One of my personal values, and one of our core principles at Visual Meaning, has always been “commitment to reality”. We can argue over what “reality” means in a phrase like this, but the point is less about the reality and more about the commitment. Even if we can’t know things as they “really” are, we can always strive to, and in the process expose some of what our prejudices and presuppositions previously obscured. The trouble is, it’s hard to do this alone: as the saying goes, we are “blind to our own blindness”. We have to be in community with people who share this value, because it’s through their feedback that we come to recognise our own models of reality for what they are.
So how do you build such a community? How do you recognise when someone else has the same commitment? One clue I think is the extent to which they periodically confound your expectations. People’s views tend to cluster: tell me your beliefs on animal rights or taxation or religion or whatever, and I can probably predict your opinion on privatisation or Ofsted or the Green party. But very occasionally people’s views don’t cluster as expected. When I found that Peter Hitchens, a high profile right wing commentator in the UK, was vehemently opposed to the Iraq war, for example, whereas his late (and better known) brother Christopher, whose sympathies were more with the left, supported it, I became a lot more interested in what both of them had to say about other things, not because I necessarily agreed, but because I could see they were people who at least said what they thought, not what they were supposed to think.
One of the best historical examples of this disposition is George Orwell. As a teenager I only knew him from Animal Farm and 1984, which I had assumed were just anti-communist parables, so when I grew up and read Homage to Catalonia, and discovered the depth of his commitment to socialism (writing letters is one thing, travelling across Europe with your wife to take up arms against fascism in a Civil War is quite another), I once again had the feeling of confounded expectations. He knows whereof he speaks, not because he’s read lots of books about it, but because he’s actually been there. Here he is, for example, describing one of the lessons he learned during the conflict:
“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed … I saw history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.”
Already one sees not just the “commitment to reality” that’s a hallmark of all his writing, but the contempt for “unreality” that ultimately evolved into the “Unspeak” of 1984. It’s hard to read books like Homage to Catalonia without picking up the sense of reality, the sense of someone who was actually there, describing what he saw. Of course, he still had opinions, and one can agree or disagree about his interpretation of the events, but it’s much harder to dismiss them out of hand. Similarly, in a world where so many people’s opinions on issues of social justice seem to reflect more on their class or political affiliation than their actual experience of the world, how refreshing to read the perspective of someone who was both educated at Eton and spent years living among the homeless and working class, as Orwell describes so vividly in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. I read Down and Out twenty years ago, but I still have a bodily reaction when I recall his descriptions of the cold he endured through the long Parisian winter nights.
While Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name) spent his mid-twenties living as a tramp, I spent mine working at KPMG Consulting, and I sometimes wonder just out of sheer amusement what it would have been like if he’d turned up at the odd meeting, or reviewed the odd document. I mention KPMG because I worked there of course – feel free to imagine a large corporate of your own choice. The first thing he’d have noticed, I suggest, would have been the use of language. He once wrote:
“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness … the attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier – even quicker, once you have the habit – to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think”
If you have spent a reasonable percentage of your career in corporate life then you will know exactly what he meant. As a fresh graduate at KPMG, I remember working for a senior manager who called a meeting once with people I didn’t know in a place I’d never been to about a subject I knew nothing about. The senior manager e-mailed asking me to prepare a “meeting note” to structure the meeting, then went away on holiday without telling me what a “meeting note” was or what to include in it. I spent a while fretting about it, and then threw together some meaningless bullet points that at least sounded corporate. When the manager returned and we held the meeting, I was surprised to discover that everyone took the bullet points seriously and worked through them as if they meant something real. I had a vague sense that nothing real was actually being discussed or decided, apart from the need to hold another meeting in a few months’ time. I could also see that I was going to struggle to maintain a career in consultancy.
This was a small turning point in my life, because it was the first inkling I had that the meaning of the words people use in corporate meetings is foremost about their own identity and their relationship with one another, and only secondarily about real things in the world. This is why, to mirror Orwell’s words, it’s easier – even quicker, once you have the habit – to say I believe given the context of value-adding capabilities and the strategic perspective of operational imperatives in this space, than to say I think. It’s not that these words don’t have meaning, or can’t have meaning, or even that people are being wilfully obscure (although this can and does happen). It’s that when confronted with a reality that is abstract or complex or vague, it’s more important to feel “I belong to the tribe of people who feel confident in one another’s company using words like capability and perspective and strategic and value-adding” than to acknowledge that we don’t actually yet know what it is we’re talking about.