Tag Archives: the power of asking

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.


Another Abuse of Asking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two are not even close.

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

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

How Things Are Between Us, 3: A Brief Reply to a Long Comment

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to set down some thoughts in response to Marc Tognotti’s long comment on my posts about the transactional model of conversation, in which asks are countered by bids, resulting in a spread or a workable measure of practical liquidity.

Marc suggested I was too hasty in my refusal of the transactional model, and urged me to look a little more closely at asking and bidding and the joint commitments that underlie even the most finite, fleeting and seemingly self-interested human interactions.

There’s lots to what Marc says, and we might ultimately be saying the same thing. One place I thought my response might take the discussion was to Kant’s distinction of price from dignity in the second section of the Groundwork.

What refers to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; what, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, i.e., a delight in the mere purposeless play of the powers of our mind, has a fancy price; but what constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not merely have a relative worth, i.e, a price, but an inner worth, i.e., dignity.

This distinction of relative worth and inner worth, price and dignity, can be applied and extended in a number of useful ways. More on that in the future. Here, I invoke it just to draw a bright line between negotiating a price (or merely asking and bidding) and the dignity of the plural subject to which conversations and other cooperative endeavors commit us. We want conversations that respect not only the dignity of individual persons but also the dignity of the plural first person to which we have jointly committed.

Marc’s comment comes close to the Kantian position in saying that we are already so committed: as Kant argues, the “share” every rational being has in universal legislation requires that each person takes her maxims from the point of view of herself, “but also at the same time of every other” person.

The larger point — maybe this is obvious — is that when acting jointly these basic moral considerations of the respect we owe to each other are of more importance in working out what to do than arriving at a brokered decision about what each wants or is willing to do.

Postscript 3 September 2016: To take a simple example. Lucy and Jo are taking a walk together to the old lighthouse. When they arrive at a fork in the road, Lucy wants to go left, and follow the path that runs along the brook, then cuts back to the cliff where the lighthouse stands. Jo wants to walk along the cliff all the way to the lighthouse. Both routes have much to recommend them, and we could extend the example to imagine their conversation at this juncture. They might debate the merits of each route, the scenic beauty of the cliff route or the quiet shade of the brookside path, but their conversation will involve something other than negotiations of fancy price. (Is Jo dismissive of Lucy’s suggestion? Is Lucy obstinate in her refusal to walk along the cliff? Does one run roughshod over the other? Does Jo agree to Lucy’s route then nurse a resentment for the rest of the walk?) Jo and Lucy have arrived at a moral crossroads: how they conduct themselves in conversation is of greater moral significance than the route they take. It’s not just a question of how they treat one another. It’s a question of the respect they accord to the “us” to which they’ve committed, the first-person-plural cooperating subject that is Jo and Lucy walking together.

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.

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.

Serious Conversations, 8

There’s a serious aspect to what Stuart jokingly says here. Philip Pettit and Michael Smith put a finger on it in their discussion of what they call “the conversational stance” in “Freedom in Belief and Desire” [pdf].

When we engage in serious conversation about what to believe or do, Pettit and Smith observe, we assume, among other things, that our interlocutor can, and will, change her beliefs (about the way things are) and evaluations (about what to do) in light of evidence. We assume, further, that she will adjust her desires and assess her plan of action in light of these evaluations. (So, they will go on to argue, we hold her responsible as a free thinker and as someone possessed of free will.) Otherwise, there is no point in having the conversation, and there might even be reason to fear that we are involved with a zombie or psychopath:

Were you to think that your interlocutor lacked the dispositions to register and respond to the demands of the norms governing evaluations that you both countenance, and lacked them even in the provisoed measure allowed, you would either have to put his evaluative understanding or commitment in serious question or you would have to regard him as something close to a zombie or a psychopath. How could your interlocutor agree that doing such and such is irrational, so you will ask, but not see that the prescription applies to him? Or, if he does admit it applies to him, how could he fail to adjust his desires and actions accordingly? In particular, how could he fail to do these things, when the failure is not to be explained by reference to familiar obstacles [such as fetishes and obsessions, disabling moods and passions]? The only answer available would seem to be that he is not seriously or sincerely involved in the business of practical evaluation, or that if he is, then he is not reliably attuned to the practical values in question. In either case, you lose solid grounds for authorizing him as a conversational interlocutor. You must cease to see any point in conducting a conversation that is supposed to bear on how he should behave.

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.

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, 6

It’s no surprise that the question periods at Davos turned out to be unproductive and dedicated mostly to preening, as Lucy Marcus reported in a blog post from the World Economic Forum last weekend. Where no practical decisions are going to be reached, and where real power is not up for grabs, we get jockeying for status.

The behavior is familiar to anyone who has spent much time at conferences, especially academic conferences, but it happens in meetings and at dinner parties, too. It’s a common social experience: conversations often function “as a kind of vocal lek,” as Robin Dunbar explains in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language; they are like “the display areas where males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to the females.”


Black grouse lekking.

In the natural world, this self-advertising serves a crucial function, helping birds and beasts pair off; in our world, lekking might make someone more attractive or raise his stature in the crowd, but ultimately it undermines serious conversation.

Someone might make the case that we should indulge it anyway. After all, self-advertising and chest-puffing are ultimately harmless, and might amount to nothing more than a collective throat clearing: a way of establishing the space of conversation and identifying or qualifying its participants. But even if we concede that it accomplishes that much, lekking will always be of limited value for a couple of reasons: first, because it’s an exercise in establishing social rank, and in a group it’s always very easy to confuse social rank (or title or position) with authority; and, second, that kind of authority — who we are, what we know, what our role is — is the wrong kind of authority for a conversation.

(The exception might be a case where the conversation was a matter of getting expert advice on a topic; but even there, we would not want an expert simply to wear her laurels or point to rankings, but to address our particular situation.)

The authority we need for serious conversation is, instead, a great equalizer: every person already has it, and we recognize it in each other the moment we enter into a conversational stance, or commit in earnest to the joint activity of conversation. It is the moral authority we have to address each other, as mutually accountable persons, and to make demands of each other: or to ask, as I’ve been putting it.

If lekking or some other social performance served the purpose of brandishing and bolstering that asking authority, then it would be of great value. Sharing stories and other empathy-building rituals might help in this regard, as long as they themselves don’t become exercises in self-advertisement or the promotion of a person as a brand.

This isn’t just about sincerity or authenticity of address, though that’s part of the issue here. Lekking relegates the mutual authority of persons to the background, distracts us from it, or diminishes human stature. It says that recognizing each other as equal partners in the project of the conversation won’t suffice; it narrows and excites our attention. It’s a social impairment.