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A Bigger Room for the Elephant

I recently taught in the Said School’s major programme management class.  As explained in a previous post, this programme is for people who manage major projects and changes, from building bridges to holding the Olympics to getting people to reduce their energy consumption.  I was invited by my colleague, Paul Chapman, after he saw my inaugural address.  Paul offered the provocative idea that closing the gender gap “is (most likely) the world’s biggest transformational change project.”  Paul further advised that the effort to put women on an even footing  “requires a multitude of social major programmes to achieve, and so has a compound of scale and complexity challenges that need to be navigated.”

I was flattered to be invited–and intrigued at the prospect of getting some expert input as to how to change the gender situation from a “major programme management” perspective.  Teaching the class was enjoyable, but the lecture and discussion ran overtime and I didn’t get a chance to hear much feedback.  Fortunately, a few students either stopped by to talk or wrote to me later.

One of the participants, Guy Ainsley, wanted to address the question of religion, as the “elephant in the room” whose problematic presence no one wishes to admit.  He wrote me a thoughtful email about how to strategize the problem and, with his kind permission, I am paraphrasing his thinking here.

Of course, the reason people don’t want to engage the elephant in the room is the fear that any attempt to confront it will result in negative outcomes. The elephant is large, strong, and quick to react–seemingly without thought–and the consequence can be very destructive for those who woke the beast.

Guy suggests that, first, rather than confront the elephant directly, one simply expands the space around it, thus making the animal seem less dominant.  Guy suggests that this was the effect of the Enlightenment–to essentially make it possible to move around in the social world without necessarily having to deal with the elephant.  (I remarked to Guy that it does seem to be true, in fact, that secularization benefits women, even though women tend to be rather more religious than men.  Ronald Englehardt and Pippa Norris’ book, Rising Tide, has a chapter that investigates this phenomenon statistically.)

Guy suggests further that,  post-Enlightenment, resources were accumulated that essentially contained the elephant in a corner of the room.  I can see, for instance, that the separation of church and state–an Enlightenment concept if there ever was one–was a major step in this direction.  Once the state was in control of resources from schools to hospitals, public resources could be deployed irrespective of faith.  Obviously, this was an important development, but I had not considered it in just that way. A further observation from Guy is that, while one worries about the destructive response that may come from seeming to directly threaten the elephant, another problematic moment is when “something new is introduced that the elephant wants and is within its easy grasp.”   As I thought about it further, however, I realized that anything within the elephant’s “trunk reach” that is potentially a threat to it is also problematic.

So, for instance, though the schools may be run by the state, the elephant will want prayers in them every morning, right?  That’s the elephant reaching toward what it finds attractive.  In contrast, contraceptive technologies are threatening to some religions and so they will demonize the practice and lobby the government to make them inaccessible. That’s the elephant trying to destroy something new that it perceives as a potential threat.

And this is where the “size of the room” strategy becomes important.  In an earlier era in the West–and to this day in much of the developing world–there was simply no escaping the reach of the church.  But once people can educate their children, build their businesses, get their health care, and run their governments in a space that does not, necessarily, have to include the church, then women (and men) have some breathing room to build a new kind of life.  And there is even, I would argue, room to build a new kind of faith.  But that is a topic for another post.


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