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transitioning

Siobhan O'Connor

What happens when people distance themselves from a movement, organization, or cause that once held their rapt attention? It involves transitioning from the first-person plural (we/ours) to third-person plural (they/them).

Stepping away from a previously important enterprise is complicated, fraught with emotion—not unlike a divorced relationship. Separations require identity adjustments, including distancing oneself from the past, executing a pivot, and re-presenting oneself to the public.

Stepping away from a previously important enterprise is complicated, fraught with emotion—not unlike a divorced relationship.

Here’s an example.

Siobhan O'Connor served as the administrative assistant to Reverend Richard J. Malone, the Roman Catholic bishop of Buffalo, NY. In that role, she served the Bishop in ways that administrative assistants always do—closely, pervasively, and in confidence.

Over time, O’Connor became increasingly uncomfortable in her role, the result of the way Bishop Malone was handling diocesan affairs pertaining to abuse cases brought against the Diocese. To relieve her distress, O’Connor decided to ‘go public’ about the way Malone was proceeding. She leaked privileged documents—first to a local TV station and, later, to the FBI.

Malone, O’Connor believed, was doing too little to serve those who had been abused; and he was doing too much to protect the Church. “I still care about him (Malone)," O’Connor said. "It would have been easier if I didn't."

Although most people never face a situation quite like O’Connor’s, the general script is the same. They reach a bifurcation point—either continue on others’ terms or address matters on theirs. Getting to that point is a struggle, often full of anguish, as those affected remain true to their convictions as they are pulled in a very different direction.

Sometimes, the migration is more mental than physical. That happens frequently in workplace situations where behavioral departure may be neither possible nor wise. At other times, flight is replaced by fight. Like-minded affiliates execute a leadership coup.

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I’ve had plenty of experience with everything I’ve described, and many of my colleagues have, too. Sometimes we responded with fanfare; and, at other times, we were discreet. Either way, the end came after numerous but fruitless attempts to address what was troubling us.

But that’s just part of the story. More often than not, we were rebuffed by a positional leader (often in a cabal) who were anathema to changing directions. The result? We were sidelined, silenced, and sometimes (viewed as threats) dismissed.

What I’ve described isn’t just our story. It’s a widespread story. And none of it is new, either. If anything, this storyline is picking up steam. Today—more than at any other point in my adult life—I see movements, organizations, and causes living in stereo with a public life and a private life.

The public life involves portraying the most advantageous public image possible. In smaller operations, it’s a matter of affiliates mouthing and reinforcing the party line. In larger operations, branding/marketing machines do the job. Either way, the function is the same—bulldozing—that is, clearing away remnants of dissent and ensuring that a constant, positive (and preferred) storyline is in place.

Beneath the veneer, though, there is another reality—the private life—a life that (to varying degrees) contradicts what is being presented publicly. At its worst, the private life bypasses public purpose in favor of privileging self-interest. That’s what O’Connor experienced.

The fundamental challenge—and what bothers me and many of my colleagues so much—is that this public-private dichotomy doesn’t seem to bother some affiliates. In fact, rewards flow to those who acquiesce. But living with duplicity carries an enormous price tag when duplicity becomes acculturated and viewed as normal—the way we do things here. That’s deceitful or, at its worst, a lived lie.

That outcome distresses those who want movements, organizations, and causes to be in action what they purport to be in concept. The goal, always, should be reducing the gap between public and private presentations—not managing the gap for optimal political advantage and positioning.

When the latter is in play, those affiliated (‘the we’) are expected to accept misrepresentations and mistruths as truth. Worse yet, some affiliates become active agents in promulgating untruths and/or presenting selective facts (rather than the complete story) to paint a preferred picture to the world.

In those intolerable circumstances, personal migrations begin—to a plural of a different kind.

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Frank Fear