I had coffee with a few friends shortly after returning from life abroad in East Africa. I missed the agora-like coffee shop while living abroad. Western-style cafes aren’t lacking, but they’re used for planning safari tours or doing business deals. I was looking forward to the clang of cutlery, the whoops of children and earnest dialogue between people of slightly different opinions.
My friends and I were in the midst of a heated discussion when I noticed one of our conversationalists had taken the cadence of a repetitious pop-song, continuing to repeat mantra-like some idea that wasn’t compelling to the rest of us. People began to glance down uncomfortably and there was an eagerness to change the subject to something more agreeable — like the weather, or children.
In my experience this seems to be a particularly common problem in the social impact community, where certain practices, ideas or discourses can take hold like a pop song chorus when you’ve forgotten the second verse. Ideas catch on because they’re catchy, not good, and they pass by memesis rather than merit. Ideas can be compelling for reasons the idea-holders can’t fully articulate, like a kind of gaseous cognitive indigestion producing unwanted belching.
To be upfront: The repeated infliction of inarticulate ideas on other people is boorish, insufferable, and unfair. Oftentimes, it’s the case that a person encounters their own incomplete understanding mid-conversation — when an aphorism they’ve had on repeat encounters the agora of the cafe and a curious listener asks a simple yet incisive question (“What do you mean by that?” or “Sure, but how does that apply in this situation?”).
Often these simple questions make a person look to the ceiling and wriggle their fingers as though fondling invisible stress balls. Make no mistake: This is not a mind seeking to engage with a question, but rather to circumvent it. In doing so, they have passed straight from didactic communication (where so many of us feel so comfortable) to defensive communication. They have failed to consider that the question may indicate that the problem is their incomplete understanding of the idea, or perhaps the idea itself.
Imagine if your mechanic wrung their hands and got defensive any time you asked a simple question about an oil leak or a flat tyre. You’d turf them.
If you’re an arsehole like I am, this defensiveness is often an opportunity to push the point a little harder. In the cafe, things got heated. Rather than risk a friendship, the dialogue terminated on a common, show-stopping attempt at a peace treaty — A book recommendation. “Read this, and then you’ll get it!” The conversationalist defers the argument on to an object, conveniently absent, invoking it as both an olive branch and a deus ex machina.
No doubt it was some somniferous doorstop only available through an inter-library loan or worse — a book bought in an airport. I don’t know, because I said I would read it and then never did. Instead we went to talk on about something forgettable, like the weather or children.
I’ve been recommended far too many books on things I care far too little about because I’ve been having a discussion with someone who understands an idea deeply enough to cling to it, yet not deeply enough to defend it. Another person’s lack of depth becomes my seventeen-hour obligation.
This sort of intellectual laziness is ensconced in the particular cultural moment engendered by the indeterminacy of social impact practice. Ideas like emergence, uncertainty, collaboration, and non-language-based forms of knowing are very important, but can also function as a kind of shield against critical engagement.
Important dialogues around ideas are often truncated short in the interest of preserving group peace. Disagreements can be thwarted by the declaration that we need to ‘hold space,’ or ‘recognise our differences.’ Deference to the esoteric often silences important dialogue. Often, a failure to cede to a certain idea is framed as a kind of ‘closedness’ or a failure to do some form of ‘inner work.’ In these spaces, soft language has an ironically totalitarian function of silencing dissent.
The book reccommendation always closes these conversations. Plainly, the function of the book reccommendation is this: “This conversation is over. The problem is you. Go away and do your homework.”
The problem — aside from bad faith and fools in high places — is the entanglement of ideas with identities and livelihoods. This is particularly a problem in social impact, where our ideas have become professionalised as consulting and teaching tools which earn us an income. Our power and authority depends upon a kind of Shamanistic ability to commune with the spirits of the ‘future wanting to emerge.’
Yet for the vociferous defense of our ideas, even a casual glance at the history of social impact practice reveals the bone dry remains of countless ideas that we now know belong in history’s dustbin. Ideas are born, transformed in to consulting products and careers, and die without a whimper. This process typically leaves their practitioners with no less enthusiasm for the next idea — that is to say, none the wiser (and none the poorer).
This suggests that a certain ironic, playful attitude towards our deeply held beliefs is helpful. We need a kind of relaxed vigilance and an open acknowledgement that we may be terribly wrong about everything. This is especially the case for young ideas. Many fads in the social impact sector demonstrably have a shelf life shorter than a can of Heinz Baked Beans. Social impact professionals would do well to keep in mind the Lindy Effect, which suggests that the best ideas to hang a career on are those that have been around for a while.
So I suppose if you are going to reccommend me a book, make sure it’s a classic.