Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Organizational Power and Vilification

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I had an experience not too awfully long ago that left me feeling somewhat unsettled. I came across a widely distributed email from within an organization that vilified most thoroughly a competitor to that organization. The email showed a number of organizational members dressed up in military fatigues and talked about “going to war” against the competitor. The competitor was described as wanting to take food out of the mouths of this organization’s employees and even to drive them into homelessness by making them unable to pay their mortgages. The question was posed, “What are we going to do to this enemy?” The supposition contained within the email was that WAR was the answer. KILL them, because the people of this other organization were somehow less than human. To me it was a depressing reminder of the tactics that those in power will sometimes use to either retain power or to unify a population by the vilification of another external group or an internal subgroup. The fact that this message was celebrated within the organization while quite disturbing was perhaps not surprising.

Creating unity within a population by fabricating an external threat followed by the complete vilification of that external entity, whether that entity is a single individual, an ethnic or religious group or an entire country, is a tried and true method used by dictatorial regimes or others seeking or desiring to hold onto power all around the world, beginning in the most ancient of times. For those who brutally wield power it is a way to justify their brutality. It plays to people’s innermost fears and creates a rationale for why those in power must hold onto power, or why those seeking power should be given it, for the argument is that they and they alone can protect you from the evil that is waiting to pounce, given the chance. Stigmatizing a group or a class of people as a threat and the source of internal problems is a fundamental building block of creating bigotry and hatred, and for the establishment of behaviors, through legislative means, societal or group norms for treating those so identified as an unequal subclass.

It can be tempting for today’s organizations of whatever stripe (e.g. private sector, governments, religious, political parties), given the difficulties they face, to use that same logic for creating and/or playing on people’s fear, for portraying “outsiders” or those others as an enemy is an easy path towards increasing internal group cohesiveness or attracting others to the “cause”, at least among those wanting to be part of the inner circle. Pointing the finger at others for your problems deflects blame, or a proper examination of systemic deficiencies from where it rightly belongs, which is squarely in the mirror.  It is shrewd in the sense that it plays off of people’s natural tendencies, but it is a path that is taken by vacuous people, is morally corrupt and unethical. Instead of creating a vision that inspires a group to greatness you prey on people’s uncertainty, biases, and threats to their baser survival needs to bind them together by blaming others for their troubles. Once you head down that road there is no gaining higher ground.

George Washington, in 1790, was making a tour of the states, partly to promote the adoption of the Bill of Rights and to drum up support for its ratification by the states. He stopped in Newport, Rhode Island, a city which had suffered greatly during the revolutionary war and proclaimed to a population eager to hear his words that America was a country “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”. He provided assurances, in diverse Newport, that tolerance of people’s differences was a key component to the future success of the fledgling nation. His vision for the future of the country was one in which diversity of thought and belief was to be celebrated. His thinking was congruent with the likes of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams among others, even as they varied widely in their individually held beliefs. The very religious Adams for instance lost no love on Jefferson, calling him godless in their very heated battle for the presidency, but the god-fearing Adams signed a treaty with the Bey of Tripoli on June 10th, 1797, as the United States negotiated with the Barbary pirates (finally going to war in 1801 – America’s first foreign war) which contained these words in Article 11,  “as the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion it has no character of enmity against the laws, religion and tranquility of the Mussulmen” (archaic English for Muslims).  James Madison was also a proponent of religious pluralism and tolerance, as demonstrated by his arguments before the Virginia Assembly in 1785 that pluralism was “the best and only security for religious belief in any society, for where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to persecute and oppress the rest.” The notions of vilifying or oppressing or of holding separate those who are “different” than the majority was not part of the thinking of the founding fathers of this country.

Political groups and other organizations have striven for political or influential power and to exert their views on the majority for a long time, and the one of the paths taken by those groups in their attempts is somewhat well worn. Here is a list of attributes and environmental conditions that describe the circumstances surrounding one group as they attempted to rise to power. See if you can identify the group.

  • This movement was born in a tense period of economic uncertainty and joblessness;
  • There was an uneasy feeling that the nation’s influence and power was fading;
  • Two political parties were in power but were bitterly opposed to each other and unable to formulate effective solutions to pressing issues, such as high unemployment and the failure rates of businesses;
  • The view promoted by those seeking power was that those in power has lost touch with the masses and what was important to them;
  • The view was promoted that current leaders were violating the founding principles of the nation;
  • Political changes underway were a source of intense dissatisfaction for some;
  • A portion of the nation’s troubles were blamed on subgroups (such as immigrants) within the nation and those wanting power were promising a solution;
  • This party attempted to draw in people who traditionally were not politically active;
  • This group appealed most strongly to lower middle class who were fearful about the their future;
  • As this group gained power and influence, politicians from more traditional groups began jumping on the bandwagon;
  • This party grew out of smaller political groups and movements.

And of course this listing could, but does not refer to a contemporary group but rather to the rise of the Nazis in Germany taken out of a text (slightly disguised) on the history of the German Workers Party.

The point here is that it is not unusual for organizations to resort to the lowest common denominator, people’s fears and concerns and to do so quickly in pursuit of its goals, holding itself out as the only hope for organizational continuity or personal goals, security and desires. It is a well-worn path that we as humans have traveled down many times before. And while these behaviors are not rare, they are not always given into and the enlightened founding fathers of the United States did not succumb to the vilification process of those who did not look like them, who did not pray like them, who did not have the same origins or the same political beliefs. After 234 years perhaps it is time for us to remind ourselves of the ideals that they based this country upon. We must never forget history, for it is a window which shows us our likely future behavior, and gives us insight into how others may try to take advantage of our nature. I would like to think we as a species might finally learn a lesson or two about our nature and then perhaps the next time around things might be different. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


3 Responses

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  1. Timely post in this increasingly polarized world. We can bring people together around their worse or better side… and we can each choose to support those who raise the bar for us all or spot the muddy tactics as you are doing here.

    As Adlai Stevenson once said, “If you throw mud you get dirty.”

    Kare Anderson

    February 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm

  2. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    This was written a few years ago, but still seems very current.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    July 22, 2012 at 8:11 am

  3. […] Vilification of the “other” […]

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