Is the social purpose sector in Australia too self-righteous?
30 August 2021 at 5:40 pm
Neil Pharaoh thinks it could be. He suggests it’s time for those in the sector to assess their policy positions on a number of issues and stop sweating the small stuff.
I always love a controversial headline; however, I have recently been paying attention to Sahra Wagenknecht and her commentary over progressive politics and civics around the world, and I am starting to believe we may indeed be too self-righteous.
Wagenknecht is the former leader of Die Linke, the equivalent of the Labor Party in Germany. In her recent book “The Self-righteous”, Wagenknecht dives into what she sees as the modern dilemma facing progressive parties and civic institutions. Her call out is simple: comfortable urbanites obsessed with grand themes of social justice are prone to losing patience with those with less lofty concerns, such as buying food, paying rent and finding work.
She states this self-indulgent fixation on ideas, rather than the people, is what is keeping progressive politics from winning. (Cue Australia’s emissions reduction debacle since the Greens Party shot down the carbon pricing mechanism).
The ideas in her book are not new. Gough Whitlam in 1967 was remembered for one line from his speech: “Certainly, the impotent are pure”. But it poses many questions we on the progressive side of politics need to consider, especially in the social purpose sector and civil society.
Andrew Mueller in an essay in Monocle Magazine frames it well: “Are we here to improve the life of our citizens, with the compromises and risks that entails? Or are we here to split ideological hairs, denounce traitors and savour the view from the moral high ground?”
My colleague at Tanck calls this idea “toxic idealism” – when people are obsessed with the ideal, and when it isn’t that way, they throw a tantrum and lose any gains won in the process.
So, the question for many is: are the progressives sweating too many of the small things? Are we stuck in a “never ending folly spending time and energy on arguments nobody is paying attention to but arguments in which no victory is possible,” as claimed by Mueller?
Mueller interviews Erion Veliaj in his essay, the very successful leader of the Socialist Party of Albania. They dive into a topic I have been an active campaigner on (around LGBTI rights). Veliaj says that progressive politics is in many places attended by a chorus of point-scorers, but that the vast majority of people not only do not care, but do not want to have the discussion.
Veliaj gives the example of how often he is told “it’s not LGBT, it is LGBTQI”, he responds that all he meant is that the city is open, and you can love anyone, there was no malice in forgetting a letter or two.
So, what does this mean for the social purpose sector in Australia, many of which skew progressive on social reforms and issues? In short, it is probably time we calibrated and assessed our policy positions on a number of issues.
If we are creating and enabling an environment of “toxic idealism”, this will impact our advocacy, campaigning and engagement with government – using ideological branding to motivate and engage stakeholders around a campaign is just causing middle demographics to switch off, and not engage in our issues.
The conservative side of politics is very good at highlighting the disunity of progressives and social reforms. By letting the perfect get in the way of good, you are actually handing a free kick to those opposed to any change. Likewise, radical change is sadly not sustainable in politics, you need to bring people along with you, and that requires slow, incremental progress – even for our most pressing issues.
We need to find ways to connect with people who disagree, share empathetic discussions with those who have different views, and to an extent stop sweating the small stuff – grand gestures, and iconic promises and statements are great, but if we are trying to encourage people to engage, support our cause, and evolve their views, we need to be more forgiving and encouraging when opinions change, and less self-righteous about our viewpoint.
When you think about calibration of views and opinions, we also need long-term vision, and to recognise that sometimes small steps in the right direction are needed to start the ball rolling.
Just because it is a small step, doesn’t mean it should be discounted as not big enough, or substantial enough, as that may be enough momentum for others to join.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy, and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research, and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.