Why is a call for conversation or dialogue met so often with indifference or hostility?
That I am thinking about this question might feel peculiar to Swarthmore, but I could just as readily be addressing Johns Hopkins (the scene of protest against the creation of a private police force on campus this past spring), Wesleyan when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, really higher education all the way back to the mid-1960s. It may seem that I’m talking about a challenge that is peculiar to academia, but in fact I think this is an issue for most contemporary civic and corporate institutions.
So what am I thinking about? Roughly speaking, the kind of impasse in the life of an institution where some group of people within the institution or reliant upon it are demanding concrete, specific changes in how the institution operates and the people with authority over the institution respond to that demand by calling for dialogue and conversation. This usually in turn infuriates or provokes the constituencies demanding changes and leads them to escalate or amplify their demands, which then in turn antagonizes, alienates or worries other groups who might have supported the initial demands but not the intensified or more militant requests, which leads to more people calling for some form of dialogue or deliberation, which then intensifies the us-or-them divide within the institution about the way forward.
I think this general dynamic has been described very well by Moises Naim in his book The End of Power. Naim starts by asking why people who are at the top of the hierarchy in many organizations and institutions–CEOs, college and university presidents, heads of executive agencies in government, leaders of non-profit community groups, and so on, frequently report that they feel powerless to act within their organizations beyond vague, broad or gestural kinds of leadership. The former president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, described this view well in the midst of a controversial attempt by her board to displace her when she said that she and her peers invariably had to lead towards change slowly, through “incremental buy-in”. Even that is more active than many leaders of institutions, academic and otherwise, might put it–more typical perhaps is a description of leadership as custodial, as stewardship, on behalf of collectively-determined values or a mission that derives from the inchoate massing of all ‘stakeholders’ in the institution.
Naim observes that in private, leaders and their closest advisors are often not so sanguine. Instead, they express intense frustration about what they feel they can’t do. They can’t admonish or discipline people who are technically subordinate to them but too far away in the hierarchy for that admonishment to feel proportionate or fair. They can’t instruct a division or office within their organization to straightforwardly execute a policy that the leadership wants but the division opposes. They cannot quickly dispense with rules, regulations or even “traditions” that the leader and their close associates deem to be impediments to their vision of progress. They cannot undertake new initiatives unilaterally, no matter how sound they believe their own judgment to be. They can’t reveal the truth as they understand it from facts that are private or confidential.
Naim argues that the contemporary world is being compressed between two simultaneous developments. The first is that power has gotten “big”: that it is increasingly attached to large-scale, centralized and increasingly hierarchical institutions. The second is that power is “decaying”: that it is harder and harder to wield at scale, through a centralized apparatus, and from the top of hierarchies downward as a command exercise. It is harder in part because organizations now have internal structures as well as external constraints that cause this decay. What Naim observes is that people within institutions or dependent upon their actions are simultaneously being consulted or included or brought into dialogue and deliberation at the same time that they feel it is increasingly impossible for their suggestions, advice or observations to actually inform what their institutions do with power.
People know that these institutions are “big”: that the institutions do in fact routinely wield power. A college like Swarthmore year in and year out determines the academic outcomes of 1600 students; it hires, disciplines, tenures (or not) employees; it undertakes expensive construction projects with substantial economic implications; it participates in numerous collective or shared decisions across academia; it buys services and commodities; it invests and accumulates. But if you ask, it’s very hard to find anyone within the institution who ascribes the power to do any of those things directly and unilaterally to themselves or to their offices. The “big” capacity of an institution’s power comes from everywhere and nowhere. As a result, Naim suggests, there is only one form of actual influence over institutional action that most stakeholders, community members or citizens have left, what he calls “the veto”–that people can block or impede or frustrate institutional action. Not necessarily because they actually object that intensely to what is being proposed, but because it is the only action they can actually take in which their own agency is visible, important and has actual impact. In every other deliberative or active moment that people are supposedly included in and consulted about, there is no accountable tracing of whether or how their advocacy and their evidence has weighed on institutional power, and there are repeated encounters with decision-making processes that are either occluded or exclusive, and with accounts of decisions that are in no one’s hands, that are made but made from nowhere in particular. Even when you’ve been in “the room where it happens”, present at the scene where a decision was concretely made by people who have the power to decide, you often leave uncertain of what exactly happened and whether it’s going to be done as it was decided. You will also often not be allowed to speak at all about what was said, what was decided, or by whom. When people rise to block or impede decisions–to exercise the veto out of frustration–that further decays power while doing nothing to change its concentrated ‘bigness’.
I think the descriptive usefulness of Naim’s analysis is all around us now. The 2019 American discourse about the “deep state” and desires for various forms of authoritarian or direct-rule escape from its supposed clutches seems entirely consistent with the picture that Naim laid out in 2013. The prevalence of what is now being called “cancel culture” across social media is another manifestation of Naim’s veto, arising from people who feels that in some fashion they are being told that they are included in processes that select or identify cultural and political prominence and authority, if only through access to algorithms that rank and rate, but feeling as if the only real power they have is to reject a selection that has been made without real, transparent and accountable structures of representation and consultation.
I suspect that every working professional across several generations both feels this sense of exclusion and is aware of how they have excluded other people within their own institutional worlds. After twenty-five years of working at my present institution, I can cite innumerable examples of processes in which I have been formally included, cases where my opinion has been solicited, and cases where I’ve taken advantage of what are supposed to be always-open channels for communication to offer feedback in which the difference between my participation and my absence is impossible to discern. Sometimes I’ve seen a point I raised emerge almost entirely verbatim from one of the people involved in the earlier consultation two, five or ten years later with no perceptible connection to that earlier process. Mostly, my participation–sometimes about issues or decisions that I think are highly consequential or urgent–disappears without a trace (often simultaneously with confirmation that what I believed to be urgent was in fact urgent). Committees spent a year (or more) working on a policy that disappears into trackless invisibility afterwards–where it’s not clear even whether administrative leadership thought the policy impossible or risible, whether they earnestly meant to implement it but then the person who would have had responsibility left, or whether it was simply forgotten.
This isn’t distinctive to me. We all feel this way. Women feel this way even more. People of color feel this way even more. We all have had the experience of sounding an alarm that no one hears. Of providing advice that rests on decades of experience that seems to be ignored. Of trying to push towards an outcome that would satisfy many only to watch dismayed as an outcome that satisfies almost no one is chosen instead.
If we have power or responsibility within an institution, many of us have been on the other end. We’ve been the void that doesn’t answer, the soothing managerial assurance that all opinions are helpful, the person who absorbs and later appropriates a solution or idea that someone else advocated. And thus most of us know well why participation in a process doesn’t scale smoothly into an impact on a process. Think of job searches where you have been on the inside of the final decision but where many people provided feedback on a candidate. Some of that feedback you ignore because the person providing it didn’t see all the candidates or is missing some critical piece of information (that probably wasn’t available). Some of that you consider very carefully and respectfully but end up simply disagreeing with. Some of that you dismiss out of hand because the person consulted is someone who had to be consulted but who is widely regarded as wrong or irresponsible. Some of it you ignore because it’s expressed in a cryptic or confusing way. Some of it you ignore because you’re just really busy and the decision is already robustly confirmed by other information, so why keep discussing it?
None of which you can tell someone about. The people who made the decision can’t say:
a. You didn’t work hard enough for us to value your input equally.
b. We really did consider what you said, but here’s why we disagreed with you, specifically.
c. We asked your feedback because you’d be insulted if we didn’t but we don’t respect your views at all.
d. We had no idea what you meant and we didn’t have time to sort it out.
e. Our cup overfloweth: thank you for the advice but we turned to have as much as we needed before we even got to you.
You can’t even say the one thing that would be comforting (we considered your advice, and disagreed) because then you have to provide an external, visible transcript of a conversation that it is unethical (or illegal, even) to transcribe and circulate.
The number of decisions that power considers impossible to transcribe or even describe has grown along with power itself. Here I think we arrive at the heart of the problem with “conversation” as an alternative to “demands”.
Take my previous example of a job search in academia. Most of the people solicited for opinions understand why there is no account of whether or how their opinion mattered, except perhaps students. Why there will be no “conversation” about the decision after it is made, and why the parties to the conversation will be limited and sequestered. But even in this fairly clear case, academic departments could probably do a better job with students. In one hiring process in the last six years, we chose a candidate who was not consistently the number #1 preference of the students that we asked to participate. So I met as department chair with them afterwards to talk about how a decision like this gets made, and to give them a carefully limited version of our reasoning. I knew there was a risk involved that one or more students would indiscreetly repeat what I’d said so that it would get back to the candidate, so I didn’t share anything too private. The important thing for me was to talk frankly about how and why hiring decisions unfold as they do, including pointing out that these are decisions where typically ten to twenty candidates are very nearly evaluatively equal–if nothing else because the students who may be considering academia need to understand that about the labor market at the other end.
I also explained the legal constraints on anything connected to personnel decisions and then why most of us also find it unprofessional to talk about a colleague directly with students, most of the time. And we talked a bit more beyond that about why student impressions of faculty are sometimes perceptive and useful and sometimes simply wrong. I pointed out that I once proudly asserted decades ago that a graduate professor I knew was reticent because of the lingering effects of McCarthyism on older academics, which turned out to be the kind of thing that was ever so vaguely right as a generic guess and ever so completely wrong about the actual person, as I learned on longer acquaintance.
This is what I think a “conversation” as an alternative to a “demand” might look like. It may be many people have conversations of the kind I just described, as ad hoc, one-off, personal and effectively private conversations that do not become a public fact about power and authority within the institution. The public or shared or visible spaces within an institution are not routinely alive with this sort of conversation. It isn’t shared.
You could suggest that my approach in this case was managerial: that I chose to talk with the students in order to manage the possibility of their unhappiness in response to a perceived exclusion from decision-making. I think you’d be right that this is how offers of dialogue or conversation are often perceived by stakeholders who want to change the policies or culture of their institutions.
What is missing from these offers, what makes them not-really-conversations that only fuel the movement towards what Naim calls the veto, are three major attributes:
a) Too much of the subject of the conversation is veiled or off-limits.
b) The powerful do not fully disclose or describe both the constraints on their actions AND their own strong philosophical or ethical commitments.
c) When disclosed, the constraints are not up for debate; there is nothing contingent in the conversation.
In effect, what is missing is what defines a democratic public sphere. Which is an absence that nullifies the offer of a conversation or a dialogue as a part of decision-making or life in community. You can’t have a conversation that’s meaningful, trustworthy and part of a process of deliberation and decision-making in the weird kind of fractured “public” that academic institutions, civic institutions and businesses maintain, where information flows in trickles or pools in hidden grottos, in which most of the participants can’t discuss even a small proportion of what they know or disclose the tangible reality behind most decisions that have been made or are being contemplated.
Title IX/sexual assault conversations in higher education are a major example of this issue, not just at Swarthmore but almost everywhere. In the case of Title IX, I am for the most part neither a petitioner nor the powerful, so I can see to some extent both why so many institutions trend towards Naim’s veto and why it is hard to have the conversations that might approach power differently.
Let’s start with what is off-limits. The specifics of the last decade of actual cases can’t be discussed in any kind of public or even private conversation within institutions. That would usually be illegal (several kinds of illegal), it would usually be an invitation to a lawsuit (several kinds of lawsuit), and it would broadly be considered to be unethical by almost everyone with an interest in the issue. And yet the generalities of those specifics are precisely what is at stake. What can the forms of centralized, hierarchical, ‘big’ power within academic institutions plausibly do about what’s in those specifics? How can anybody talk about that question without granular, particular attention to how it would work in specific cases, at the moment of the incident and its aftermaths?
That’s not all that is off-limits. Mostly the people with power over the disposition of cases or the setting of policy cannot fully disclose or discuss what they’re being told within one set of meetings: what the lawyers say about what can or cannot be said. Within another set of meetings: what trustees say about what they think should or should not be done. Within another set of meetings: what the specific managers of specific cases believe or think about those cases at various stages of investigation or judgment or therapy. Again, mostly because they can’t. In most of these cases, the legal constraints are real and specific. But all of those off-limits deliberations and conversations erupt into the public space, sometimes even as quotations that can’t be attributed or even acknowledged as quotations. So legal advice, even if it might be questionable or flawed, can’t be examined or questioned directly–it often can’t even be labeled as such. Practicioner beliefs about best practices in counselling or therapy can only be described in the vaguest ways, shorn of all the specifics that would make them valid or invalid, helpful or questionable.
The fracturing of this not-public runs all the way down to the bottom of this hoped-for conversation. No one–including student advocates–gets to a point of disclosure about the deeper fundamentals of their views on any of the issues at stake–about sexuality, about justice, about gender, about equity, about safety and freedom, about the rights and responsibilities of institutions and of those who work for and study within institutions. There is no incentive or reward to disclose if there is no real possibility of tracing how a dialogue will or will not inform decisions and policies. Nobody wants to start a conversation in which they will lay their deepest convictions out on the table if they have no sense at all of what will be done with or to those exposed beliefs and narratives after everyone leaves the table. Conversation is an intimate word, but the familiarity that even small colleges allow between students, faculty and administration is not intimate familiarity between equals who have consented to mutual exposure. What adminstrator would ever want to say clearly what they think and know to students who might turn around and demand the termination of that employee? What student would ever want to have a genuinely informing, richly descriptive and philosophically open conversation about sexuality, violence and justice with an administrator if the student is the only person obliged to participate in the conversation in that spirit?
The only hope for those kinds of dialogues is the classroom, precisely because the instrumental character of any given discussion is not directly fed back into institutional governance and because classrooms are semi-private and leave little visible trace to anyone who was not a direct participant. When we otherwise offer dialogue as an alternative to demands, we dramatically underimagine what it would take for dialogue to be a meaningful substitute, which is nothing short of redesigning the visibility of decisions and the flow of information in a way that no one is really ready for and perhaps that no one really wants.