It pays to embrace strange, not run away or deride it. And to ask questions and be curious about how other people live. If we’d had that mentality at the beginning of COVID-19, it could and should have prompted policymakers to pay more attention to Wuhan. Look at the experience of SARS. Look at what happened with Ebola in West Africa. Not just assume it was a bunch of strange, weird people in a faraway place that had nothing to do with us. — Gillian Tett, chairman of the editorial board in the U.S. for the Financial Times
Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Books Driving Change with me Matthew Bishop and today I am talking with Gillian Tett. She’s the author of Anthro-Vision, a new way to see in business and life. Gillian is currently the chairman of the editorial board in the U.S. for the Financial Times, and founder and editor-in-chief of its Moral Money section, which looks at the evolution of financial markets and the question about how investing in business relates to the health of society and the planet and all the developments going on there.
I’m going to start, as I do with all the authors that we have on this podcast, by asking you, Gillian, the audience we’re aiming at here is people who are interested in how we can do a better job at improving the state of the world and who are interested in public service in some way. And the question to you is, in a sentence, why should people, our audience, read your book?
Gillian Tett (GT): In a sentence, most of the problems in policy making and corporate life, and as general citizens, stem from the fact that we have tunnel vision. We can’t see the consequences of what we’re doing or the context. And I believe that cultural anthropology is one discipline that can really help you overcome tunnel vision, and get lateral vision, a wider view of how our actions impact the world.
MB: Now, you’ve written a fantastically wide-ranging book. I mean, it starts with you as a young student in Tajikistan, studying marriage rituals under a communist state in a Central Asian country. But you go across everything from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and trying to make sense of Trump, the financial crisis back in 2008, the emergence of ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] and impact investing, more recently, and sort of interesting issues in car manufacturing and consumption habits and all sorts of things. But can you start us off with what drew you to anthropology in the first place, and how you found yourself in Tajikistan and why that actually led you into journalism, which is where you have spent your career?
If we had actually paid more attention to lessons from other countries at the beginning of COVID, we might have learned some really good lessons and tips.
GT: Well, I got into anthropology, like many things in life, by accident. I wanted to have adventure and travel the world, and I was curious about the wider world, which is something that I hope we teach all of our kids to be. And so, I studied anthropology as an undergraduate, then went to do a Ph.D. in it, and ended up in a place called Soviet Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan, where I was studying marriage rituals as a way to look at the clash between Islam and communism.
And just at the end of my research, the Soviet Union broke up. There was a very brutal war where I’d been living. So, I went to journalism partly because I was frustrated that no one was paying attention, and I wanted to draw attention to it for human rights reasons. But I then quickly realized, actually, the business of telling people about other people can be, in some ways, quite similar to anthropology, but also a way to try and drive some change in the wider world as well.
MB: So, it’s a very natural follow up to your previous book, The Silo Effect, where you talk about the problem that people lock themselves into siloed thinking and here you talk a lot about lateral vision, this ability to sort of see things from multiple perspectives, but also to see yourself as others might see you. You know, if there’s a single message about anyone going into public policy work or policymaking, what is it that anthropology teaches them?
GT: I think this single message can be presented in two ways. One, is to think about culture. And that kind of sounds obvious because we all know we’re affected by our culture. But defining culture is a bit like chasing soap in the bath. It’s kind of everywhere, but nowhere. And we know it affects us, but we don’t actually have many ways to think about how to reflect on that. And what I offer in the book is really an argument that we all need to take a three-step process. Periodically, immerse ourselves in the lives of others or people who seem different from us. And that being different can be at the end of the street, in a different department, or the other side of the world. And to do that to get empathy not just for others and realize that not everyone thinks like us, but also then to fit the lens and look back at ourselves and see what we’re missing. And see above all else, the kind of social silences, the parts of our world that we tend to ignore, because they seem boring or dull or irrelevant or just too obvious to talk about.
So, in many ways, the second way, I think I’d frame it is to say that anthropology gives you lateral vision in a world of tunnel vision. It enables you to see the context, the cultural context, beyond our models, or balance sheets, or simple policy programs. And when you wrap those different points together, what anthropology really gives you is an awareness that if you are engaged in public policy, you need to look at the world in a connected way, with empathy, both for others and a sense of empathy for understanding all the shortcomings in your own approach.
MB: You have a very interesting chapter on contagion where you start with the Ebola crisis in Africa. And actually, with a character, Chris Whitty, who went on to be quite a central figure in the British response to this current pandemic that we’re going through. You also cite Paul Farmer [co-founder of Partners in Health] in this in this context. At various points, you note that a lot of the international aid failures around Ebola were due to not thinking through and understanding the culture of people on the ground. But then you flip it, I think very nicely, and talk about how we didn’t necessarily do a good job of understanding our own culture when we were pushing many of the public health messages that needed to be communicated as we responded to the crisis. In fact, Chris Whitty himself didn’t necessarily do a brilliant job in the U.K. I mean, I’m wondering, as you reflect now, on how we’ve responded to the pandemic, what should we if we brought an “Anthro-Vision” approach to it, should we have done differently?
GT: Well, I think, that we could have done two things differently. The first is to actually be curious about people who seem different from us and try and learn lessons from how they’ve handled pandemics in the past. This is a fundamental point in my book, that actually it pays to embrace strange, not run away or deride it. And to ask questions and be curious about how other people live. If we’d had that mentality at the beginning of COVID-19, it could and should have prompted policymakers to pay more attention to Wuhan. Look at the experience of SARS. Look at what happened with Ebola in West Africa. Not just assume it was a bunch of strange, weird people in a faraway place that had nothing to do with us. Because the reality is that the pandemic has shown us the world is interconnected and prone to contagion at all times and contagions come from people who we don’t necessarily understand. And if nothing else, we need to try and understand that to, you know, protect ourselves. I happen to think there’s a moral reason why we ought to try and understand each other. But if you want to just play to fear and greed, that’s it.
But separately, if we had actually paid more attention to lessons from other countries at the beginning of COVID, we might have learned some really good lessons and tips. Like the efficacy of masks, that was well-known by anthropologists from the SARS epidemic in Asia. And what they’d learned was actually the way a mask helps in an epidemic is not just through the physical barrier of germs, but also through the simple act of putting on a mask each day as a psychological prompt to remind you to change behavior, or the fact that masks can be a signaling device culturally to show adherence to a wider group of norms, and a desire to uphold civic responsibility. And that really matters and it could and should have been imported into the West a lot earlier.
But the flip side is, of course, that thinking about how other countries handled an epidemic enables you to then look back at yourself, too, and say, “well are we making the right decisions or not?” So again, a tiny example is that in the U.K., there was a tremendous focus on top-down messaging and orders and coercion in terms of trying to change behavior during the COVID-19 lockdown. The messaging was very often conflicting and changeable. And the U.K. didn’t use its existing excellent network of health centers, which were bottom-up local areas, which they should have done. If they’d looked at the experience or something like Ebola or even Asia with SARS and others, they would have seen what a mistake that was. And they would have actually asked themselves, you know, “why are we in the U.K. not using our wonderful local network of healthcare providers to try and battle the pandemic, you know, get messages about lockdown across in the way that people feel empowered, and want to relate to?” You know, “what can we do better?”
I suspect we maybe at a point when the pendulum is beginning to swing… towards slightly more respect for government.
MB: And I mean, this theme of top down versus bottom up is another theme that comes throughout the book. And particularly in a chapter that you start in Davos with the gathering of the World Economic Forum (WEF), where we’ve both been there many times. And it’s hard to imagine a more top-down orientation than the global elite gathered in Davos. What do you feel if Klaus Schwab [founder of the World Economic Forum] was to say, “Gillian, tell me how I should change WEF so that we can get Anthro-Vision at WEF?” What would you say to him?
GT: I would say two or three things. Firstly, look at the Davos tribe with an anthropological lens and see all the elitism, see the networking, and see above all else, how it often encourages people to ignore other people’s points of view. You know, you need to probably get people who are not part of the Davos elite into the room much more effectively and get their views actually embedded into the conversation.
Recognize that not everything can be solved through top-down analysis in the form of big datasets, economic models, corporate balance sheets, political polls. Those can be very useful, but you need to supplement top-down models and intellectual tools with some bottom-up analysis that looks at qualitative, not just quantitative metrics. I’m not saying that, you know, anthropology has all the answers, but I’m saying it’s a really useful way to conduct checks and balances to provide other perspectives into a conversation. Or to use another metaphor, you know, most of the tools we use today to look at the world, our bird’s eye views, those taken from 30,000 feet. Anthropology basically cherishes a worm’s eye view, a bottom-up view. And that can be incredibly important.
MB: You touch on that issue a lot. One of the questions I would have is why is it that we’re so dismissive? I mean, it seems by now, we should be recognizing that we operate in silos. I mean, you wrote a book about this many years ago, it seems to be a well-observed effect. And yet, you actually quote this one point, a famous author pointed out that getting people to understand when their job depends on not understanding it is actually very hard. Is that what’s going on, that our policymakers, our leaders are locked into this? They have too many incentives to ignore the general view, so they certainly don’t go down to the worm’s eye view?
GT: I think the reality is that someone in the book asks “why, dude, don’t more companies hire anthropologists” or look at themselves, not other people? One reason is that what anthropologists say often make people uncomfortable. Because if you’re part of the elite, if you are in a position of power, you tend to be there not just by controlling economic capital by making money, or political capital, net worth of power. You shape cultural capital in the sense that you have a belief system, which often reaffirms the social order and makes it seem natural, that elites are in charge. And that’s very comforting. But the reality is that, you know, every society has creation myths and cultural frameworks, which might prop up the position of the elite, but are often full of contradictions and leave people prone to tunnel vision. And that’s why we need to challenge them.
To give you a couple of tangible examples, before 2008, financiers working in the field of financial innovation derivatives had this wonderful creation myth about how innovation was going to make the financial system safer, because they were going to create perfectly liquid markets, where risk was dispersed. And that was riddled with contradictions when you dug into it. But the people who were peddling it couldn’t see it, because they were such a tribe set apart, such a tunnel, they had so little challenge. So, the value of anthropology to come in and say, “well, this is what you’re not looking at”. It offers checks and balances above all else.
MB: You have this very interesting discussion of Trump and how the media and many people in the global elite missed what it was that gave him a connection to so many voters and particularly you focus on this word “bigly” that he used and how the elite was sneering at this interesting linguistic “cofefe”, I guess you might call it. But what is it that we should now be thinking about the Trump tribe who, again, I think, in the elite, there was this feeling that January 6th and the storming of the Capitol would, you know, would somehow bring the Republican base to its senses, whereas the opposite seems to be the case? Are we failing again, to understand what’s really going on with the Trump tribe?
GT: What I write about in the book about the elite and Trump is really a sort of mea culpa on my part because when I heard the word bigly in one of the debates I laughed, too, instinctively. Laughter is always very revealing, because it reveals the social group boundaries, you know, you have to be in a group to get a joke. If you’re not in a group, you don’t get the joke. And laughter tends to reveal unresolved contradictions in our own cultural patterns, or ones we don’t talk about. And what laughing about the word bigly really revealed was that the ingroup of journalists tended to assume and take for granted that to be in a position of power and have credibility, you had to have command of language. And in some ways, you know, having command of language and being educated, you know, has hitherto been one of the few accepted forms of snobbery in America. And the reality is that lots of people find that very irritating, and they resent it. But the fact that I was part of the in group that laughed, meant that I kind of was failing to see what a lot of Trump supporters and voters were actually seeing in Trump and applauding, which was that he spoke in a way that used not just so much words, more a kind of performance, ritualistic style of communication, that connected very deeply with a lot of his base. I write in the book that a lot of it was borrowed from the world of wrestling, in fact, in terms of how it tapped into emotions, and had stage mock fights and things like that, which was, again, a set of performative cultural messaging and signaling that was very familiar to Trump voters, but not elite journalists for the most part. So, I missed a lot of Trump’s appeal because I didn’t really get it on an emotional level, because of my own tribalism. I tried to counter that by listening to people in 2016. And that did in fact that help me see the likely victory of Donald Trump.
MB: You were certainly one of those people who was, I mean, actually you’re harsh on yourself in the book, because you say you missed the Brexit vote, but on both Brexit and Trump’s victory, I heard you saying that you were quite concerned that would be the result before they happened. Do you feel now that there’s this danger that we still haven’t learned that lesson about Trump and his appeal to his tribe?
GT: I think there’s a danger even today, that we fail to see that what we’re dealing with in America today is not just a political split, but an epistemological split. And that sound like a very big grandiose word or at least
MB: A bigly word, I guess.
GT: A bigly word definitely. An epistemological split means, basically, a split in the system of knowledge, in how we communicate and actually reason. And anyone who has been trained for years in education, as I have been, tends to have a rational, logical one direct mindset in terms of evaluating knowledge, and to take things fairly literally and to try and pass them. And, you know, that’s a very valid mindset. But it’s not the only mindset out there. There’s another type of mindset out there, which is much more about impressionistic, emotional, holistic reading of situations. And, you know, looking at performative signaling, and that’s the mindset that Trump uses as much of the time.
In the book, I talk about the difference between weird and non-weird cultures meaning “Western, educated, individualistic, rich, and democratic.” That’s the use of man called Joseph Henrich, who is brilliant, who looked at these different modes of reasoning. And I think even today that when we talk about political splits, we need to recognize that there’s a part of America that’s responding to events like the January 6th events at Capitol Hill, not through one-dimensional, logical reasoning, passing, etc., that we value as journalists, but instead through much more emotional, impressionistic, performative, signaling patterns.
I see the same truth in other areas as well, by the way. I mean, you can’t hope to make sense of say, some of the mean cultures erupting in the financial markets, unless you recognize that there’s performative signaling going on that can be very potent, but which can’t be passed through any economic economist’s model of rational expectations, or any kind of portfolio allocation approach to mind.
MB: Now you talk at various points about the media as a tribe, and maybe a tribe that it’s got its own narrative a little out of whack or doesn’t look at itself through a lateral lens. I mean, what do you feel is the biggest danger that the media has at the moment, in terms of how it might go, you know, way off track in understanding how the world is going at the moment?
MB: Well, I do look at the media, because I think we have to be honest as journalists, and if we’re going to analyze other people, we have to analyze ourselves. And the real issue is, I do think we should realize how we’re tribal how we’re creatures of our own environment. And how, in many ways the sheer polarization in America and the attacks in the media have intensified the sense of tribalism. And that affects us in two ways. Firstly, in terms of how we define stories, and what stories we look at, and how we communicate them. And, you know, I think that in many ways, it’s natural that we’re tribal, everyone’s tribal, it’s part of human nature. But it has been exacerbated also by the competitive pressures afoot in journalism today, where essentially, there’s a very crowded marketplace for information. So, there’s a presumption that you have to shout loudly to get attention. There’s a presumption that you have to try and get a really sticky audience, which tends to force people to take quite extremist views. Journalists are under tremendous time pressure. So, they tend to gravitate towards the areas of social noise, the things that are easy to see, and ignore the really important areas of social silence. And also journalists tend to have silos within their own news operations, which reflect a ton of silos in the outside world. You know, we have banking teams, and political teams and legal teams. Stories often fall between the cracks, and sometimes get caught, sometimes not.
So, in an ideal world, you know, journalists would be given a lot more money, and the ability to go forth and roam and collide with the unexpected and look at social sciences. They’d be encouraged to try and communicate with audiences in ways that didn’t just reaffirm existing prejudices. I mean, you can connect with where the audience’s head is up front, as if you’re playing dominoes. And match one half a domino to someone else’s domino, but then you can take them somewhere else, with a second piece of a domino if you like. And in an ideal world, you’d have journalists who were able to, essentially, you know, get out of their own mental tunnels and explore different points of view. But that’s hard to do with the media under such pressure. And when essentially, there’s constant demand to create quick hits and returns in the form of stories that meet the normal pattern.
MB: So, you’re optimistic that journalism will change or are you quite fearful about it?
GT: I hope journalism tries and changes. And one of the things that does make me more optimistic is a checks and balances are emerging. Partly because the sheer plurality of voices coming through, partly because we’re seeing new models of journalism coming through, like investigative units funded by donations by ProPublica, in podcasts, and in other forms that are actually creating ways to have checks and balances. But I’m concerned about the degree to which it has become politicized and polarized. And above all else, I’m concerned that not enough journalists are flipping the lens and looking back at their own tribe and trying to work out how that is creating a sense of tunnel vision.
MB: Now, one of the big trends that’s been going on for the past few years has been to see business and finance as a way of making the world better in some ways, you know, through ESG and impact investing and so forth. And that’s attracted a number of people who probably would have gone into traditional public service in government in the past, to think they can drive change, positive change through business and investing. And you founded Moral Money at the Financial Times.
But in the book, you’re quite candid, that initially, you used to roll your eyes at the letters ESG. And so, what caused you to change? And how substantial do you think this phenomenon is? Is it really going to deliver the goods or is it still more in the greenwashing/stakeholder washing category than real change?
Journalists tend to have silos within their own news operations… we have banking teams, and political teams and legal teams. Stories often fall between the cracks, and sometimes get caught, sometimes not.
GT: Well, I initially used to call ESG, “eyeroll, sneer, and groan,” because I thought it was basically about corporate BS. And that’s the way the most journalists think. And so, I just missed it. I used to delete all the emails about ESG. And then I finally thought you know what, that’s my view about what ESG is, as a journalist, who is paid to be cynical. I should at least try and listen to what the people’s view is of the people who are trying to do ESG. And when I try to look at the world through their eyes, I realized that there was a bigger Zeitgeist shift going on, which was really to do with the fact that ESG had started out as a, you know, campaign to change the world in a really positive active way, which was very laudable, driven by, you know, nuns and Danish pension funds and people like that. But by 2016/2017, which is when I began to look at it, it was also being driven for the most part by a desire amongst companies and executives and finances to save themselves, and essentially engage in risk management, because people were increasingly realizing that if they ignored things like environmental risk or gender issues and sexual harassment, slavery in the supply chain, they could end up suffering reputational damage, regulatory controls, loss of employees, clients, customers, investors, etc. And you can be cynical and say, “Well, listen, that’s just, you know, very hypocritical in the part of ESG it is just a way for companies to engage in self-defense at a time when radical transparency and changing societal norms, and it’s all just for show.” Or you can say, “actually, it’s pretty amazing that ESG has gone so mainstream, that companies feel they even need to talk about it or make the effort to do it.” And that, you know, revolutions succeed, not when a tiny, committed minority of activists are screaming, but when the silent majority thinks they need to go along with a change, because it’s dangerous to resist it. And I think that’s where we are with ESG right now.
Does that mean there is a lot of greenwashing, woke washing, reputation washing? Yes, there is some. Does it mean that the rituals of ESG, to be anthropological, don’t match up with the reality? Yes, quite often. But you know, anthropologists believe that rituals are interesting, because they show an idealized version of what people think the world should be like. And the very fact that people have a different idealized version today from what it was 30 years ago, I think is very interesting. And overall, what is striking is that, you know, as say, fossil fuel emissions become less acceptable, you’re actually seeing that feed through to changes in the cost of capital for energy companies, and dashboards embracing renewables, and a change in actual corporate behavior, to a degree.
I can’t stress strongly enough you need government action too. You know, companies alone, ESG alone, are not going to fix problems. But if people are all rowing roughly in the same direction, and cultural norms are changing, it makes it easier to both force government action, and potentially to do business and financial action as well that’s going to be in the right direction.
MB: Now, I want to bring up an issue that you touch on at various points tangentially in the book, but not head on. So, I’m going to push you a bit. I’m very concerned at the moment about the quality of government. We could do with better people going into government and we could do with much more joined up government. It just seems to me the narrative around government is pretty horrible, and that most people that aren’t in government are quite put off by it. There’s not much attraction to it, except for people that have big egos or ambitions to be famous politicians or whatever. It’s not an attractive narrative. Have you thought much about that with your “Anthro-Vision” lens on like, why it’s got into that bad narrative and also what how we might encourage more people to see it positively?
GT: I think you made a great point there, Matthew about the issue of government, because I was very struck, talking to Paul Volcker, the wonderful former Fed Chairman, who had gone into public service in the post-war years, when public service was revered, and spent many years working in public service and was very dismayed to see how attitudes towards public service changed as the 20th century wore on. So upset that when he finally left government, and, you know, had time on his hands, he created a center at the Harvard Kennedy School to try and champion the idea of good governance, and then found it almost impossible to get funding because it was so unpopular and unfashionable. And I think that’s terribly dangerous. And I think we need good government. We need respect for good government and better organization. Michael Lewis’s book, The Fifth Risk, showed that so clearly.
What I think’s interesting is that history shows that, you know, we go in pendulum swings in terms of Zeitgeists, and anthropology shows that in fact nothing is ever fixed in stone. Culture is like a river. It is constantly flowing and changing, and new streams are coming in. And I suspect we may, just may, be at a point when the pendulum is beginning to swing a tiny bit away from the idea that government is the source of all problems towards slightly more respect for government. I think the pandemic could end up being a bit of a turning point in attitudes, not just in the sense of public and private are working together, and also private and private, over things like the vaccine, which is laying down train tracks for the future. But also, I suspect that the idea of having a government mission looks a little less unfashionable than in the past.
MB: If someone is thinking about going into government or a career in public service, is there a tip that you would have as to how they can use Anthro-Vision to sort of be a different sort of government leader, different sort of bureaucrat, civil servant?
GT: In a nutshell, I’d say that a key tip from Anthro-Vision is to embrace a concept that at the heart of the American political system, which has checks and balances. What anthropology does is give you intellectual checks and balances. You embrace whatever field you are passionate about, be that medicine or economics or law, or whatever part of government you’re working in. You do that job well, but you never forget to look around corners and think about context and think about the cultural patterns that you’re working in and how it might make be giving you tunnel vision and make you blind to what you can’t see. And you respect the fact that there are going to be cultural dynamics inside the office and outside the office. And I think that getting that wider vision of what you’re doing is perhaps the most important thing of anyone who’s working in public service today.
MB: Well, that’s a great note to end on. And as I say, this is a really interesting book. It’s full of great stories and tremendous practical advice about how to learn some of the tips from anthropology, even if you aren’t nephrologist yourself. And I think you certainly succeed in making the case that we do all need to get some “Anthro-Vision”, so we can see the world differently. So, thank you. Gillian Tett and the book is highly recommended.
GT: Thank you. Great to be on your show.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.