An Imperfect Humanity: Pity and Grace

This is a #WorkingOutLoud post as i shape some new thinking around coherence in culture, social justice and the social contract: aspects of the Social Age. So don’t take these thoughts as fully formed, but rather as part of an evolving understanding. The question is this: how connected is the organisation to the society that it inhabits? Is the purpose of an organisation to always maximise the value of that organisation to it’s shareholders and stakeholders, or does it serve a wider social purpose? As leaders, to what extent are we subject to the whims of culture, and to what extent are we responsible for that culture that we inhabit?

An imperfect humanity: grace and pity

Outside it’s raining: a typical February day in England, a cold wind, pervasive damp and just the hint of the days getting longer. Huddled in the doorway opposite, a young may, maybe in his early twenties, clearly homeless, half lying back, starting into space. i’m attuned to this right now, because this morning i wondered what it would take for me to walk out of the door, to buy a ticket to London, with no wallet and no return fare. What would it take for me to cut myself out of my life? What level of bravery or despair would it take any of us to tear ourselves away from our current narrative and into a new one: a narrative with no money, no home, no backup, no control?

San Francisco homeless man

We weave complex journeys through life, but typically with some aspect of control, some semblance of ownership. But when that thin rope slips through our grasp, who will catch us?

Look on it another way: there are empty buildings in my town. And there are people sleeping on the street. Is there a moral responsibility to address this? Does the welfare of the individual always fall ultimately to that individual, or is there a responsibility of society to step in? And where that responsibility exists, does it exist at the level of government, of organisation, of individual? Is it shared or devolved?

We maintain a strong ability to segment and partition our views of fairness and inclusion: often limited to those most like ourselves or those we most easily relate to.

In some ways, homelessness is an easy challenge: it’s far from the everyday experience of most of us, and therefore more easily abstracted and distanced. But what if we look closer to home: whose responsibility is it to deliver equality? Who is responsible for fairness?

If you Google ‘who is responsible for society’, you get the answer from Wikipedia: ‘Social responsibility is an ethical framework which suggest that an entity, be it an organisation or individual, has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large. Social responsibility is a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems.’ So the implication is clear: we are all responsible.

And yet recently we have evolved a new phrase: corporate social responsibility, the devolved or elevated view the organisations take on this mantle of governance and duty. Somehow this provides a level of abstraction between individual and society: our responsibility is to ourselves and the organisation, the organisation has a responsibility to us and to society. But what about the direct link between us and society? What about when our personal values are at odds with organisational ones? What price is that tradeoff?

Look further into this: who is responsible for the Organisation’s moral stance? Formal leaders, accountable to a Board, and to shareholders? Have we effectively outsourced our social responsibility to the people who own the company? Are those two roles compatible, and where does it leave the individual within the organisation: is the only expression of personal value to align with or be in conflict with the organisation? Is direct action the only path left available?

What about other models of governance: the co-operative and collaborative models of organisations like the Mutual Societies and Co-Op. In that model, the individual is accountable, governance itself lies with the community, or at least with the panels and groups that the community builds. But is that satisfactory: do we rely on socially liberal businesses to be socially conscious, whilst shareholder led ones are subject only to the law and any values they choose to adopt?

The business covenant

We need a new Covenant, between business, government and society. One that delivers value over time.

Primarily i’m interested in this as part of the seismic shifts of the Social Age: the evolved Social Contract between individual and organisation and, as my thinking is taking me today, the relationship between organisation and community itself. Is it any longer enough to have simple commercial purpose, or does every organisation need to have a stance and view on it’s social responsibility. Indeed, does society wish to permit organisations to exist without that stance?

What are the rights and responsibilities that come with opportunities and profit?

This probably plays to the heart of the question: what type of society do we want to live in? Or, more precisely, what type of society will we inhabit in the Social Age?

The change we see is constant, and technology often leads the way: technology taking us to places that society is not yet sure how to exist in. Look at the ethical dilemmas thrown up by genetic engineering, stem cells, Google Glass or SnapChat. Old systems try to heal over the disturbance, whilst a subset of society embraces it at speed.

But that may miss the point of constant change: the old society may be unable to envisage the frames through which contemporary society will function. It may be down to the pioneers to frame the change: not just in laws and rules, but morals and ethics? Technology, alongside the evolved sociology that frames and follows it, changes the ecosystem itself: so we are not adjusting rules within a fixed framework, but rather evolving rules within an evolving framework. The ecosystem itself has changed, so the premise of old systems may no longer hold true.

Or, to put it another way: yesterday’s truths may hold no value tomorrow.

So what was fair may not be fair now: what worked yesterday may no longer work now. The Social Contract that governed our behaviour, our ethics, our behavioural stance yesterday may be outdated or, worse, actively unfair now.

Amplification effects of the Social Age have evolved the mechanisms of power: broadcast and volume alone no longer swamp the lone voice. Instead, the most authentic story has power, the individual most rooted in high social authority and reputation carries the crowed. Social authority trumps and subverts formal when it comes to storytelling. You cannot buy credibility in this space, you can only earn it.

So the organisations that used to put spikes on their window ledges to stop homeless people sleeping on them may carry a new responsibility today: is it reasonable to assume that this layer of society is someone else’s problem? What responsibility do we all have to be the solution? It’s easy to say that it’s ‘not my problem’, but at what point have i outsourced my way out of society itself or, worse, fractured the culture to the point that it coexists in space, but not in value or intent.

We may live on the same island, but be unified by geography alone.

Government may provide the safety net: in a social security system, a welfare state model, everyone has a net that can fall into, but is a net enough? Is our duty dispensed by the taxes that we pay? Have we discharged our obligation when we have saved someone from sinking, one step removed, through an imperfect system? Or is there a wider social responsibility, a responsibility both on the individual and the organisation, to do better, to do more?

When is it ok to turn the other way?

Around the corner from me is a large UK insurer, employing hundreds of people and making great profits: is it their responsibility or mine? Or is it all of us? Or have we devolved responsibility through taxation and can now rest happy in the knowledge that neither of us have to take action because the formal authority has it covered?

Homeless people use Twitter too: as do victims of domestic abuse and hate crime. The social channels that levelled society in so many ways are open to all. And the possibilities of the Social Age should be open to all too: not just to those empowered, enabled, with power and financial authority.

With opportunity, with authority, with community, comes responsibility. There are no rights without social justice. And there can be no social justice without inclusion and equality. So the only question that remains is, who is responsible for social responsibility? Is it me? Is it my government? Is it the organisations that i work for? Or is it all of us? And if, as i premise, it’s all of us, then how is that reflected in the ways that organisations engage in their community. Should that be an add one, or something more central.

Can organisations view leadership as simply inward facing, or does it need to meaningfully engage with the community that hosts it. And if so, how?

There used to be a notion that grace was divine: but is grace our own responsibility? Is it enough to pity, or is it our responsibility to act?

This is one of a series of posts i’ve been writing around ‘An Imperfect Humanity‘. They are reflective and self developmental explorations of how one charts a path through often difficult moral and ethical dimensions of working in a global space. Sometimes decisions of whether to stand on the sidelines and comment, or try to change through engagement. For me, they are part of a path try tying to find some type of wisdom through reflection and #WorkingOutLoud.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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14 Responses to An Imperfect Humanity: Pity and Grace

  1. sarah says:

    Hi Julian – this is a great piece – thank you for sharing. A couple random thoughts. One is the extent to which we can consider or expect organizations to behave as moral entities and act in a socially responsible way (or is that an expectation in the Social Age?). Already as individuals, we slide into weak moral choices more often than we’d like, and I’m not sure how (or if) that rolls up to a group or organizational level. The other thought is whether responsibility comes with or because of a sense of accountability. Organizations are accountable to shareholders for profit, and they might be accountable to customers with respect to safety or usability. In what ways are they (held) accountable to the rest of us (because there are so many examples of egregious corporate behaviour you have to wonder)?

    • julianstodd says:

      Thank you Sarah 🙂 that’s kind.

      I think in the past, we may not have had that expectation, for organisations to be moral, but today, maybe we do (which is why i’ve put social responsibility on the map of the Social Age. I think it’s more an expectation today. Regarding accountability: i think that the amplifying effects of social certainly reinforce accountability. That piece you talk about, the accountability of the organisation to society, to us, is precisely what may be missing.

      Thanks for being part of this community and sharing your thoughts, best wishes, Julian

      • sarah says:

        Thanks very much Julian – I’m learning a lot, and I’m also hoping the world really is moving in the direction you’re laying out here 🙂

  2. “What about when our personal values are at odds with organisational ones? What price is that tradeoff?” – this post has taken so many of the confused thoughts in my own head and laid them out. There are scary things happening (or not happening) and good things happening. For me to do as much good as possible, while still paying the bills, I’ve chosen to leave the ‘sensible’ job to forge a portfolio career. I couldn’t see another way. As a full time employee too many decisions were made for me at higher levels that jarred with my values. Thank you for this working out loud piece Julian. Excited to see how things evolve as more people see possibilities to take their own values into their own hands, while earning their bread at the same time!

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