Tag Archives: deliberation

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.

Three Ways of Standing on Quicksand

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

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_Quicksand

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

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

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

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

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

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

A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

Deepening the Dow Conversation

“Let’s take this show on the road,” quipped Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, at the close of Dow Chemical’s Google hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business in Society.” Moderator Alice Korngold guided the panelists, three Dow executives and a few big names in sustainability from the NGO world, through the hour-long hangout without a hitch; audience approval (registered via the thumbs up/thumbs down Applause function) seemed pretty consistently high. Everyone played their part well, and they had reason to congratulate each other.

Still, Tercek’s final remark was telling, a sort of gloss on the hour that preceded it. In fact, if I had to offer just one criticism of yesterday’s hangout — and I intend this to be constructive criticism — it would be that this was, essentially, a show. It lacked the spontaneity and the give and take of conversation, as well as the informality promised by the word “hangout” (and which characterizes hangouts I’ve attended and in which I have participated).

As a result, the hangout was less about “redefining” the role of business in society than promoting a settled definition of that role. Dow executives ran through talking points, and at several junctures even the people from the NGO world seemed to have adopted the jargon that Dow has developed around its 2025 sustainability goals. Where conversation would have uncovered discrepancies in order to work toward new understanding, here was little disagreement or dissent, and nothing like irreverence or skepticism — which are ways that interlocutors withhold assent and keep conversations honest.

For example, no one in the hangout challenged what in most other settings would be regarded as a relatively new and extraordinarily controversial idea: that business’s role is to “lead” society; no one suggested that it ought to be the other way around. The most vocal dissent focused on one small point: Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that he didn’t think it would be necessary for Dow to create another sustainability think tank. Maybe he’s right: the world has plenty of talk shops; but in this context, where it was quickly followed by Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris saying we need “do tanks, not think tanks,” it felt like another way to close the discussion, short circuit deliberation, and declare the matter settled.

I appreciate that this may not have been the appropriate occasion to invite others into the circle, to take live comments, or open bigger questions that couldn’t be resolved in the short space of an hour. I appreciate, too, the effort it takes to bring a twentieth-century industrial giant like Dow into a twenty-first-century online social forum, and the legitimate concerns about everything from reputation to litigation that effort raises. But the broadcast quality of this hangout lent it an air of artificiality and, more importantly, just didn’t seem to jive with the commitment Dow has publicly made to collaboration, dialogue, listening, and building social capacity.

Clearly, the sustainability goals Dow has set for itself warrant a more inclusive and dynamic conversation — where the outcome is not set in advance, and which allows heterodox views, strong dissent and unresolved, maybe irresolvable differences. That’s especially true because Dow claims to be serious about its sustainability goals — this isn’t just window dressing — and what Liveris called its sustainability “journey” has only just started.  At the very least, subsequent conversations should tease out and develop some salient points about this ambitious program and the thinking behind it. Here, I’ll confine myself to identifying just three of these points, based on what was said during yesterday’s hangout.

The first issue concerns the historical roots of the corporate sustainability movement. Two participants in the hangout, Liveris and John Elkington (who coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line” and has written extensively on the subject) both traced it back to the 1960s, and what Liveris called their “hippy” days.* But, as Elkington came close to suggesting, sustainability thinking also has roots in the reactions of the 1970s and 1980s, which saw the rise of neoliberalism and the idea that markets can offer solutions to social problems, sometimes better, or at least more efficiently, than governments.** This is obviously not just a debate with historical interest; it is a question of the commitments — and the ideas about business’ role in society — that sustainability thinking carries with it.

The second point worth discussing and developing has roots in the 1970s and 1980s as well. This is the idea of natural capital. It not only went unquestioned in the hangout; it seems to have achieved the status of an article of faith. The trouble isn’t just that the figures used to calculate natural capital are made of  “marmalade,” as George Monbiot put it in a lecture on the topic, and reduce the inestimable — the natural, living world, all of creation, if you like — to the merely estimable; but there were several points during the hangout where that trouble lurked just beneath the surface. There are other objections that merit fuller discussion here; namely, that the concept of natural capital:

[harnesses] the natural world to the economic growth that has been destroying it. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction…. what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.

That’s Monbiot again. The point is not that he’s right, though I think he’s got a strong argument here. Agree or disagree, meeting these arguments and others like them when it comes to natural capital would produce a much deeper, more nuanced and truer understanding of the interventions that sustainability thinking requires.

And finally there’s that question of power that Monbiot raises, which I would recast in this context as a set of important ethical considerations that cluster around the idea that you can do well by doing good. At one point, Liveris ran through some impressive numbers to suggest that Dow has figured out how to make sustainability profitable. But there was no mention during the hangout of what agency or power will hold Dow and other companies to account — or oblige them to meet their responsibilities — in case of non-performance.

The unspoken assumption just underneath the surface here seems to be that we are to trust the company, because its intentions are good; or at least the intentions of its executive team are. There’s no reason to doubt that, but if you are rolling out a “blueprint” for society’s future, as Dow says it is, you are also assuming responsibilities toward the people who now live and will live where you plan to build that future. So to get buy-in to the blueprint, earn the trust and engage the energies of all those people, it’s important to enumerate and discuss those responsibilities, to put in place appropriate checks that measure success in society’s terms, not just in business terms, and to prescribe remedies in case of failure.

All this brings me back to Bakker’s suggestion that the world does not need another think tank, and the idea that it’s time for Dow and other companies to partner with NGOs and other social institutions in order to start “doing.” The challenges Dow is trying to address —  climate change, clean water, food security, income inequality and youth unemployment were among the issues Liveris enumerated — are no doubt urgent. But a focus on “solutions” to pressing problems can’t be an excuse to short-circuit discussion or sidestep political process; and we should be careful not to mistake the advance of a business agenda for social progress, or, in our rush to meet the very real challenges the world now faces, confuse the two things. The thing we need to sustain, right now and into the future, is the conversation.

*Postscript, 18 April 2015: The day after I wrote this post, a friend brought this provocative 2006 essay by Slavoj Žižek to my attention. Here, Žižek characterizes professions of “love” for May 68 as a staple of “Porto-Davos” sustainability discourse: “What an explosion of youthful energy and creativity! How it shattered the confines of stiff bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to economic and social life after the political illusions dropped away! And although they’ve changed since then, they didn’t resign to reality, but rather changed in order to really change the world, to really revolutionize our lives.”

**Postscript, 14 December 2015 Joe Bakan offers a smart discussion of this point in “The Invisible Hand of Law: Private Regulation and the Rule of Law”. see especially pp. 293-4 and 297-9.

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.