In past posts, we’ve argued that communal organizations require transparency in order to calm public fears of misdeed (link). However, we have also noted that public fears can push organizations to act in an overly cautious manner (link). I suspect that due to the overly suspicious nature of many members of the public, communal organizations harm themselves with transparency. If we truly want transparency we have to create an environment where it is beneficial.
In a recent Commentary book review Omri Ceren describes two explanations for the proliferation of conspiracy theories (link). The first is that they are the result of a lack of facts, a “poor man’s cognitive mapping.” The other is that they are the result of poor judgment. According to the first theory, transparency and the presentation of as complete a set of facts as possible will eliminate conspiracy theories. According to the second, however, no amount of facts will yield universal agreement. “[T]he problem is not a lack of facts per se, but how conspiracy theorists link them together and what narrative they derive from those links.”
The Jewish community has its fair share of cynics and conspiracy theorists. The minority who have unfaithfully served the community befog all professionals with a cloud of distrust. A non-profit professional often faces no-win situations because any path chosen will be uncharitably interpreted, sometimes in outlandish theories of corruption and self-interest. Any decision on hiring or firing, fundraising or fund deployment, organizational goals or policies, will be scrutinized for hypocrisy in a manner that guarantees finding it.
Will full disclosure of the relevant facts — circumstances, views, financial arrangements, etc. — yield good will? While caution and oversight are required, can anyone overcome the cynicism? Even if we invoke the handy 80/20 rule and assume that 80% of the cynics are good, thoughtful people who are acting with caution due to experience, the other 20% (or 5% or whatever it really is) will loudly demur.
The nature of life is to confront complex situations. Even the best people making the best decisions based on all the information available at the time will sometimes face failure that, in retrospect, could have been avoided. A good community professional may find that when most people learn the facts, they will appreciate the thoughtful decisions made even if disagreeing with some of them.
But the most troublesome cynics and conspiracy theorists, the ones who make communal leadership so difficult on a daily basis, will never yield. They lack the tools of judgment to make sense of the facts. No matter how transparent a communal organization will be, it will never satisfy its loudest critics. If so, those organizations need to decide whether transparency is worth it.
We, the reasonable members of the community, bear the task of making transparency not only viable but attractive. We need to reward the behavior we want. If we truly desire to weed out the parasites in our communal organizations, those corrupt or ineffectual leaders who give the rest a bad name, we have to make sure that the good people are safe. We have to drown out the minority of cynics and conspiracy theorists with our voices of reason to protect those who do their best every day to serve our community. Only then will the leaders be capable of providing the transparency that we rightly demand.