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.”

Five Questions On Business And Society

Dow Chemical is currently soliciting questions for a Google Hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business In Society.” The Wednesday morning Hangout will be moderated by Alice Korngold, author of A Better World Inc., and feature Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris along with other “global sustainability leaders.”

I submitted five questions for the group’s consideration. I can’t say whether they’ll address any of them or whether these questions are even appropriate for this forum. This is a huge topic, and there are lots of ways to approach it. Nor do I pretend that these are the only five questions worth asking. But it strikes me that these five simple questions might help others start and structure a conversation about business’s role in society. So, after tweeting my questions and putting them up for easy reference on Google docs, I thought I’d post them here as well.

  1. Governance: Where’s the seat for “society” in the boardroom, and who sits there?
  2. Priorities: Whose role is it within the company to identify and set social priorities?
  3. Non-performance: What mechanisms should be in place to identify and address human rights and environmental grievances?
  4. Authentic social license: What mechanisms ensure all stakeholders — esp. dissenters, skeptics, opponents — are represented?
  5. Metrics: How does [the company; in this case, Dow] currently measure social performance, and factor it into overall business performance?

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.

Mark Your Calendars

This week, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a resolution brought to the floor by Senator Tom Casperson, who represents the 38th district. Senate Resolution 27 declares an official day to commemorate mining in Michigan. Mining Day will fall on September 6th.

It’s clever to create a holiday for mining on 9/06 — the area code of the Upper Peninsula. But it’s also a little strange that the holiday will fall on a Sunday in its inaugural year (so much for sabbath and the respite it promises from the workaday world). Labor Day falls on the 7th of this year, and on the 5th in 2016; so maybe Mining Day will help put the focus on the Upper Peninsula’s archetypal laborer, the miner. But as the text of the resolution never even uses the word “miner,” “worker,” “labor” or “laborer,” and notes only in passing that mining in the UP “attracted immigrants from around the world,” it might be a little hasty or naive to conclude this measure is being taken to honor the working men and women of the region.

Casperson himself promotes Mining Day as a day to recognize the role of mining “in the settling of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” and as a “way of life” characteristic of the region, and in a press release, he added that the day would also be an opportunity to “celebrate and support responsible mining operations” in the state. So SR 27 doesn’t just look back to a bygone era of mining, but forward, positioning mining as a “growing industry” in Michigan. The adopted resolution even includes language about the “Limestone mines” in the news lately.

In this way, SR 27 tees up a second resolution that Casperson introduced: SR 28, another pro-mining measure that met with unanimous approval. In this resolution, the Senate expresses its unqualified “support for the renewed growth of mining in Michigan.”

This is not just boosterism or servile flattery. SR 28 actually serves a couple of important political functions.

First, it burnishes Casperson’s legislative track record at no political cost. Down the road, he can and probably will claim some responsibility for the jobs that mining companies create in the UP.

Second, SR 28 establishes legislative precedent. Casperson and others can point to this resolution and the unanimous support it received when introducing other pro-mining legislation or when confronted with challenges to mining projects already underway. Interviewed about the bill, Casperson made this explicit: “we will work to remove any remaining barriers that could inhibit the continued growth of responsible mining interests in Michigan.” No barriers to continued growth: but still, somehow, “responsible,” as if responsibility can be had without limits.

The barriers to growth Casperson has in mind are, first and foremost, the flimsy ones upheld, but barely, by the EPA in the face of the new mining boom. The federal agency has not prevented any mining projects in Michigan; but it has so far been the primary obstacle to the building of CR 595, which was originally planned as a haul route for Lundin’s Eagle Mine. The EPA entered and then upheld its objections to construction of the road, and denied the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality authority to permit the road. (The US Army Corps of Engineers along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service had also entered objections.)

Casperson elsewhere has tried to cast this as a standoff between state sovereignty and federal government intrusion. Now, with SR 28, Senator Casperson has enlisted the full body of the Michigan Senate in his crusade to cut that haul road through the Michigan wilderness, and show big government what’s what in Michigan. (He’s been on similar state-sovereignty kicks to reinstate wolf-hunts — which caused him some embarrassment when he was caught fabricating stories of children being stalked by wolves — and to prevent the limiting of emissions from wood-burning stoves by the EPA.)

Casperson is now colluding with the Marquette County Road Commission to sue the EPA over CR 595. So far, the Road Commission and affiliated CR 595 die-hards have created a 501c4 non-profit organization called Stand U.P., which says it will raise $500,000 to cover the lawsuit. But there’s no reason to stop there. As a 501c4, Stand U.P. can fund the EPA lawsuit as well as a broad range of activities in the name of improving the “social welfare” — a concept even the IRS calls “abstruse” and lacking any clear definition. 501c4 organizations are not required to disclose the names of donors, but Brian Cabell figures “it’s safe to say” that the money for Stand U.P. won’t come in “$5 contributions or bake sales or lemonade stands. It’s mostly corporate money.”

Even if the EPA lawsuit fails, then, there is little to prevent Stand U.P. from becoming (unless it already is) a trough of dark money. No wonder the Senator is eager to celebrate mining’s return to the Upper Peninsula.

Social License in a Less Exuberant Climate

The things I’ve written on the new mining around Lake Superior — most of which are gathered here — might amount to nothing more than a series of postscripts to my film 1913 Massacre. P.S., then P.P.S, and so on, a long envoi or send off, I suppose, or maybe a recognition that the story we told in our film never really ended, or is about to be repeated — first time tragedy, second time: it’s still too early to say. In any case, I’ve often been struck by the ways that the new mining appeals to the very history (or what people in the UP call their mining “heritage”) Ken and I encountered while making our film, in order to claim social license.

While I’ve focused on developments around Eagle Mine, which is situated on the Yellow Dog Plains just outside the city of Marquette, Michigan, I’ve also been trying to keep track of mining activity all around the lake — the Polymet and Twin Metals projects in Minnesota, the failed Gogebic Taconite project in Wisconsin, uranium exploration on the Eastern shore, and so on; and I’ve tried to emphasize here and when talking about the subject that Eagle along with those other projects constitute the first phase of a Lake Superior mining boom.

With no effective international oversight of the lake — one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world — the mining companies have moved in, facing down what opposition local groups can muster, promising jobs and economic development, exploiting loopholes in state laws, and buying state politicians (as Gogebic bought Scott Walker) or enlisting the services of other lackeys and lickspittles in local and regional government (as, e.g., Eagle seems to have enlisted the services of the Marquette County Road Commission).

A larger commodities boom (or pricing bubble) ushered in this Lake Superior mining boom, and that bigger boom has started to go bust, as Chinese demand for stainless steel, copper and other metals — one of the main drivers of the boom — slows. So the story ripples out way beyond the lake, to developing economies on the other side of the world, and to a larger arena of commodity markets, over which huge commodity traders like Glencore and Trafigura preside, and where the metals mined around Lake Superior are not actually used to make things the world needs (as mining companies want us to believe), but warehoused by the London Metal Exchange and financialized in complex instruments like ETFs or simply as collateral.

It’s unlikely we’ll witness the great unraveling of this global complex that some doomsayers predicted, but the slowdown has already left some miners stranded and made some projects founder or at least become riskier to undertake. Shareholders are already feeling the pain and pressures on companies to streamline operations, discard assets or service their debt will continue to mount. On the ground, these troubles should occasion some reflection on just how closely mining, global financial markets and development are now intertwined; and that volatile combination is likely to make the future for communities around the Lake even more uncertain. How committed are these companies? Whose interests do they really represent, and to whom do they answer? How resilient are they? What happens when things fall apart?

Maybe in this less exuberant climate, all the confident assertions about future prosperity, tributes to mining heritage, promises of responsible stewardship, and bids for social license to undertake mining projects will receive closer scrutiny.

Postscript: after a response from Eagle Mine’s Dan Blondeau, I’ve updated this post with a link to our exchange over my remarks here on the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DNR’s green-lighting on Thursday of Graymont’s proposal to develop 10,000 acres of public forest lands into an open pit and underground limestone quarry is yet another example of Michigan public officials eagerly serving mining companies — or doing their bidding, sometimes without having been explicitly bidden.

Fluency is Belonging

localswimDR The gringo usually learns the unwritten rules of a place the hard way: he’ll be duped, cheated or swindled. He may be perfectly intelligent, know the geography, history, flora and fauna of a place, but his habits make him a stranger.

Habit has a simple grace that knowledge can only hope to describe. Studying the practices of local people in the way an anthropologist might will not make them one’s own. In fact, it’s just as likely to have the opposite effect, of objectifying and externalizing them. Unless a stranger becomes used to the ways and manners of others, or until their usages become his own, he will never enjoy the easy social intercourse the locals effortlessly enjoy. He will have to settle for making observations and taking notes, and conducting transactions of various kinds.

His lonely case is not unlike that of someone who has mastered the grammar but not the idiom of a language. At best he can correctly fill out forms (making verbs agree with subjects, changing tenses or moods, and so on). But ordinary conversation takes an ease and fluency that can’t be gotten out of a book or committed to memory.

That’s because real fluency is more than successful mimicry. It’s belonging.

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.

The First CEO: A Political Revolution?

I’ve been associating the cultural icon of the CEO with big changes in America, most of which were well underway in the 1970s, when the acronym “CEO” first comes into wide use: the collapse of manufacturing, the financialization of the economy, the emergence of the neoliberal order. David Graeber offers yet another way to characterize these changes: “total bureaucratization.”

An excerpt from Graeber’s new book in the latest issue of Harpers lands us in familiar territory:

What began to happen in the Seventies, which paved the way for what we see today, was a strategic turn, as the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy moved away from workers and toward shareholders. There was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized and the financial sector became more corporatized, with investment banks and hedge funds largely replacing individual investors. As a result, the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable. By the Nineties, lifetime employment, even for white-collar workers, had become a thing of the past. When corporations needed loyalty, they increasingly secured it by paying their employees in stock options.

What Graeber at first characterizes as “a strategic turn” and the merging of the corporate and financial sectors, he then goes on to call “a political revolution”:

At the same time, everyone was encouraged to look at the world through the eyes of an investor — which is one reason why, in the Eighties, newspapers continued laying off their labor reporters, while ordinary TV news reports began featuring stock-quote crawls at the bottom of the screen. By participating in personal-retirement and investment funds, the argument went, everyone would come to own a piece of capitalism. In reality, the magic circle only widened to include higher-paid professionals and corporate bureaucrats. Still, the perceived extension was extremely important. No political revolution (for that’s what this was) can succeed without allies, and bringing along the middle class — and, crucially, convincing them that they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism — was critical.

The parenthetical affirmation — “(for that’s what this was)” — asks us to pause and really take the point. Having read only this excerpt, I don’t know whether Graeber goes on to explain why what he elsewhere calls a “shift” or “turn” counts as a “political revolution,” or how exactly he thinks this overturning of the political order was brought about. No doubt there was fraud, collusion and conspiracy, and “everyone was encouraged” to believe they were included; but the passive verb here leaves way too much unsaid. For one thing, the triumph and establishment of  the new order at home and abroad was really not so bloodless as Graeber (here, at least) makes it out to be.

The celebration and glamorization of the CEO — as a leader, a rule-maker and a rule-breaker, the agent and steward of shareholder value — was one of the things that duped ordinary, middle-class Americans into thinking “they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism.” It deserves a chapter in the story Graeber’s out to tell. The acronym “CEO” itself belongs to what Graeber calls the “peculiar idiom” of “bureaucratic techniques” and meritocratic myths — a language with origins in self-actualization movements of the 1970s, “full of bright, empty terms like ‘vision,’ ‘quality,’ ‘stakeholder,’ ‘leadership,’ ‘excellence,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘strategic goals,’ and ‘best practices.’” It’s good to see this language held up for scrutiny, especially since, as Graeber rightly points out, it still “[engulfs] any meeting where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of any kind of resources.” To the victors go the spoils, and that’s not likely to change as long as we are speaking their language and playing by their rules.

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.