Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

The Red Carpet to Uncertainty

Awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in celebrants who may not be celebrated.

The Oscars always loom large in February.  As the cliché goes, it is an American version of a coronation ceremony.  We may not have royalty to fawn over, but Hollywood celebrities can be suitable substitutes.

The event is interesting for another reason. Rhetoricians relish finding underlying verbal routines in recurring forms of discourse: certain generic forms of content and presentations that endure. And the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not disappoint.  It seems that this peculiar spectacle has influenced how we stage many other humbler efforts at group recognition.  If you are associated with any organization, you know that there will be annual rituals to honor donors, participants and achievers.  And in many cases the format may have the same “deep structure” as the annual event held in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.  In a university setting these kinds of celebrations include graduation, departmental awards given to students, awards to faculty and staff, and recognition of athletic prowess.  The form also survives at end-of-the-year dinners put together by all kinds of organizations, academic and business units, non-profit groups ready to woo more contributors, and even gatherings of pint-sized grade schoolers. We all have our Oscar moments.

It’s best if you can give award recipients a shiny object.  If the organization’s finances are leaner, a computer-generated certificate may have to do.

Any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form.

True, few of us show up at these events wearing a tuxedo. Indeed, universities have cleverly covered up the shabby clothes of their professors with academic robes.  But any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form: general praise for the work of the organization from the events’ host, anticipation focused on the honorifics that will be issued from the stage at the front of the room, awards introduced with just a hint of suspense, and the promise of witnessing the surprise of individuals as they chosen for special recognition.  The form is completed when the recipient stumbles to find dutiful praise for as many as possible.

Becoming an Also-Ran

These faux Oscars are usually defended as morale-boosting exercises.  And, to be sure, the award recipients must love them. But there is a downside as well.  As Kenneth Burke reminds us, ‘in unification there is also division.’ The problem is that, for every award winner, there is usually a much larger number of possible candidates who will become de-facto also-rans. If a university department singles out a few students at graduation for special honors, I am always reminded that there are many more who can’t help but feel they were unfairly bypassed. Similarly, make one person “employee of the year,” and there are bound to be others in the room who wonder why their contributions were overlooked.  The ratio of “winners” to slightly annoyed attenders can easily be 1 to 400: a real rhetorical effect that is often overlooked.

The point is a simple one: awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in the celebrants who might have been, but were not, celebrated. I know, because I still remember those spring “field days” in grade school where the blue ribbons went to the fastest kids. The rest of us settled for the grey “participation” ribbons given to anyone who showed up.

Different Systems That Should Yield Different Outcomes

       McConnell Talking in a Typically Empty Senate

Imagine what would happen to a dithering figure like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if he was required to show up every week to answer questions from members of the Senate.

The long shutdown of portions of the American government shares some features with the Brexit impasse that has left the U.K. in a catastrophic stalemate.  As this is written, neither system seems capable of building coalitions to execute needed changes.  But one system has the better odds: a better structure for moving forward.

From a political and communications perspective, the standoff in the United States is much more predictable than the impasse in the United Kingdom.  Here’s why.  A communications starting point typically emphasizes direct discussion and negotiation as basic tools for moving a lumbering government off dead center. A parliamentary model has the kind of deliberative infrastructure that requires direct communication. Debate in the House of Commons will not allow members to exist only in their own informational bubbles.  The system requires public and frequent contact between key ministers and their shadow counterparts literally just a few feet away.  Since the key business of the House is debate, members must be prepared to be effective advocates and better listeners.

British parliamentary debate is often riveting, and it is also public. Granted, positions tend to solidify when spoken in public.  Any system emphasizing public discussion can turn intellectual fluidity into hardened cement.  But debate in the commons is still better than our ‘no debate’ Congress, which emphasizes “statements” issued mostly for the record rather than the ears of other members.

All of this leads one to expect that Brexit would be closer to resolution than it is. Alas, the problem in London is really not structural, but one of basic leadership. The nation has weak leaders in the form of Prime Minister Theresa May and the Labor Party’s Jeremy Corbyn.  May is especially risk-averse and inflexible: precisely the opposite of what seems necessary.

 

What a comparison of the two systems makes clear is how American divided government lacks any systemic requirement for a public airing of competing political claims.

 

If it’s possible, the American system right now is even more anemic, having just come off a two-year period with a mostly comatose Congress that had been thoroughly rolled by the President.  As is obvious, the checks and balances that are ostensibly part of the system have been absent. Compliant Senate and House majorities have shown little interest in challenging a rogue executive.

More misery in the country was only avoided when enough Americans voted last November, resulting in split party majorities in the two houses of Congress.  The House of Representatives will now fulfill the oversight function the founders envisioned. But the GOP-dominated Senate and White House are still sufficiently entrenched to make it difficult to build coalitions to solve problems.

What a comparison of the two systems makes clear is how American divided government lacks any systemic requirement for a public airing of competing political claims. Remember that C-SPAN cameras controlled by both bodies of Congress routinely conceal the truth that few are present when the House and Senate are in session.  Elected deciders are usually not in the room to hear the comments of those on the other side. The cameras are never allowed to show empty seats.  Instead, we depend mostly on journalists to summarize and sometimes create proxy debates on some core issues.  And that’s not journalism’s job.

Journalism is not structured to foster direct one-on-one debate.  It is almost never in the interests of news organizations to turn over control of a venue to opposing political figures. To be sure, we have many fine journalists working these days.  But routine journalistic practices require the interruption of direct debate. Journalistic norms range from the need for heavy editing in the interests of time or space to a compulsion to introject new issues for discussion before old ones have been fleshed out.  Television and ‘short-read’ articles make discursive political discussion problematic.

So it seems clear that the Parliamentary system has the edge in resolving a political impasse. If that judgment is not apparent, try to imagine what would happen to a dithering figure like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if—as in a parliamentary system–he was required to show up every week and answer questions from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.  There’s a big difference between being a party leader in Congress and being an authentic champion of democratic discourse.

Eventually we will hear of a privately negotiated deal to end the shutdown.  That’s our de-facto system, put in place not because of any constitutional requirement, but because we have mostly ignored the collective action of a body of legislators working out their differences in public debate.