Archive for July, 2015

Affinity and dissent

July 29, 2015

Strongly hierarchical cultures prize consistency and loyalty above independent thinking and creativity. They are stereotypically hide-bound in their resistance to novelty and dissent. This is a constant source of frustration to well-meaning bureaucrats and scientists in large public institutions. So what would explain this pattern of behavior?

If you map object relations theory onto organizational behavior patterns, you can see that the glue that holds a hierarchical organization together is affinity. Mature levels of affinity that can tolerate disappointment (and even censure) are cultivated through patronage and compliance checks, so that subordinates take for granted the correctness and support of their supervisors. You could say they identify with their superiors emotionally the way a dependent child identifies with a parent, internalizing a sense of guilt when they find themselves at odds with their organization’s rules and expectations.

Jane Jacobs argues in Systems of Survival that there are market-oriented cultures that diverge from this model, prizing creativity and intellectual independence above loyalty and generosity. But even firms that are market-oriented in structure can have hierarchical internal cultures that resist independent thinking and suppress dissent. A family business can be very conservative in its values, prone to patronage politics and hierarchical modes of thinking. The business where I work now is a good example of this.

Why is dissent and rule-changing such a painstaking process? In the modern world, democratic decision-making is the norm, and almost all laws and statutes are subject to public discourse and review. But in practice, organizational change is a cumbersome process characterized by high levels of risk and resistance.

To answer this question, you might ask, what conditions foster and encourage dissent? Jacobs would argue that these are market conditions, those governed by strong expectations of honesty and autonomy, where contracts are entered into freely and in good faith. She characterizes markets as naturally open to diversity, in which collaboration among strangers and aliens is the norm. In contrast, hierarchical organizations are closed systems, competitive and secretive with outsiders, and their internal relationships are characterized by top-down dependencies rather than egalitarianism and autonomy.


What, then, are the psychosocial conditions that foster and encourage dissent? They must be characterized by horizontal rather than vertical distributions of status, that is, peer-to-peer relationships. Friendships as opposed to families, colleagues as opposed to supervisors and subordinates, acquaintances as opposed to authority figures.

And there is an important element of trust involved in mobilizing dissent. For creative solutions to arise from independent thinking, there has to be a sense of confidence in the intentions and credibility of the innovator. Here the tension between affinity and dissent is at its most paradoxical. Because the strong bonds of affinity in hierarchical organizations impose a sense of guilt on those who dissent, but in the absence of trust, dissent would go nowhere.

This is perhaps related to the argument Jacobs makes that hierarchical and market-oriented cultures are deeply symbiotic. Perhaps a market-oriented culture nested within a hierarchical society could tap into a sense of affinity just strong enough to inspire trust, but not intense enough to smother dissent. In the same way, a hierarchical organizational culture nested within a market-oriented business model is reluctantly susceptible to organizational change – there are a few important changes going on where I work that show how successful dissent can be when market pressures are in play.

The implications for the study of neoliberalism and Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about the frontiers of justice are interesting. I’ll try to circle back to the topic of trust in market-oriented relationships at some point, to explore how trade and affinity are related. In my earlier concept map of aggression and love labors, I situated commerce in a quadrant governed by rational decision-making and love, as opposed to irrational decision making and aggression. That’s not how I typically think of commerce, but that’s the direction Systems of Survival is leading me in as I explore aggression theory in connection with the Cultural Cognition Project now.

In particular, I want to look at risk-perception as a cultural cognition phenomenon that is governed by both issues of affinity and measures of the credibility of dissent. I want to build on this thought-provoking paper from the Cultural Cognition Project in situating risk communication in a neoliberal state where liberalism is the ostensible ethos of public discourse, but (and this is something the CCP does not adequately address) hierarchically-oriented mega-firms play a decisive role in programming the mass media and setting the policy agenda.

Hand-offs and the attention economy

July 5, 2015

The cruelty of bystander indifference is a concept I spent a lot of time writing about last year and the year before that, and this year I think my understanding of the concept is a little more mature. But only a little bit. From my readings on Object Relations Theory, I would have to say there was something infantile about my levels of existential angst at that time and the black-and-white thinking I directed at other people, depending on whether or not they appeared to be meeting my needs. Now I feel more restraint about complaining, but when I sit down to write, the themes are often the same.

The resolution of those abandonment fears into a sense of self-sufficiency makes blogging regularly possible again, at least. I had gotten too strident to be able to stand the sound of my own voice for a while there.

Returning to the huge volume of notes I accumulated while I was unemployed, I found a passage that needs no revision to reflect what I understand about empathy and its limitations now. It was a response to a scene with Hekabe and Agamemnon by Euripides, in which the enslaved queen is entreating the same conquering king whose men just ordered the death of her daughter (as a funeral sacrifice for Achilles) for justice concerning the death of one of her sons.

Perhaps we secretly fear embarrassment when distracted, but unexpectedly confronted with a pain or an injustice that is not fleeting. There is always eventually the problem of needing a decent exit.

In this respect, it’s as if the ancient directives not to spurn the needs of lepers are about not turning your back on those who reveal a pain no one can relieve, asking only that you acknowledge the reality that their pain is a source of distress that they cannot face alone, given an opportunity to solicit understanding kindness from someone who means them well.

I remember a certain look that crossed my face while I was reading this scene. I suddenly sat back against a concrete bench where I was reading in the shade and felt my face fall, deeply to the left and less deeply to the right, the deepest frown I have ever felt. It is the only time I have had a palpable epiphany while reading anything at all. I look for that frown sometimes in the expressions of an actor, but I have never seen one like it yet.

The line was, “Shit.
No mortal exists who is free.”

Now I find myself as unsympathetic as they come. I work in a neighborhood where attitudes are brash and abrasive, and I sell meat even though I’ve resolved not to eat meat or milk or eggs myself. I cajole people to buy even more of it, and most of my customers are obese. Many of them, judging from their work clothes or the state of their cars, frankly can’t afford our prices, and I’m usually glib with them about the sticker shock. It’s especially distasteful when an immigrant child tricks her grandmother into ordering $20 worth of food, seeing the shock on their faces when they realize how small the portions are for that amount of money.

At any rate, it’s a good laboratory for studying aggression theory. Right now I’m putting off further work on that until I’ve had time to read more myths – I want to try something I’m calling “queering Freud” but I want to ground it in an analysis of actual mythology, since Freud’s theory hinged on an interpretation of myth.

And the long walk to and from work gives me a lot of time to reflect on abstract ideas and enjoy the outdoors.

I noticed something surprising on my way to work earlier this week. There’s something ugly about vulnerability to me now. Ugly but sensitive, poignantly alive, so that I feel a pang of longing when I notice it, while at the same time I feel profoundly repulsed.


I think it’s because of the coarseness of relationships where I work now. The cramped workspace, the constant sense of urgency, the friction with new management and the clumsiness of the hand-offs from top to bottom in the chain of command. I used to wonder why people who worked there laughed so much at their frustrations instead of addressing them head-on, but now the sense of futility has gotten to me, too.

Frustration is almost the wrong word, it has more active connotations. Disappointments might be better suited to this context. One is continually feeling let down by one’s peers and the customers we deal with, inconvenienced and disrespected without provocation. The disappointments accumulate relentlessly, in an impersonal way, as if under a gravitational pull.

Learned helplessness must be something other than a phenomenon of abnormal psychology, for this to be true. I see it as a social construction out of highly interdependent castes of ritual laborers with no independent survival skills or tenure rights. The potential to be freed from subsistence work to pursue highly skilled arts and sciences is what differentiates civilization from absolute poverty, but unemployment and underemployment are the normal corollaries of urbanization.

But normal and inevitable are not the same thing. Everything susceptible to analysis is susceptible to reform. Hand-offs are the main problem at work – often rude, sometimes ignored, and always consequential. One reason I work at a restaurant and not in an office is that I don’t interview well, and I think this has to do with skill in hand-offs. Everyone I work with is bad at this, to varying degrees.

According to what I’ve read, bad hand-offs are also the leading explanation for harm-causing medical errors. Again, I think it is a difference of degrees.

The main problem with hand-offs, in my experience, is that you have to get someone’s attention and tell them to do something in order to complete a hand-off, and no one likes to be interrupted or told what to do. It’s an attention economy problem, one that advertisers have a very fine-grained understanding of, and if marketing departments can unriddle the problem, surely there’s a way to manage the day to day business of team work, too.

I need to dig out some of my notes on team work and medical errors and share them with the management, along with Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. This job may be a stop-gap solution to an ongoing job search for me, but I’ve been at it for over a year now, so I have a stake in it.

Besides, it could be an interesting experiment, to see what they make of these ideas for themselves.