Reflections on Offensive Behaviour

Speaking as a panellist last year, on the subject of democracy and personal freedoms, I was momentarily side-tracked and mentioned the damage I believed some aspects of radical feminism had done to men generally, explicitly in terms of our identity and role in society. My remark was instantly leapt upon by two of my fellow panellists — one of whom was a long-term friend. Politely, but firmly, I was verbally punished for my indiscretion.

Although I had intended no offense, indeed my remark was calculated to reinforce a point which had already been made, it is clear that making politically incorrect asides can easily upset people.

According to common law, offensive behaviour is conduct calculated to wound the feelings and arouse anger, disgust, or outrage in the mind of a reasonable person. With such a broad definition it becomes almost impossible to say anything of a substantial nature without offending somebody somewhere.

A case in point… Last week I wrote a piece examining the difficulties organisations face because of the tendency to approve of alpha-male characteristics in those we appoint or elect to positions of power. The title, The Sociopathic Condition We Still Call Leadership, was intended to offer a clue to the more astute reader that to label someone a leader in no way implies that leadership will necessarily ensue.

During the course of this essay I deliberately avoided any reference to gender — except in one short paragraph, where I observed that organisations we tend to laud as exceptional cultural models — those that deliberately set out to avoid qualities of ruthlessness, hubris, dispassionate manipulation, and psychopathic charm, for example — are well disposed to having young people, many of whom are women, at their helm.

Apparently, this was offensive to one of my readers who commented: The implication that women are innately compassionate and humble is problematic. Sex difference is a heated and ongoing discussion. Women can be sociopaths too of course. I would advise the author to develop his understanding and address his underlying benevolent sexism.

I thanked the reader, wounded and finding it hard to keep my composure, assuring her that I had no need to look up benevolent sexism as I had already encountered this term when reading a critique of Cordelia Fine’s book Testosterone Rex, an eloquent expose of several gender myths. I took exception to my reader’s contention that this was somehow my underlying impulse.

My response was a mixture of curiosity and quiet exasperation. Curious as to how anyone, even the most accomplished of psychologists, could diagnose my personal inclinations, or perceive an underlying sexist impulse, from just one word. In one sentence. In an essay of over one thousand words. An essay that had no reference to gender other than that one word. Irritated by the premise that my disposition was therefore the problem, rather than the reader’s interpretation of my writing.

I am exaggerating my umbrage of course. The key point here is not that I was irked by such comments. When you publish online you must expect across-the-board advice, criticism, and commentary. Indeed, initiating a robust exchange of views regarding such substantive matters is central to my mission. I was untroubled by her attempt to analyse my motive from a distance, and without knowing anything about me. This, after all, has become a common occurrence in today’s social media. Most people have opinions that range from the sensible to the wildly ill-informed. Nor was I bothered that her conjecture spoke volumes about her own inhibitions rather than mine.

What does disturb me, however, is that truly provocative ideas, however inadequately expressed, can be disparaged in ways that imply the character of the writer is flawed and, in this case, that I needed help, or even therapy, in order to be able to see the reality of my disorder. Such calculated obfuscation is not simply an attack on scholarship — it is nothing less than a smart-arse attempt to persuade others that any challenging analysis should not be taken seriously. Without wanting to be overly dramatic, this reminds me of the Soviet gulags and Chinese laogai where artists, scholars, and activists were sent for re-education, often on the most trivial of pretexts.

My work is to think and write about contentious ideas in the context of reframing some of our most deep-seated, yet often perplexingly obsolescent beliefs. My intention is not to offend, nor to hurt somebody’s feelings, but to expand our civilisational ecology of mind by examining alternative theories and models located outside of traditional norms.

Of course, any such challenge to the status quo intensifies when revelatory pragmatism becomes intrusive and shakes the foundations of our personal beliefs.

While I do not shy away from the possibility of causing offence, experience indicates that those most offended by the sheer potency of unfamiliar ideas, of the type I explore in my writings, are so deeply in love with their own set of comforting platitudes, that almost any statement, even mildly provocative ones, can be interpreted as a personal affront.

A related difficulty, which I encounter over and over, is an insistence by purists that no tract or thesis is worthy of serious attention if it fails to follow strict guidelines of the kind propagated by the academy. Indeed, I recall one vice-chancellor criticising my book The Five Literacies of Global Leadership as being lightweight by virtue of being insufficiently dispassionate. Yet, with the exception of scientific discoveries, finding any indisputably exciting or breakthrough ideas emerging from university campuses is likely to set one on a wild goose chase. A random thought. Perhaps we should be offended by the accidental irrelevance of much post-graduate work these days, rather than minor stylistic details in meaningful projects.

How is it possible, in an age of such political rectitude, for us to challenge notions that are causing the world to fracture (without being accused of offensive behaviour) if all we can do is remain polite, bland and innocuous? How can we transcend current theories-in-use, especially when they are adopted as a form of guiding philosophy, that have their origins mired in questionable hypotheses and a tortured logic that ultimately leads nowhere?

Clinical research, like that undertaken by Cordelia Fine, proves quite convincingly that any perceived differences between men and women are fundamentally cultural in nature. But where does that take us? How does it change anything? For all the effort spent on gender studies, for example, has any useful insight transpired that would encourage a reframing of the male-female nexus? If so, does it provide us with a more profound appreciation of the issues than, say, matristic lore[i] as practised by the Origine peoples of Australia? And if so how might we use this wisdom to redesign schools or take that information into account when recruiting people into the workforce?

At a time when those with autism or ADHD are valued in organisations for their innate skills, the tendency for men and women still to be stereotyped into specific gender roles is nonsense. Likewise, the disparity between what we value, and how we reward, men and women is utterly absurd. The numbers of women on company Boards in comparison to men is also ludicrous. But what are we really doing about it?

Affirmative action introduced into public services decades ago was eventually seen to be the farce it was — but only because men with authority chose not to take it too seriously. Lip service, after all, is a relatively easy thing to fudge, especially in a large organisation.

I recently found myself in the position of having to convene a Board of Custodians for the Centre for the Future. It was obvious to me, as it was to my colleagues, that as the future will be owned by today’s youth, the Board would need to be young — both in spirit and in actuality. The fact that I ended up with four women and two men, myself included, was not deliberate. It did not even occur to me that I should strive for gender balance. What did drive me was the need to ensure diversity of experience and to find the very best minds for the job. As it happens, having ruled out the usual suspects, along with a few who badgered me to be included, it was far easier to find capable women that it was men.

Does this make me a benevolent sexist? Possibly. But my quest to find the best people for the Board was protracted, methodical, calculated, and took many factors into account than is normally the case in situations where possible candidates are typically chosen from a very small gene pool.

Perhaps such an admission will offend some people. That is fine. I will just have to learn to live with behaving offensively.

[i] Matristic Lore is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal. Instead it is derived from the ancient nomadic traditions which honoured both sacred masculine and sacred feminine for their own essential qualities.

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future