Elites and the establishment

A couple of weeks ago, the Economist ran a piece on 'elites'. The writer cautions "Careful writers should avoid this word; it is becoming a junk-bin concept used by different people to mean wildly different things."

It's the same with the phrase 'the establishment'. The Atlantic ran a similar piece to the Economist's saying, "Of course, 'the establishment' has no agreed-upon meaning."

Wikipedia currently defines 'the establishment' as, "a dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organization." I like the fact that their definition of establishment includes the word 'elite' because now we may be able to agree that both words might be consigned to the junk bin. I can't think many people would self-define as being either part of an elite or 'the establishment' particularly as both words have been flung about wildly as pejoratives in recent politics. But I may be wrong on the self-identification thought.

I'm thinking about these words because at the same time as I read the Economist piece someone sent me a question: 'How do we understand what lies beyond the establishment view? To clarify – this is about how we understand views from across the spectrum rather than just those we are most commonly exposed to.'

Junking the words 'elite' and 'establishment' misses the point that the words also carry a meaning of 'power' or 'authority' and this to me is the heart of the question. Power comes in many forms and is not only about hierarchy, or social status or money. Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization lists 14 sources of power.

Suppose we take the stance that it is less about elites or establishments and more about how do people with power learn to listen to and understand points of view and perspectives different from their own. From what we've seen in the press recently we could get an impression that people with power do not want to understand what lies beyond their view.

A 2011 BBC documentary 'The British Establishment; Who For?' explores that concern. 'From the City, to the police, to the press, to Parliament, and in cultural institutions including the nation's universities and even the BBC, a narrow elite, drawn from the least-diverse backgrounds, make the rules, socialise, and define what is and is not permissible among the nation's leaders.'

But let's assume they do what to understand what lies beyond their view. Why would they want to and how would they get the understanding?

Why would they want to understand what lies beyond their view? John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher, writing On Liberty in 1869, reasoned that: 'there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.'

Research on dissent led by Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley finds in favour of 'the value of dissent for cognition and decision making. In general, we find that dissent stimulates thought that is broader, that takes in more information and that, on balance, leads to better decisions and more creative solutions'.

For communities and societies to advance there needs to be a healthy level of dissent combined with a humility and willingness to listen generously and openly in order to understand other perspectives and experiences, rather than holding on to a view and/or looking only for information and opinions that will confirm it.

How can you get an understanding of other views? There are many avenues to explore. Here are three possibilities:

1. Generous listening, Krista Tippett explains: "Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability – a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one's own best self and one's own best words and questions."
2. Taking a learner rather than a judger perspective is another: Judger questions are reactive and automatic, leading to defensiveness, win-lose relating, and a view of limited possibilities. Learner questions are flexible and adaptive, leading to questioning assumptions, win-win relating, and a view of plentiful possibilities. See the Inquiry Institute for information and resources
3. Inquiry and immersion: going to ask questions and immerse yourself in the world of those you are trying to understand. "Back to the floor' a TV series challenged the top executives [of large UK companies] to leave their rarefied position of power to spend a week at the sharp end of their business. Rude awakenings await the bosses as they get a taste of the frustrations, grievances and humour of working on on their own frontline."

How would you suggest 'the establishment' and those with power learn to understand other perspectives. Let me know.