Tag Archives: authority

Three Questions for the Michigan DEQ on the Back Forty Project

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced its intention to permit the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold and zinc sulfide ore mine that Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, plans to develop near the headwaters of the Menominee River. In response to the MDEQ’s request for public comment by November 3rd, I’ve submitted these three questions. I’m posting them here so that others might consider them in the run up to the public meeting with the MDEQ in Stephenson, Michigan on October 6th.

  1. In determining that the Back Forty Project application meets the requirements for approval under Part 632, did MDEQ take into account the cumulative effects of sulfide mining throughout the Lake Superior watershed? We know that the Back Forty project poses a significant risk to the Menominee River all by itself. With the mine in close proximity to the river, a flood, berm collapse, subsidence or a slide could destroy the Menominee River; to answer these serious concerns by asking the company to add a “synthetic, manmade liner under their waste/tailing rock facility,” as the DEQ has proposed, is to trivialize them. Other development that the mine will inevitably bring, including haul routes, power lines, lights, fueling stations, exhaust and machine noise, will leave a large industrial footprint and disturb the Menominee River and its environs in countless ways. At the same time, this mine will heighten the risk, in the long term, of large-scale environmental destruction posed by the resurgence of sulfide mining not just in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but in Minnesota and Canada as well — all around the lake and throughout the Lake Superior watershed. Has the DEQ completed or participated with neighboring state agencies and tribal authorities in a scientific study of the cumulative impacts of sulfide mining around Lake Superior? Has the DEQ issued guidance on how cumulative environmental effects should factor into its decision-making process for permitting new mines in Michigan?
  2. Has MDEQ made any determination about the human rights implications of its decision to allow the Back Forty project to go forward? Human rights are not outside the DEQ’s bailiwick, no matter how hard it may try to exempt itself. Witness Flint. In the present case, the DEQ’s oversight is inextricably bound up with the state’s obligation to protect human rights abuses by third parties. Aquila’s Back Forty project is sure to disturb, and likely to desecrate, lands traditionally belonging to the Menominee and still held sacred by them; and making provisions for archaeological recovery and preservation of mounds and other sacred sites does not adequately address the basic human rights issues involved here. The headwaters of the Menominee River are central to the tribe’s creation story, marking the place where the Menominee people originated. Their very name derives from manoomin, or wild rice, which will not survive changes in sulfate levels or degradation of overall water quality. As tribal member Guy Reiter has said, “It’s no different than if an open-pit sulfide mine was put in Bethlehem for the Christians.” Seen from this perspective, the Back Forty is not only an affront to Menominee history; it also puts the cultural survival of the Menominee people at risk. How will the DEQ factor such human rights considerations into its decision-making process?
  3. What has the DEQ done to restore trust in its authority, and reassure the Menominee and people living downstream from the Back Forty project in Michigan and Wisconsin that it will exercise appropriate care? The Flint water crisis cast a long shadow, and reinforced the perception that “politics and poverty are big factors” in DEQ decision making. “The same attitude of disregard for citizens and the environment has repeated itself in DEQ decisions across our state for well over a decade,” said Marquette attorney Michelle Halley after news of the Flint water crisis broke; controversy over the renewed Groundwater Discharge Permit issued by MDEQ at Eagle Mine and legitimate concerns about lax oversight at Eagle East help make her case. Like all government agencies, the Michigan DEQ should operate in sunlight. Already, however, troubling questions have been raised about the transparency of the Back Forty permitting process. For example, Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, asks why the DEQ appears to be in a “rush” to grant the Back Forty permit. So as things now stand, the DEQ enjoys de jure authority in Michigan under Part 632, but it is unclear whether the DEQ still enjoys de facto authority, which could only derive from demonstrations of regulatory competence. How does MDEQ intend to quell public concern that it is compromised or incompetent, and reassure the public that it is a responsible steward?

Zeno and the Invention of the Second Person

When Aristotle remarked that Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) was the first to discover dialectic, he was crediting Zeno with the invention of the philosophical interlocutor or second person.

This is how Allen reads the famous passage as well. The remarks attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius make Zeno “the discoverer of the…oral two-party question and answer debate,” not just “argumentative technique.” The only thing I might take issue with here is Allen’s use of the word “debate,” which could give the mistaken impression of a contest in which one person’s view prevails, rather than a dialogue or conversation in which interlocutors reach agreement — or uncover their discrepancies — by asking questions and responding to them.

This is an expansive reading of Zeno’s discovery. But it’s perfectly consistent with the tradition of commentary that makes Zeno out to be the inventor of the prose dialogue and with the ask and answer approach discussed and demonstrated in Plato’s Parmenides (where Zeno is presented as Parmenides’ philosophical apprentice). The inquirer enlists or authorizes an interlocutor — in this case, Aristoteles, the youngest of the group — to answer him. 

Even more restrictive ancient definitions, like those offered elsewhere in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives, emphasize that dialectic is not just a matter of “discussing” topics by means of question and answer, but “correctly” discussing them. That is presumably why dialectic may be regarded as “indispensable and…itself a virtue, embracing other particular virtues under it,” and Diogenes Laertius draws connections between the practice and ethical teachings.

To help elucidate this point, a note in the Hicks edition of Diogenes’ Lives recommends this passage in Plutarch’s Contradictions of the Stoics, where Plutarch cites a passage from Chrysippus characterizing “dialectic skill” as “one of the greatest and most necessary faculties.” Note the word Plutarch uses for “faculties” here: dynamis: a power or capacity.

This is the power that Zeno is said to have discovered. It is — let’s not lose sight of this —  a power shared with others: it’s the “dynamic” of serious conversation.

It strikes me that it’s possible and edifying to connect Zeno’s discovery of this power or second-person dynamic with his resistance to tyranny. Immediately after reporting Zeno’s discovery of dialectic, Diogenes Laertius tells us that Zeno “plotted to overthrow Nearchus the tyrant (or, according to others, Diomedon) but was arrested.”

The story of his arrest has it that on pretense of imparting some important information about the conspiracy, Zeno drew the tyrant near and bit down on his ear “and did not let go until stabbed to death, meeting the same fate as Aristogiton the tyrannicide.” Another version has it that Zeno bit off the tyrant’s nose. Yet another, related by both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, has it that Zeno bit off his own tongue and spat it in the tyrant’s face.

In all versions, Zeno’s life ends with his refusal of illegitimate authority.

Postscript: Slightly revised on 2 April 2015, but still just rough notes waiting to be written in earnest. That said, I think there’s something important and worth pursuing in the connection of Zeno’s discovery of the dialectical “power” with his resistance to tyranny. His discovery of the conversational stance in philosophy helped him appreciate, and committed him to the defense of, political freedom, I want to maintain. Victor Cousin arrives at a similar position in his discussion of Zeno in Nouveaux Fragments Philosophiques. For Cousin, Zeno is “l’ἀνήρ πρακτικός” of the Eleatic school, exercising “purely dialectical…genius” in defense of Parmenides’ doctrine of “absolute unity” and defending “the laws” of Elea. Much here to unravel.

To Ask and To Demand

I’ve been reading a little this morning about Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome. First described by child development psychologist Elizabeth Newson, PDA is a pathology on the autism spectrum characterized, as its name suggests, by avoidance of the normal demands of everyday life: things like getting dressed, going to school, eating one’s cereal, and so forth. It’s not procrastination: the avoidance is not of the task but of the demand, which is met not just with anxious defiance but with all sorts of socially manipulative behaviors (some of them charming) as well as violent outbursts.

I suspect that this diagnosis and its treatment will have lots to teach me about what I’ve been calling — not without misgivings — the power of asking. I’m also hoping that Newson’s work and other research on PDA will shed some light on the question Marc Tognotti put to me in an email after I posted my notes on Austin and Asking: namely, whether we can talk coherently about demands as a kind of asking. I’ve been satisfied with making rough equivalences between the terms, and in an earlier post I’ve even managed to cheat the idea of moral claims into the word “demand.”

Marc countered that he was surprised that I included demands in a discussion of asking and that there is a difference between demands and requests (or asking someone to) that’s probably worth maintaining. In short, to talk about demands and asking in the same breath confuses things, he says, because demands are more akin to commands or coercion than requests.

I admit there’s a lot here to sort out, including questions about the kinds of authority, moral or otherwise, we need to make commands, demands and requests. For the time being, I’m taking refuge in the etymological roots of our English word “demand” in the French demander, and I’ve also found some shelter in the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists “to demand” among the definitions of ask. But none of that will do for very long. It might be nothing more than an avoidance strategy.

Still, I think it’s clear that the verb ask can be used exercitively — to exercise power, and that using the verb ask in that way can be (let me put it this way for now) pretty much like making a demand: “I ask that you take your hands off me.” “I ask you to respect my rights.” “I ask you to come forward, so that you can see this for yourselves.” Maybe those examples are a little clunky and formal, and I admit that the last one can be construed as invitation rather than a demand. More importantly, I don’t want to limit the “power” that I am talking about here to the making of demands or even the kind of asking that is pretty much like a demand. Ultimately, I am more interested in the way that asking — or serious conversations about what to do — can give people an equal share in power.

I still have a lot more reading to do before I can tie all this back to PDA, but I’ve managed to grasp the basics. People with PDA experience demands as a complete loss of control: powerlessness. They feel coerced, not asked to or whether they would. Even the most trifling demand seems to eclipse their will. In this diagnosis, demands are more like commands, less like asking or the start of a conversation about what to do. Even the simplest request or suggestion can be mistaken for an order and resisted.

One parent of a child with PDA reports that her child misinterprets “everything as a demand” being shouted at her; and to overcome the child’s pathological demand avoidance she and her husband “always try to phrase demands in a way that offers…choices and we are always prepared to negotiate.” Many boundaries too, have to be negotiated, even when it’s a question of what’s safe or lawful, so that the child “feels that it is either her choice or is open to negotiation.”

Of course it’s deceptive, a manipulation to give the illusion of control and preempt the child’s manipulations. It’s not a serious conversation; it’s power play: the parents engage the child in mimicking the very real power we share when we have choices to make, nobody is in charge and nothing is settled. And that is what these children seem to want, but only because that gives them a chance to take back control.

Postscript: some readers have found my last paragraph controversial or just wrongheaded. Please take a moment to read the comments on this post from parents of children diagnosed with PDA.

Austin and Asking

Ask is a verb: to ask is to do something or, usually, to do a number of things. To ask is, first and almost always, to address someone, even, I’d say, when you are wondering aloud to yourself (“what’s it all about?” or “what’s wrong with me?” or “why do I put myself through this?” If they are not simply outbursts or exclamations disguised as questions, these are often indirect and emotionally-charged ways of asking, “what am I going to do?”). To ask is to do other things as well: to inquire about something, someone or some state of affairs, to request clarification or permission, or to make a demand (as the French verb demander reminds us.)

Turning the verb into a noun — talking about “the ask” — confuses the address and runs roughshod over this whole range of human activity and human relationships that asking might involve.

Sometimes that’s deliberate. It allows people to pretend they aren’t giving an order when they are, or to present an order as an institutional requirement, to deflect questions about power and authority or just make it impossible for people to say no, as they should be able to do if you are genuinely asking them to do something. (Always take no for an answer might be another rule of asking; but I can easily think of exceptions, as when, for instance, we demand respect or claim rights. Those are obviously special cases.) There are all sorts of ways besides these in which talking about “the ask” as opposed to asking skirts questions of power, surrenders authority and takes authority from others. It’s a big drain.

I’m trying to take things in exactly the opposite direction: I want to talk about asking as an exercise of power, and the verb “ask” as an exercitive. (It seems it would be easiest to do that in cases where we are making a simple demand — e.g., “I ask that you remove your foot from mine”.)

I’m borrowing the word “exercitive” here from J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, where Austin comes very close a number of times to talking about what we do when we ask, close enough to encourage my own thinking in this direction. He makes some intriguing remarks about asking as an illocutionary act that “[invites] by convention a response or a sequel,” and in this context he differentiates asking to from asking whether you will or asking yes or no and the different responses they invite.

Unfortunately, when Austin directs his attention to the verb “ask” near the very end of his lectures, in a discussion of his dictionary “fieldwork,” he gives very little guidance.

In Lecture XII, Austin includes ask among the Expositives — verbs “used in acts of exposition involving the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and references.” (Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “the expositive is the clarifying of reasons, arguments and communications.”) This is how Austin himself uses the verb “ask” throughout How To Do Things With Words: he often introduces an argument with “we may ask,” “we must ask,” “we should naturally ask,” “we are now asking,” “it may be asked at this point,” and so on. The lectures themselves can be read as an exercise in expositive asking.

Item 3a. “Ask” listed among the expositives in the final lecture of How To Do Things With Words

Ask is one of an “enormous number” of expositives, Austin says, which “seem naturally to refer to conversational interchange.” The verb is, however, listed here all by itself as item 3a, a subset of the little group that includes inform, apprise, tell, answer, and rejoin. Why not include it with the others? It appears that ask is a special case of some kind, its own item.

Based on my reading I can’t say exactly what kind of item Austin considers it to be. I’m not sure anyone can say for certain. The text of How To Do Things With Words is reconstructed from Austin’s lecture notes, auditor’s notes and a few other sources. According to Urmson, who edited the first edition of the lectures, “there is no definite key to [this list of expositives] in the extant papers.” (I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the second edition to see if Austin’s later editors have added anything more on this point. Update 6 Feb 2015: I checked; they do not.)

There’s enough in these lectures to suggest that we need to go well beyond the confines of item 3a even to make sense of asking on Austin’s own terms. Austin readily admits that expositives might be “exercitives…as well,” if they “involve exertions of influence or exercise of power.” The distinctions aren’t sharp. Things can get fuzzy. So “asking me to” do this or that is close enough to ordering (“order” tops Austin’s list of exercitives) that it can sometimes cause confusion: “sometimes you are not ordering me”: you can’t, because you “are not in the appropriate position to do so” and don’t have “the right,” but it sounds as if you are because you are “asking me to rather impolitely.”

Consider, for example, someone who approaches you at a nightclub and says “Dance,” and another who asks, “Would you like to dance?” Both are asking you to dance, but the first sounds as if he is ordering you to dance, and he’s in no position to do that.


Bugs Bunny’s playful response subverts Yosemite Sam’s order to dance. Sam has a gun, so he can coerce a dance, but as the comedy here demonstrates, he doesn’t have the authority or intelligence to order Bugs Bunny around.

Of course things can go to the other extreme, and Austin is interested in situations like these: for example, someone who approaches you in a nightclub, clicks his heels together, bows gracefully and, upon rising, asks “Would you care to dance?” or inquires whether you might do him the honor of listing him on your programme du bal for the evening.

The things that have to be in place, the conditions that have to obtain for you to order me, are not the same as those that obtain when you are asking me or when we are having a conversation about what to do. It helps to be polite, but good manners are not all there is to it; and as we see in the example of the bowing gentleman at the nightclub — or Austin’s own example of the offended man who challenges another to a duel by saying “My seconds will call on you” — every form of courtesy has its season. Genuine respect and the authority it confers on others (and some measure of empathy as well) are the appropriate kinds of deference when it comes to asking: we are, after all, trying to share power, not just seize it.

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

Serious Conversations, 3

So far in these notes on serious conversations I’ve talked about questions of authority and trust as well as the joint commitments conversations entail. What little I’ve managed to say may not amount to more than the observation that what makes a conversation “serious” has less to do with subject matter than with the mutual obligations of its participants and their disposition toward the activity of conversation.

Let me spell that out a little more. In order for a conversation to be serious, all parties would have to enter freely into it. So a police interrogation or a dressing down at work are not very likely to qualify as serious conversation, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they might become serious if things were to take an unexpected turn. Joint commitment can’t be coerced; and while it’s possible that one party in a conversation might officially be in charge of things, by election, contract or appointment, all parties have to be vested with equal authority in the conversation — or have equal standing to make claims of others, despite differences in title, social stature, organizational standing, etc. To put it another way, all parties in a serious conversation are mutually accountable to each other.

In subsequent posts I hope I can explore this basic position a little more and strengthen it — or, if need be, abandon it in favor of something more compelling. Right now I want to be clear that while serious conversation requires parity, it’s still possible to lead a serious conversation, so long as leading the conversation does not violate the covenant or commitment the participants have made. It all comes down to how one leads, and it’s possible — it’s very easy — to mislead a conversation: it happens all the time.

For example, someone might insist on getting to the point. A rule of serious conversation applies here: the point is almost beside the point.

The primary point of any conversation, which takes precedence over any insight, conclusion or plan for action the conversation might eventually yield, is that we have jointly committed to do something together — namely, have a conversation. That commitment will entail obligations to each other, some of which we can enumerate right at the outset, because we know, roughly, what conversation will require: e.g., you can’t suddenly walk away, or I can’t start singing “la la la” while you are talking or patronize you or coerce you into agreement. Others might become apparent only as the conversation wends its way, and neither of us can really know where the conversation will lead — unless, of course, one of us is being disingenuous or duplicitous, in which case the conversation is a sham.

When people insist we get to the point, they are not just short-circuiting the conversation; their efforts to control or wrap up the conversation risk foreclosing on claims we might make or unmet obligations we might have to each other as participants.

This is why, by the way, it’s important to be tolerant of meandering turns the conversation might take and of what I call verbal fidgeting and others call throat clearing: all the little tics and tacks we use before we actually get around to saying anything definite. Verbal fidgeting — “like,” “I mean,” “so…” “you know,” etc. — in conversation can be an annoyance, but it isn’t just noise; and noise-to-signal ratio is not the best metaphor for conversation.

Fidgeting can indicate that someone is uncomfortable with silence, which is worth attending to, because it might tell us the person isn’t listening or feels nervous and doesn’t know how to sit with the restlessness that being with others sometimes involves. But fidgeting can also help coordinate the conversation and the being together that conversation entails, bringing others in, building bridges, redirecting attention. At the very least it can help us get to know the habits and manners of the others with whom we’re speaking, and conversation happens where those habits and manners — those styles — meet.

Serious Conversations, 1

In a previous post I pledged to say something about serious conversations, so I’ve set out to make a little headway on that topic. This is a first try. I’ll correct or advance what I manage to say here in subsequent posts.

A rule of thumb: serious conversations are more likely to involve demands than commands.

I’m not giving up at all on the idea that commands can be legitimate or given legitimately, or that those being ordered about can vest the person giving the orders (by contract, consent or some prior agreement) with legitimate authority. (Without that authority, commands have to rely on coercion.) But usually a command is not an invitation to deliberate; instead, the person giving the command has already reserved all deliberative rights – all rights to determine what there are reasons to do – to himself.

Just the other day, on the subway, I overheard a man complaining about his boss to a co-worker. His boss had told him: “I don’t want to see you on any floors you’re not assigned to. You stay on floors 4, 5 and 6.” Whether the boss didn’t trust this guy to move about freely, had something to hide on the other floors (as the worker suspected), or had some other reasons for controlling and monitoring the movements of his workers – or just this one worker – is impossible to say. In any case, this order was not an invitation to discuss the best arrangement or to trade reasons, and the disgruntled worker could only speculate: “There’s gotta be a reason for that.” Gotta be, but in this case, the boss had arrogated all reasons and reason-giving to himself; and — tellingly — that had led the worker to distrust him and question his order-giving authority.

I gathered this example by eavesdropping, I know, and I have only one person’s side of the story, but for now let it stand. It helps shore up the point that commands issued without explanation – or without giving others a share in reasons – can damage trust and undermine the authority of the one giving the commands. Of course, the two things are intimately related: what is authority without trust?

Serious conversations invite others to share in giving and finding reasons and in determining what there are reasons to do. They create opportunities for co-deliberation. To undertake the search for reasons or the giving of them, together, we are required to vest each other only with an authority equal to our own – the authority to make demands of each other (or to hold each other mutually accountable). Recognizing that authority in others and in ourselves won’t necessarily build trust, but it is difficult to trust someone who refuses or neglects to account for himself and who does not demand or ask the same of us.

Did Werner Herzog Just Produce The “Red Asphalt” of Our Day?

Werner Herzog’s new documentary-style PSA against texting while driving, From One Second to the Next, is beautifully shot and edited. Its four stories, which revisit tragic accidents and ruined lives, are presented simply and compassionately, with an eye and an ear for telling little human details.

Still, I have to wonder how this film — which Herzog’s sponsor, AT&T, will distribute to “more than 40,000 high schools, as well as hundreds of safety organizations and government agencies” — will play with teen drivers. From One Second does not wag admonitory fingers and avoids the good-cop scare tactics of old California Highway Patrol road-safety movies like Red Asphalt or Wheels of Tragedy, but its emotional range is limited enough that after watching 3 of the 4 stories Herzog presents here I felt I had had enough of the same tones and colors.

More importantly, the film’s pacing and duration (it’s 35 minutes long) are not exactly suited to a generation that thinks even texts can be tl;dr. I have trouble imagining an auditorium or classroom full of sixteen year olds getting through it without — well, texting or tweeting or checking social media.

So it remains to be seen whether this beautiful and sometimes very moving document can also create an effective intervention. Herzog himself senses the difficulty, but he talks about the problem as a distant observer: “There’s a completely new culture out there,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m not a participant of texting and driving — or texting at all — but I see there’s something going on in civilization which is coming with great vehemence at us.”

I can’t help but be reminded here of the refain from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” written when Herzog was just 23 years old: “Something is happening here / and you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?” But this isn’t just one generation griping about another, and Herzog is right to suggest that there’s much more at stake in all this than the hazards of texting while driving. It’s about the “new culture out there”, which is taking its toll on human life — a deadly and threatening “something” that’s “going on in civilization.” It’s coming at us, with great vehemence, bearing down on us.

Where it’s coming from and what it is Herzog doesn’t say, or at least the Associated Press does not report; but it’s precisely that “something” that From One Moment misses, and never asks us to confront or better understand. I am not so sure AT&T would have sponsored a film that did.

Drop the Mic: Rio Tinto Community Forums

Last month, in towns around the Big Bay area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, global mining giant Rio Tinto held the second in its series of “community scorecard” forums. At these events, people from the communities around Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Eagle Mine project are asked to score the company on its performance in five areas: environmental performance, local hiring, safety, transparency and communication, and, finally, something the company calls “leaving more wood on the woodpile,” which is supposed to be a folksy way of talking about the company’s contributions to the development of the region.

Rio Tinto prides itself on these forums: “to our knowledge no other mining company has introduced a tool that allows the community to regularly rate their performance, which is then made public. We hope with the Eagle Mine Community Scorecard the UP continues to set new benchmarks in how modern mining works with communities.” But after reading a few accounts of the forums and watching some video clips of the meetings included on Keweenaw Now, a local blog, all I see is a lost opportunity.

Turnout at these forums has been low — about fifty people showed up for the biggest forum in Marquette, and most of them were Rio Tinto employees — so the scorecard results, which the company touts as proof of social license, will hardly stand close scrutiny. “It’s a global mining corporation’s idea of democracy,” remarked Kathleen Heideman of Save the Wild UP. “First they show slides about how great they are — then we should click to indicate our agreement. That’s meaningless.” Even when the company allowed questions and comments before the scoring period at a May 15th meeting in L’Anse, the meeting could hardly be described as an authentic community forum.

Rio Tinto may think that with these forums it’s doing something entirely new, but in reality the company is making a lot of old mistakes.

If these community forums are going to be anything more than a public relations exercise with predetermined outcomes, the current design of the forum needs to be scrapped and they need to be radically reconceived. Voices from the communities around the Eagle Mine need to be heard and heeded — to use a phrase I’ve used elsewhere (e.g., here and here) to talk about what real listening takes — and the power dynamic in these forums needs to shift. Otherwise, I don’t see much chance of the forums making the slightest difference in how the mining company operates, how it contributes to the development of the region, and whether it can ever enjoy social license to operate in the UP. Those are all things Rio Tinto claims it cares about.

In the video clips posted on Keweenaw Now, you can see how things went. Put aside, for the moment, the content of the discussion (which, despite the company’s attempt to kill the discussion by PowerPoint, is rich and provocative — a real tribute to the local citizens who did their homework and turned out for the meeting). You don’t have to know anything about the situation in the Upper Peninsula to sense that things are amiss. Focus on just one very telling detail in the video clips: who’s holding the microphone? At Rio Tinto Community Scorecard forums, the Rio Tinto people stand at the front of the room and speak into microphones. Nobody else does.

This may seem like a small detail. There are, after all, big things at stake — the integrity of the environment around Big Bay and the Salmon Trout River, the economic future of the Upper Peninsula as well as the future of life on Lake Superior. Rio Tinto’s Eagle mine opens the first phase of one of the biggest mining operations in the world — which is about to be staged around one of the biggest freshwater lakes in the world. This is a critical turning point. All around Lake Superior, things are going to change: things are already changing. Surely it can’t matter who’s standing where and whether they are holding a microphone?

I think it might.

Here’s a typical clip, where Jeffery Loman of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community asks Rio Tinto’s Matt Johnson about the permitting process for discharging mining effluent into groundwater and surface water.

Johnson stands in front of his PowerPoint slides, holding the microphone as Loman, seated with the others in attendance, tries to engage him. At around 2:40 in the clip, when Johnson feels that the question is too technical for him to answer, he hands off to Kristen Mariuzza, Rio Tinto Eagle Project Environmental and Permitting Manager. And what does Mariuzza do? She marches to the front of the room and takes the microphone.

Mariuzza probably does this thinking that it’s the only way everybody in the room can hear her, or she’s so accustomed to presenting in a Rio Tinto corporate setting that she doesn’t know how to drop the act in other settings. Everyone can obviously hear Loman, who remains seated and addresses Johnson and Mariuzza in a normal tone of voice. It’s curious, isn’t it? Johnson and Mariuzza seem to be the only people in the room who require a microphone in order to speak and to be heard. Why do their voices need to be amplified above all others? That is, after all, what microphones do: they amplify one voice so that others are relegated to the background, or drowned out altogether. So both Johnson and Mariuzza are speaking over the community, and (I don’t choose this word lightly) dominating the discussion. The microphone sets the power dynamic of the situation.

Some of us are old enough to remember those corny Popeil TV commercials for a product called Mr. Microphone. The commercial runs through a number of different scenarios in which people use this amazing product to amplify their voices — transmitting it to a radio and broadcasting it for all to hear.

Essentially each scenario is the same: everyone finds Mr. Microphone amazing, but everyone is most amazed at the magical sound of his or her own voice coming through the radio. People around them laugh and notice, but the astonishment, the surprise, the wonder at Mr. Microphone is a deeply narcissistic pleasure. Something like that is happening here, to a lesser degree but with graver consequences. The people from Rio Tinto are amplifying — and most likely hearing — only their own voices, not the voices of others, and they are, I’d venture, deriving from that experience a false sense of satisfaction at having engaged with the local community.

What could they be doing instead? For starters, I would suggest they ditch the microphones, so that no one’s voice is amplified over all others. This won’t solve the problems being discussed, but it will increase the chances for voices from around the community to be heard. If people seated in the back of the room can’t hear what’s being said, then it can be repeated for their benefit: there’s value in repetition, as it gives everyone in the room a chance to assess again what’s being said and agree that someone’s view is being accurately communicated. Efficiency is not a virtue of real conversation.

If the Rio Tinto people are not standing at the front of the room holding a microphone, what will they do? Sit down — and not at the front of the room, where they are sure to command attention and where everyone must ultimately direct their remarks. There is no good reason not to sit in the same chairs that are comfortably accommodating the people with whom one is meeting. Again, this sounds like a minor adjustment, almost a point of etiquette, but I have seen this work wonders in classrooms deliberately designed so there is no front of the room, in corporate as well as academic settings. This way, anyone in the room can lead the conversation at any given time.

Now the room is starting to look like a face-to-face meeting — with everyone’s face at the same level and everyone seated at roughly the same distance from each other. Let’s not pretend for a moment that this will somehow put Rio Tinto on equal footing with the citizens in the room. Johnson and Mariuzza represent a multi-billion dollar global mining company with tremendous power and enormous reach in the Michigan legislature and beyond, to the highest levels of national government. In fact, Matt Johnson himself came out of Governor Jennifer Granholm’s administration to work for Rio Tinto as its local front man on the Kennecott project; Mariuzza also walked through a revolving door, out of government and into Rio Tinto. So there is a huge power disparity in the room — one that a simple conversation like this cannot bridge. But at least with these and other changes there might be a chance at conversation.

There are other steps the mining company can take if it is serious about developing these forums. Here are just a few:

Relinquish control. A credible, independent third party, someone who isn’t in Rio Tinto’s employ, should moderate and facilitate the conversation. Right now the flow of the conversation is controlled by the man with the microphone. A facilitator can help the whole group focus on issues, clarify what’s being said and ensure that people in the room are being heard.

Map the conversation. It looks as if right now there’s no way to capture what’s being said in the room and ensure that everybody agrees on what was said and that their point of view is being adequately represented. Video cameras record, but they also capture one point of view. Some sheets of white paper or a whiteboard would allow one person to track the conversation, and make it possible for anyone to stand up and edit, on the spot, what’s on them.

No more dog and pony. The PowerPoint show should be left where it belongs — back at the corporate office. It is a way to control the narrative, discouraging conversation, other points of view and other stories. If diagrams or maps are required for the conversation, then anyone in the room should be able to control the slideshow — and anyone in the room should be able to introduce slides.

These Community Scorecard forums may ultimately succeed or continue to fail, but people living around the Eagle Mine don’t need microphones or PowerPoint slides or corporate sponsors to talk about what’s happening in their communities. Towns and townships in the Upper Peninsula and communities all around Lake Superior may not have the clout of Rio Tinto or any of the other mining companies, but they have each other — and there’s great power in that, or at least there can be, no matter how much wood Rio Tinto leaves or does not leave on the woodpile.

A Follow-Up to Hitchings’ Follow-Up Post on “The Ask”

Shortly after I posted my thoughts on his Times opinionator blog, Henry Hitchings promised me  a “follow-up blog” on “the dark side of nominalization.” Yesterday that follow-up blog (wait – isn’t “follow-up” a nominalization?) appeared. There, Hitchings echoes what I’ve said about asking:

I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.

At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency — as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.

It’s good to see that Hitchings has relented and come around to the view that “the ask” is an insidious and sinister piece of jargon — a view I’ve been developing since my first post on “the ask” just a little over a year ago (and in subsequent posts, here and here, for example).  The other day Hitchings seemed to admire the “distancing” effect the nominative ask creates, and I feared he was advocating doing unpleasant things in order to achieve “polemical or diplomatic” ends. Now he is on the side of “a more dynamic process” in which, I gather, the “authority and power”of the person doing the asking will be openly acknowledged.

I’m all for transparency, attributions of agency and the give and take of dynamic process, but the real power of asking lies elsewhere. Asking transforms power itself; it involves the exercise of a non-coercive power. We tend not even to think of this as power, as Pierre Clastres pointed out in Society Against the State. Instead, we are used to associating power with force (which subjects others to labor, or worse) or commands (which prompt others to do our bidding). But when it comes to asking, nobody’s really in charge — at least as long as someone is making or responding to the request. It’s a moment when things are up for grabs.

The authority and power vested in a person, their title, position, influence over our lives — if any of that is being brought to bear on a request, then we are simply being ordered about with commands disguised as questions. Asking marks a different point of departure — a place where you and I are on equal footing, and we start something, together. It creates “middle ground” between the petitioner and the respondent: not just an area of compromise, but an area that is open, shared, and which nobody can claim entirely as his own.