Tag Archives: will

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.

People In the Way

It’s good to see that Jane Catherine Lotter’s obituary in the Seattle Times has gone “viral” — whatever that is supposed to mean anymore. I suppose if something in the culture — a meme, a song, a fad or a bit of slang — manages to reach me, it must have pretty wide circulation: I don’t keep up.

Lotter wrote it herself, as she was slowly dying, noting that “one of the few advantages of having Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary.” She faced death with humor, courage and grace.

I was especially struck by what Lotter had to say to her children, Tessa and Riley. “May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.” I’ve certainly come across the thought before; I suppose we all have. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and don’t come to obituaries looking for poetic or philosophical originality. Besides, it’s more interesting to reflect on the reasons why the thought has stayed with me over the past few days.

First, because I have been trying to get a big new project together, and I always struggle when starting a new project to take the little steps that will get me to the big place I see in the distance. When I am struck by an idea, excited by a project, or even when the first words of a piece of writing come to me, I can easily forget that eureka is just the start of the journey. I am impatient and I want to rush ahead; I look for shortcuts, end up taking detours and don’t take in the sights because I am so focused on where I think I am heading. And since I never end up exactly where I first intend to go, I would learn a lot more if I would allow myself to experience the trip.

It gets worse than that. Every difficulty I encounter seems like some kind of grand injustice the universe, or some evil deceiver, has visited upon me. Every time I stumble or fail to make progress — which is more often than I care to admit — I risk falling into the trap of blaming myself, thinking I have betrayed myself, or just feeling sorry for myself because I am up against insurmountable odds. When others don’t see things my way or express doubts, or don’t sufficiently rally to the idea in which I have fully invested my ego and imagination, or simply say they don’t get it, whatever it may be, they can become my persecutors and enemies, even though their intentions may have been friendly.

I am exaggerating (a little) to make a point: the emotion that takes over at such moments is powerful and undeniable. At root, I suspect, these feelings stem from a sense of vulnerability: new ideas, new plans, new projects — all make you newly vulnerable, because they are disorienting and will more likely than not fail.

The pursuit of an idea, a plan or a path entails great moral risk, especially when we come up against others. Just consider how often you hear, or how often you think, that people are in the way. It’s hard not to feel this way, at some point, if you live in New York City. I’m heading down the stairs to the subway platform, and someone in front of me is moving slowly, lumbering, limping, tired, breathing heavily, grunting, dragging a granny cart or leading a toddler down the stairs, cute little step by adorable little step by sweet little step. I can hear the train coming into the station. Not the train: my train. Get out of my way! On the sidewalk, badly dressed, slow-witted tourists, sweating and bloated with their deep-fried lunch, walk four and five across, gawking and without any sense of direction. Single file! Don’t know how to merge at the Holland Tunnel? Honk! People line up six, twelve, twenty-four deep at checkouts, taxi stands, restaurants — nearly everywhere you go. End of the line.

So in our rush, in our huff, when we are inspired, wired and just plain tired, we reduce people to inanimate objects or obstacles in our way. That puts us in the same moral ballpark as seeing people as means to our ends, instruments of our will — the outrage is that they are not mere extensions of our will — but it’s a little more sociopathic and depraved. People in the way need to be shoved aside, eliminated or made to disappear. They are not human beings but mere blocks; they might as well be sawhorses, sandbags or Jersey barriers — and it’s all the more irritating that they are not cast from concrete and set down by government order; they are alive, with all the appearances and behaviors of intelligent humanity, and yet they are very much in the way.

Sometimes we say that people are in the way when they are not even there, in front of us; they are in the way because they are obstinate, or don’t see things our way, or because they are creating difficulties of one kind or another. This is the more interesting case, and it involves risk of a different magnitude. For starters, it’s a strange abuse of language to talk about these people being “in the way” when there is no way apparent — no road, no staircase, no sidewalk or path. We speak as if there is a single orientation in the world — as if there were a way, the way, my way, as if the right way for all people were established by one person’s willing it. My way or the highway. Why doesn’t she get with the program? “The way” even has a whiff of providence about it, as if it reflected some higher order, and echoes of messianic religious vocabulary.

It also suggests we know where we are going — which of course we do not. And this is perhaps the greatest risk we run: to think that we know the path before we have traveled it, and that we have secured our ends simply because we have set out toward them. Stephen Covey advised highly effective people to start with the outcome they want to achieve, but the more important lesson is that you are most likely to achieve something other than what you set out to do. That’s a basic truth about human action, and a pretty good reason to set your sights on something other than being highly effective. This is especially so if you think of yourself as a leader. The leader who cannot or will not admit his vulnerability and uncertainty about the best way forward will probably just end up getting in everybody’s way.

Henry Hitchings and the Patron Saint of Asking

Henry Hitchings must be holding out on us. He claims in a New York Times Opinionator blog that the verb ask “has been used as a noun for a thousand years,” but he doesn’t provide a single illustration to support his claim. Puzzled, I went back to the OED, where, I recalled, I’d found only a single medieval instance of ask used as a noun over the past thousand years. It turns out I was wrong: the OED offers three examples – one from the year 1000, and two from the early 13th century. This makes the nominative ask “obsolete” in the view of the OED editors; and obsolescence doesn’t help Hitchings’s historical case. In fact, the literary evidence offered by the OED creates a whole host of problems for the argument Hitchings tries to advance in his Times blog – especially his effort to reduce questions of grammar to “aesthetic judgment” and “aesthetics.”

Let me focus on one medieval instance from the OED – the only one I remembered when I first commented on Hitchings’s article – to illustrate the point. This is from a medieval life of Saint Juliana called Þe Liflade of St. Juliana or Seyn Julian preserved in two manuscripts from the year 1230. There’s good reason I remembered it, because in many ways Seyn Julian is a text about a subject in which I have a growing interest — namely, the power of asking.

Juliana’s story is set in Nicomedia (now the Turkish city of Izmit) in the early fourth century AD, during the last years of Diocletian’s reign. In those days, Maximianus ruled as Augustus, Diocletian having concluded that the empire was too vast for one Caesar to rule. Throughout the empire, Christians are being persecuted – tortured, put to death, and, in one notable case, in Nicomedia, burned alive in the very church where they gathered to pray. According to Seyn Julian, Maximianus was determined to put “alle” Christians to death: “Alle cristenemen he dude to deþe.”

Juliana comes from one of Nicomedia’s ruling families, but she is (unbeknown to her parents) a Christian convert. So when a government official named Eleusius makes arrangements with Juliana’s father and mother to take her as his wife, things start to fall apart.

When Eleusius proposes to Juliana herself, she at first equivocates, saying that it would be better if he were a man of “more power.” Determined to win her hand, Eleusius makes the necessary gifts and supplications to the Emperor, and Maximianus elevates him to the position of “Justice.” (In other accounts he is made governor of Nicomedia.) He now has it in his “power” – the text repeats the word here and in several other places; “power” is really the subject of Seyn Julian, as it is of so many martyrs’ lives– to do what he will (“wat he wolde”).

What he will is not what he ought, of course, and it turns out that power, or at least the kind of official power Justice Eleusius has, is not enough to win Juliana’s hand. He proposes to her again, but fails:

ȝÞis Justice wende to Juliane. þo is power was.
And wende hire habbe as is spouse ac he failede of is as.

There’s that rare nominative usage – “failed of is as” (his ask), set playfully in the line against “habbe as is spouse”; the nominative form here rhymes with “was.” But Eleusius’ “as” – his bid for Juliana’s hand – is doomed to fail, the poem suggests, because it’s an assertion of his own will, or power, against a greater power at work in Juliana’s life: he may be a powerful agent of the Emperor’s law, but (as she finally confesses) she is a “Cristene woman.” Juliana wants to be of “one lawe” with Eleusius and she answers Eleusius’ request for her hand with a request of her own: “Bicome cristene for my loue”.

What follows is probably best described as a power failure: the world around Juliana goes very dark. When, after more cajoling, Juliana won’t come around, her father hands her over to Eleusius to do “wat he wolde.”  Humiliated, angry, determined to assert his power over this stubborn girl, Eleusius has Juliana stripped and subject to horrid tortures – whipped, stabbed, scalded and covered with molten “brass” (other accounts make it molten lead); she’s thrown into a dank prison cell and, after being tested by Satan and suffering fresh torments, she is finally beheaded and her body is set out for wild beasts to savage.

1221JulianaNicomedia

Juliana of Nicomedia, whose association with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the Patron Saint of Asking.

It’s a grisly tale, but the detailed and exaggerated account of Juliana’s torments only highlights the extent to which Eleusius has “failed of his as”: he resorts to violence, to coercive power, but that power cannot win love or obedience; it can merely kill. Juliana dies, a martyr for the asking, as it were. The tradition that associates her with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the patron saint of asking.

Seeing in Juliana’s story the limits of violence – the limits of the power that depends on violence or coercion – should help illustrate the point I touched on in an earlier post about asking: asking is not about subjecting another person to our will or power. It’s a non-coercive power arrangement between petitioner and respondent. The respondent always reserves the right to refuse or say no, and if the petitioner doesn’t recognize and respect that right, then nothing is being asked: instead, someone is issuing a command in the guise of a request.

Of course there are gray areas here. But for the time being I want to state the difference between asking and commanding starkly, because to my mind, this is one important aspect of the trouble with “the ask”: it converts a non-coercive request to a command, a form of coercion. It relies on what Hitchings – approvingly — calls a “distancing effect”; he thinks it makes asking “less personal” and that, in turn, “may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response.” But what would an “objective response” be, if not one in which both parties, the petitioner and respondent, were fully constituted as subjects and recognized one another as equals? Where is this objective world, and why does Hitchings seem to think it is exempt from the very power relations — the human relationships — that constitute it?

Invoking objectivity, Hitchings skirts the very issue Seyn Julian raises – the question of power, and how power works when someone asks someone else to do something. It’s here that political and moral – and not just aesthetic — considerations enter the discussion. “Sometimes,” Hitchings admits, “we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.” That’s tantamount to arguing that the ends justify the means.

In Seyn Julian or in the corporate boardroom, “the ask” turns a request into a foregone conclusion, a command. It becomes not a request but a statement about the objective world, about some requirement in the world that needs satisfying. Hitchings suggests the effect is largely psychological; “it focuses me on what’s at stake,” but the focus “the ask” achieves is the unwavering and unquestioning focus that obedient subordinates give to a superior’s command. It is not a request that one can meet with a yes or no. “The ask” already begins to limit the autonomy and the choices of the respondent; it aligns the petitioner’s will with the objective world. You’re not asking me anything; you’re ordering me about because that’s the way things are. Or so you say, Eleusius.