Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Going against the flow

Going with the flow has a very respectable pedigree. Whether you look to Taoism's 'doing without doing' or to the Greco-Roman Stoic Philosophers of a few centuries BCE, you'll find plenty of support for taking the path of least resistance through life. It's certainly the 'low-fuss' way to go.

As an American transplanted to London, I have been starting to think that 'go with the flow' is more an English tendency than an American one. As far as I can tell, for many English folks - especially middle class ones - the highest priority at all times is to avoid making a fuss. If I get punched in the jaw in London, I am likely to blurt out an embarrassed "sorry" - presumably because my face was in the wrong place and got in the way of someone's fist.

In the US, an incompetent employee is fired. In England, well, we don't like to make a fuss, do we? We find a way around it. Nothing could be important enough to justify the awkwardness of a confrontation [with the very notable exception of debates in Parliament, which I still do not understand to even the slightest extent.]

There is a lot in the 'go with the flow' approach that is laudable. Fewer rage-related killings would probably be a good place to start!  Also, I know I am going to be a lot happier if I can frame the fact that the bus driver just drove off laughing, leaving me wet and panting on the pavement, as a wonderful opportunity for exercise and just the way it is rather than a cause for seething fury an visions of vengeance. Of course, a lot of unexpressed anger probably accounts for the enormous consumption of alcohol by the English, but this is a different matter...

There is also a big problem with going with the flow. The flow is all too often in the wrong direction. The flow may be away from our vision of how the world could and should be and against what is best for each of us. The flow is leading us toward selfishness. The flow is leading us toward a lonely detached kind of fierce individualism. The flow is leading us toward environmental catastrophe. The flow is leading us toward an increasing separation between the rich and the poor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said "...there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted." He was reminding us that we can get accustomed to injustice and inequality. We can contribute to the negative things in our world just by 'going with the flow'.

Close to home, I have watched 'going with the flow' allow the decline of the Unitarian movement to continue unabated. Rather than call people out for their incompetence or deliberate obstructionism, we try to be nice and polite. We seem to prefer letting the whole movement suffer rather than upsetting one person or a few individuals.

I have seen bureaucrats willfully neglect their duties and damage or even destroy lives - and this is tolerated because we don't want to make a fuss.

In parliament, we have seen progress on same-sex religious partnership blocked because the bishops in the House of Lords insist that to make changes will make life difficult for some C of E vicars. Forget the millions of BGLT people - don't want to make a fuss for the vicars!

I've seen congregations self-destruct because they refuse to remove a disruptive member - they don't recognise that they are hurting many in order to protect one.

I've seen incompetent teachers protected at the cost of harm to hundred or thousands of students.

These things are simply wrong and they're wrong because of a failure to take into account the long term and the big picture in order to avoid some fuss in the moment.

Sometimes we have to go against the flow. I'm willing.


  1. The English use negative politeness more than Americans (don't do things that might upset people). It's a cultural thing and both are useful. FWIW I am slightly offended if I bump in to someone and they don't apologise - it's just against the order of things.

    As for standing against the flow, I think the goal is to change and redirect the flow. Otherwise you risk being like Canute, railing at the tides. (Slight mixed metaphor, you get what I mean.)

    Ideally, you want to train the incompetent teacher, suggest the employee moves sideways, and use the Parliament Act, or an EU treaty to sidestep the bishops. No, it's not efficient or quick to work round people rather than remove them, but the point is to get it done, not get it done perfectly.

  2. There's an interesting article about why therapy places the responsibility for psychological distress in the wrong place (i.e. in the individual instead of in society) in Therapy Today.

    You might also like the book Watching the English by Kate Fox, Andy - it explains a lot about us. But I do agree that going with the flow of a malfunctioning society is not a good thing. And I too get frustrated by some of the things you mention here.

  3. Yes- Its a cultural thing that can be very frustrating. With individuals its easier to challenge but with organisations, especially if fragmented, its difficult.

  4. The article Yewtree points to is brilliant. very much recommended reading. (If only I could have said it that well!)

  5. When making a comparison with Americans, it is perhaps worth clarifying who the Americans are that you are talking about. I have found city dwelling Americans to be very different to small town Americans - which is of course yet another cultural stereotype.
    But there is ultimately no conservatism quite like the US version.
    rev jane (another Unitarian minister)

  6. Great thoughts, everyone.

    I particularly like Angela's idea that we should go against the flow in order to change the direction of things. I am reminded of a sermon by Bill Darlison (Dublin Unitarians) a year or two back where he speaks of new orthodoxies being established out of once radical ideas. This might well be human nature, but is a good assessment of what has happened to much of the British Unitarian movement.

    I propose a cyclical model on going with and against the flow:
    1. We speak out and go against the flow when we see an idea or action has run its course.
    2. By going against the flow, we engage with others proactively to change the flow, as Angela has proposed.
    3. We maintain the humility and spirit of reason within us to evaluate our actions, critically analysing our actions, going against the flow again as necessary, to allow the cycle to start again.

    One more observation in relation to Jane's comment, is to note that "going with the flow" is not culturally limited. One only has to look at the scandals currently enveloping the Catholic Church and associated institutions in Ireland and Germany to see the ultimately tragic and destructive consequences on people's lives that result from putting self-preservation first and failing to go against the flow of the predominant culture.

  7. What's ironic is that on an issues-basis Unitarians are going with the flow - what we need to do is bridge the gap between what people expect of most religion (conservatism on the whole) and what they get from us. There's a kind of cognitive dissonance we need to address, and funnily enough I plan to talk about that when I upload my blog tomorrow!