Startup general interest

Making the case for intellectual honesty

By December 9, 2008 8 Comments

I am currently reading Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners which catalogues the waves of immigrants into Britain over the last 2000 years, the good they have (largely) brought to our country and our (mostly dreadful) reaction to them.  In case you were wondering the title is intended to be ironic.

About half way through the book Winder describes how in the 19th century genuine racism started to take over from hostility to newcomers that was not based in any ideology or feelings of superiority.  This largely happened through a process of intellectual leaders giving a (pseudo)theory based underpinning to the notion that one race was superior to another.  But lots of people played their part, and I was particularly struck by this sentence:

Even poets did their bit: the sublime or transcendent possibilities attributed to the English countryside by Wordsworth and Coleridge gave winsome strength to the idea that ours was a blessed, character-building landscape – our ruined cottages and neglected abbeys glowed with virtue.

Generalising this we have a clear example of how celebrating something as somehow superior when in fact it is merely different carries the very real danger of casting alternatives as inferior.  This can take root in a nation’s, or a company’s, psyche and be very difficult to shift.

I am a big fan of intellectual honesty and integrity, and I write this post to illustrate the dangers of not following this path.  It is not uncommon in companies to find patterns of behaviour celebrated as the ‘company XYZ way’ – that is great if they genuinely contribute to competitive advantage, but if, as is often the case they are merely different, then such celebration will blinker employees and possibly management to the alternatives.  That can be devastating inhibitor to change, particularly in times like these.