(Photo: Reflections of the evening sun on the waters of the Mälaren Lake, in front of the Parliament, in Stockholm on Friday, 16 May '14)
In today’s developed world, the majority of us are lucky to live distant from external violence. Although our chances of suffering a violent attack or an accident may vary, depending on countries, lifestyle or jobs, they are not comparable to the defencelessness experienced by our ancestors, centuries ago. The evolution of institutions, the rule of law and the moral progress achieved in our societies make the experience of external violence an improbable event. However, we can still witness violent phenomena through TV and other media, watching the news on wars, terrorist attacks, murders, natural disasters and similar horrible events, which happen elsewhere.
When learning of those human atrocities, like the current kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, I recall Simone de Beauvoir’s splendid "Les Belles Images", where the French protagonist, a conscientious mother, is concerned by her daughter’s sadness over the evils occurring abroad –hunger, epidemics, natural disasters- and causing devastating effects among huge numbers of poor. The mother believes that her daughter’s sufferings are useless because these calamities cannot be solved solely by one person, if at all. This impotence of the single individual to solve big evils produces a natural, psychological reaction in many humans. People like "belle images" –beautiful images- and prefer them to scenes of horror. Additionally, most people are not prepared to coexist with permanent images of evil or suffering. The natural reaction of the mother in Beauvoir’s novel is, then, to change the television channel, or the subject I should say, in order to impede her beloved daughter’s continuous exposure to the cruelest aspects of life. The extreme version of this "belle image" syndrome is just not talking or not showing pictures of some particular disaster, minimising the exposure to calamities or even pretending that they do not exist. I am sure you identify the syndrome I am talking about.
In a similar vein, sometimes I hear that managers should avoid being sensitive or compassionate, since they should take hard decisions that may affect thousands of people while keeping themselves calm and unaffected at the same time. This is encapsulated by the widely used expression: “Is nothing personal, It is just business”.
Imagine that you have to fire half of your team as a consequence of a merger or a company downsizing. How could you cope with the personal tensions derived from such measures without detaching yourself enough to avoid suffering personally? Indeed, some managers, and humans in general, develop some sort of self-defence mechanisms to protect themselves from mental disruptions in times of crisis, a sort of automatic reaction to elude thinking about the harmful consequences of our decisions on others.
However, sensitiveness and compassion have room in business relations as virtues to be practiced. The challenge for managers is how to take hard decisions and at the same time keep their humanity. I can only think of a way-out in those cases: hard decisions should be subject to rational scrutiny and managers who adopt them should be capable of defending them in the public arena through reasonable arguments. Contrary to what Machiavelli stated, I believe that, in business it is better to be loved than to be feared.
Going back to atrocities and how people react to them, I recently read Susan Sontag’s “Regarding The Pain of Others”, a forceful essay on the imagery of warfare, a wake-up call at a time when we are witnessing, every day, countless attacks on human lives everywhere, more than what headlines can tell, and sometimes very close to home. Sontag explained: “the understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of [war photographers'] images”.
So far as we feel sympathy," Sontag wrote, "we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence."
Sontag was also realistic about what intellectuals can do about warfare: “Who believes today that war can be abolished? None, not even pacifists. We hope only (so far in vain) to stop genocide and to bring to justice those who commit gross violations of the laws of war (for there are laws of war, to which combatants should be held too), and to be able to stop specific wars by imposing negotiated alternatives to armed conflict.”
Good Business" is the best antidote to bad international politics. "Good Education" is the best equaliser across humans, and societies. Working as a professor in a business school is a privilege, as we get the opportunity to enhance our students, -and our own-, sense and sensibility, and contribute in some way to avoiding the "Belle Image" syndrome, and try to keep our humanity.