Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bronte's advice to evil corporations: Just be yourself

After an embarrassingly prolonged absence from blogging I've been prodded into some semblance of action by reading Charlotte Bronte's 'Shirley', a fascinating novel set around Luddite disturbances in a Yorkshire mill. Fact of the Day: turns out Shirley was originally a man's name, and was only popularised as a girl's name by this book, whose heroine is distinctive precisely for having a male name and a male social role. Anyway, I digress. The point is, I was really struck by the following exchange between the mill-owner and one of his recently laid-off workers:

“Them that governs mun find a way to help us: they mun mak' fresh orderations. Ye'll say that's hard to do: - so much louder mun we shout out then, for so much slacker will t'Parliament-men be to set on to a tough job.”

“Worry the Parliament-men as much as you please,” said Moore, “but to worry the mill-owners is absurd; and I, for one, won't stand it.”

“Ye're a raight hard 'un!” returned the workman. “Will n't ye gie us a bit o' time? - Will n't ye consent to mak' your changes rather more slowly?”

“Am I the whole body of clothiers in Yorkshire? Answer me that!”

“Ye're yourseln.”

There are a couple of brilliant little gems in here for the corporate accountability campaigner. Firstly, that fantastic line “Ye'll say that's hard to do: - so much louder mun we shout out then” - surely a great motto for any campaigner faced with naysayers, complacency and vested interests. Perhaps I should frame it and put it on the wall next to my desk.

Secondly, it made me smile to see that companies washing their hands of problems and insisting it's the government's job to fix them is nothing new. (The mill-owner even goes on to argue that, if he were to take steps to help his workers, he'd be left behind by his competitors who had no such scruples... sound familiar?)

But the mill-worker's response to this is so simple, so powerful: 'Ye're yourseln'. (For those struggling with the Yorkshire dialect – I don't mean to be patronising, I've just seen it confuse people – that's 'You're yourself.') The heart of so much campaigning is encapsulated in these two words: the struggle to penetrate justifications, evasions and obfuscations and to reassert the basic principle that we are all morally responsible for the consequences of what we do - and that we all, whatever might be said to the contrary, have the power to do things differently. When campaigners challenge companies to stop dodging tax, pay their workers a living wage or take responsibility for their environmental impacts, what they're really saying is, 'Ye're yourseln'.

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