Spotlights and Flashlights
Life is messy. So are component parts of life: our politics, the environment, economics, and social relationships. History teaches a valuable lesson that there is something inherently unstable about our world, and we are forever seeking ways to reach an equilibrium to stabilize it. Outcomes we wish to see happening are uncertain to occur. The utopian view is that there is an ultimate solution to fixing the mess. Others argue there is no fix and we must learn to adjust and live according to the limitations of what we know and can know.
This causes anxiety like watching a PGA golf tournament and the professional who is on the green but 20 feet from the 7th hole sends the ball on its way. We hold our breath. Is the putt too soft or too hard? You simply wait and watch with everyone else.
In politics, those with the putter claim the ball will drop. Even when it misses the hole, they claim the ball dropped. Ambiguity trails us like a shadow. There is rarely an objective moment, unlike golf, where you don’t need to rely on anything other than your own eyes to know whether the shot succeeded.
Our political life isn’t a game of golf. We can never escape the velocity of doubt whether the politicians are using the right club, lining up correctly over the ball, or accurately reporting the trajectory of their shot in relationship to the hole.
We live in a world where a large number of people exchange their doubt and anxiety for a promise to deliver a more certain, stable, ordered and predictable world than the actual one they live in. That is costly, as politicians must rely on various illusory devices and tricks to conjure up this illusion with enough credibility that they substitute reality for a replacement story that creates an alternative reality.
We are willing to pay relatively high price in the reality stakes for answers that allow us individually and collectively to believe what we are told is true. The illusion of Understanding (see my essay on the Illusion of Understanding.) is easier to maintain and the tacit conspiracy to pretend the illusion is real allows us to move on from an issue and spend our cognitive resources elsewhere.
There is a constant tension over the official story between the individual and her group, and between her group and other groups. The group may be a circle of friends, relatives, colleagues, sports team or a religious, secular, or political party. We draw much comfort in shared, collective beliefs and we draw our identity from our group association. Mostly we place group solitary and individual identity as a higher priority than understanding the complexity where the truth is difficult to detect with certainty. Our group, returning to the golf metaphor, always makes a hole in one, while those in rival groups are lost in the tall grass, looking for their ball as the night closes in.
How do we resolve this dilemma that arises as we move between the goals of group grooming and truth-finding?
We have two basic models to work with: Insubordination and Challenge. Each of them offers a separate vision on how best to work through the messy, hard problems that confront us. Sometimes these two very different systems work in harmony, side-by-side, with each delegated a role; sometimes, one model is ascendant and marginalizes the other.
The Spotlight Culture
The first model that controls how we perceive reality rests on a system of subordination. Officials inside an institution such as an orchestra or movie set work along a chain of command. Orders are passed down the chain of command. The orders are to be obeyed and not to be challenged by subordinates. The film director (he has a producer breathing down his neck) or conductor (has a wealthy patron breathing down his neck) is in charge. Despite certain limitations, his word is the law of what the performance will be.
The job of film director or orchestra conduct is to avoid chaos. So long as everyone he leads follows his direction, he can deliver a certain quality of performance. The price of a subordination system is the agreement for all involved to accept submission to a disciplined hierarchy where each person’s role is defined and the person giving the orders possesses the position and rank to justify his subordinate to act without questioning the order.
Officers in the military expect their subordinates to follow orders, and they expect to follow the orders of those officers who rank above them in the chain of command. This is fundamental to the culture of the military. Subordination systems share values in common such as authority, loyalty, honor, respect and continuity. Whether it is the military, the police, a court system, a sports team, a factory assembly line, a film set, or an orchestra, there are subordination values used to co-ordinate the work among a group of people.
An orchestra where the first violinist stops the performance and challenges the conductor’s interpretation of a movement would change our experience of music. Whatever the private feelings of the first violinist or the cello player, these are not expressed and the conductor’s authority is unchallenged as the orchestra performs.
In other words, criticism, dissent, difference of opinion give way to the rules of subordination otherwise the performance by the orchestra collapses, a lower court overrules an appellant court, the quarterback’s call is reversed by the right tackle, and a sergeant decides against his officer’s command to advance on an enemy position. All of these reversals happen now and again and the person who makes such a challenge is guilty of insubordination. Treason, betrayal, faithlessness and disloyalty are express the stigma attached to such insubordination.
If the conductor had absolute power, he might seek to expand his authority to include what is appropriate for poetry, ballet, literature, drama, TV, computer games and film and impose an artistic vision for all of the arts. That is unlikely to happen. There are too many different visions, tastes, traditions, and messiness for any one person to control. Any attempt at such a command and control system would drive artists underground. In the arts, like in science, we assume that experimenting and testing is a good thing to be encouraged. Note that some of it will be a dead end and without value to the artist or society, but that is only discovered by allowing the space to fail.
The spotlight culture is a place where truth is manufactured and distributed to the consumer. The finished product is complete, reliable, and ready for immediate consumption. There are no alternatives to challenge the truth in the spotlight culture.
The flashlight model (this is idealized) is based on the individual’s right to criticize, challenge or question authority, policy, motives, efficiency, or outcomes by those in power. Journalists, scholars, academics, NG0s, whistleblowers, and outside experts are obvious players in the flashlight culture. The flashlight has also become a symbol in protest and demonstrations as the picture below from the Ukraine illustrates. People have a huge desire to see the hidden and buried story. Those who seek information of activity occurring behind the scenes of power rely on the flashlight. These lights are pointed at the dark areas well outside the spotlight and act to keep government officials honest and transparent. In the case of someone like Edward Snowden the flashlight is on the magnitude of a supernova. Socrates urged people to ask questions as a way of shining a light into darkness and to ignore the facile answers found in the spotlight.
A flashlight culture assumes we share similar flawed knowledge and the same cognitive biases that distort reality unless corrected. Western parliamentary styled political systems rest on the opposite, an opposition challenging the government of the day to explain and justify their decisions. The individual challenges the group leader because he or she is one of us and knows no more than anyone else about the complex network of information.
Unlike an orchestra, the prime minister, unlike a conductor, answers his or her critics with explanations rather than with threats or suppression. The role of the opposition is to make the conductor account for his choices. The purpose of shining a light on evidence that is contrary to the government’s narrative is to expose weakness of policy or execution of policy. The motives of flashlight holders may not be pure. They may be exposing facts for political gain at the expense of the government but such exposure works to the favor of the general population which benefits from a correction in policy or a change in personnel to carry out the policy.
The encouragement of challenging authority is what has given us a robust scientific method. The most junior member of a research team is not disqualified from overturning the theory of the most respected member of the scientific community. The theory, in other words, is separate from the personality supporting it. But we have difficulty distinguishing attacks on theory as attacks on the person who supports the theory. The question in science isn’t, what does this critic have against the person who supports the String Theory, but what evidence does he or she have to refute the theory. In non-scientific areas such as politics, we are still a long way from isolating policy for critical analysis from the personality, background and reputation of the person who has proposed the policy.
We can also accept that the challenge-the-authority paradigm isn’t always appropriate in all circumstances. An orchestra, military, police, or football team, to name a few examples, depends on subordination to work effectively as a cohesive unit. The question is how and who decides what is the right place for one system to operate and claim legitimacy over and above the other?
The flashlight culture exposes flaws and defects in the spotlight cultural truth products. The flashlight illumination exposes dangers, risks, omissions, and distortions. Truth becomes stripped of illusions in the process.
Fitting Spotlights and Flashlights into a Unified Lightning System
Every culture has a different interpretation on how to fit these pieces together, and who gets the job, and how those with power are selected, controlled and discharged. How best to light the political stage is a question every country answers in its own way. The reality is we need to find the right combination of subordination and challenge. Last week, I examined the BBC 2012 top-ten list of the largest employers in the world. (Crunching Big Number, Understanding Short Lists.) From the American Defense Department to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the ability to scale huge operations relies on implementing an effective subordination system. A ‘soft’ subordination system explains the presence of Wal-Mart and McDonalds on the same list. Co-ordination on a large scale is impossible without an order and command structure, where insubordination is punished.
The question is whether the Spotlight or subordination system, an absolute one, where flashlights are confiscated and flashlight people’s action are criminalized, can operate effectively at the political and government level. Can a government be run along the lines of an orchestra with a conductor choosing the music, time, length, place of performance and exclude any other orchestra from performing and jail music critics who claim the cello player made several mistakes and the piano needed tuning?
Looking around the world from Thailand, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine, the old consensus on the right mix of spotlight and flashlight culture has broken down. The attempt to contain instability, the messiness of life, leads to fear, and to banish fear is to embrace subordination. There is a belief that salvation rests in choosing the right conductor and letting him run the whole performance. Challengers to the vision are seen as enhancing fear and instability. They are the first violinist who rises and objects to the choice of music. The pendulum swings to subordination. But the nature of pendulum is to swing back, too. In time, the flirtation with expanding the subordination model into the political realm will reinforce a historical lesson about the nature of governing.
As the flashlight culture has gone online, the means of shutting it down are difficult. The digital flashlight exposes hypocrisy, deception, half-truths, cover-ups in a very public way. This is inconvenient and embarrassing for those who banish flashlights and wish to return people’s attention back to the spotlight.
Throwing your opposition in jail or send them fleeing into the mountains and jungle or exile, may work in the short-term, and you can control the performance. But in the long term, people who want classical music will understand they need to accommodate a space for those who love jazz, hip-hop, pop, Hollywood show tunes, and even for those repulsive noise traps called rap, country and Korean boy bands. Politics is a noisy place. When one director plays only one tune you can be sure people will sooner or later find a way to switch the channel. To return to our lighting metaphor, the amount of repression required to neutralize and co-op its flashlight holders would turn the world against those in standing in the spotlight.