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Should You Tackle or Avoid Undiscussables?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Ha, what would life be without contradictions?  In every human grouping there are taboo subjects, matters deemed better left alone, words deemed better left unsaid, issues considered better suited to the deep freezers of life. The unspoken injunction is: Don’t go there; don’t touch it. Yet, there are those who think that a group functions better if a way can be found to air taboo subjects. There are also those who believe that true courage is a willingness to discuss the undiscussable, a readiness to take on all issues, no matter how sensitive the subject.

In the sense in which I first encountered the idea, an undiscussable arises as follows. There is often a difference between the values we claim and the values that our actual conduct affirms.  You do it, I do it, we all do it. But it is easier to see it in others.

For instance, a group of us were working with a colleague once –many years ago now … who was as self-righteous as they came. He said he hated, truly hated, corruption in governance.  Yet, at a meeting during which he had declaimed endlessly on corruption he used his influence to secure a contract for a friend without due process, without competition. Those of us in the room exchanged knowing looks and said nothing. He was an important person in all our lives at that point; there was nothing to be gained but trouble if you pointed out the difference between his avowed values and his actual practice.  An undiscussable had arisen.

Look around you. Think about how many people who are important to you fail to practice what they preach. Do you make it your business to go round pointing this out? Were you to do that how many friends and associates would you have left?

I learned about undiscussables in the context of organizations. In your organization, an undiscussable is a practice that undermines the mission of the organization, but a practice people feel cannot be avoided given the political realities, the incentives, the specific configuration of players, and so on. So everyone comes to a tacit agreement. These things shall not be discussed.  And we can all go about our daily lives, avowing the mission while continuing the practices that actually contradict or undermine it. To bring up one of these issues in the open is akin to belching loudly in company. Simply not done. To do so is to risk being regarded as juvenile, stupid even. Especially, if you want to attain seniority in the organization. You are supposed to be a grown up, to know the difference between the things that can be discussed in the open and the things that cannot.

So, when you are new to an organization you learn the undiscussables over coffee, sitting with veterans who want to help you and who are keen to explain to you the way things work in the organization, the things that can be helped, and the things that cannot be helped.

As you can imagine (watch my phrasing now!) the business of international development is a riot of undiscussables…Naturally, the less said about them the better.

Having said all that, there is a sense in which human progress happens partly because some people take on taboo subjects and are willing to pay the price. If they survive the inevitable attacks and are tough enough to withstand isolation for a good while, then, maybe, others will join them, the issue will be confronted and reform will happen. These are heroic figures.

Here is the problem: only a super thin line separates courage from foolhardiness.  As Yoruba elders say, coconut is sweet, but if you allow your skull to be used to crack open a coconut you are not going to be one of those eating and enjoying it.

Photo Credit: Cristian V via Flickr, available here, some rights reserved


    Submitted by Henry Bazira on

    It is indeed a real situation. We live it every day. Some of us have lost our friends and been alienated because of talking about the undiscussables. It is a tough experience either way. So often, we are cornered to discuss only those undiscussable that have minimum risks and consequences to us individually

    Submitted by Anonymous on

    This reminds of the reprisals and the reporting of unethical behaviour, a WBG undiscussable with player configurations of untouchables! Thanks for this piece.

    Submitted by Ernest on

    This piece reminded me of another term you used at one of your Summer workshops at USC; "Politically Suicidal", that is utterances that may be entirely true, but should be left unsaid because of the dire consequences. Thus the thin line between foolhardiness and courage; if the price to be paid is too high, you don't lose much by remaining quiet for that brief moment!

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