Finlaysons' Women in Business

Delivered the following address to the The Finlaysons' Women in Business Network in Adelaide

Ms Blanche D’Alpuget

31 October 2002

The Network was established in 1997 and is comprised of Finlaysons' women, lawyers and managers, and other women known to the firm.  An important aim of the Women's Network is to have fun while building and fostering relationships between women at Finlaysons and women who are influential in business and government.

BLANCHE D'ALPUGET: My mother used to say there are two sorts of people in the world: the organised and the disorganised. If she'd met Joanne Staugas, Mum would have given me to the gypsies and adopted Joanne in my place. A whole year ago it was Joanne who began twisting my arm, ever so lightly but firmly, to persuade me to come out of retirement, as it were, to speak to you this evening. And she did not let up until about 5 minutes ago. I thank her deeply and thank you for coming. As a result of Joanne's, shall we say, organisational skills, I had my talk written and printed out by the morning of October 12 and I'm glad now that I did, for two reasons. First, I was so churned up by the mass murders in Bali that I probably could not have gathered my thoughts had I started work after that dreadful date. Second, what I'd chosen to talk about so closely addressed the issues of tragedy and injustice which we face, that to include the events in Bali I needed to add only a sentence and a half. But that is for later.

If I were a man, or a skilful and frequent public speaker, I would now tell you a joke just to lighten things up. But since I am neither, I'll read you a poem instead. It's not very long, just 11 lines, and it's from a new collection by the great contemporary Polish poet, Adam Jagajewski. This, of course, is a translation. The poem is called The Soul.

We know we're not allowed to use your name.
We know you're inexpressible,
anaemic, frail and suspect
for mysterious offences as a child.
We know that you are not allowed to live now
in music or in trees at sunset.
We know - or at least we've been told -
that you do not exist at all, anywhere.
And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice
- in an echo, a complaint, in the letters we receive
from Antigone in the Greek desert.

The reference to Antigone probably has layers of meaning, but the one that jumps out at me is that she was the guide for her blind father. I don't recall from Sophocles' play if she was in a desert with him, but what Jagajewski is saying is that she is now; she is trying to reach out to us from the desert which encroaches upon our founding culture, that of Greece. So really, this poem is a lament about the state of Western culture and about us as individuals, about the state of our souls.

I want to talk about our culture and then go on to what I believe women - especially women, for reasons I'll come to - can do to slow, to halt and, one hopes, to reverse the mutation downwards that is under way in western civilisation. The next big thing for women I promised to talk about is their enormous, unsuspected role in guiding our culture out of its decline. This 'next big thing' will not increase your salary package but it can shatter the internal glass ceiling, the one that separates our egos from our souls, the one that, broken, opens the door to gladness.

In a city such as this, so well-planned and rational, so courteous and justly proud of his history of democratic rights and responsibilities, it may be hard to believe that Western culture is mutating downwards. In Adelaide you are privileged to a very civil society - outbreaks of barbarism and violence notwithstanding.

Cultural mutations are difficult to see because they happen in small, discreet steps and over a period of years: some graffiti here, a popular song there, an outrageously extravagant party, perhaps, an article published which a decade earlier would have been rejected as anti-social. These are the droplets that gather to make a flood.

The Melbourne sociologist, Dr John Carroll, to whose books I am much indebted, writing a few months ago about the twin towers of New York and what their destruction has meant, referred to the twin pillars of Western culture. One is: Know Thyself. That is, be conscious of what you are doing, of what motivates you, learn to recognise the true face of your fears and desires behind its mask of self-righteousness. The other is: Nothing in Excess. The two, therefore, are rationality and restraint. Both are essential to a healthy democracy, to a balanced society.

But look at what we're living in. In place of restraint, greed. I don't think I need to go on about thirty million dollar packages for CEOs - common in America and already happening in Australia, at least in Sydney. The blinding greed of the Western business world, and in many cases the corruption of its servants, lawyers and accountants, is not news. But these guys - and they are guys, the only publicly outed exception so far being Martha Stewart - these guys are a symptom, rather than the cause.

In enthusiastically downsizing their staff, in exploiting cheaper and cheaper labour to make their products in order to pocket more and more millions themselves, these men show the ruthlessness of material desire when it takes command of the human brain and heart. It's through our brains and our hearts, the ego's tools, that our desires express themselves.

Buddhism teaches that desire is endless. This is not a mystical insight, it's just a statement of fact.

Let me give you a statistic. In Australia at the end of the 1970s the ratio of an average wage to a CEOs salary was one to five. Now it is one to 30, that is a 600 per cent increase. But in America, in the past 10 years alone, the difference between the wages of an average worker in a company and its CEO has risen from a ration of one to 40 to a ration of one to 420. That is more than 1000 per cent in one decade. And where America goes, need I remind you, Australia follows. William McDonough, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, commented on the increase, said he had been around for all of the 1990s and could assert that the quality of CEOs had not improved ten‑fold in this period. So it's just robbery.

A society in which the upper middle class robs the rest will, inevitably, become discontent and fickle.

The 20th century, which from a humane point of view was mostly appalling, had for the developed, Western world one great, countervailing virtue: it was the century which decreased social inequality - and women have been major beneficiaries of that. But in the latter part of the century, this trend reversed, and now there is nobody and no institution to rein in rampant individualism. Rampant? It's almost feral, and is both a symptom of, and a further impetus to, the weakening of that force which ties people to each other and creates the sense of connection which is the essential ingredient of conscience. In Sydney, just try catching a bus while carrying heavy shopping bags and see if any of the children, men, or less encumbered younger women stand up to offer you a seat. Or, for a really down-to-earth example, consider public wash-rooms: we've been accustomed to the cubicles being paper-strewn, with doors covered in graffiti. But I can remember in the '50s, '60s and '70s when this was not so; there was a delicacy between strangers then which we have now lost.

So, what has happened to our moral sense?

We know that for a couple of centuries after the Enlightenment the various churches continued to struggle along as the guardians of the great issues of life and the mysteries of death, but they rotted from within and now have so little belief in themselves as bastions of universal laws, eternal truths and uplifting transformation, that some time after the middle of the last century they began turning to political and social activism in an attempt to be "relevant". Frankly, the trade unions did a better job.

The one moral authority now left standing in Western society is the individual's conscience, but daily this is proving itself to be no match for the libertine cravings that appear all over the place, and with such brazen self-confidence they no longer seem grotesque. We have reached the point where, while we may not accept them, we're conditioned to expect them. It's a by-product of the market economy, the apologists apologise. They say it's the market that determines these things - as if human beings have no say in the market. That, of course, is self‑serving nonsense (as George Soros, for one, has pointed out). Let me stress this point: I am not among those who hold an unqualified loathing for economic rationalism; I object to economic rationalism without social responsibility. For example, why cannot the humungous capital flows that flood across national boundaries each day, often putting entire economies at risk, why can they not be subjected to a small level of taxation? And the taxes spent on helping to alleviate the poverty that afflicts a third of the world's population? Reason? Fear of the Power of Greed.

But in the Western cultural inventory, about which Mr Osama bin Laden speaks so caustically, we are not confronted only with the unrestrained greed of the upper middle class - although that is the easiest to attach because it arouses the envy of everyone else. Consider for a moment other cravings: pornography, for example. Whenever I open my email I'm presented with a list of spam, offering variously to show me photographs of hot teenage chicks, something else called "barnyard fun" and, recently, a new product that will increase the size of my penis. This is sicko.

It is also, of course, balefully sexist. But it is worse than that too, for it creates the familiar, daily environment, the ordinary backyard in which the poisonous weeds of paedophilia can germinate and grow. Certainly, it's a feminist issue that women are only 30 out of 700 at the senior bar in Australia and women make up only 10 per cent of non-executive directors of companies. But last time I looked, women were 100 per cent of mothers and the debauchery and destruction of a woman's most intimate and sacred work - her giving birth to and nurturing of a child - seems to me a feminist issue. Where are the feminist vigilantes throwing eggs at the gorgeous silken robes of bishops? Or at least demonstrating outside churches - since it is churches, as institutions, that have been so wicked in this regard. Where are the feminist cyber‑warriors bent on wrecking the web-sites of the paedophilia rings around the world? Nowhere - because there is no longer an active feminist movement able to discuss and develop strategies and plans of action to deal with these issues. Or any other issues. We all know what's happened: feminism sought to address the discomfort experienced by women universally in the age of patriarchal authority. Due to feminism's success, old boilers like us who were active in the women's movement, have all reached a level of comfort, materially, socially - that is legally - and most importantly, psychologically, and we're resting on our laurels.

Now, I think a rest is necessary.

I don't want to sound contradictory and I hope the thread of my argument will lead you to my reasons. But for the moment let me say: I think we need to integrate fully into our personalities the opposites we have embraced - the competitiveness of the corporate world, the cooperativeness of nurturing - because just as consciousness raising was essential to feminist success in the 1970s, I believe that psychological individuation, the clicking together of opposite aspects, is the key to the next stage. And the signs are that Generation X women are doing this work. Let me call it a state of 'Alice', as in Through the Looking Class - because what I am talking about lies on the other side of the mirror, that glass within.

I'll return to psychology, but first, some other aspects of our society that show the insidious downward mutation of which we need to be aware.

Consider popular fiction. Overwhelmingly, the topic of contemporary best sellers - not literary novels which have a minuscule readership - but well-written, witty, successful novels, is crime. Usually violent crime. This tells us several things about Western culture. I'll mention one: the pervasive sense of social pathology (Snowtown comes to mine) - of society being in a state of weird disorder and needing the hero-detective to exert his, or these days mostly her, magical powers to restore social harmony.

In the 1930s, when Raymond Chandler began writing crime fiction, it was considered an act of desperation that an educated man (he'd read Classics at university, as I recall) had turned to such a declasse genre. Crime stories were for semi-literates.

Chandler was an alcoholic with the seat out of his pants when he began to write them - and it was an act of desperation, to make money - but he was also a minor genius with an intense moral conviction about personal integrity which he enunciated with gloomy, sardonic brilliance and persuasion through his detective character, Philip Marlowe. The crime novels of today are all his pale heirs - pale and I would say degenerate, for there is a gruesomeness to the murders, a slavering over sadistic details which demonstrates the coarsening of public taste that has occurred since Chandler began to write. It's as if we, the readers, have grown a hard, shiny carapace over our compassion and sensitivity which allows us, like cockroaches in garbage, to enter all kinds of revolting worlds. This is an attitude of mind in today's readers that frightens crime writers themselves: Thomas Harris, authority of the trilogy: Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, wrote almost a whole chapter in the final book scolding society for its fascination with cruelty and went on to his cannibal chapter as satirical comment about the excesses of liberal humanism as we now experience it. Nobody blinked. Nobody thought he was pulling their leg. They loved the extremism. Harris was appalled and said so in many interviews.

I have had personal experience of this wretched attitude. In my last novel called: White Eye, as a minor issue I set out to lampoon the bland acceptance of violence in contemporary fiction, and did so, I thought, by putting 3016 murders in the book. I'm pretty sure that was the number, if you added them all up carefully. Not a single reviewer noticed.

This same coarsening of public taste is evidence in the movies and in popular music: foul language, mega-violence and softcore porn has become such a cliche we've ceased to notice it.

Consider fashion. Some years ago Yves St Laurent lamented, "People don't want to be elegant any more. They want to be seductive." Now they don't even want that. John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are fashion vandals whose haute couture could be labelled toxic waste, but guess what? Audiences went goofy over it.

The message of all this is: nothing is sacred..

And yet, there is a world-wide yearning for the earth to become once more an enchanted place. Hence the passion for Harry Potter, for fantasy fiction, and for Nature. This yearning, experienced by the tens of millions of Potter fans, by the hundreds of millions who find a self‑transcending solace in Nature, is, it seems to me, an echo from that voice which cries out in the Greek desert. That soul, which a brilliant scientist, the Nobel laureate, Francis Crick - he of DNA fame - announced to be nothing more than an assembly of nerve cells.

Well, I haven't been awarded the Nobel Prize (yet), but I beg to differ with Sir Crick. And in a few minutes I'll deal with him.

First, let's recall those heady days at the beginning of the 1970s when the women's movement in Australia really started to bite and night after night and on weekends young women - and a few old suffragettes - began attending consciousness raising sessions. It's breathtaking to realise how far we've come. Thirty years ago women (with a tiny few exceptions, all of them from South Australia, I think) lived half of their potential, at best. The female ego was fragile, often brittle, and unwholesome. Its tools of brain and heart were unable to function with full power; the result was women who were bored, peevish, insecure and malicious. Women's liberation has achieved, overwhelmingly, liberation of the imprisoned and tortured ego, which gave us the psychological freedom to change our central life activity - our work - from inside the house to the outside, if we so chose, and for freedom of choice in life's central delight, love. Thanks to feminism women could become rounded human beings, incorporating "masculine" interests, occupations and physical courage. Women's egos grew strong. They became not only more rounded than they were before, but more rounded than men. Unfortunately, men by and large have not done the psychological work of incorporating feminine receptiveness and nurturing which will be necessary to liberate their own egos, which remain: easily injured, defensive, boastful, aggressive, secretive ... and still unable to wash a pair of socks.

This is a great pity, both on an individual level and for society itself, because the fulfilment of the ego leads - and I wish to quote John Carroll again - "to the release of its concerns, so that the soul may rise. Not on denial of one or the other, but on a balance of the two". In a perilously unbalanced world, balanced individuals are sorely needed.

Look at our situation: from within, the West is in decline; while outside, predators plan their next attack. In the past 12 months all our easy assumptions about the security of cities, the stability of nations, the safety of our own and our children's lives, have been turned upside down. Adelaide, I'm told, as a strong Lutheran tradition, so you are perhaps familiar with Luther's terrifying insight that God's earth is not a just place. Human effort at overcoming injustice must be made. But to admit to oneself that, no matter what, life on earth will remain unjust - this, friends, is bitter indeed. Think about it: the good can suffer; the wicked may not. A hundred young Australians blasted to death in Bali; three thousand people incinerated and pulverised in New York. Some said it was the fault of their governments' foreign policy, and therefore - in the case of the Twin Towers attack - a kind of justice. What odious nonsense. The truth is clear, simple and harsh. If you doubt me, sit with your parents as they die - or worse, a spouse, a sibling, or, most incomprehensible of all, a child. Those looking for their lost children through the charred remains of the Sari nightclub can tell us there is no logic to suffering. Our hearts and minds, our egos, cannot comprehend such injustice.

For this is the realm of the soul.

The soul dances to a different tune, to the music issuing, as Carroll puts it, from that great star named Fate. The soul is not rational - nor anti‑rational. Whereas the ego thinks, the soul has faith. The ego experiences feelings, positive and negative, but the soul experiences worship. The ego resists; the soul surrenders. Its concentration is on the sacred and therefore it accepts what is - that what will be, will be. And this acceptance gives gladness to life - a humble and, however great the sorrow of the mind and heart, an underlying, unquenchable cheerfulness. IT is these qualities that come to our rescue in times of tragedy, such as we have just experienced. Such as we face in the years ahead.

Thanks to the work they have done in the past three decades on their attitudes, on their egos, on their consciousness, on themselves as human beings, women, but not men, unfortunately, are now fully equipped and ready to take the next big step in development, from ego to soul. In the world of the 21st century, which threatens to turn our beautiful shining cities into rubble, civilisation must have soul's vision to lead it forward. And here is Antigone, to guide us through the desert. In what will be most important for a renaissance of Western culture, women are now fully capable of taking the lead.

Thank you.