According to Wikipedia:
"Bears are lovely creatures...and are, for the most part, non-violent. However, when poked, bears can become quite angry. As such, it's always best not to poke the bear."
As of this week, even peaceful Muslims have now been provoked. Because Charlie Hebdo decided to feature Prophet Mohammed on the cover of their first post-attack issue, there have been angry protests in the streets as far away as the Philippines.
We seem to be entering an age where we want to embrace more openness and understanding toward our teams, for both practical reasons (e.g. improving staff retention) and increasingly for humane ones (e.g. to relish the intrinsic rewards of improving the lives of others). And yet, at a country or global level, we are still grappling with what it truly means to understand and co-exist with someone whose life and belief system differs from our own.
Here are 3 observations to reflect on:
1. We struggle to let go of the past even when it no longer works for our present.
French laws about blasphemy have taken huge twists and turns since the 13th Century. Right now, blasphemy is no longer illegal, because of an Act in 1881 that instated freedom of the press (which is what Charlie Hedbo and its supporters live by). However, "the incitement to commit crimes and offences" is still a violation, as is the incitement of hate or violence based on religion, and slander or libel against any religious group (Article 32 of the 1881 Act). This is a grey area, where French publications who choose an irreverent editorial policy may actually be violating the law.
Then there's the universal law of human decency. As a friend shared with me today, "With the France situation, I understand the concept of free speech but if the solution is to continue to publish pictures that offend others then we are in a never-ending cycle of ignorance, prejudice, miscommunication, violence, and ongoing cultural and racial wars..."
Whether you agree with immigration or not, it has become a de facto reality of a hyper-connected world. As business owners or organizational leaders, we now often have a mandate to build our businesses and expand our impact globally. As politicians or government officials, we understand the importance of building regional alliances for long-term gain. These forces and drivers naturally lead to the movement of people (legally or illegally) across the world to pursue better employment or greater impact.
And whether you like it or not, you'll work with or lead a team with members whose names you can't pronounce with certainty, and whose upbringing you can't ever fully understand. Tolerance, understanding and acceptance are no longer concepts reserved for religious or spiritual observances - they are in-demand tools we all need to thrive as leaders at work and in life.
2. We'd rather see problems as black and white absolutes, not the respectful shades of grey in between.
At the root of last week's events in Paris was the need to stand our ground no matter what. The prevailing belief is that immigrant Muslims seem to be threatening the right to free speech when they complain about depictions of their prophet. What's the big deal, many say, when the cartoonists in question poke fun at other religious figures too? Can't you take a joke? Besides, some have argued that the humor depicted in the cartoons is actually rather nuanced and thoughtful.
But it is precisely this subtlety and nuance that get lost in cultural translation. Humor, in my view, is one of the highest and most-easily misunderstood forms of cultural expression. It's laced with innuendos that only another person steeped in that culture would understand and appreciate. I've shared clips from America's satirical shows like The Colbert Report with Asian friends and relatives. Some look at me blankly and say, "What's so funny about that?" I spent many a happy school day learning the sophisticated art of Chinese Crosstalk (相声), a rapid-fire comedic performance that's all but lost on non-Mandarin speakers. And I became a student theatrical improviser in the late 2000s - for all my exposure to American humor and theater beforehand, it took me several months to become comfortable responding to cues that fellow improvisers threw my way. Even satire is expressed in many ways within the Middle East (yes, they celebrate and perform satire too).
There are many unexpected ways to practice a faith, like not wanting a religious prophet to be depicted in any form, something that I know is sacred to non-violent Muslims. There are many beautiful ways to show solidarity, like last Sunday's unity rally in France. And there are many nuanced ways to use humor. As a fellow business owner shared with me this morning, "Humor done well can bring up what needs to be healed, what needs to be seen." If a satirical publication's editorial philosophy is ultimately (and hopefully) to produce good humor, then all we should ask as consumers is for that irreverence to be tempered with some consideration for an increasingly diverse and global readership.
3. Don't make blanket assumptions about those you lead.
Life whizzes by too quickly these days for us to learn all the ins and outs about who we engage with. But just like the Slow Food movement, I believe we're long-overdue for a Slow Leadership movement. A movement where leaders don't feel the need to have a knee-jerk reaction all the time. A movement where there is more tolerance both ways, where either party can pause to take one clarifying breath before acting.
Because, as romantic and uplifting as the unity rally was, it hasn't addressed the fundamental gap in understanding between immigrant Muslims' religion and France's secularism. I believe that the West assumed the rally had healed inter-cultural tensions. But this week's street protests have put us back at square one. And it remains to be seen whether the rally will have an impact on the harder leadership decisions that need to be made for greater social integration and economic equality in France.
And so, in this moment of post-attack fog as the world tries to get back to normal, I urge you all, whether leaders in title or in conviction, not to poke the bear. Find a way forward that comes from a quest for understanding, soul-searching and peaceful resolution.
I create and host the Executive Book Club Podcast, a show that offers practical wisdom for soul-searching leaders. Take a listen - it'll help you start to build those bridges of understanding and resolution.