Sunday, 14 October 2012
Last week proved a hard test for the words ‘aspiration’ and ‘inspiration’, and what it means to be ‘authentic’.
Let’s start with the latter. A charity recently told me that, just because they had committed to do something, it didn’t actually mean they would do it. This is an organisation whose central working methodology is based on the importance of people making authentic commitments in their life. Though the method, I now realise, was not meant to be applied to the organisation itself. It is true that life requires a pragmatic approach, but pragmatism only works if it is grounded on something – if it comes from somewhere. Similarly, the vision and purpose of charities ‘should’ be grounded in a set of values that are more real and authentic to what they do than the whims of opportunity find people working in. But that is a rare thing.
It is almost as though the very landscape charities work through – the uncertainty of survival, the dream of the pot of gold if only people could find out about their work, the need to be competitive with one’s own partners – ends up turning charities into a person who is rather egocentric with an unstable set of behaviour patterns. A celebrity, perhaps? Indeed, the celebrity of charity - if that is what we can call it - is all around us, jangling buckets and clipboards on the streets, promoting disadvantage in adverts, being the self-serving expert in media interviews, and keeping whatever brand in our minds through the latest happening. It’s as though the UK has been turned into a Big Brother show for charities to outdo each other, all in the desperate game of increased ratings and approval linked to a worthwhile cause that undermines itself. They all think they have the right answer; they often think they have a better answer to someone else; they sometimes think they don’t know what the real answer is because they are too busy trying to deliver what they thought was the answer but is only part of the solution and sometimes the problem. What rarely happens is that anyone stands back from the absurdity of organisations competing against each other, with no effective systems to work together, and with little understanding of the big picture, to say: what is it that we are meant to be doing, how should we go about doing it, and is the fact that we are too busy and too lost in our own brands and commitments a sign of how far charity is lost from the social purpose to make this a better world in the future - not just for the pragmatists of now?
Then there is aspiration. The Conservatives have come out of the closet at last, as the party of ‘the aspiration nation’. It’s like an episode of Stars in their Eyes, where suddenly Cameron transforms himself into whoever was the last Prime Mistaker to promise the same thing (see ‘the politics of aspiration for all’ Blair, 2005; or ‘the party of aspiration’ Brown, 2010). It is of course the choco-ration nation he is referring to. The choco-ration principle is found in George Orwell’s 1984, and refers to the media manipulation that can make a nation of people celebrate that choco rations are going up when they are actually going down. So it is with aspiration. The ‘aspiration nation’ removes investment from young people struggling to access further education, and kicks them off the ladder (the withdrawal of EMA), but celebrates all this as part of a fairer approach at a time of economic stress whilst companies such as Facebook maximise earnings (175m) by not paying proper taxes (238k). The dots don’t join up, but then the ‘aspiration nation’ is like a dot-to-dot puzzle that keeps you occupied in the hope it might turn into a shape until the next election wipes the page clean of promises. That’s not a nation many would wish to aspire to.
Finally, we have inspiration. This week, we have been told that an English football player who used racially abusive language is still an ‘ inspiration’, and that an American cyclist who led the most manipulative drug taking regime probably of any sport in history and continues to deny his guilt is still ‘inspirational’ because of his charity work and worthy of his Nike sponsorship. There are some interesting lessons to be had here about how we value things. The first story was actually a back page headline based on an interview with a fellow player – regardless of the personal opinion, how on earth was this deemed an appropriate headline? Are we meant to sleep better knowing that someone who racially abused another person – and was meant to be a role model as England captain – is also a guy of inspiration to his teammates? Apparently so. That’s all it takes to decontaminate a brand in the world of football, where money is the only value in town. The second story is even more absurd, given the scale of deceit. How on earth can someone who has cheated success with such disdain have any claim as an authentic icon for beating cancer? Nike claims its brand is about ‘inspiration and innovation for every athlete in the world’. Is the innovation they promote about cheating? Is the ‘inspiration’ they promote about how to win at any cost?
Like a distorting nightmare, Armstrong is the mirror image of the charity that does not live the way it tries to work; the mirror image of the Government that does not do what they say; the mirror image of a world that does not know how to be authentic; the mirror image of the consequence that always catches up with us in the end. The icon of Orwell's 'doublethink'.
Nike’s strapline is ‘Just do it’. But our survival as human beings is about doing it properly, doing it truthfully, thinking more than just 'I'. Isn’t it time we looked in the mirror and did ourselves some justice? Or, to quote another strapline, ‘Can’t Beat the Real Thing’...