The Relationship Between Vulnerability and Transparency

I tend to stumble through my sentences like a sloth attempting the hurdles. I far too often use words in entirely the wrong context. But I’m going to work hard at being succinct and clear in this post so that we can have some solid definitions with which to consider the topic of this blog (see post #1).

To further define exactly what I mean by transparency, I need to flesh out this idea of vulnerability. No one has spoken more about vulnerability than Dr Brené Brown, professor, qualitative researcher, author, public speaker, and denim jacket wearer. She went viral after a TED talk in 2010 called The Power of Vulnerability. I think Brown’s work is largely helpful but I would argue that her terms are, perhaps, too narrow to truly capture the experience of vulnerability and the responses to it, even if we’re speaking purely about psychology.

She seems to talk about vulnerability as an active term. Vulnerability is something that you do. It’s a verb. The phrase “showing up and being seen” is a regular utterance of Brown’s. However I’m going to use the term somewhat differently.

I suggest that separating vulnerability and transparency then considering the interplay between them is helpful for the sake of breadth and clarity.

Let’s categorise vulnerability into two types; willing and inherent. Willing vulnerability has to do with choice, the choice to put yourself into a position of risk. Inherent vulnerability has more to do with circumstance (e.g. health, society) and physical realities (e.g. race, sex); being in a state of vulnerability through no choice of your own.

Willing vulnerability seems to be the one that Brown opts for as her working definition. One major outworking of this thought is, she states, that vulnerability and courage are the same thing. A story that she likes to use for illustration is that of Myshkin Ingawale. Here’s an excerpt from an interview she did with Forbes.

“…after learning about the unbelievable and unnecessary maternal child death rate in rural India, [Ingawale] decided to do something about it. He wanted to develop technology that was effective and efficient at testing for anaemia in pregnant women.

He was a TED Fellow and when I heard him speak in 2012 he said, “I wanted to solve this problem so I invented something that would do it.” The audience burst into applause. Then he said, “But it didn’t work.” You could feel the let down in the room […] “So, I made it 32 more times and they all failed.” But finally a smile slid across his face and he said, “The 33rd time worked and now deaths are down 50%.”

The willing choice to be vulnerable here is seen in the intimate relationship Ingawale had with failure. He was unafraid of being at risk of failure. His success was achieved through willing vulnerability. This is certainly part of how I want to talk about the topic at hand. But I’m not sure it captures everything.

You could ask, “Surely transparency falls under this definition? The choice to be open and honest about your experience, whatever it may be, is just one way of being willingly vulnerable, is it not?” Possibly! However I remain convinced that it’s worth untangling transparency from vulnerability.

Basically, it comes down to the possibility of being vulnerable without being transparent. You can be an inherently vulnerable person (a minority, unwell, poor etc.) and yet choose to say absolutely nothing about that experience. The response to the situation is not always openness but, very often, a heads-down approach. Consider the restrictions that women face in Iran. Think of the same-sex attracted kid in a private religious institution.

Conversely you can be transparent without vulnerability. I am being transparent, in this online context where you can’t see me, when I tell you that I have green eyes and brown hair. Yet I don’t feel insecure in saying that nor am I inviting meaningful risk (unless you have a weirdly specific and aggressive opposition to such features).

Transparency can also precede vulnerability. Consider how people can become widely, unwillingly transparent after being exposed in some wrong-doing or scandal. Think of any recent public shaming to see a person’s life forced open for all to see, creating a pervasive vulnerability to the judgement of others. There’s a book I want to read called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (not to be confused with Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec fame) that you might find to be both an interesting observation of this and also, I suspect, a real lark.

We believe it’s important to expose people who do wrong, for sure, but we also constantly enforce transparency upon our leaders and organisations. We have political journalists for the purpose of keeping our politicians vulnerable to the public eye. Perhaps, sometimes we go beyond maintaining accountability and actually make the person more vulnerable and prone to attack than they need to be. Regardless, this is a scenario in which transparency actually creates vulnerability rather than the two being synonymous.

One final bit of clarification where I might push back on our aforementioned qualitative researcher/rocker-of-the-denim jacket. Brown would say that vulnerability is NOT weakness. Because in her mind, as was mentioned before, vulnerability and courage are the same thing. The act of emotional openness and accepting meaningful risk is, as far as I can tell, her definition of vulnerability. Within that definition of willing vulnerability, that’s true. However if you consider inherent vulnerability then you may find that it’s sometimes impossible or even unhelpful to separate a person’s vulnerability from their weakness.

I know a young guy with a wife and three kids who has a lot of cancer throughout his body. For the past year he has been sharing public updates via Facebook: explaining the issues and the treatments, expressing thanks and love for his community, and asking for prayer. His vulnerability is his weakness (that is to say, he is unwillingly at risk because of his illness). His admirable courage is seen in the transparency with which he responds to his circumstances. Rather than social and emotional lock-down, openness and candour creates connection and strength, even in a situation of great weakness.

SO… This leaves us with an expanded definition of vulnerability and a distinctive concept of transparency. Now that we’ve sorted out some definitions we can get to some meatier, more practical and interesting stuff. Going forth, I hope to talk about the good, the bad and the neutral of transparency. When is it persuasive, when is it manipulative, when does it yield good things and why is it integral?

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