Balancing on the Cusp


This blog post was written in November 2020, by Michal Friedman, Senior Gender at Work Associate. Michal thanks David Kelleher, Ethan Gilsdorf, Deepthy Menon and madeleine kennedy-macfoy for comments on earlier drafts.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

T.S. Eliot

“I’m a hypocrite”, Henry [1] says during a global Gender Action Peer Learning Meeting. He looks troubled and stressed. His body is twisted and taut. His face tormented with pain. It’s as if he’s committed a terrible crime. “I’m thinking about necessary hypocrisies – how we all have to resort to them in our lives in different contexts”.

Henry is the director of a leading civil society organisation that aspires to create just digital policy and improve gender justice. In recent years, the organisation has been confronted with the power and pressure of the #METOO movement. Two men connected to the organisation (one on staff, one board member) have been accused of sexual harassment violations. In speaking of ‘hypocrisies’ – plural – Henry might be alluding to multiple ways in which he feels caught between the ‘idea’ and the ‘reality’. Despite the fact that he is not one of the accused, Henry feels like a hypocrite. Perhaps because, as director, he lives with the contradiction between heading an organisation that says it’s committed to the idea of gender justice, while in ‘reality’ experiencing sexual violations under its roof.

Henry’s situation is not unique. In recent years, many social justice organisations [2] are dealing with similar accusations, especially since women have been emboldened to break their silence, by the sense of collective support garnered from the #METOO movement.

Henry, however, chose to directly and openly engage with the accusations and take advantage of his association with Gender at Work to support the whole organisation to reflect on, interrogate and attempt to transform what in the internal culture ‘enabled’ or ‘allowed’ such behaviour.

Henry’s disquiet is palpable. The sense of living in an organisation where it feels like we’re not ‘’walking the talk’’ is familiar to me. It can generate much judgement, blame, inner criticism and a sense of a loss of integrity. Way back in 2000, part of my work in a feminist-identified institute, linked to and in part constrained by an academic institution, was to support others to create more just institutional cultures addressing class, gender and ‘race’ inequity. Some of the people attending our training workshops were experimenting with more radical changes than we were. Although I didn’t have to deal with a harassment case, the frustration (and judgement?) growing in me due to the gap between what we were saying and what we were unable to do, ended in me leaving that job. That was more than twenty years ago and I can still touch the discomfort and associated feelings of inner discord.  Since then, I’ve seen the ‘hypocrisy’ conundrum and apparent contradiction – the gap between the ideal and the real – experienced by Henry and myself, in many contexts, countries, different kinds of organisations and different presenting challenges.

For instance, recently in Cambodia, I was told about a woman’s rights organisation which has staff that others experience as bullying. Bullies, because they display similar controlling and threatening behaviours towards people who disagree with them, as the patriarchal organisations they themselves criticise [3]. In the past, in my own fervor to make a point, I’ve focused on the words and the content of the ideas I represent, while at times losing sight of the tone and attitude with which I deliver my message. It’s taken much hard work to confront what I call my ‘inner bulldozer’. A South African organisation that focuses on using dialogue to facilitate justice and understanding, struggles to have dialogue between its own staff about the very issues it’s addressing in the world. This organisation has also faced sexual harassment accusations, but in contrast to Henry, chose to keep them covert. A teachers’ union that exists to protect teachers’ human rights uses its resources to defend an accused teacher/union member of sexual misconduct with a student, but does not engage with the rights of the student.  I’ve noticed how many of us, aspirant social justice advocates, tend towards wanting to ‘lash’ or ‘whip’ either ourselves, others or our organisations when we don’t get it 100% ‘right’, when there is the smallest evidence of not being in alignment with that to which we aspire.  Not ‘getting it right’ can leave us feeling at odds with ourselves, critical and often unhappy and we feel more justified in our ‘blame and ‘attack’ when the contradictions and at times violations are ongoing. 

These days, I’m finding myself (including in my role as a facilitator/mentor) more curious and less judgemental about such contradictions. On the one hand, it’s surely a ‘good’ thing to hold ourselves and others accountable for implementing the laudable principles, values and behaviours around social and gender justice many of us aspire to? After all, we don’t want to condone or accept in any way what we see as ‘bad’ or unreflective behaviours (especially when we see them in others!). As a consequence, in some contexts, levels of anger and judgement are so high that even being honest about such ‘hypocrisies’ takes enormous courage as the risks for image, status, donor support, personal jobs on the line and so on could all be at stake. Yet, at the same time, I’m now wondering if Henry’s framing of ‘necessary hypocrisies’ is talking to the materiality of human imperfection? That at some point we are all likely to be flawed/ imperfect/ contradictory?

Are we living in an ongoing dance, balancing on the cusp between the ideal and the real?  Social justice ideals we hold dear – such as workplaces free of any form of violence or harassment, a feeling of being treated as ‘human’ with rights and respect – no matter your identity(s), valuing people (and planet) before profits, valuing reproductive labour as much as productive labour, valuing life more than technology or machines – are critically important in helping us imagine the possibility of overcoming various inequalities, injustices and differential relationships to power and privilege. Such ideals often energise, motivate, inspire, pull us forward and can guide both the creation of policy and behaviour. Yet, ideals can also trap us in blaming ourselves and distracting us with what is very far away from the here and now, where life is seeking to move. Then we struggle to find the ability to respond in curious, compassionate and appropriate ways to the moment. How can we simultaneously acknowledge what appears paradoxical?

I wonder whether Henry’s issue is about hypocrisy or about being beguiled by the ideal [4]? To me, the word hypocrisy has a negative connotation to it – as if one is almost intentional about it. Deliberately being complacent and unreflective about something or expedient about it; fully knowing you’re going to go against what you say rather than recognising the compromise and committing to moving forward towards the aspiration. This seems less like accepting the inevitability of deception and an active pretense, or proactive manipulation.

Ideals are aspirational and many are often extremely difficult to achieve in practice, especially those requiring major restructuring of our economy and society. Is the very way we’re dealing with our expectations of realising the ideals an additional stress we’re burdening ourselves with? In Henry’s case, he’d responded responsibly as a director to address the complaints, yet still appeared taut, stressed and troubled.

Perhaps what Henry is facing is a gender justice example of a bigger issue that some identify as the ‘shadow’ – a shadow that we need to befriend. That is,

“[…] those parts of ourselves or our organizations which when brought into consciousness, we find troubling. Maybe they are troubling because they are contradictory to our values. Maybe they’re troubling because they violate our expectations. Sometimes they’re troubling because they ask things that are not comfortable."

(Hollis in Reboot podcast, 2016).

From years of working with these issues, I’ve learned that to transform inequalities and injustices, we need to do ‘inner’ work to challenge the status quo and change how we relate to others as full subjects, not objects. We also have to do the ‘outer’ work of creating organisational cultures and social environments that make it even harder for offensive and violating behaviour to thrive. Hübl and Avritt (2017) describe this as creating ‘we’ spaces that can collectively support and create ways of being that hold ourselves accountable to sustain this work – recognising that it’s hard to do – while also acknowledging that, to achieve our ideals, we need a level of compassion that to be human includes both our capacities to be humane and so-called inhumane. Brené Brown (2019) frames it as: “I’m going to love you when I look at you and I’m going to hold you accountable for the things you’ve done while I love you”. Sharma (2017) talks of calling out not from ego but from an expression of care.

Is the real ‘walking the talk’ then, recognising that the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work are two sides of the same coin – both are necessary and both need to be supported? Is it more about learning from the mistakes and very paradoxes we face in our own organisations? People get jaded and disillusioned when they don’t feel a commitment to the process, not to the perfect outcomes. As we fight for women, non-gender conforming people, others marginalised by race or class, to have more equal access and be treated as equally fully human, how do we simultaneously create conditions that make it unacceptable for offenders to run around free and unaccountable, while acknowledging that we’re all flawed human beings and not becoming rigid and ‘inhumane’ in how we treat ‘offenders’?  The latter, an example perhaps of what Tuesday Ryan-Heart (2020) calls ‘woke’ fundamentalism.

Our challenge is how to maintain the intention and aspiration of the ideals we have for social justice, while letting go of the expectation that our own behaviour, or our organization and its internal practices can or will be or should be automatically aligned because we believe in/talk about these ideals and/or have the right policies in place. This will only happen if we keep awake and alert to shining the light of consciousness on all those shadows, we can’t yet see, with some kindness. In many ways, the greatest change comes from accepting what is in front of us without denial or trying to wish it away. In this sense, Henry recognised that this is not a one-off process. Rather there is a need to create ongoing space for reflection, inquiry, dialogue, engagement, learning – for self and peers -while recognising that creating our ideals in practice is an ongoing ‘work in progress’, much like ourselves. Hence, creating ongoing learning cultures not only ‘improves’ practice, but also keeps alive the sense that we are in a continual journey towards realising our aspirations. A learning organisation then holds space for the journey, creating conditions in which we can all keep learning what it takes to move closer and closer to the social justice aspirations and ethical behaviours we hold dear, where we can confront accusations directly and not leave them buried covertly.

To me, one of the great benefits offered by Gender at Work’s peer learning, action learning, emergent learning approach is for organisations to learn how to begin creating an organisational culture and space where the pain of confronting shadow, contradiction, hypocrisy can be held with a listening presence, where mistakes can be embraced as learning and where we are invited with curiosity to ‘act forward’ in creating the just world we aspire to.

[1] Henry is a pseudonym.

[2] For South African examples see; 

[3] This behaviour might well be “unconscious”, an expression of ‘power under’ as described by Wineman (2003). When someone who has historically been a victim, shaped by early experiences of trauma or abuse that are unhealed, then ‘abuses’ formal or positional power to attack someone else.

[4] Thanks to Allan Kaplan for this phrasing


Brené Brown on Russel Brand show (2019): Vulnerability and Power. 23 June. [Accessed 10-11-2019]

Reboot Podcast Episode #51 (21-11-16). The Love that Heals: Welcoming in our Shadow – with James Hollis.[accessed 29-11-19].

Monica Sharma (2017). Radical Transformational Leadership. Strategic Action for Change Agents. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Thomas Hübl and Julie Jordan Avritt (2017). Shadow into light: Exploring the leading edge of healing. Spanda Journal, 7(1), 75–84. Retrieved from,1-2017.pdf. [Accessed 5-11-19]

Tuesday Ryan-Heart (2020) in conversation with Terry Patten on State of Emergence,, [Accessed 21-11-2020].

Wineman, S. (2003): Power-Under. Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change. [Accessed 5-7-2005].

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