. The lack of fruition means nothing.

Capitalism requires me to believe the same thing. My dreams are the promise that this religion sells back to me. If my dreams have not yet come true, it is only because capitalism hasn’t delivered yet. As long as I am willing to believe that my dreams will come true — despite any and all indicators that nothing is changing — I will continue to reverently chase my own tail through the holy of holies. For as long as the religious order requires that a majority of us minions to do our menial tasks obediently, the system will continue to promise us that our work will set us free.

Doubting the religion

For most of us, denouncing these doctrines of capitalism amount to something like a crisis of faith. We are equipped with an array of neurological defense mechanisms, ready to thwart any attack on the institution of our convictions. Besides, most of us are already now so invested in the religion — our meanings, our careers, our identities — that to question the cult now seems dangerously destabilizing. As with most religious brainwashing, the cost of leaving the faith seems higher than the cognitive dissonance that comes with saving face.

I should confess that I remain a believer in many aspects of capitalism. In fact, I still cherish the freedom, innovation, and creativity that is inspired by the religion. But I do not buy the underlying mythology that corporate priests preach about the nature of personal identity and value. Beyond religion, we find a world is that is not so binary, either/or. Capitalism, like most every other religion, wants you to believe that it is the only means of salvation. But it has plenty of dark corners, too.

Perhaps the next time your television, magazine, or social media network tries to leverage and exploit your authentic self, your passion to do what you love, your devout commitment to carpe diem everything with a hashtag, or the unique sanctity of your dreams, perhaps you will think to yourself… “When did I explicitly sign up for this religion? When did I declare my adherence to this doctrine? Who is selling me the supposed ‘self-evident’ truths of this belief system?”

Mistaken Identities

Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s 2016 Reith Lectures series, entitled Mistaken Identities, is a must-listen. Over four lectures, Appiah analyzes four constructs of identity (alliterated as creed, culture, colour, and country) and questions the common narratives that underpin them.

For example, Appiah argues (transcript) that we over estimate the role of scripture in defining the religious identities of ourselves and others. From a historical lens, he posits that religions must continuously evolve, and that religious identity is itself highly fluid. There are all kinds of interesting implications that can be taken up here. (For instance, when detractors of Islam or Christianity quote scriptural references back to the faithful, what are the blind assumptions made about function of text in a contemporary community of religious practice?)

The second lecture tackles the idea of culture as identity. For instance, what exactly does “western culture” mean and who gets to write the definition? Appiah takes a pragmatic approach to suggest (transcript) that the concept of a western culture itself is unhelpful and nonsensical at best, and perhaps highly destructive at worst. This is challenging on many levels: once you have deconstructed and “dessentialized” the idea of “western civilization”, you are left with the problem of justifying how to define anyone by their civilization. But this is precisely Appiah’s point.

Appiah applies the same logic to race by proposing (transcript) that an unfortunate byproduct or residue of the Enlightenment is the concept of a “racial essence” that divides human groups from one another predominately on the basis of skin colour. Science has long since laid this notion to rest, and this leaves us with race as a construct of our own making: “race is something we make; not something that makes us.” This, too, obviously runs into difficult questions: if people are racialized by others, then does adopting a racialized identity or politics inadvertently conform to the racism (or agenda) of the people who are doing the racializing in the first place? But if race is used to oppress, how can race not then be used to gather solidarity for resistance? Appiah’s reflections on the BlackLivesMatter movement (in the Colour lecture) are thought-provoking:

Identities are going to have pluses and minuses. When an identity is used as a source of solidarity in order to help people resist oppression, for example, it also create boundaries with people outside who might want to be friendly with you because they’re not in favour of your oppression. And so you have to think as time goes on about how modulate the different roles that identity plays in our lives. (37:47)

Similarly, the question, “What is a national identity?” leads Appiah to a parallel position (transcript): nationalism is mythology. Appiah makes an increasingly popular distinction between nationalism and patriotism. In the end, the only so-called “national identities” that matters are common, collective commitments to shared beliefs. These commitments can be something worth defending, whereas defining a nation as a transcendent linkage to some geographically-based ancestral heritage is problematic. Therefore, you can be highly patriotic inasmuch as you share common values with others (like equality, for instance), while not necessarily being nationalistic (that is, believing that your country is inherently or manifestly superior to others countries).

I have been thinking about the intersection of identity and politics quite a bit recently, and this lecture series is a thoughtful, critical, and nuanced analysis. I think Appiah carves out a place for a constructive critique of identity without necessarily marginalizing the impacts of intersectionality in the real world. This seems important. Oppression, colonization, and racialization often seem to be systematically/structurally executed by groups who often justify their actions from a very clear sense of identity — such as ethnocentrism, nationalism, or some brand of economic idealism. Therefore, far from delegitimizing the role of identity in politics, a critical analysis of identity shows the ubiquity of identity.

Insofar as I can tell historically, wars have been largely waged over country, creed, culture, and colour — and that alone seems reason enough to warrant a critical investigation into the way we orientate ourselves towards the idea of “us” as a concept.

The Question

Consider any proposition that you believe is true. Any proposition at all. For example…

Apple products are superior to Microsoft products.
Human carbon emissions are increasing global temperature.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Herbal remedies are as effectual as industrial pharmaceuticals.
Lower tax rates spur economic development.

These are just examples. Maybe you actually believe the opposite of those statements. That’s fine too.

All that is required is a simple declaration: “I believe that…”

Now, the Question: What would it take to prove to you that your belief is wrong?

The moments that follow the Question are crucial.

If the Question leaves you utterly perplexed, what is the nature of your belief? What does it mean if you cannot even imagine a shred of evidence that would force you to re-evaluate your position? If you cannot hypothesize the existence of a compelling counterargument, then have you even considered that contrary evidence might exist? Does dumbfounded confusion betray the likelihood that alternative ways of thinking have not been honestly considered?

On the other hand, suppose you respond to the Question with a ready list of hypothetical proofs that, if demonstrated, would admittedly force you to reconsider your convictions (and, if necessary, renegotiate your understanding). Such a response suggests a high degree of intentional, constructive self-criticism. The stated belief, in this case, is a tentative assent to the truth, an openness to do the work of re-evaluation if new evidence emerges.

Today, when you hear yourself declare a proposition, ask what it would take to change your mind.

The only remedy to dialectic gridlock and self-delusion is to not insist on proving your point at the expense of learning from the counterarguments. When questioning is muted, when critical inquiry is brushed off, and when only the established answer will suffice, then beliefs morph into dogma.

You only care about the truth itself to the extent that you are willing to jettison your present beliefs if you find it.

Upon the Altar of the Internet

Curious phenomenon, the Internet continues to be.

We did not use audio cassette recorders to share our opinions with each other about the polyester plastic industry. Nor did not send each other fax updates with our predictions about the future of bitmap scanning technologies. With the possible exception of ham radio enthusiasts and Bulletin Board System users (who were arguably precursive practitioners of the present data age), I cannot think of another communication technology that has conceived so many pundits and prophets of itself. The Internet hosts a self-perpetuating chorus of commentary about the Internet. (You know, sites like this blog, for instance.)

However, we, the self-described cognoscente of cyberspace, are grounded in no fewer self-validating biases than the most subjective of herbalists. The already fuzzy line between culture and cult becomes indecipherable in a world that hails tech stars and CEOs as messianic figures. Whether one sits in an Alexandrian temple to debate the merits of Apollos, or whether one blogs about tactics for monetizing social networks, one cannot help but recognize that humanity is animated by a voracious curiosity about the products of its own imagination.

Like any other religion, the Internet is a temple we are building to ourselves: it provides us tangible metrics to validate ourselves individually (at the micro) and collectively (at the macro). It offers us a way to see ourselves as individuals in relationship to the whole. It is the contextual structure for community. It has priests, prophets, heretics, saviours, monastics, and ordained officiants. It has denominations, splinter groups, schisms, power struggles, politics, orders, orthodoxies, and a canon of mythological architects, archetypes, and heroes.

The Internet is a shrine to all the brilliance and ridiculousness that is the homo sapien. It potentially the most religious invention we have concocted to date.