Friday, 29 March 2013

What's in a name?

At Britain Yearly Meeting this year, we are being asked to consider 'trusting in Quaker Trusteeship'. We are told that because we are a charity we have certain legal obligations and we must have trustees who must do things in certain ways.
Before the Enlightenment, people believed, as they still do in many parts of the world, that to find the right name for something was to be able to control it. Names had visceral power, and naming and cursing were dangerous activities. In our sophisticated civilisation we think that we are rational and know that names are mere labels. But we are mistaken. Research reported by CommonCause shows that the way we name things subconsciously 'frames' the way we think about them and value them (or otherwise). A report here illustrates this with the use of economic language – the differences that happen, tested in controlled experiments where only the names are chnged. For instance when we call people 'consumers' rather than 'citizens', positive emotions tend to be associated with materialistic values, such as wealth, image and success.
Calling people 'trustees' has unwittingly trapped us in certain modes of thinking. We have 'framed' our thoughts and don't realise that there is a whole world outside the frame. I believe that this has also happened in our meeting here in Sheffield. Rather than the more normal 'Premises and Finance' committee, we have a 'Management' committee, and rather than employ a 'warden' we employ a 'manager'. This has trapped us in hierarchical and controlling ways of working despite our testimony to equality. I wish that our meeting house business was a workers cooperative and we got rid of special roles for 'management', This is especially so when my wife, Chriss, who works at our meeting house, arrives home frustrated and sometimes angry.
Many people I talk to say we should not be a charity because charity law imposes structures on us that are against our testimony. In fact, in financial matters and care of resources our Quaker integrity makes demands on us beyond any law: we should not be conforming to the law, we should be surpassing it, and, where needed, demanding changes to the law, as we have done for gay marriage. Instead we seem to cow before the law, and fear the Charity Commissioners and feel that we have to conform to secular ways to satisfy them. The truth is that the work that 'trustees' do in the most part still needs to be done somewhere by someone. Where has our testimony to integrity gone and why aren’t we trusting the spirit?
What being a charity and calling a group of us 'trustees' has done, in my view, is to expose the ever creeping instrumentalism in Quaker work and organisation. The adoption of 'management speak', of ever more 'framing' in economic terms, of the veneration of 'experts'. We think that because we are Quakers we will not be infected by the ways of the world, but we have a 'Framework for Action', which many people, myself included, have found highly problematic. So we think that we can now tell where the spirit comes from?
We do need to explore how to be effective and use our resources wisely. We have to keep the name 'trustees' if we are going to remain a charity. But working out what 'Quaker Trusteeship' might be is fraught with problems, not just because 'Quaker' can mean just about anything, but because 'Quaker' refers to our values and relationships rather than to our organisation. I suggest that we explore 'Cooperative Trusteeship', to reinforce modes of association that are non-hierarchical and lead to equality rather than control. This is a debate that also needs to happen in the cooperative movement, since many co-operatives are or want to be charities, and vice-versa, so we can find common cause with like minded people, which will strengthen our analysis.
As for where we place our trust: we trust the spirit, that spirit that informs our testimonies to integrity and equality – we need to believe in people, not structures and names.
I hope that the debate about 'Trusteeship' will be a wake up call for our society. We are constantly at the mercy of the Zeitgeist. In the 19th century we fell for evangelicalism, in the 20th century for idealism, and now in the 21st century for managerialism.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, KJV

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