Pause before your disapproval

There is a lot of discussion about political polarisation at the moment and my exposure to extreme opinions was given a kick-start while travelling in the United States last month. As I travelled from the "Left Coast," of California, to the southern state of Texas, I experienced the full gamut of opinions. What I did not expect was the extent that politics has been woven into all aspects of life, including corporate engagement.

Corporations were taking positions on issues such as abortion, gun control and Black Lives Matter — taking a stance and positioning themselves with their tribe and in the same breath, alienating themselves from another tribe. I heard of a large burger chain who aligned with "Christian values" and had people from the left protesting and threatening to boycott their stores — the company’s response, "fine, we don’t need your custom". Similarly, companies who came out with a pro-choice stance, were boycotted in the southern states.

In the past, corporations have been faceless entities, driven primarily by the mighty dollar. The shifting landscape is quite extraordinary when you put it in that context — a corporation walking away from revenue to make a social or political statement would have been unheard of in boardrooms a decade ago.

Now, a company’s position drives everything, who works for them (look at those leaving Elon Musk’s Twitter in droves) shareholders, investors and consumers all align according to their political persuasion and in doing that, instead of finding middle ground, we lay down the trenches, conversations cease, and warfare begins.

In a conversation I had with a staunch Texan, it became clear pretty quickly that we were never going to agree on the issue at hand, yet out of respect for each other, we both stayed in the conversation and it helped me to understand her background and drives. At the end of the conversation, she said to me something that was very important, "Anna, we will probably never agree on this issue, but I will always defend your right to express your point of view."

From that statement, I understood the danger and feeling of alienation which happens when people are shut down and become unable to speak or be heard. We saw a glimpse of this in New Zealand, with the vaccine mandate protests which in retrospect, could have been handled more maturely by both sides.

At an international level right now, the Western world’s condemnation of Qatar’s approach to human rights, highlights the complexities of taking a strong stance. The hypocrisy is discomforting — when Qatar is on a world stage, we condemn them for their human rights, yet at all other times, we continue to buy oil from them as if nothing is wrong. The message, keep doing what you are doing, but do not try to step into the limelight. We are comfortable only when you are not seen.

It is a political and economic tightrope — do we "sell our soul" by continuing to trade or do we take a values-based stance, cease trade, communications and any chance of meaningful relationships where we might instead find common ground?

At an individual level, we all walk into conversations, situations and negotiations pre-programmed with our belief system and preconceived ideas. This is an important adaptation for survival — we can quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe. These preconceived ideas stop me from walking down a dark alley at night, maybe saving my life. However, there are times when we need to override our instincts and make an effort to listen to have any chance of finding common ground. If I can get off my high-horse (not always easy for me) and stop for a moment to seek to understand, perhaps, I can make an even bigger impact than my disapproval ever will? I find the treatment of women in countries such as Qatar, abhorrent, yet I have worked with such women and my condemnation of their situation is rarely helpful to them. I am far better reserving judgement, and working alongside them to make an impact in areas where I can.

More and more we are being asked to declare our position — place our stake in the ground — and often, it’s important that we do this, but the way we do this should not be at the cost of listening, or at the cost of someone else’s ability to speak. It is in those grey zones where we may hold conversations that might help to create change.

 - Anna Campbell is a co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She also holds various directorships.