The Disingenuous Bop

Imagine working for a company where more than 80% of your customers held you in disregard. Congress has achieved that milestone of late, with an 82% disapproval rating. I want us to internalize that carefully, as the vast majority of us continue to share a sense of patriotism and love of our country, the very freedom and opportunity and dignity we believe to be our core shared values as Americans. We are patriots and we love our nation, but 82% of us hold our employees in Congress in disregard. Is it possible that we have found a way to separate the institution from its inhabitants, that we can continue to have pride in the ideal of democracy separate and distinct from its practice?

Seems like a reach to me. I am struggling with it as our nation reflects the wounds of the war of words being waged on our behalf in Washington, where our representatives are charged with an absolute mandate to serve the public good above all else. I am having a hard time believing an election cycle or two with the peaceful reassignment of power is likely to bring broad healing,

I have been writing a good deal of late about process, looking for corollaries of acceptable norms between business and government, digging into the core of behavior where bad form results in bad outcome. The entire tone of the debt ceiling debate felt wrong to me, and I wondered again if what we were hearing publicly was the same as what was being said privately. To that end, I wondered about the very nature of the language spoken in chambers and to the public, the rules of order imposed historically to remind us that with each gavel banging resolution we remain on the same team with a common purpose.

The imposed civility of government dialogue (“the gentleman from Nevada,” “my distinguished colleague from the great state of Virginia”) clearly was intended as a matter of protocol to smooth out the edges of vehement disagreement. I suppose that makes sense. Yet when one or the other party was asked as the hours ticked away about the claim that”we were getting close to a deal,” inevitably the retort would be: “I don’t know what they are talking about.” Some may call that negotiation style, readying for backroom agreements. To me it all seemed laden with secondary agendas that in the acceptance of dysfunction became unofficially primary—disingenuous at best, destructive at worst.

The problem for me with disingenuous discourse—posturing, grandstanding, two-faced commentary—is that it a symptom of a fundamentally unhealthy organization. Saying one thing to someone’s face and another behind his or her back may provide a temporarily effective tool in maintaining order, but it is fraught with peril in the critical endeavor of building consensus.

If we all lost the battle together, perhaps we can take from it a lesson for the business minded in moral application and at least get our heads screwed on straight as it applies to office behavior. We’ve all had occasion to dance The Disingenuous Bop. Let’s put a spotlight on the dance floor and see what reflects in the disco mirror ball. In the business world we sometimes call this gossip, and we know it is rotten to the core. It can go something like this, two employees in an ordinary private exchange, talking about their boss…

Jane: What do you think about Barry?

John: I really like Barry. I just don’t think he is very good as a leader.

Jane: Yeah, I like Barry, too. He was great when he hired me. But now he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.

John: Did you read what they wrote about Barry in the Wall Street Journal?

Jane: Yes, I wrote him an email and told him I thought they were unfairly harsh. He needed the boost.

John: Yeah, me too. I hope that helped him feel better. But you have to agree, he had it coming. He championed that stupid project and we lost a ton of money on it.

Jane: Yeah, I know, I thought it was going to be high-profile so I asked Barry to put me on it and he did. Then the project tanked. I tried to get off it, but I was stuck on it. Luckily I’m not taking the heat, he is.

John: Yeah, you dodged a major bullet on that. Lucky you. I was in the final milestone review last month and I knew it was a dog. It needed at least another month of polish.

Jane: Did you tell the group more time might save it?

John: No, it would have pissed them off. They were so happy with it, feeling self-satisfied and even though Barry asked if anyone thought we were in trouble on it, I knew that wasn’t what he wanted to hear, so I just went along with the program.

Jane: You probably would have taken some heat for being disruptive, so you kept your head low, that makes sense. I just wish the project would have been a winner, because I was going to ride it all the way up and ask Barry for a raise and a promotion.

John: And you would have earned it, too, if the project had been a winner. Barry would have been a happy camper, so you probably would have gotten it. Too bad.

Jane: Yeah, what a lost opportunity. Hey, are you going to the party at Barry’s house this weekend?

John: Absolutely, wouldn’t miss it. Career limiting move not to go to his party.

Jane: Yep, I’ll be there too, same reason. Good thing we both made the guest list. I guess he still likes us.

John: Yeah, I like him too. I don’t really like his parties though.

Jane: Agree 100%. Boring and not fun. See you there.

Harmless water cooler chat? A bonding experience with a fellow employee meant in good humor? Of course you would never engage in anything like this. It is rooted in the disingenuous, ugly in every respect. A person of honor would either reset the give and take or walk away.

There is nothing about being disingenuous that is ultimately productive. We see the embers all around us. Dance carefully, your name could be substituted for that of Barry at any time. If someone plays the game with you, they’ll play the game against you. Honor by definition is consistent. Smug is not a long-term strategy. Not caring about not caring is not sustainable. We are meant to live in one world, not maintain parallel existences for convenience and expedience. Style is content. Integrity only has one face.

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Welcome to a New Kind of Tension

From Newsweek — August 24, 2010:

Silly Things We Believe About Witches, Obama, and More” by David A. Graham

Orwell taught us that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.  How much simpler and profound does it get than that?  Depends on how deeply you value your belief set.

There are a few ways to cause people to deny that two plus two make four.  The most basic of course is to cause them to suffer so much physical or psychological pain that they will say anything to make the pain stop.  In Orwell’s anti-Utopian 1984, that was the most expedient, effective, and predictable approach.  With power-based fear as a means of control and the ability to inflict pain, an autocratic society can not only write its own rules, it can divine its own science and history.  We know the parable of 1984 is extreme, but we also know the context and landscape from which it emerged.  Thus far, our core values have largely prevailed, at least within most of our own sphere of influence.  The fact that I can freely type these words and publish them globally without restriction or anticipated retribution suggests we have collectively heeded the warning and fought reasonably successfully against the absurd.

Yet there is a more subtle and gnawing mode of drowning in Orwell’s soup without tangible restraint or any violence.  It’s called repetition.  If enough people say enough times that our President was not born of Constitutional privilege to hold his office — and that his true religion is something other than what he does choose to practice — the echoes will resonate, first slowly with skepticism, then with snowballing strength, and soon enough with mystical authority.  Can the untrue be perceived as true without fundamental questioning?  Why certainly, if there is no agenda to question the rhetoric which most suits a listener’s taste.  When we test the waters for the tides, we refer to the methodology as opinion polling.  Opinions are entirely products of freedom, they are shared freely without legislative filter, and they contain the power to be as impactful if not more so than facts.  Is this a game?  Indeed, it is a well-played game where the stakes transcend all that we hold to be sacred.

We teach our children not to gossip.  Why?  Because gossip is hurtful, it is beneath us as educated, civilized, felicitous members of intersecting communities.  So how do we get the strange beliefs assembled in the August 19, 2010 Pew Poll cited in Graham’s Newsweek story?  It’s not conspiracy, that requires sophisticated orchestration well beyond the bounds of random lunacy.  We get there because people “pass it on” in ways that suit their tastes, it’s just that simple.  Without respect for the truth, opinions can too easily become shared and replace truth with equal detriment.

This is a very simple corollary that precedes the more recent Newsweek story on why 38% of Americans can’t pass a citizenship test.  They can’t pass it because they don’t find it important enough to be able to pass it.  Likewise, any number of individuals don’t find it important enough to validate their opinions by referencing a fact base before they pass them on; it’s inconvenient to fact check, and may not align with deeply held biases that will always be more resonant than facts.

Integrity is the only path beyond the metaphorical Orwell.  We can abolish torture by law, then practice and praise ourselves for preserving freedom, but if freedom is the freedom to teach and evangelize that two plus two make five, have we really come as far as we should expect of ourselves?  Education must be at the core of our debate and discussion, allowing us always to differ on opinion, but when we entrench the unreal in a parade of support, we do no one any favors.  Instead we betray the trust of the very freedom that allows us to say what we will, and we exploit the gift of open exchange by blowing wind rather filling the air with choice words.