Finding Voice in Toxic Times

Not always intentionally, the film industry often provides a window into the wider world. Right now, it’s not through the lens of the camera but rather through seedy stories of predatory sexual behaviour. One courageous story has encouraged another, revealing a culture of abusive power in which prominent men have assumed their position exempts them from moral norms. Sadly, it seems these stories don’t surprise. Many were well-known, even the subject of veiled humour. They’re no longer funny…

Nor is the phenomenon confined to Hollywood glitterati. The long history of the abuse of children by those in religious and other “caring” institutions is now well-documented. Again it was a prevailing culture that enabled people, supposedly in positions of trust, to victimise the most vulnerable. And again the stories were long whispered, perhaps sometimes even screamed – yet still power prevailed. Until now…

These may seem bold, large-scale examples and perhaps you recognise situations closer to home? The workplace where “everyone knows” what’s going on but feels powerless to do anything about it. Not necessarily predatory behaviour, it may be about people using their positions to control or intimidate others – to bend them to their will or perhaps to give favours and court admiration. You may not be the one affected…

Although from different contexts, these examples have much in common. Those with power have abused their privilege and operated within a perverted moral code. Each example is indicative of a toxic culture that has developed over time – a culture that is accretive and self-reinforcing and that draws others in through their silence or through their mobbing behaviours. The silence of those afraid to speak out in case they become victims; the mobbing of those who actively participate in the game – sometimes unconsciously…

In my current research I use the concept of virtuous and vicious circles to illustrate the process. The vicious circle represents the toxic normative culture that develops, reinforced by aberrant actions and dispositions of leaders and others, the inaction of leadership, policy inadequacy, collusion, system dysfunction, mobbing and silence.

However, there is a counterbalancing circle, a virtuous circle that offers reason for optimism. Those victims presently speaking out and others who’ve joined them have triggered a different cycle and reasserted the moral imperative. Individual ethical actions, system efficacy, supportive networks, healthy relationships, proactive leadership, checks and balances.

Former power structures and relationships have rightly come under heavy criticism with a resulting loss of trust in institutions and their power brokers. A new power dynamic has entered the fray in the form of social media, a phenomenon that has been instrumental in giving voice to those otherwise powerless. While it will take more than a chorus of outrage, and ever precarious, there is also hope for the emergence of new and more virtuous cycles.

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