Anger as a Motivator for Change

Provocation Papers

Clore 15 Fellow Hayley Williams-Hindle writes about anger in the arts; curating angry voices and using anger as a motivator for change. This is part two of her two-part provocation paper. 

Read part one

‘Being positive has become a new form of moral correctness’  ‘ Suppressing our difficult emotions is not healthy or helpful .. it undermines our ability to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be’. 
Susan David, author of Emotional Agility.

Anger interests me. It’s a tantalising emotion that holds the power and impetus to drive forward change. Studies of our neurology confirm this approach and arousal description of an anger response. (Davidson & Irwin ‘99) These last few months of Clore experience - conferences, meetings, teaching forums, discussions - have provided interesting opportunities to witness how we view the anger that we hold ourselves, and the anger of others. I’ve noticed how some angry voices are allowed, and others are not. How some are respected and given space - even if the issue holds no claim for us personally - and other angry voices are drowned out and vilified. 

My challenge to the sector is this, then: attend to the voices that are not being heard, or are growing louder still. 

Whose Anger?

At a recent IETM conference on Inclusion, one delegate stood up and with fierce passion told the room that she represented a native Canadian tribe, and that 'over her dead body' would the rights, land and cultural inheritance of her people be violated. The room listened with respectful silence to the anger and nodded agreement. The following week, during an online group exchange about Brexit, one remarked that the passionately held opinion of the Brexiteer was polemic and held with little grace and generosity.  Even for organisations with diversity as their supposed USP, this last year I have been witness to the kinds of recruitment conversations that value so-called ‘Culture Fit’ above all other considerations. The kinds of conversations that go  ‘this person is a “safe bet”; we know they will fit in’. 

Anger exists for a reason: it is designed to serve us. Our anger invites the subject of it to give more weight to our argument. When the balance of consideration is not offered freely, it becomes appropriate to employ our anger to redress the balance.  In this context, where power - to attribute meaning and allocate resources - is held by a few at the expense of many, anger may be the only recourse left. The art of persuasion is inapplicable here; a stale and elite skill. As leaders and players in Cultural institutions with values that claim to espouse truth and representation, shouldn’t we be attending to the angry voices in order to notice where belonging and power share  is not yet happening? It is a bright and unmistakable signpost that we might welcome. 

Where is our bias here? Which anger is palatable to us and which isn’t? Taking the examples above, do we allow the anger of those who are part of our tribe about things that wont threaten membership of it (as with the conference attender above, whose anger didn’t disrupt the status quo of the group).  At the same time, are we denying the validity of anger that challenges our own beliefs, as we see writ large in the Brexit debate? And how do we react to the anger of dissenting voices in our cultural institutions - a depressing number of which seem to be run by teams who are clinging to the power base status quo? 

Going beyond Empathy

I submit that the role of our Cultural leaders is to seek out and hold court for passionate voice and opinion at every level of the workforce, and beyond, because it is only in such environments where challenge is embraced that vulnerability and authenticity can thrive. This is the groundwork of creativity and innovation, and the space in which our voiced differences can break us out of entrenched ways of thinking and doing and lead to real change.

The organisational approach that we have been taking is wrong. We assume that we should seek similarity in order to reconcile, that we should not point out glaring difference, instead finding subjects that we can agree on and find recognition in. This is a depressingly British way - and it leaves  a legacy in our cultural institutions, of quiet seething and passive aggression. Rarely are we invited to sit with the discomfort of disagreement when it is not presented on the stage or curated for us in scoped and managed portions as Art. Rarely do we seek out difference of opinion in the other with positive intent. In different ways, we notice it, and mock it, or shun it, but we do not face into it, breathe with it, and wrestle with it to exhaustion. And our organisations are poorer for it.  

The pitfalls of a refusal to engage are not unknown, and apply as much to organisations as they do to individuals; when we don't speak up, when we censor ourselves in order to fit in, we disenfranchise ourselves and our potential for real insight. As leaders and individuals, we need first to belong to ourselves, to find our own authenticity and clarity of purpose and allow others to fully inhabit their own identity in return. That requires that we do not seek conformity, or similarity for its own sake. This is the radical insight that the sector needs to take to heart. We can actively seek difference to accelerate progress. Entropy is the default, and humans are basically all still sophisticated apes, with brains retro-fitted for the 21st Century. But if we are going to continue to evolve then we need to shake the nostalgia and keep our eyes set forwards,  and not backwards to an era of hierarchy and rule by fear and conformity. It’s brave and necessary work, and requires us to take full responsibility. This is true most of all for creative endeavours. There is in fact no other creative way. 

The answer to the seemingly intractable lack of representative inclusion and diversity of the Cultural sector workforce, is to recognise, and to put aside, our essential base mammalian nature; to acknowledge that we do have agency, and that we have an equal responsibility to employ the sophistication of thought and action of which we are capable.  The organisations that we serve need to hold in check the groupthink that comes from the empathic in-group response - the oxytocin-generated tribalism.  We will do better and move faster towards an inclusive and representative Cultural workforce and society when we encourage difference and stop censoring the passion, the ‘anger’, that comes from a recognition of injustice, whether it be personal or societal. 

Inspirational Anger

In so many ways and in so many places, change is sacrificed, still, for the greater pull of power. What then is the appropriate response to such institutional and private selfishness? The instinctive answer to many of the big problems in our complex world is often the one that lands with a disarming clarity, with a focussed anger, and pierces through the complacency, the white washing and the impotent handkerchief-wringing empathic concern, of much of  liberal society.

Consider the profile of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who, within the space of a year, captured the imaginations of millions across the world with her school sit-out for Climate Change. Her message, delivered with uncompromising focus, is that of a black and white solution: either we stop global warming, or we do not. Her anger laid squarely at the feet of the world’s powerful who fail to enact policy to support climate-saving change  (Let’s note here, too, that the vitriol of some commentators to Thunberg’s mission is surely the kind of anger that tells us the status quo is shaken up.) 

Consider too the extraordinary rise of Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, who has sparked a viral following of her beyond-comedy routines which are visceral with her own experiences of trauma and abuse. Also an art historian, she skewers the powerful of their day by exposing the deep misogyny within the lush brush strokes of the renaissance masters. Hers is a deeply human performance with an integrity that extends to the wider environment that she performs in - accessibility is designed in.  Her raw and angry truth of lived oppression under patriarchy captivates and enrages in equal measure. 

Leeds based company Slung Low, headed up by the charismatic drive of Alan Lane, is equally uncompromising in its determination to be run for, and by, and in service of,  the often overlooked Holbeck community that it serves. Alan’s talks and presentations are peppered with examples of clash and questioning, alongside a steadfast drive to earn the trust of the community where they are based.  Here is an organisation that isn’t afraid to genuinely engage with angry, and disenfranchised voices. 

There's a quality that looks from the outside like naivete here, though it’s anything but. Instead, it’s a single-minded focus and a fierce, righteous anger, which does not allow complexity to temper the drive for restitution. This is more than just charisma - these are voices that make us sit up and pay attention, and that don’t demand empathy; voices that remind us that it is far too late now for change to be made easy for those resisting it. They demand our individual and collective agency and accountability. Patience is gone and the drive for change is insistent - paradigm shifts rarely happen without disruption and discomfort. It’s notable to me that of the examples above, both Thunberg and Gadsby are autistic. This is a great strength of the autistic neurotype, and at the same time an Achilles heel: to care less for societal norms that make us afraid to speak up (often unintentionally, often too from moral compunction) for fear of being cast out of the group, even as we are in fact frequently cast out for violating those norms. 

Anger teaches - it indicates where balance is not yet easy. Does anger, your own, and others’, cause you unease? There’s information there you’d do well to examine. *

Anger and Intersectionality

'Intersectionality might be more broadly useful as a way of mediating the tension between assertions of multiple identity and the ongoing necessity of group politics’.  Crenshaw. 

Understandings of intersectionality makes clean allocations along one-dimensional lines an increasingly obsolete way of approaching recruiting. We need a broader view of the richness of human experience that doesn’t define us along a single axis and allows us all to express the complexity and nuance of our experience and opinion. When our organisations expect individuals to fulfil a tokenistic nod to diversity, we diminish their humanity, and ought to recognise the righteous anger this provokes. There is  danger in the compartmentalisation of identity when it unintentionally forces diverse individuals to stagnate, because it doesn’t allow for the expression of other, equally important aspects of one’s identity.  These are live issues that a number of my own Clore 15 cohort have been grappling with, and readers are urged to seek out their writing for deeper exploration. 

Psychology offers us a swathe of crucial knowledge about the ways in which our past experiences shape our capacity to engage with new ways of thinking, and with different ways of operating interpersonally. These are the clear insights too of much of our creative practice. Habits are hard learned and harder still to give up, but what we begin to understand; about ourselves and our organisations, we can start to change.  Where then are we translating the learning of so much of the courageous artistic work that our sector produces, into truly insightful leadership?  Too many of our large cultural organisations have public values that espouse equality and diversity of opinion,  with creative output that  frequently looks courageous, but have yawning gaps in the organisational diversity stats at the top level, where the commitment to holding their organisational values up high wavers quickly when trouble brews. The recent example of Madani Younis’ departure from the Southbank Centre after such a short tenure offers more suspicion that change is far from embedded.

There are  implications here for our recruitment practices if we are truly committed to building a representative workforce, with all its attendant benefits. Cultural organisations large and small need to consider how to check their bias against the comfortable feeling of meeting someone who is ‘like us’ and will be a good organisational fit to the status quo. We can start by asking ourselves: how do we sit with the discomfort of facing Other? And are we prepared to do the work or embracing the challenge of, well, challenge? Is the message that we give to candidates, ‘you may come in if you assimilate, if you learn to fit the mould of the culture we are comfortable with,’ or dare we say instead,  ‘you have qualities and insight that we want to enrich our organisation. We need your voice to challenge the culture as-is and keep us relevant’?

This then is the difficult challenge of Leadership in this new paradigm. To bring together different and diverse teams and voices and experience and to choreograph the team dance of power sharing, empathy and compassion while remaining primed always to the angry voice that isn’t in the room and that, in many cases, doesn’t yet want to be. We need to listen. Properly listen. With humility and generosity. Research shows us that most organisations talk a lot, but don’t do much real listening. We need to build what Macnamara (1) terms  an ‘architecture of listening’. It is our job to become relevant - to welcome people who do not feel welcome. If we are committed to creativity as a value, then it is not the job of the outsider to push their way to the centre of our organisations (2)  Instead we must commit to the welcome as a value that we embed in our organisational culture, even to the challenging voice, and beyond the immediate process of recruitment. We need to commit to curating places and spaces and organisations where conflicting views and opinions and ideas can thrive and challenge each other honestly and safely - but also playfully and authentically. 

It’s essential to commit to values that bring about this kind of challenging and rewarding work environment. If we start with creating cultural institutions that grow this way from the inside out, then the policies of audience engagement and strategies for diversifying the audiences who experience our content have an integrity that can never be matched by isolating those conversations from our hiring policies. One of the first things that piqued my interest in exploring issues of diversity and representation within the sector was the stark realisation of how strategies and conversations around such things are compartmentalised within our Cultural organisations, at all levels. The event and training offerings available to me during my Clore Fellowship year attested to this truth.  Simply speaking, audiences and artists are generally treated as separate from general workforce in considerations of representation, with apparently little insight as to how this silo-ed approach might be damaging to the whole . 

There are naturally a number of logical reasons why this may be the case - HR and management deal with hiring policy, and marketers and promoters look for artists, and audiences that appeal to them.  Artists and audiences arguably invite a shorter term commitment than our regular work teams, who cannot so easily be counted as a failed experiment when it doesn’t work out for us at the box office (not just finances, but also engagement; mine is not simply an argument against capitalism). Even so this artificial separation feels as cynical as it may be practical.  And either way it’s a real blind spot when it comes to achieving our strategic objectives around representation. 

There are of course some notable exceptions; London based theatre company Access All Areas is run by and with autistic and learning disabled artists, and at every level of the organisation there is a genuine commitment to seeing autistic and learning disabled people on the board, on the admin teams, and working in other roles behind the scenes as well as on the stage. This representation isn’t tokenistic or pragmatic. Even the AGM (which I was privileged to attend at the end of 2018) was an exercise in joyous engagement with all of the stakeholders in the organisation, and how often can we say that of an AGM? The acclaim that Access All Areas are continuing to garner is partly, I think, because the level of integrity across the organisation is palpable. 

Let’s Get Comfortable with Tension

Earlier this year I met Laura Bambach, co-founder and CEO of celebrated creative ad agency Mr President, and founder of non-hierarchical women’s advocacy organisation SheSays, at a conference where she was presenting. Laura spoke compellingly about the team cohesion and creative edge that having a rich mix of different people made to the ad agency business, even because of some of the creative and organisational challenges and interpersonal frustrations that such diverse viewpoints and perspectives gave. 

Since empathy doesn’t promote activism but actually comes with a risk of paralysis, I’m urging a much more compassionate understanding of uncomfortable emotions outside of the performance space instead. Let’s  get comfortable with tension. Not just because it is inevitably part of working with other humans, but because creative work and the increased diversity that underpins it mean grappling with a host of differing viewpoints and opinions across all teams. Workplace culture fit needs to look different. No longer finding people ‘like us’ to welcome in to the organisational fold, but actively looking for people who are not like us. Not just in physical attributes (gender, ethnicity, skin colour, physicality) but also experiences - the sector is still vastly underrepresented by working class and non tertiary educated people. The largely celebratory discourse around the UK’s cultural sector economic value conveniently  ignores too, the impact of the power imbalance that decides who bestows the meaning on what is produced (3)  Questions of power, of symbolic violence and misrecognition rarely have any prominence in cultural policy discourse. Our individual and collective anger is a rational response to this fact. (All in a Row at the Southwark Playhouse earlier this year is a current example - a play about a family with an autistic child, where the child was represented as a puppet. The woeful and defensive response of the production team and the venue to the insight, and then the anger, offered up by disabled and neurodiverse people and their families to the content and messaging of this play lays bare this power imbalance.) 

Effective collaboration amongst teams needs much more than efficiency and harmonious agreement. We need to learn to greet tension and conflict as an opportunity for evolution. Within our off-stage teams as well as our creative partnerships. That necessitates a more mature understanding of power structures and the ways that anger, properly understood and harnessed, can shift the balance of interest towards the frustrated and in so doing enrich the output. 

If we choose not to attend and listen, we miss the opportunity to learn and connect. Mature teams and organisations know the benefits of making space for the other. Maturity is holding our own ideas and beliefs as separate from our values (ideas and beliefs do not identify us). Then we are free to update and change as we learn new information, without feeling threatened at the level of self.  We can attend to what anger; personal, societal, organisational, is asking of us. Greater consideration, a shift in perspective and a yielding of power and control. 

Authoritarian principles are rarely a helpful way to lead in our contemporary world. These old structures are not conducive to the creative, innovative thinking that the cultural sector needs in VUCA environments, where funding controversies and uncertainty are a real challenge, and the inter-agency working practices that aim to mitigate some of these vulnerabilities (as well as strengthening creative endeavours) mean that we are constantly needing to balance the priorities of different groups of still-too-similar people. 

Suggestions of ways that we can harness such diverse perspectives are offered up by organisations like IDEO, who teach embedded practice that include practical ways of exploring different voices. Attention needs to be given to  developing these architectures of listening.  I might say that it’s a dispassionate methodology for harnessing passion, by offering up techniques for collaborative working, and helping to establish cultural conditions where genuinely diverse teams can thrive and share power. IDEO argue three behaviours necessary to cultivate in all team members as the key to the success of these approaches - learning, curiosity and vulnerability. 

It must be the role of our cultural leaders to genuinely invite challenge and to attend to anger from all quarters, not to simply ignore it or dismiss it or ridicule and invalidate it. To accept that change often comes at a cost to comfort, even as our resistance to change is at greater cost to the personal and organisational integrity that ought to matter most. This stuff isn’t easy! It’s difficult mental work to wrangle with our individual and organisational inertia around representation in our sector, and to acknowledge and embrace the  discomfort that comes before changed habits of thought and deed.  

But here’s hope and vision; and observation from my own experience; that in spaces of unconditional acceptance of ‘me’ as other, there is freedom, and power - to own voice and perspective.  That acceptance represents a positive experience that is genuinely transformational and entirely expansive and creative. So much more transformational work can happen with and for all cultural sector stakeholders if that acceptance can be cultivated for others too.  A truly representative cultural workforce gives the artistic output an integrity and power that it can’t easily claim otherwise. 

*To qualify - the value of attending the anger doesn’t equate the  validity of the angry argument; many perverse and confused opinions use anger to give them weight, witness Thunberg’s detractors.  But here’s a secondary benefit to this tactic which is that voices heard, even unpleasant or difficult ones, are more easily quieted. These are the basics of customer service - listen to the anger and it will diffuse. We must engage with this anger too, though, creatively and with integrity.  

(1) Jim Macnamara. University of Technology, Sydney  - Organisational Listening; The Missing Essential in public communication 
(2) Nina Simon - The Art of Relevance
(3) E Belfiore - International Journal of Cultural Policy. Whose Cultural Value? Representation, Power and Creative Industries. 

This is part two of Hayley's two-part provocation paper. You can read part one in our Resources section.