St Paul's Institute

Public Vulnerability is the Key to Shared Success

by Robert Gordon

Posted: 03 Jun 2015

The collective intake of breath was noticeable at St Paul's when it was announced that the play Temple would open up the world of the Dean and Chapter, focusing on the tense period when an Occupy encampment had sprung up outside. From the Cathedral's perspective it was a difficult and challenging time, one that sparked a rediscovery of a sense of higher purpose sometimes clouded by the necessary rigours of daily routine.  I have written about our complex relationship with the protestors at the time, and so it was with a certain level of curious apprehension that I attended.

I came away heartened by the sophisticated manner in which the subject was conveyed.  There is a deep humanity running through the play and a large degree of truth about a situation that was impossible to resolve to the liking of all parties involved.  Ultimately, the message is that there was no correct answer that could emerge from any one person or organisation - this was a moment of global significance, with many different focal points, triggered by issues of widespread inequality and the systemic failures of our economic and political institutions.

What came across most powerfully, though, was the open vulnerability displayed by the characters.  The writer, producers and actors managed to attach this exposure of the soul to a committed sense of belonging to something larger than the self, to a shared vision of what it means to embody an experience of community that aims to gracefully uplift us all.  It's an immediately recognisable place to be: doubting decisions made, wanting to live up to potential, striving to succeed but falling into pitfalls of our own creation.  Depictions of vulnerability such as this, while prevalent throughout many literary forms, are rare in today's social reality which may be what made the Occupy encampments around the world so significant.

Instead of allowing one another to speak truth, we have somehow settled upon a public arena that calls for hollow platitudes - and sales pitches - where those who confront the difficulty of publicly trying to reconcile competing motivations are often ridiculed.  We have developed an overwhelming addiction to crafting public narratives of ourselves and others that protect our vulnerabilities through deceptive rhetoric.  This lies at the heart of much of the disillusionment evident throughout modern society, and should be viewed as a primary area of concern.

With the General Election fresh in our minds, the evasive and insubstantive nature of political campaigning is a powerful example of how these facades have replaced substantive debate.  Not only have such illusions stifled our ability to discern what might constitute a healthy and flourishing society, but they have actively positioned us against one another through the corrosive effect of preferring stereotypes over nuanced dialogue.  We are continuously presented with manicured clichés, because to welcome ideas from opponents or to have to retract in error is perceived as weakness.  It is not until faced with demoralising defeat that we see any lasting semblance of deep conviction and honesty from our politicians. Maybe if we could encourage (and allow) an open vulnerability from our political leaders then we could foster a more productive dialogue that incorporates a broader set of ideological viewpoints.

This same issue runs through the private sector, and in particular so much of what has occurred following the global financial crisis.  The pressures that have resulted from linking shareholder value to fluctuating stock prices have promoted short-term facades that hide the long-term viability of business practices and their true impact on the world.  We continue to see new examples of a serious lack of financial probity.  Senior figures often avoid addressing deep-seated systemic issues, preferring to point out the misconduct of a few 'bad apples' that can be addressed with ambiguous 'culture change'.  There is something that rings hollow about a commitment to change that looks at the purpose and culture of business, but will say little on issues of global inequality and the facilitation of structural injustice.

As discussed in my previous piece about trust and the social contract, there is a massive opportunity for organisations that are able to embrace an authentic voice - and a large requirement of this is the courage to be open about areas of weakness and vulnerability.  An example of this was Archbishop Justin Welby's well-known 'War on Wonga' that was firmly placed in the media spotlight, before being followed quickly by revelations that Church investments had exposure to the very same company.  There were quick calls of hypocrisy, responded to by an equally quick and open admission of error.  When taking a longer view, this mistake actually provided credibility to the Archbishop's desire to challenge these injustices of debt.  There was a raw humanity to his expression of irritation about the situation that enabled many to see that his words carried more depth than perhaps first thought.  This was indeed a genuine attempt to meaningfully overcome some of the wealth inequality that people face on a day-to-day basis, and the campaign has continued to grow.

This is one small example of why it is important that we encourage public vulnerability, because it is often where our most truthful, compassionate and charitable natures reside.  We know how important the emotional experience is to personal change, but we have developed a public discourse that does not allow such a central aspect of ourselves to be expressed on a larger scale.  It is telling that when vulnerability is expressed, it is usually as apologies that follow being caught or called out rather than an honest and proactive appraisal that admits where problems might occur in the first place.  The recent FIFA scandal has seen numerous high-level sponsors become critical of the organisation, distancing themselves from corruption whilst at the same time having spent years ignoring a well-documented humanitarian crisis. This is a direct example of a duplicitous and inauthentic discourse allowed to run rife, and the sponsors are seeing the resulting backlash across social media as the general public are increasingly challenging these narratives.

Might we, the so-called 'general public' be to blame as we use the services, subscribe to the media and buy the endorsed products?  It's important that we don't fully accept the 'complicit consumer' argument, but we do need to find ways to applaud vulnerability rather than immediately holding everyone to strict and unforgiving account.  Accountability is vital, of course, but the sharing of self-doubts should be encouraged and the discursive process of discovering new directions should not be fraught with the threat of quick and vicious backlash.  To the extent we collectively punish those who admit mistakes we should not be surprised by obfuscation and cover-up.  If we want a more authentic and open discourse then we have to create a safer space for it to occur, and that is where responsibility lies at the feet of the public.  We must collectively become less quick to raise judgement, more committed to the process of understanding, and more willing to provide forgiveness for past wrongs once genuinely addressed.

As a result we will rediscover vital aspects of public life that have been increasingly eroded away - such as trust, empathy and solidarity.  Trust has been shattered not simply because of wrong-doing, but through endemic duplicity.  Empathy has faded because we constantly see one another in oppositional terms.  Solidarity will return when we find a new way to communicate forthrightly and with a commitment to somehow including the views returned in response.  Greater respect will be gathered through shared understanding of one another's true positions and thoughts.  It is thus vital that we rediscover a way to meet with one another face-to-face (both metaphorically and literally) and conduct our dealings with mutual concern for the world we are co-creating with each step.

Can we encourage a new public discourse that is openly vulnerable and ready to discuss our own flaws so that they might be overcome together?  I hope that we have the courage to do so, and get to experience the collective results that would emerge if we could.

About this author

Robert Gordon was the Manager of St Paul's Institute from 2009 - 2017.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.