Category Archives: The Power of Asking

Knotted Wrack

It was nearly high tide when I paddled out yesterday morning to the channel that lies just east of the cove. Harbor seals sometimes gather and sun on the big rocks that jut out of the water there. Golden brown beds of Knotted Wrack, or Ascophyllum nodosum, undulate and shimmy just beneath the surface. I glided straight into them, intending to skirt and circle the rocks, as I had done before, but instead — froomp! scrape! — my kayak ran aground on a big chunk of speckled granite just beneath the water’s surface (and partly hidden by the Knotted Wrack anchored to it). I was stuck, sitting atop a rock in the middle of the water, a good distance from shore. It felt a little absurd, or like something out of a cautionary tale.

After trying and failing to push off the rock with my paddle, I gained a better appreciation of my precarious situation. Apply too much force, and the kayak would tip; a roll would probably subject me to a beating against the rock. The wrong move and I would end up in the water, most likely cut and bruised, struggling to right the boat. The seaweed would make the rocks slippery.

No need to exaggerate the peril I was in: I was wearing a life vest, and though the water is cold here in Maine, it’s not so cold that if for some reason I failed to recover the boat I could not swim to shore, which I reckoned would take about twenty minutes. Losing my glasses (which, this time out, I had not fastened to my head with a cord) was among my concerns. I understood that I might have to struggle for a short while in the water. I didn’t want to struggle blind.

Keeping calm was essential, and it was also the most instructive part of the experience. Having formed a mental picture of my situation, I had to keep it clearly in view but I could not let it rattle me. The granite and the Knotted Wrack could be my undoing, or I could do something. Acting was less a matter of mastering than of working through my fear: not retreating into panic, but taking stock of risks and understanding what steps I could take to get my kayak unstuck.

When I ran aground, I had been running with the current, east and slightly north, into the channel. With a slow, deliberate reverse paddle, I managed to turn the boat on the rock, pivoting counter-clockwise, so that the bow now pointed west and faced the oncoming current. It was gentle, but enough to help create a little play between the kayak and the rock. Grasping the paddle as a tightrope walker holds his pole to balance, I thrust forward with my hips, as I sometimes do to inch my way into the water when I am launching the boat from shore. I was then able to paddle safely away.

I’ve written before about standing on quicksand. This Knotted Wrack adventure seems to pose another kind of dilemma: the problem wasn’t that I was sinking. I had run aground on an unexpected chunk of terra firma, and I had to struggle alone to get unstuck, right myself and push off. But as I’ve reflected on my experience, it has led to some of the same considerations as the quicksand problem. Take this relatively simple dilemma of getting the boat off the rock and scale it up: imagine a two-person canoe, or a ship with many hands on deck, or another perilous situation involving two, three, or even hundreds, thousands, billions of people. Then you start dealing with questions of cooperation and power.

The last people in the world who should be responding to a situation like this are those who cannot acknowledge its reality or remain calm in the face of it; and it occurs to me that those may amount to the same thing. Denial might be nothing more than a reactive token of fear, and widespread denial — like climate-change denial — might be a reactionary kind of moral panic, even though deniers are quick to call others alarmist.

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

A Few Observations on Standing on Quicksand

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_QuicksandA few thoughts on the drawing I made yesterday morning.

One amoral transactionalist or another in my drawing might try to accumulate sufficient goods — in this case, enough flooring: planks, paving stones, rebar, etc. — to shore up only his patch of quicksand.

As he watched his trading partner and his fellow man sink, he might realize that he has done himself out of the trade that sustained and defined him.

He might also find that he needs the other guy after all, as it’s very hard to lay planks across one area of quicksand without building up another. (The best design would go to the very margins of the whole patch of quicksand, and anchor the floor in terra firma.) He has won only as much land as his transactions to date have secured for him. Once his trading partner sinks, he has made his last acquisition.

Even if their trade observes some rules, it will be short-lived unless they recognize that the patch of quicksand they’re standing on needs shoring up and maintenance. When the pair recognize that they share common ground, and a common future, they have a much better chance of keeping themselves from sinking.

With that recognition, they have already crossed over from amoral transactionalism into some sense of common life or mutual standing. They can start working together, or start coordinating their efforts: they might decide to tax their trade so that they can direct some of the goods toward building a shared foundation.

Do the pair locked in territorial rivalry have any future? One might prevail over the other, raid his stores of goods and make plans to occupy the entire territory. He could even enslave him or coerce him to build a stable platform over the quicksand patch.

It’s a future from which both parties should recoil in horror. At the very least they might understand that, all things being equal and luck being what it is, committing to this course means that one of them will end up dead or suffering under the lash.

And the best the winner of such a contest can hope for is the master’s fate: he will never be truly respected nor have standing as a person (which can only be granted by another person; but he has deprived his rival of that standing). He will have lost even that bitter sense of “we” that he knew in the days of territorial rivalry. Now he can only make the vanquished party hand over his goods, do his bidding, cower in fear or howl in pain.

Scanlon on Tolerance and Territorial Rivalry

From “The Difficulty of Tolerance” in Toleration. An Elusive Virtue:

Any society, no matter how homogeneous, will include people who disagree about how to live and about what they want their society to be like. (And the disagreements within a relatively homogeneous culture can be more intense than those within a society founded on diversity like the United States.) Given that there must be disagreements, and that those who disagree must somehow live together, is it not better, if possible, to have these disagreements contained within a framework of mutual respect? The alternative, it seems, is to be always in conflict, even at the deepest level, with a large number of one’s fellow citizens. The qualification “even at the deepest level” is crucial here. I am assuming that in any society there will over time be conflicts, serious ones, about the nature and direction of the society. What tolerance expresses is a recognition of common membership that is deeper than these conflicts, a recognition of others as just as entitled as we are to contribute to the definition of our society. Without this, we are just rival groups contending over the same territory. The fact that each of us, for good historical and personal reasons, regards it as our territory and our tradition just makes the conflict all the deeper.

Three Ways of Standing on Quicksand

Here’s a drawing I made on the back of an envelope over breakfast this morning, to illustrate three ways of standing on quicksand: territorial rivalry, amoral transactionalism, and moral community or mutual standing.


A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Another Abuse of Asking

I’ve been interested for a while now in the way asking works: what exactly are we doing when we ask what to do (what we should or ought to do) and when we ask things of each other (when we make requests or demands)? For the most part, my posts on what I’ve called, for better or worse, the power of asking have focused on the abuse of asking, the confusion of asking with orders that are not open to deliberation, or the issuing of commands in the guise of requests, as when people use the nominative “ask” but aren’t asking anything at all.

When I talk about “abuse” in this context I mean, for starters, that these confusions and ruses and other kinds of indirection make asking an “act professed but hollow,” as Austin puts it in How To Do Things With Words. In Austin’s scheme, abuse is just one kind of infelicity, and I don’t want to be too strict about it, or pretend that the term covers all the instances in which asking does not come off as it should; but I’m drawn to talking about abuses of asking in part because I think it’s important to point out that acts professed but hollow may not only be insincere but also lack moral seriousness, in the sense that moral seriousness requires taking others seriously, giving them moral standing as second persons to whom one is accountable and answerable.

Abuses might take the form of a well-meaning effort to soften commands, so that people don’t feel pushed around or ordered about. That might seem like a harmless management ploy. But to allow that this professed asking is really a nicer way of commanding is to admit that abuses of asking can also mask real power relations. They don’t afford interlocutors equal standing or a share in power, or even the freedom to answer “no,” as genuine deliberation or serious conversation about what to do might.

An illustration is provided by what North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said just this Wednesday past, before the police moved into the Oceti Sakowin Camp:

Our big ask for tomorrow is that, you know, anybody that’s remaining in the camp, we want to make sure they know that they have an opportunity to voluntarily leave, take your belongings, remove anything that you think might be culturally significant, and we’ll help you get on your way if you need to do that.

This “big ask” followed an eviction order issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that was backed by heavily armed, militarized police. Those who did not take the “opportunity to voluntarily leave” were arrested and forcibly removed. Governor Burgum might have chosen to present what is essentially an ultimatum as a request in order to seem fair and reasonable, or to defuse a tense situation. But it’s curious — isn’t it? — that it wasn’t just the governor who indulged this bureaucratic habit of speech. The governor’s spokesperson later made the same request: “We ask those that are remaining to pack up their belongings, to take off,” he said, and again repeated the offer to “help” with transportation.

Neither he nor the governor wanted to be giving orders, apparently. If their statements on this occasion can be set down as abuses of asking, that abuse is hardly the worst charge to be leveled against the governor of North Dakota in this situation. And to parse Governor Burgum’s language or that of his spokesperson on this occasion probably isn’t the best place to start reflecting on all that just went down at Standing Rock. But it’s important, I believe, to be look at what was said on this occasion and what was actually meant, how power presented itself and how it actually went about things.

The two are not even close.

The governor and his spokesperson were not asking anything at all. They were disguising not just an order but a threat of violence as a request, and publicly refusing to take responsibility for what might ensue. Apparently, they weren’t the ones giving the orders. By asking, or pretending to ask, they washed their hands of the situation. In essence, the governor said that it was up to the water protectors at the camp to keep the forces under the governor’s command from doing violence to them.

It is a classic example of the abuser’s refrain: don’t make me hurt you.

Some remarks on “another kind of power”

A new post about the merger of two Upper Peninsula environmental organizations on Keweenaw Now includes this short video excerpt of the talk I gave in Marquette, Michigan a while back about the power and responsibility we have to protect water and wild places from unsustainable development.

You can read the full text of my remarks here.

Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post about Masha Gessen’s “Trump: The Choice We Face,” I remarked that the opposition Gessen sets up in her essay between realist and moral reasoning seems a little too clean and stark. It is also not one we can carry over, intact, into political life.

We should like to be able to choose, always, between right and wrong, and do what is right; but life does not present itself in these terms, and it’s easy to imagine cases in which moral reasoning might prevail and political action would thereby be limited, or impossible; where strict adherence to the moral could usher in its own Robbespierrean terrors; or where we simply failed to take into account the extent to which moral reasoning is already conditioned and determined by the actual, by the real.

Of course we should try to temper realism with moral reasoning, but we should probably not complete Gessen’s shift: we can never operate entirely from one side or the other.

It’s important to recognize the shortcomings of the transactional and still reserve the power to deliberate about what to do and outcomes we would like to see. A balanced view wouldn’t force the choice between realism and morality, but allow for the fact that sometimes people have to get their hands dirty; and when they must, they can and should act while remaining fully aware — at times they will be tragically aware — of the moral difficulties in which they have entangled themselves.

It’s rare in life, and in political life rarer still, that we are able simply to substitute moral reasoning about right and wrong for practical deliberation, just as it’s always cold and inhuman to reduce practical deliberation to a calculation of costs and outcomes without consideration of what we owe to ourselves and others.

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.