How arguments for change may inadvertently keep things the same

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I was having lunch with some friends recently, and the topic of racial privilege and historical injustices came up. One friend mentioned an argument being made in the USA advocating that these injustices might be redressed by the current-day beneficiaries giving (or returning) assets to those who had been previously wronged (see, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates on the case for reparations in 2014 and 2019). As Harvard’s David Williams described to us at our Annual Conference this year, these injustices can have long-lasting consequences.

We got into quite a heated discussion and I noticed that we were taking up a range of positions.

Friend A, who had raised the discussion of reparations, maintained her stance that the solutions that would be ‘acceptable’ to most people would likely perpetuate existing – and therefore imbalanced – power relationships. Significant changes to these long-established patterns might only be achievable through the kind of radical change such as the one she had mentioned.

Friend B then started asking about how such a proposal could ever be put into practice. How could we identify the current-day counterparts of those who had been wronged in the past? Was it fair to demand those who had no part in historic injustices to give up what they have worked for? Who would make those decisions, and wouldn’t they also involve a range of unconscious biases?

I found myself trying to find a way to stay open to both sides of the emerging argument.

On the one hand, I could see Friend A’s point: most solutions that we think will be ‘acceptable’ are likely to keep things the same more than shake things up. So, what might a radical move that genuinely shifts a long-standing social pattern look like? And if we are interested in social justice, then why would we want to argue against positions that seek to lessen the burden of risk and uncertainty borne by the least politically or economically favoured members of society, so others can enjoy autonomy and freedom at their expense?

On the other hand, I could also see Friend B’s point – if the basis of Friend A’s proposal was social justice, then in what way was it just for people to be asked to give up what they have – which they may or may not have personally worked to acquire – because of events that took place perhaps centuries ago? For example, would I be prepared to give up my own home as part of scheme like this? I wasn’t sure and noticed a hint of shame as I started to wonder what kind of person I was if my instinct was to avoid suffering personally rather than further such an important cause. This told me something about which side of the argument concerning the tension between historical and current justice my social circle tends to lean towards.

A familiar pattern

So why write about this? It was partly because I noticed a conversational pattern that seemed very familiar to me. My friends were taking up opposing positions and each opinion they put forward to argue their case, rather than being persuasive or generative, seemed to further strengthen each other’s resolve that they were right. I was left with a sense of things being much as they were before the conversation had started.

Where else do we see this pattern? I immediately think of our opposition-based parliamentary system. As we’re seeing with debates about Brexit, there seems to be little space for movement, but only further entrenchment as each party tries to ‘win’ the argument.

What about in my work as a development consultant with NHS clients? Maybe in some of our conversations about leadership? For example, have we got used to promoting collaborative leadership models in a way that silences those who don’t subscribe to that model? Might this paradoxically limit collaboration?

Or how about inclusion? Have we got used to a way of thinking about inclusion that paradoxically excludes people? How can we claim to be embracing diversity of thought, if we’re only prepared to entertain a certain set of thoughts?

I wonder, then, what a more radically open approach would look like. I think it might mean it being ok to express opinions we usually aren’t ‘allowed’ to voice and for those views to be taken in the spirit of finding new ways to make progress on some of our toughest challenges. That seems to require a generosity of spirit, and a willingness to sit with the discomfort of really engaging with tensions that we find difficult, or even painful, on the basis that this may help us move on together.

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