A few years ago, I worked in a really special team. We were amazing. Loads of talented people, coming together to lead change. And that’s what we did. Again, and again, and again. Until we got shut down (another story for another time).
At the head of our team was our Director, who was equally brilliant, and had the unenviable task of cajoling us into some kind of order and setting our direction. It certainly wasn’t an easy job, especially as they took the brunt of the clashes in cultures of the conservatism (little-c) of the institution, and the dynamic and progressive team they led.
In treading that fine line between worlds and world-views, you have to be shrewd with your politics. Something I am learning now as I start to run out of hills to die on (or realising I don’t have enough life to go around all the hills). Working in that political arena, you have to be considered with what you say and how you say it. You never know when you might need to change position.
My Director balanced on that line incredibly well, but there was one phrase they used that hurt me to my soul, “we need to be seen to be doing…”.
It might not seem like much, possibly an automatic idiom or some part of the business lexicon, but the connotations run deep. It clearly disconnects the action from the external perception of any action, or even worse, the rumour of potential action, maybe, soon. As a team who cared deeply about our students and our colleagues, and making their lives better through our work, our work was focussed on ‘doing’ and the positive impact of ‘doing’.
Yes, I admit I am probably naïve, but there is no point being seen, if you don’t focus on the doing. ‘Being seen’ is a proxy for action, much the same way as league tables are a (flawed) proxy for experience. But ‘being seen’ also brings to mind ideas of being observed and the power balance embedded in that scenario. ‘Being seen’ is something from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.
I write this between the death and funeral of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. We are currently in a period of overt and all-encompassing public mourning. There is a queue to see her coffin that stretches for many miles, has 24hr news reporting, and even spawned a twitter account or two. The queue has also been extensively parodied and mocked on social media, especially as it has been resourced with portaloos and other services that the homeless people who were evicted from the route were never given.
Click on any news website, any TV channel, or even business website, and they are all at pains to tell you that a rich old lady has died. Yes she did her job for 70 years, and seemed like a lovely person outwardly, but she was also recompensed handsomely, with free homes, staff and huge wealth.
The day after she died, I popped on to the BBC Sport website, and the first six stories were about the Queen’s death. Only one had even a tenuous link to sport. This wasn’t the news page or the main BBC homepage, this was the sports site!
Since then, sport has been disrupted, shops have closed, hospital appointments for important surgeries have been cancelled. The death of a figurehead with no power or influence on our lives seems to have a huge impact on our day to day experiences.
I’m no royalist, but also not a republican, and I can see that some people would like to express their sadness at a monarch’s death, but what I really dislike is this race for businesses and individuals to ‘be seen’ to be mourning.
In fact, it is worse than that. It is an arms race of mourning. A competition to see who can mourn more than anyone else. Liverpool FC attracted lots of angry comments and attacks because they hadn’t posted on their social media platforms soon enough (they’d posted on their website, but hey, who doesn’t like a pile on?).
So no longer is enough to ‘be seen’ to mourn, there is a level of judgement that people aren’t mourning enough, or for long enough, or publicly enough.
I’m tired. I’m tired of this puerile childish one-upmanship. I’m tired of everyone wanting to ‘be seen’, rather than actually doing. If you feel sad, take some time to reflect, say some prayers, shed a tear if you want, but that’s for you to deal with the grieving process. Rather than being seen to do something, just do it, like questioning the purpose of a monarchy nowadays, question the ethics of such inequalities in society, or even question the external interference in the government as we face a cost of living crisis and environmental catastrophe.
If you need to, go and grieve, take your time to do. Reflect about the impact of that grieving and how you can use that grief to power action to make a better, fairer society.
The Queen is dead, long live the spaniel they’ve replaced her with.
Note: if you want a better written, more considered post related to this topic, read Sunny Dhillon’s excellent piece The Ministry of Mourning