opinion : Alwyn Lau

#MyŽižek: What office politics tells us about reality

Alwyn Lau

JULY 10 — When it comes to office politics, there is a universal law that every worker and boss secretly knows: “Thou shall never admit office politics exists.”

Nobody can admit there’s such a vile thing as “office politics” happening in the organisation. It simply doesn’t exist.

If anyone from the janitor to the CEO were forced at gunpoint to talk about office politics, the only acceptable answer is, “Politics? In our office? No way! There is no such thing, okay?! We all work with each other as a dynamic team to fulfil our corporate mission — where got time to play politics?!”

You can point to products, services, documents and even the occasional corporate team-building event but you cannot point to this “thing” called office politics. 

Hence, to claim it exists would be incoherent — and not to mention pretty damn awkward.

More than one reality

In this sense, office politics is like a romantic confession i.e. to admit to someone that you’re attracted to him/her is to speak another reality into existence. 

You can no longer “pretend” that things are the same; the parties in question will be forced to reckon with the new reality that has emerged via language.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes:

“What language does, in its most fundamental gesture is to dig a hole in reality, opening up visible/present reality towards the dimension of the immaterial/unseen.” (from The Puppet & The Dwarf)

This is the power of words. To publicly refer to office politics in the organisation, not unlike making one’s romantic feelings about a person known, is precisely to dig a hole and thus open up the world. 

As with all new beginnings or explorations, there will always be awkwardness.

It’s like a toddler learning how to walk; without the embarassments and stumblings, progress won’t happen.

So it’s sad that office politics remain so prevalent and shady, yet its existence is superficially denied because people simply refuse to talk about it out of sheer awkwardness. 

Again, at the next meeting try to even raise the subject of, say, two directors at loggerheads with each other due to jealousy, a power struggle, or just because they hate each other’s faces. 

You will find that it’s near impossible to discuss such situations “officially.” People will pretend to want to “move on” to other more “professional” things while secretly (or not so secretly) yearning for more juicy gossip.

The point is that the most shameful things in society continue to occur (and even grow) because those in power refuse to be forthright about it. 

In other words, the refusal to admit that there is a hole smack in the centre of the organisation or community will ensure that this “hold” gains strength. 

By refusing to do business with that reality, people continue living in a fake reality in which such transgressions are superficially deemed absent.

Keeping problems alive by pretending they don’t exist

Clearly, this phenomenon doesn’t apply only to the office. It also applies to religion, to sexuality, to national politics and so on. 

This is arguably the core of the problem raised by Joshua Woo in the recent recounting of his experience at an inter-faith dialogue

For example, some religious leaders simply refuse to address the elephant in the room which is the highly unequal (to say the least) rights of religions when it comes to proselytising to non-members.

Indeed, one of the reasons religious inequality exists is precisely because nobody wants to address it openly and fairly. 

The power of the obscene reality lies in the public’s refusal to treat it as a full and non-discreet reality. 

Also, the case of the “virtual” molestation of Shell model, Nor Shafila Khairusalleh, is a symptom of a host of sexual transgressions surfacing (not least of which is the problem of the rape of minors). 

There is one reality — the one everyone lives in where Malaysians are by and large sexually conservative folks with a deep respect for everyone. And there is another reality threatening to burst forth — this is the one in which sexual predation is fast becoming a norm. 

If the authorities do not openly discuss and address the second reality, it will become more and more prevalent.

Again, this is just like in the office where there are two realities. One is about being professional and everything is “black and white”, etc.; the other is where everyone has dark little secrets, where so-and-so despises so-and-so, and where things happen (and careers are ruined)  ”in the background” away from the meetings and emails.

As with dirt in the boardroom, so with the “secret” transgressions of Malaysian society: The less people talk about it openly and transparently, the more it’ll pervade our being. 

And the harder it’ll be to put an end to it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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