Tag Archives: asking

Palmater on the Right to Say ‘No’

The very first post I wrote for The Asking Project set out always take no for an answer as a cardinal rule of asking, and I’ve revisited that rule a couple of times since, drawing connections with Margaret Gilbert’s ideas of joint commitment, looking at the way saying no turns the ethical spotlight back on the person doing the asking and — most important of all — sets conditions for new respectful relationship.

There’s a strong connection between this (ethical) rule of asking and (legal) considerations of consent. This is complex territory, so an illustration might be useful. Consider, for starters, this piece Pam Palmater wrote back in October on the indigenous “right to say ‘no’,” as enshrined in the doctrine of free, prior and informed consent.

A little background. After a Canadian court ruled against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the Trudeau government announced that instead of appealing the decision, it would undertake a consultation process with First Nations. Palmater accused the government of conducting a charade, of “using” or abusing this process “to force the expansion of this pipeline.”

Regardless of whether the new consultations are led by a former Supreme Court justice or Trudeau himself, Canada has already decided that the pipeline will be built, before ever talking to any of the impacted First Nations, including those that have asserted Aboriginal title. This renders our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights meaningless. What legal value is the federal government’s constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and obtain the consent of First Nations before taking actions that would impact our rights and title, if “consent” is interpreted as the right to say yes but excludes the right to say no? It makes no logical sense to interpret the law in such a way, especially to a constitutionally protected right.

Imagine if consent was interpreted this way in both the ordinary and legal understanding of the word “consent.” When a school sends home a permission form seeking a parent’s consent to allow their child to take a field trip, if the parent does not give consent, the school cannot allow the child to participate. Similarly, if a patient refuses to give consent to an operation to have their hip replaced, then the doctor cannot perform the operation. The absence of consent means no — in other words, a veto that has real legal power and meaning. Imagine if consent was interpreted in this illogical and diminished manner for sexual relations as it is for Aboriginal rights. Imagine if sexual consent in law meant that a man could consult with a woman on whether she wanted sexual relations, and was even willing to accommodate (“where appropriate”) her wishes about how to have sexual relations, but she had no right to say no — no veto over whether or not sexual relations occurred? That is called sexual assault and it is a crime.

The greatest injustices that have ever been committed against First Nations in Canada have resulted from denying the sovereign right of our Nations to say no. The right to have a real veto over infecting our blankets with smallpox; from scalping our people; from stealing our children and raping, murdering and torturing them in residential schools; sterilizing our women and girls; from the forced adoptions of our children into white families during the Sixties Scoop; to the murders and disappearances of our women and girls; to forced human trafficking and now the destruction of our lands and waters for profit.

The right to say no is an inherent part of the legal concept of consent. To interpret this concept otherwise is racist, discriminatory and self-serving, not unlike the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius. Surely, even the Supreme Court would not interpret their own decisions in such an impoverished manner. To do so would render Section 35 [of the Constitution Act, protecting First Nations rights] an empty shell of a constitutional promise.

The Burgundy Ribbon Rule

BurgundyRibbonsCalPERS

Another rule, and for the time being, at least, I am happy* with the wording here: an abuse of asking almost always presents an abuse of power.

Take the case of burgundy affair at the public pension fund CalPERS, as documented by Yves Smith over at Naked Capitalism.

This past fall, documents obtained by Smith show, CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost “asked the CalPERS senior leadership team to wear burgundy to show their support for her” as she faced questions about representations she had made regarding her educational background before and after she was hired. Burgundy ribbons were set out in break rooms with messages urging the “Team” to wear one in a show of support. “No pressure and no problem if you do not want to do this,” the message reads, “it is completely voluntary.” Completely.

“This is obviously inappropriate,” writes Smith,

since a request made by a CEO is effectively an order. CalPERS executives and employees are civil servants, not Frost’s personal retainers. As an expert on managerial and political conduct reacted:

I don’t even know what category to put this in. A scandal-plagued boss orchestrating support by inventing gang colors and pressuring employees to wear them? What happens to the employees who don’t perform this ritual of fealty? Should they be polishing their resumés and practicing their swimming skills?

These incidents smack of underlying panic. Frost is working overtime to shore up her position as CEO in the face of fully deserved questions regarding her long history of misrepresentations about her background, which include committing perjury in Washington on a gubernatorial questionnaire. Not only is Frost pushing her subordinates far too hard to back her up, since they can only do so much for her and coercing them will diminish their good will, she is also showing a lack of a sense of professional boundaries….

Frost’s burgundy campaign may well have crossed the line into creating a hostile work environment. One senior staff member who came to the office and saw the “dress burgundy” request too late to comply issued a written apology. Similarly, when “asked” to wear burgundy to an offsite, one [employee] who wears only black and white felt compelled to buy a burgundy outfit to comply…

…word clearly got around quickly, including the notion that non-compliance was risky.

I am still fussing over the word “presents,” and I’ve considered “masks” and variations in that direction, as well as “declares,” “represents” or “signals.” That one abuse (presenting an order as a request) almost always carries the other with it — almost always, because I don’t want to get caught up right now in handling exceptions — is the essential thing.

You can read my other posts about asking here.

*Postscript: On reflection, I might prefer this much more straightforward and concrete formulation: when someone presents an order as a request, look for an abuse of power. That way, we don’t have to worry too much about motives, or figure out whether the person doing the asking is trying to get away with something. It falls to the person being asked to watch for abuse, and conduct herself accordingly. (Being asked for something, or to do something, turns the ethical spotlight on you, or at least requires you to share it with the person doing the asking. This is your moment.) In a case like the present one, and in most superior-subordinate relationships, calling out abuse may be impractical. Subordinates will bury grievances, reluctantly comply, or pretend not to have been aware of the request. The subordinate’s dilemma in this case registers a failure of governance; a failure of governance at the highest reaches makes itself manifest at even the lowest levels and in the most trivial matters (the wearing of a ribbon). More immediately, presenting orders as requests hijacks power, creates distrust (after all, we can’t help but wonder about motives), and makes people prone to dissemble. All this thwarts collaboration, or the power to do things (to act) together.

Renault’s Hedge

The Attorney General’s letter says that he is resigning at the president’s “request,” but that of course is a euphemism. He never had the choice of not complying, or negotiating a different outcome, as he would if this had been an authentic request. Reports say Sessions wanted to stay on at least until the end of the week, but John Kelly hustled him out the door.

It’s a common ruse to disguise orders or commands as requests. Turning the verb “ask” into a noun — “the ask,” “my ask” — is one form this abuse takes. The euphemistic use of “request” is another.  In my work on asking, I’ve given this euphemism a name: Renault’s Hedge, after Captain Louis Renault in the movie Casablanca.

Rick’s Cafe. Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, tries to mediate between Major Strasser and the resistance leader Victor Laszlo.

The scene seems like a piece of stage business that brings together the film’s main characters for the first time, only to have them arrange to come together at a later date. But the whole scene is a carefully scripted and choreographed negotiation of “authority,” from the soldier’s salute (in recognition of Strasser’s rank) at its beginning to the polite bows at its end. Throughout, witticisms, pleasantries, good manners and the norms of Casablanca cafe society serve as a hedge against Strasser’s power of command. 

STRASSER : I should like to discuss some matters arising from your presence on French soil.

LASZLO: This is hardly the time or the place.

STRASSER: (hardening) Then we shall state another time and another place. Tomorrow at ten in the Prefect’s office, with Mademoiselle.

LASZLO: Captain Renault, I am under your authority. Is it your order that we come to your office?

RENAULT: (amiably)  Let us say that it is my request. That is a much more pleasant word.

LASZLO: Very well.

Renault and Strasser bow shortly.

The improbable thing, of course, is that Renault’s hedge works, at least well enough to end the standoff (and Laszlo is, at this point, no longer sitting but standing face-to-face with Strasser).

It works in part because the film presents Strasser satirically as a striver, a Nazi brute pretending to be a civilized European. It also works because Rick’s Cafe, like Casablanca itself, is a place where the authority of the occupiers can be contested (think only of the scene in which Laszlo leads the singing of “La Marseillaise”). Polite repartee is still possible here: Victor Laszlo can mock Nazi occupation and subjugation to German authority as a “privilege” he has never accepted, and take refuge in decorum (“this is hardly the time or the place”) when Strasser tells him he should like to question him.

At the same time, this recourse to civility is always fraught with jeopardy. Here, it allows Renault to soften Major Strasser’s order, and all but compel Laszlo’s appearance. Renault’s Hedge gives cover to a moral retreat.

Arendt on Enlightened Self-Interest

From the essay “On Violence” in Crises of the Republic (1972):

Nothing, unfortunately, has so constantly been refuted by reality as the credo of “enlightened self-interest,” in its literal version as well as in its more sophisticated Marxian variant. Some experience plus a little reflection teach, on the contrary, that it goes against the very nature of self-interest to be enlightened. To take as an example from everyday life the current interest conflict between tenant and landlord: enlightened interest would focus on a building fit for human habitation, but this interest is quite different from, and in most cases opposed to, the landlord’s self-interest in high profit and the tenant’s in low rent. The common answer of an arbiter, supposedly the spokesman of “enlightenment,” namely, that in the long run the interest of the building is the true interest of both landlord and tenant, leaves out of account the time factor, which is of paramount importance for all concerned. Self-interest is interested in the self, and the self dies or moves out or sells the house; because of its changing condition, that self cannot reckon in terms of long-range interest, i.e., the interest of a world that survives its inhabitants…. Self-interest, when asked to yield to true interest — that is, the interest of the world as distinguished from the self — will always reply, Near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin. That may not be particularly reasonable, but it is quite realistic; it is the not very noble but adequate response to the time discrepancy between men’s private lives and the altogether different life expectancy of the public world. To expect people, who have not the slightest notion of what the res publica, the public thing, is, to behave nonviolently and argue rationally in matters of interest is neither realistic nor reasonable.

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

Six Questions about Asking and Sophia AI

103474429-Sophia_copy

The company that makes Sophia, Hanson Robotics, has become adept at linking different, highly-specific algorithms like image recognition and speech transcription in a way that mimics what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response.
qz.com

Sophia AI’s mimicry of “what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response” is mostly “theatrics,” Hanson Robotics CTO Ben Goertzel openly admits. That is probably why Sophia AI has so far found her most receptive audiences on TV talk shows and in corporate theater, where she won’t have to undergo too much scrutiny. But with the launch of singularityNET, which promises to put “Sophia’s entire mind…on the network,” Hanson says that “soon…the whole world will be able to talk to her.”

I would offer that talking “to” Sophia AI — or using Sophia’s chatbot function — is still a long way from conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, because it does not involve talking with a second person. This inconvenient truth about Sophia AI has not prevented the Saudi government from naming Sophia the first “robot citizen” of the Kingdom (and the grim irony of “a robot simulation of a woman [enjoying] freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not” was not lost on the Washington Post); nor has it prevented tabloids from screeching about Sophia stating she would like to have a family.

If personhood is setting the bar too high, I’m content to consider merely how Sophia AI handles asking. This would involve some of the considerations I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Asking Project: what we “might be doing” (as the writer in Quartz puts it) when we ask or hear a question; what’s involved, and what’s at stake, when we address others with a request or demand; and how these and other interrogative activities might be involved in our (moral) status as persons.

For starters, here are half a dozen questions about asking and Sophia AI that occurred to me after watching her video performances. I suspect there is a clear answer to the first, and the remaining five require some extended discussion.

1. What syntactic, grammatical or other cues (e.g., intonation) does Sophia AI use to recognize a question, and distinguish it from a declarative statement?

2. Can Sophia AI distinguish a request from a demand? A demand from an order? If so, how is this done? If not, what does this shortcoming indicate?

3. Will Sophia AI ever refuse to comply with a request? Leave a demand unmet? Defy an order? If not, how should these incapacities limit the role of Sophia or any AI?

4. Could a demand ever create in Sophia AI a sense of obligation? If so, what might this “sense” entail? Can we speak coherently of AI rights, or even place limits on AI’s role, without first developing this sense?

5. Will Sophia AI ever be capable of deliberating with others and reaching consensus or agreement?

6. What would be required for Sophia AI to deliberate internally? To be capable of asking herself?

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.

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.

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.