The Boggart Defense

A boggart, according to the Muggles’ Guide to Harry Potter, is “a shapeshifter that usually lurks in dark spaces. It has no definite form, taking the shape of that which is most feared by the person who encounters it. When not in the sight of a person, it is believed to look like a dark blob.”

boggart_transforming

For those true Harry Potter fans, you will no doubt remember the scene in which Professor Lupin teaches his Defense Against the Dark Arts class to fight the boggart. The students line up, and, in turn, the boggart pops out of an old dresser and transforms into the single thing most feared by each student at the front of the line: a giant spider, Professor Snape, a soul-sucking dementor, the moon. The students defend themselves by thinking happy thoughts and shouting the word “Ridikulus!” and the boggart transforms into a harmless version of itself – the spider, for example, suddenly has roller skates and falls onto the floor.

The scene that always intrigued me was the one in which the boggart had been beaten, and, nearly defeated, it keeps shifting shapes from one terrible-seeming form to another, in a last-gasp attempt to distract its foe from the fact that it is, indeed, quite harmless.

This happens so often in groups and in organizations: one person makes a challenging comment or creates an uncomfortable situation, and the system (the people, the values, the norms, and the beliefs that have been challenged by that action or assertion) puts up its defenses. A slew of true, but ultimately irrelevant, points are made in an attempt to avert focus from the original threatening statement or action.

These can take the form of attacks on the person creating the uncomfortable situation (“The way you’ve said that makes it clear that you don’t understand ______ about our culture.”). More often, it comes in the form of a subtle deflection (“What about this!?” “Yes, but here’s this other thing!” “Let’s talk about this thing that we love to get bogged down in and never resolve!”).

The boggart defense is any engaging-enough and true-enough statement that feels so real and important that it’s hard to notice what’s really going on: a form of cultural self-defense. It’s the organization’s immune systems fighting off threatening behaviors, where “threatening” means “if we don’t kick this back under the table it runs the risk of starting to shift the way we do things around here.”

The good news about a boggart is that it’s actually NOT a soul-sucking dementor or a giant killer spider. Instead, it’s a creature whose only power is to play on our fears (or, in this case, play on our willingness to be pulled away from an uncomfortable truth.)

Our job, in the face of the boggart defense, is to see and acknowledge the dementor, the terrifying giant spider, the full moon that turns us into a werewolf, and to realize: you are just a harmless shape-shifter that has no power over me.

The moment we can see this is the moment we can help shine light back on the original uncomfortable truth, and, if we’re feeling brave, stop hiding and engage with it fully.

Disney or Paris?

I recently came back from my first four-day vacation with my family at Disney / Universal in Orlando. It was a lot of fun.

On our last day, I was eating lunch with my three kids at The Three Broomsticks, the favorite haunt of witches and wizards at Hogsmeade (the town next to Hogwarts in Harry Potter, for those few of you who didn’t read all those books and see all of those movies). Our section of the restaurant suddenly hushed when three sparrows dive-bombed across the hall and perched on the fireplace.

Everyone started tittering and pointing, asking, “Are those birds real?!”

So much of what happens at Disney and Universal is about making fantasy seem like reality.   So, in that world, one has to notice three sparrows and wonder if they we real. If they weren’t, it was an impressive effect and a fabulous little detail. And if they were real…well, when was the last time people stopped to notice three sparrows and have a conversation about them?

What is real, and what are the stories we create?

At Epcot, strolling between the pavilions representing France, Mexico, China, the United States and Morocco, it is easy to critique the whole experience as a poor facsimile of the “real” countries. But is it really that different? True, the cheap bangles and jewelry at Epcot’s Morocco pavilion are mostly made in China, but these days so are the cheap bangles sold on the streets of India (or Morocco, I assume.).

Better, how do I make sense of my recent shopping trip to an outdoor market in Hyderabad where I found a nice white blouse that I was considering buying for my wife, until I noticed the label: Eileen Fisher. The stall was stocked with returned seconds of clothing from the United States, Indian-styled clothes made in Bangladesh or Thailand or Pakistan that didn’t hit U.S. manufacturing standards and had made their way back to a street market in Hyderabad.   It kind of makes your head spin.

In a globalized world, what is real and what is fake?

My kids wanted to know whether the French brasserie at Epcot was “like a real French restaurant” and my wife and I were stumped. Yes, it looked and felt mostly like a French brasserie, especially the fresh baguettes, which were delicious, the décor, which looked right, and the staff, which was all French. The real question is, isn’t the “real” French brasserie just a rendition of something that once was? A brasserie in Paris is “real,” of course, and it is also an emblem of a fading, more homogenous France, a whiter, more upper-middle class version of the “real” France of today. Today’s real France is a traditional brasserie, but it’s also an Algerian pastry shop with a French twist; it’s the swanky 6th Arrondissement and the hard immigrant life of the banlieuesIn the end, Epcot’s France is just as unreal as a France where most people pretend that the Africans and Arabs who represent an increasing portion of the French population can persist indefinitely on the periphery of Paris and on the periphery of French identity.

This same story is playing out everywhere. Last week Chris Rock wrote a blistering essay in the Hollywood Reporter on how white Hollywood is. It’s an incredible read – honest, wildly smart and incisive – and it paints a tough picture of a supposedly progressive city. There are far too many quotable lines in Rock’s essay, but just to give you a feel for it:

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist…just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else….

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot.

Find 10 minutes to read the Chris Rock piece, and you won’t look at movies the same way again.

The tug and pull of the next century is going to be between the possibility of connection – with products and information flowing seamlessly from anywhere to anywhere – and the increasing ease of creating a fantasy world that isolates and separate us. And it’s the most powerful and influential who are both the most global and who run the risk of complete separation from anyone unlike themselves (where “like themselves” means uber-rich.)

[For kicks: in another story out of L.A., the mega-millionaires are forming a sort of homeowners association that is striking out against the billionaires, including a Saudi prince, whose 70,000 square foot homes are, supposedly, ruining the neighborhood.]

And so we find ourselves back at the American pavilion at Epcot, which is next door to the Mexican pavilion but has no hope of capturing the story of the nearly 1/5th of Americans who are Hispanic. Is Epcot’s American pavilion any different from Ferguson, a town with a 94% white police force and a population that is 67% black?

After a while I ended up feeling like Disney or Universal aren’t any more real or fake than anywhere else, and, if anything, Disney wins for being upfront about being a fantasy world that is trying to create fantasy. In fact, for some things, like Harry Potter, Disney is actually more real than other places: there is no more real representation of Hogsmeade, or Diagon Alley, or Gringotts than in the pages of a book, on the big screen, and in a little corner of Orlando.

And the world outside? Increasingly, it is the world of those sparrows in Hogsmeade. The birds were definitely real birds. The world around them is both completely real and completely the narrative we choose to see.