The Relationship Fetish

“I think we’ve done a lot this year to really build relationships”, a Student Union President of considerable physical bulk once said this to me. I mention the President’s bulk because the sight of this figure storming down various corridors with a permanent Presidential scowl was enough to intimidate a fair few students at the University concerned. The actual University hierarchy had little to fear though. A few weeks after this conversation the President voted for a fee increase that would add thousands of dollars in debt to the Student loans of the people this President represented. What students would get back for this increase wasn’t entirely clear, but acquiescing this one time would apparently mean the University would take its students more seriously now.

You see, this is apparently the way to get things done in the new century. Show deference to those in authority and they’ll be nice back, eventually. Protesting, for anybody who is not an Arab, is so passé. A huge irony considering this is the decade in which ‘The Protestor’ was named TIME’s person of the year. For the average University student of middle class sensibilities, standing up to people in authority might just torpedo your chances at a job. And raising protests within an actual institution you participate in is even more pointless. You’ll destroy potential opportunities for yourself, and you won’t even get media coverage for your troubles. And, in reality, who really believes enough in anything to bother kicking up a fuss about it anyway?

Not so difficult to understand I suppose. Politics is the art of the possible, and it might be that keeping a big player onside is really the only way to keep ones interests alive. Perhaps the choice is the same one that confronted Marshall Pétain in 1940s France: surrender and bide your time, or fight and die anyway.

Or maybe it isn’t.

Is the choice really as dire as that? Or is it just easier to promote and prioritise your own interests over the interests of a larger set of people?

Self-interest of that kind is fine of course, provided you aren’t in a position of leadership or responsibility. However, if you’re a middle manager, or the President of a political organisation, can you really call yourself a leader if you are unwilling to put your own interests on the line in service of those of your own members?

And what is the point of a relationship where you will always be acquiescent? Surely such a relationship can only ever be useful where the weaker party has some sort of a broader strategy to offset the power imbalance? And, in the context of such an imbalance, surely the threat of hostility and conflict would be one of the few levers that could be exercised? How likely is the institution on the other end to take take such a threat seriously if you show almost no intention to use it?

Unfortunately, our generation has been taught both to be selfish, and to abhor conflict. Ignoring the fact that altruism is an essential component of leadership, and conflict an important part of progress. The resulting leadership strategy is often not one of ‘strategic retreat’ but of ‘faithful surrender’. With faith being placed in the aggressor that he/she/it will back down eventually, if only one makes the requisite surrender noises.

It is turning the other cheek, so that the other cheek can get a medal.

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