‘Constructive Disruption!? Read the banner advert.

What an odd idea, I heard a lot of people saying.

It was the title of a recent Consulting Psychology Conference (and I may have had something to do with it). It was designed to challenge psychologists to assert their relevance and voice in the post-apartheid reality. It urged experts in emotion, cognition, behaviour, the conscious and unconscious to lift their spectating selves (and behinds) off their seats and get involved. The whole profession was challenged to justify why it has allowed its silence to be screaming so loudly.

As the speakers filled the room with research, perspectives, questions and ideas, the debate gravitated towards activism and the urgent need for psychologists to provide insight into what we see in the South African discourse, and begin to counsel the nation to health.

More than just a smattering of delegates proposed a radical new role – psychologists should become non-partisan lobbyists and Politicians – yes Politicians! That sentiment was broadly supported and when a summary of research into a typical South African reality was shared, it galvanised the idea. The study focused on unemployed people of a sprawling informal settlement. The findings showed that the vast majority of over 30 year olds had little belief they would ever find work and most had given up trying. The bulk of them felt increasingly alienated and under-supported by the very community they lived in. They were outcasts and excluded, seemingly condemned by their employment status and were increasingly angry about that.

A juxtaposition of responses to this rising discontent emerged. First there was the politician’s response – throw quick fixes, promise them jobs, provide them with small contracts, extend the social wage, condemn the living conditions, seek their vote, blame someone else and promise change.

Then the Psychologists response – speak to the unemployed, listen to them, empathise with them and share their lived experiences with other community members. Then seek to understand the hindrances to job access both physical and emotional. By doing that, discover how dozens of NGO’s and government supported projects can offer these people some form of work, and realise that few of the unemployed people that were being interviewed knew they even existed and those that didn’t, couldn’t find them or contact them. Psychologists Solution – build community led support groups that make the links to employment opportunities and do so with empathy and care. Nett result – Change lives. A true story.

It all sounded quite intuitive to the audience seated in that conference hall, but it further highlighted how often we have overestimated the levels of psychological awareness among the general population, and especially many of our leaders. Do they understand the consequences and manifestations of anger, anxiety, self-worth and dignity? Do they understand projections and social psychological dynamics of belonging? Have they prepared themselves to avoid capitalising on in-group/out-group dynamics? Do they know what to do to heal centuries of psychological abuse? Do they understand how scapegoating and blame erodes national trust, and thus our collective relatedness and future? It is highly likely that there are spin-doctor’s, PR professionals, advisors and political heavy weights who know exactly what to exploit in our psychology to gain favour and power; and it’s usually a pivot around fear. So what could the alternative be?

If I were a psychologist as president, I would like to think that I would focus on creating a national sense of belonging and engendering a sense of common identity that is shaped by a compelling and exciting shared view of the future. I would seek the synergies in our diversity and always ask the question – what more can we learn from each other to make us a champion nation? I would focus more on all the behaviours we want repeated over and over again, and pontificate less on what is always right or wrong, and a little more on what is appropriate for the context and the time. I would profess that there are multiple versions of the truth and celebrate the discovery and sharing of what makes each and every person unique, rather than different. I would role model tolerance and demonstrate care. I would communicate by listening, and listening and listening, and in the end I hope I would celebrate the contributions of even my most ardent critics. I would make sure we get things done and put every citizen at the heart of what we do.

What more would you do?

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