The Sum  — The Meaning of This Week: Complicit

“The first responsibility of leadership is the creation of meaning.” Warren Bennis

Word of the week is complicit.

As in if you see something, not saying somethingAs in actively or passively joining harmful actsAs in’s word of the year.

We’re so excited to announce that the Word of the Year is covfefe!

JUST KIDDING! But it is complicit.— (@Dictionarycom) November 27, 2017


Despite the web-based dictionary’s attempt to lighten it up by spoofing that “covfeve” had been given the annual honor, the actual top word, complicit, hisses with disgust, epithet, curse.

And yet it describes, well, pretty much everyone.

Culture is the glue that binds us together and the barrier that keeps others out. Our treasured sense of who we are and paradoxically also the source of the insidious implicit biases that shape our stereotypes of who and what humans like or unlike ourselves can be.

Rebecca Traister has once again outdone herself with her piece on complicity.  Take the time to read it if you missed it.  She gets to all the complicated, raw aspects of what is undoubtedly a sea change in our culture—or can be if we handle its consequences well.

Last weekend I saw a much-touted off-Broadway play, “Desperate Measures,” at the behest of my friend and its producer Pat Addiss. A takeoff on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” but set in pre-statehood Arizona (go figure but yes it works), the entire plot exists only because of culturally ingrained notions of women as either chaste nuns or wanton whores. The opening song’s punchline of “A woman brought me low” says all we need to know about attitudes in Shakespeare’s day, a few decades later, and still today in some people’s reactions to sexual assault and abuse allegations. Women are simply discredited out of hand. That’s the power of culture to shape how we think and render us complicit with wrongdoing.

But the play also makes one notice how much the culture has changed.

The other side of the coin

On Tuesday night, I returned to my computer after dinner to finish up on some work only to panic when I found I had no Wi-Fi.  Being unconnected in this hyper-connected world is the opposite of being complicit and it’s a very scary place  To my great relief, after an hour of badgering first an Apple care representative and then a clueless Verizon representative, I learned the area was experiencing an outage in Wi-Fi service and it would be restored by midnight.

We must all ask ourselves: “at what point for me does the need for positive human connection become the deed of complicity with prejudice, injustice, and even hate?”

How Change Happens 

Wednesday I awakened as did most of America to the news that Matt Lauer is the latest high profile media star to fall. And we are left to wonder who knew what and when? Who among his colleagues was clueless and who was complicit? Do the good relationships he apparently had with some of his female colleagues give him any cover, any reason for clemency? And we all wonder, what will be the next shoe to drop? By nightfall, we had a few answers:  a producer on one of CNN’s top shows, Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” fame, playwright Israel Horovitz, mogul Russell Simmons.

Here’s the more important question: how can we all become complicit for good? How can we actively join in positive acts that equalize gender power in our culture so that we can get past this issue and see real change—not just contrition on the part of those who have been chastened—but real change?  Nilofer Merchant in the Harvard Business Review suggests what all of this has cost us:

“But it’s only logical that as sexually predatory behavior goes on and is covered up, some people get to contribute their ideas, while others don’t. And we all pay the price. While there’s a lot of attention economically on “the race against the machine”, we’re only now paying attention to the more enduring race affecting our economy in parallel: the skirt chase around the conference table. The question of what is created depends on who has a place at that table. And that is the problem, and the opportunity, that needs to be acted on.”

What will be your step forward—how will you become complicit for good?

Let me know your thoughts.

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About the Author

Gloria Feldt, Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead, is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. She teaches "Women, Power, and Leadership" at Arizona State University and was named to Vanity Fair's Top 200 women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers.