Tag Archives: coercion

Nussbaum on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness to gain a better understanding of the transactional model of conversation and what it might and might not comprise, and to think a little more about why it’s of little help, or at least insufficient, when it comes to cooperative undertakings. Here, Nussbaum presents a broad philosophical and historical look at transactional forgiveness in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and while she doesn’t directly address my much more modest concern, some of what she says about transactional forgiveness — a “central theoretical concept in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and…highly influential…in the Christian tradition” — applies to what I have said in previous posts about asking and bidding.

For my purposes, the main trouble with transactional forgiveness as Nussbaum describes it — and a shortcoming of the transactional in general — is that it involves scorekeeping. (Imagine a conversation about what to do that was tallied as a ledger of asks and bids. You might be able to measure what’s practicable, but it seems unlikely that tally would be of much use to two people who were committed to doing anything together at all. It might just generate a backward-looking mindset, constant interruption to check who allowed for what, or conflict and resentment.)

When it comes to forgiveness, the scoreboard is a register of the wrongs one has committed and the forgiveness one has obtained by confessing to each count, pleading for forgiveness and doing the appropriate penance. For Nussbaum, this makes people especially prone to the payback error, the notion that score-settling, or allaying the anger of the wronged party, will set things right once and for all in some cosmic balance.

This all makes for an “anxious and joyless” life, in which the “primary commitment to God fills up the whole of one’s life”: all this keeping track of one’s performance or non-performance in relation to an angry God means there is “simply not much room to look at or care for another human being as such, and certainly no room for spontaneity, passion or play.” This is a point to which Nussbaum returns a number of times, and it’s one I would emphasize as well in talking about the ways a transactional mindset can obstruct and frustrate human relationships.

The transactional life is full of “worry.” One must always be watchful, take note of every transgression, scrupulously confess every wrongful act or omission and, in the Christian tradition, every wrongful desire and wish.

The transactional forgiveness process is perfectionistic and intolerant in its own way. The list-keeping mentality that it engenders is tyrannical toward human frailty, designedly so. We must constantly scrutinize our humanity, and frequently punish it. At least the Jewish tradition limits the scrutiny to things that a person can be expected to control. The transactional strand of the Christian tradition contains no such limitations and is consequently…punitive toward the everyday…. Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ instruction, “Watch over yourself as if an enemy is lying in wait,” could easily have been said by many a Christian thinker — or by many a parish priest.

“Ritualized and coercive,” transactional forgiveness leaves “no room for generosity or spontaneity”; nothing is “freely given.” Instead of taking an open, constructive and pragmatic attitude toward our shared future, we are stuck worrying over every little thing each has said or thought or done.

Serious Conversations, 11

“When in the Republic Thrasymachus says that justice is in the interest of the stronger, and Socrates starts to question him about this, Thrasymachus should hit Socrates over the head,” writes Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations.

He concedes too much when he enters an activity, discussion, that assumes that there is some mark of correctness and rightness other than (and superior to) strength. Similarly, there are norms of discussion that Thrasymachus draws upon — for instance, that anyone’s objection put seriously and sincerely ought to be replied to — and these norms, too, are incompatible with the position he states. Must the stronger also reply to an objection, if it is not in his interest?

Nozick returns to Thrasymachus’ surrender in his discussion of moral dialogue:

When someone raises a moral objection to something we are doing or planning, we feel we owe him an answer, a moral answer. It will not do simply to hit him on the head or to shrug our shoulders. An ethical egoist would reply only if he thought doing so was in his own interest; we feel we have to respond with moral reasons. (However, we do not have to expend our life’s savings to track down the person who objected and then went off to travel in inaccessible places. We ought to respond, prima facie, although this ‘ought’ can be overridden by other considerations.) Only by responding are we treating him as a value-seeking I; the only way to respond to his requesting moral reasons or raising moral objections, the only response to it qua that, is to offer moral reasons in justification or defense of our actions, to engage, if need be, in a moral dialogue with him. (Recall our earlier remark about how Thrasymachus undercuts his own position by engaging in discussion.) To engage in moral dialogue with someone is itself a moral act, whose moral character does not lie solely in being an attempt to get at the moral truth, or in being a vehicle to change and deepen a personal relationship and thereby be a means toward resolving moral conflict. Rather, (sincere) engagement in moral dialogue is itself a moral response to the other’s basic moral characteristic [as a value-seeking I], apart from its being a means toward satisfactory accommodation with the other. It is itself responsive to him; perhaps that is why openness in moral dialogue, considering carefully and responding closely to the concerns of the other, so often is an effective means toward resolution of conflict. When each is aware that the other is responsive to his or her own (valuable) characteristics in the very act of discussion and in the course the discussion takes, then this noticing of mutual respect is itself a force for good will and the moderation of demands; the altered conditions created by the dialogue may fit different moral principles so that new solutions are appropriate.

A moral dialogue of this sort is an especially clear example of a mutual value-theoretic situation…where each participant is responsive to the other’s basic moral characteristic, is aware that the other is responsive to her own, and is responsive to the other’s responsiveness, is aware of the other’s second-level responsiveness and is responsive to it, and so on….We want to be in mutual value-theoretic situations; only then is the value in us (including our own value responsiveness) adequately answered. Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave relation elaborates how domination thwarts this; the master cannot force this responsiveness from the slave, and unless the master shows responsiveness to the slave’s basic moral characteristic (but then he could not remain his master) the slave cannot respond to that.

When Lily Says “No”

Always take no for an answer is a cardinal rule of asking, I wrote in my first post on this theme. It’s a version of the golden rule that’s especially worth bearing in mind when making plans to collaborate or act with others, or just talking about what we are going to do.

While giving someone an order might be a way to delegate authority and raise her stature in a group, asking recognizes the authority and standing she already has. According this basic respect takes precedence over extracting promises and concessions or getting to yes in a conversation or negotiation, and unless another person can say “no” and have that answer heeded, she will never really be able to say “we”. “No” marks the spot where you stop and we begin.

In other words, taking no for an answer is not just about respecting others, but about respecting and caring for how things are between us (the theme of a post I wrote earlier this week) and for the sense of us we have. That sense of us is how we make up and maintain the social world together. When we ask someone to do something, or ask what we are going to do, we openly acknowledge that there is — or can be — a “we,” not just you and I, but a plural first person. Asking creates an opening. It puts us out in the open.

The philosopher Margaret Gilbert seems to be heading in this same direction when she remarks in passing: “successfully questioning someone involves entering a joint commitment with that person.”

Take a moment to consider the example she offers. Bob addresses Lily with the question, “Shall we dance?” And Lily answers, “Yes, lets!” From this point on, the usual Gilbertian scenario unfolds. Having expressed their readiness to enter a joint commitment — indicating “that all is in order as far as one’s own will is concerned” — Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to dance together.

Once they start dancing, or, actually, even before that, once Lily has said yes and as she rises from her seat, each will have to answer to the other in the event one of them violates the joint commitment, or at least Lily would be justified in complaining if Bob were to drag his feet, go outside for a smoke, or give in to sultry Melissa, who is beckoning with her eyes from the other side of the room.

Unfortunately, Gilbert never elaborates on what “successfully questioning someone” entails, or what might make it different from unsuccessfully questioning someone. On the surface, it looks as if Bob “successfully” questions Lily here because she says “yes” to his request: she accepts his invitation to dance. Bob and Lily have therefore reached an explicit agreement. But let’s not confuse successfully questioning someone with getting to yes, or confuse getting to yes with reaching an agreement. (It’s worth noting that for Gilbert, joint commitments don’t always entail explicit agreements. The way Gilbert puts it is: “everyday agreements can be understood as constituted by…joint commitments” [her emphasis]).

What if Lily says “no”? What if she rolls her eyes, or sticks her nose in the air? In that case, has something like an agreement been reached?

Maybe. As long as Bob takes Lily’s no for an answer, we can say he and Lily have agreed not to dance. Of course, Bob might not like our putting it that way. He might say he failed to get Lily to dance with him, but that might also go to show that he was not prepared to take no for an answer and regarded Lily’s consent as the only acceptable outcome. We might do better if we were to characterize Bob’s questioning Lily in terms of Lily’s responsiveness — on that score, both yes and no would count as success — or if we think about what Bob’s asking Lily to dance and Lily’s refusal puts between them, how it constitutes them as a plural subject.

Though not committed to dance together, Bob and Lily are not done with each other or free of shared commitments after Lily says “no.” In a very important way, their relationship has just begun. When one person addresses or flags the attention of another, with a question or a nod, the squeak of a chair or a sneeze, they “jointly commit to recognizing as a body that the two of them are co-present,” Gilbert writes. People mutually recognize each other in this way all the time, on queues and in coffee shops, in bookstore aisles and on city sidewalks. Here we are, a “we”. Asking helps get us there.

So even if Lily politely refuses Bob with a “no thank you,” or rudely brushes him off, Bob can take solace in the thought that he has successfully questioned Lily. Bob’s failed bid to dance with Lily commits Lily and Bob to recognize that the two of them are co-present, there in the dance hall. Bob and Lily now have a sense of us, even if Lily will never dance with Bob, and that sense — that relationship — will endure.

With that enduring sense of us between them, Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to Lily’s refusal as well. So if Bob were to order Lily or insist that she dance with him, or grab her by the arm and drag her to the dance floor, coercing her, Lily has every right to complain. And if the next time Bob saw Lily he were to pretend that she never refused him at the dance, he would be doing Lily wrong.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 1

First in a Series


Ore trucks from Lundin Mining’s Eagle Mine make their way down the Triple A road.

No Labels

I’ve just gotten around to reading the complaint filed on July 8th in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division, by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA. The complaint alleges that the EPA’s repeated objections to County Road 595 — that the road will threaten and destroy wetlands, streams and protected wildlife in its way — are “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of Section 404(J) of the Clean Water Act. The Road Commission asks the court to set aside the EPA’s Final Decision against the building of County Road 595, restore Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to permit the road, and bar the EPA from further interference in the matter.

While it may take the court some time to decide whether MCRC v. EPA has any legal merit, the complaint is written to serve other ends as well: political objectives. The complaint is aligned with efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, to ease regulations, subvert the legal authority of the EPA and whip up anger against the federal government; and the plaintiffs appear to be connected, through their attorneys, to one of the most powerful Republican party fundraisers and a network of ultra-wealthy political donors.

The MCRC complaint directs ire against a familiar cadre of enemies — environmental “activists,” overreaching federal bureaucrats and the area’s indigenous community; and it pretends to discover a dark conspiracy, in which these groups meet “surreptitiously,” write “sarcastically” about mining interests, and collude to block economic development. In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether the arguments and evidence assembled in this complaint are meant to serve as legal fodder or support political posturing. So I thought I would try to sort through them in a short series of posts on the CR 595 lawsuit.

There is the tiresome pretense throughout the complaint that CR 595 would serve as something other than a haul route from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill, and that the road will benefit the public as much as the mining company. While the mining company says it is committed to making do with current infrastructure, the public clearly deserves some relief: trucks hauling ore on a makeshift route from Eagle have already been involved in a few scary accidents, and it remains a question whether cars can safely share the same road, especially an icy winter road, with ore trucks trying to beat the clock. People are understandably concerned, too, about big trucks loaded with sulfide ore barreling through the city of Marquette.

The public has another cause for grievance, and it makes for some angry foot stomping in the complaint: the MCRC spent millions to prepare for EPA reviews of the CR 595 application and failed repeatedly to win approval. Both time and money were wasted, the complaint says, not due to incompetence, stubbornness or denial, but because the EPA was never going to give the Road Commission a fair hearing. It’s in this connection that the complaint tries to lay out an “anti-mining” conspiracy between the EPA and environmental activists and the indigenous community in the Great Lakes Basin, and where the arguments become specious and contorted.

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the ways MCRC v. EPA constructs this anti-mining strawman in order to mount a political offensive; and throughout this series, I’m going to be asking whether the “anti-mining” label correctly characterizes the evidence brought by the MCRC. I think it’s fair to say from the outset that it does not accurately represent the priorities and commitments of people and groups concerned about the construction of CR 595. It’s reductive, and turns road skeptics into industry opponents. To be against this particular haul road — or hold its planners to the letter of the law — is not necessarily to pit yourself against the entire mining industry.

The anti-mining label deliberately confuses haul-road opposition with opposition to the mining industry in order to coerce people into going along with the haul road or risk losing their livelihood, or at least the jobs and economic prosperity promised when mining projects are pitched. The MCRC complaint goes even further: it conflates mining with economic development — or reduces all economic development in the region to mining — and so runs roughshod over the thoughtful arguments of people like Thomas M. Power, who has studied the ways mining can restrict and quash sustainable economic development.

The anti-mining label fences ordinary people in, distorts and exaggerates their legitimate concerns, and does not recognize that people might come to the CR 595 discussion from all different places. Most don’t arrive as members of some anti-industry coalition; they are fishermen, residents, property owners, teachers, hunters, parents, hikers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, loggers, parishioners, kayakers, merchants, and so on. Some are many of these things all at once.

The label is fundamentally disrespectful: it refuses to meet people on their own terms and fails to ask what any of the people who oppose CR 595 actually stand for. What do they want for the area? What do they value and love? What do they envision for the future? Where do they have shared interests? Where do they have real differences? How can we work together? The anti-mining label forecloses all those questions. Instead, people are divided. The label demands that everybody take one side or the other (and, as I learned in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre, in the Upper Peninsula that demand has deep historical roots in the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century; but, no worries, in this series of posts I’ll try to stay focused on the present).

I have always had trouble with the idea that “anti-” and “pro-” mining positions should govern the way we talk about the environmental regulation of mining. I myself can easily slip into this way of talking. But as I tried to explain in an exchange on this blog with Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine, that way of thinking impedes and short-circuits important conversations about the ethics of mining. Playing the anti-mining card reduces the questions of whether and how mining can be done responsibly — in this place, by that company, at this time — to mere pro and contra. It’s a dangerous ruse: instead of identifying risks and addressing responsibilities, it generates social conflict.

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.

Philosophy and Coercion: Boethius on Torture

I’ve written a few posts about non-coercive power and how it can be created and shared through genuine co-deliberation — or what I’ve been calling serious conversations. In the course of my work on this topic, I’ve discovered that good examples of non-coercive power, the kind of real-world examples that illustrate the concept with anecdotal detail and stick with you after you read them, are not so easy to find.

More often than not, history shows us the other side of the coin — namely, coercive power. This is the case when it comes to the history of philosophy as well; and philosophers have written and thought about coercive power and its exercise by the state at least since the days of Socrates.

The release of the Senate CIA Torture Report today sent me back to one of my favorite philosophers: Boethius (480-525 AD), who discussed coercion and torture in a work called The Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius wrote the Consolation while he himself was imprisoned — and, according to some sources, tortured — before being executed by Theodoric the Great. The Consolation takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who appears to Boethius when he is at his most wretched.

Philosophy consoles Boethius

The  passage I remembered today is from Book 2 (Pr 6), where Philosophy argues that what we ordinarily prize as power is actually weakness, or just a temporary advantage that we are likely bound to lose. Another turn of Fortune’s wheel, and the torturer might suffer the very torments he inflicts: a vicious circle. Virtue lies in self-possession:

What, indeed, is this power which you think so very desirable? You should consider, poor earthly animals, what it is that you seem to have in your power. If you should see a mouse seizing power and lording it over the other mice, how you would laugh! But if you consider only his body, what is weaker than a man who can be killed by the bites of insects or by worms finding their way into him? For who can force any law upon man, except upon his body, or upon his fortune which is less than his body. You can never impose upon a free spirit nor can you deprive a rationally self-possessed mind of its equanimity. Once, when a certain tyrant tried to torture a free man into betraying the partners of his conspiracy against the tyrant, the man bit off his tongue and spat it in the raging tyrant’s face. In this way the torments which the tyrant inflicted as the means of his cruelty, this wise man made the means of virtuous action. Indeed, what can any man do to another which another may not do to him? We recall that Busirus, who was accustomed to kill his guests, was himself slain by his guest, Hercules. Regulus had bound many of his African captives in chains; but before long he was himself chained by his captors. How slight is the power of a man who cannot prevent someone else from doing to him what he does to others.

Serious Conversations, 4

The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.

The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.

Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.


Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.

How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?

This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.

First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.

Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying.  As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.

Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.

Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.

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.