Tag Archives: democracy

The American Impulse for Light

As the fates would have it, a Politburo-style maneuver failed.

There’s a rude old joke about the disgruntled office worker complaining that he feels like a mushroom.  “My bosses usually leave me in the dark, and then they feed me a bunch of sh-t.”

No one likes to be kept out of the loop while consequential decisions that will affect everyone are being made. The rueful remark is a reminder of why the attempt by the Senate leadership to draft health care legislation in secret was so troubling and—in a basic sense—un-American. Healthcare is approaching 20% of the entire American economy. Just thirteen Republican Senators—incredibly, without even one woman among them—drafted the legislation (the misnamed “Better Care Reconciliation Act”) and then sprang it on the rest of us in what was supposed to be an early vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was clearly hoping that the secrecy that shut out the media and most members of his own conference would make passage easier. The press would be blindsided. There would be little time for anyone to read the bill or debate it. There would be no committee mark-ups or hearings, no expert or stakeholder testimony. He knew that some legislators will put party first and sometimes vote on bills they do not understand.  As the fates would have it, a Politburo-style maneuver failed.

Some members of the Senate GOP complained of being blindsided. A few others didn’t like the short timetable. So McConnell had no choice but to postpone the vote until after the July 4 break.

There is reason to take heart in the old and honorable American expectation that representatives at all levels of government should do their work with the lights on and the doors open.

So the bill has been dragged into the light where it belongs.  Legislating is meant to luxuriate in communication, doubly  so in an open society. Now the press is reporting and assessing. The public is weighing in. And interested Americans can consider the consequences of the planned rollbacks and tax breaks that made the proposed legislation so regressive. For the moment, the legislative process has defaulted to a norm of openness and public discussion.  We get to actually see the car before we buy it.

There is reason to take heart in the old and honorable American expectation that representatives at all levels of government should do their work with the lights on and the doors open. States have “sunshine laws” that require agencies to publicize their decision-making processes. We have a Freedom of Information Act that sometimes allows close inspection of bureaucratic paper trails. We have a non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that will provide an effects-oriented report. And, of course, we rightly celebrate a First Amendment that gives reporters and citizens the right to ask tough questions to their representatives and register complaints.

It is true that most legislation in the United States is written by small committees of legislators, often with lobbyists submitting drafts as well. And it is equally true that most Americans are not interested or too distracted to notice consequential law-making that will change their lives.  But the process is grievously sabotaged if legislators who have pledged to uphold the Constitution usurp its intent by working in secret. Hearings are usually the open window in the process. When even those are curtailed we have good reason to question the honor of the leaders involved.

What Counts as Genuine Persuasion?

Bill Lumbergh in Office Space
Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh in the film, Office Space

When there are differences of opinion, the richest forms of communication still allow those with contrasting views to walk away, without penalties. 

The word “persuasion” and its variants (persuasive, persuadable, etc) is the preferred term to identify moments when one individual or group attempts to alter the beliefs or behaviors of another.  But the term is frequently misused, especially if one “persuader” has used extra-verbal inducements to get what he or she wants. It’s interesting that when Aristotle wrote his own book about persuasion 2500 years ago, he noted that the use of knives and torture counted as “inartistic” forms of influence.  He didn’t miss much.  He would no doubt marvel at the additional bludgeons we moderns use to threaten physical or psychological harm.  There’s the denial of financial rewards, extortion, the possibility of a bad job review;  the ways we can cow each other are nearly endless.

Properly used, “Persuasion” occurs when an individual freely assents to what another asks. No coercion. No risk of retribution.  No organizational advantage has figured in the outcome.  Everything else that may look like persuasion is really what should be called  “compliance-gaining,” as when a boss “asks” an employee to work late.

This is not just an academic distinction with little real-world application.  The difference actually matters. To fully understand persuasion we need to know who or what is actually doing the heavy lifting. The use of threats, power or position are all coercive, a fact that takes away a receiver’s opportunity to truly exercise their own judgment. 

As a researcher and teacher on this subject, I’m not especially interested in the idea of compliance. In communication terms  there’s not that much going on. It’s the unequal distribution of power that does most of the work, like shooting animals within a fenced game reserve.  It’s easily done, but not very sporting.

What is interesting is how we manage to perpetuate the delusion of free choice. My impression is that managers often see themselves as having a knack for engaging with employees, as with the smarmy Bill Lumbergh in the iconic film, Office Space (1999).  The soul-destroying demands made by Gary Cole’s character are covered in a sticky syrup of forced collegiality. Lumbergh may believe he has the pulse of the office, but the film knows better.  As this clip from U-tube shows, he doesn’t have a clue.

There is real pleasure in participating in communication where every side retains the right to walk away with no penalties. That fulfills our faith in a democratic values, especially another person’s right to their opinion. That’s why democracies are called “open societies.”

The problem is the indiscriminate mixing of persuasion and compliance-gaining as more or less the same thing . For example, journalist Steven Greenhouse misses the point when he notes in a recent Atlantic article that Wal-Mart “persuades” its employees to be anti-union. What his otherwise useful reporting actually describes is pure coercion. Try and unionize and you are simply out of a job, or your unit is shut down. Similarly, courses and texts in “leadership” often trade heavily in the language of equal-to-equal communication, ignoring explicit organizational hierarchies.  All of this is represented in phrases like “team-building” and “group problem-solving:” the kinds of things we are likely to hear from faux-egalitarians like Lumbergh.

No one wants to be the apparent autocrat issuing orders. Most of us would like to be seen as good listeners open to the ideas of others.  But openness needs to be earned by accepting the right of an audience member to say no, without penalties.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu