Gulliver’s Travels has gained a bit of a reputation as a children’s story since its publication in 1726. Probably this is due to all the weird goings-on with giants, pygmies and talking horses.
But Swift’s masterpiece is anything but a fantasy for kids. It is actually a political satire about British and European society in the early 18th Century – and is an object lesson in how to re-examine familiar customs and institutions with fresh eyes.
When Swift wants to parody the split in Christianity between Catholics and Protestants, he describes a bitter fictional dispute over how the people of Lilliput should eat their boiled eggs: “It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.”
To highlight the dubious ethical basis for society’s treatment of animals, he invents talking horses who keep primitive human-beings (the revolting Yahoos) as slaves. It is significant that the Yahoos lack the dignity of even the lowest farmyard animals.
And to critique the political institutions of England, he invents a dialogue between Gulliver and the giant King of Brobdingnag. The loyal Englishman paints an idealised portrait of a smooth-running constitution, which the king picks to pieces by listing the many flaws and inconsistencies. His famous verdict? The English are: “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”.
So how is this useful in today’s corporate world? The book’s value lies in its demonstration of pure thought experiment as a means of analysing human institutions and highlighting their faults.
Imagine if the King of Brobdingnag had been around to question the board of an international bank shortly before the financial crash of 2008. “So, let me get this clear: your debts are five times your equity. Your bankers are paid 20 times more than the Prime Minister and 100 times more than a nurse. How is this justified? I predict your bank will collapse soon.”
It is probably asking too much for banks to indulge in this kind of introspection. However, the technique can be used to question any status quo. The next time you have an employee away day, set aside some time for a role-playing exercise, with one group of employees as your Gullivers and another as your Kings of Brobdingnag. They might come up with some useful Swiftian insights into the way your organisation functions.
A version of this article was originally published on the website of Robert Taylor Communications