Thursday, October 1, 2020

Reflections on "news" v "messages"

 The news is overflowing with talk of racism, taxes, relief packages, Roe-v. Wade, Affordable Care Act, Supreme Court appointment, pandemic numbers treatments and vaccinations. Each of the topics has relative merit, and to some extent, each gets lost in the turbo-vacuum of power rhetoric, power perceptions, power traditions, power righteousness and power imbalance.

Entrenched power, for centuries, has been the bane of ordinary* people, for the simple, obvious and undisputed reason that those in power consider their power to be legitimate and as ‘permanent’ as possible, and their persons as “legitimate” holders of that power. Whether that power is embedded in a misguided perception that only those with theological training, for example, can be permitted to read holy scripture, as was the case for centuries prior to the printing press, or whether that power is embedded in body, brain and heart cells that declare unequivocally, that white race is superior to all other races, it is the power that is embedded in the dominant culture, that essentially and effectively rules.

Entrenched power, the self-imposed, and too often complicity and sometimes innocently and even naively endorsed and supported by ordinary people right to rule, is not nearly as clearly defined as it once was in a monarchy, or a papacy or a tyranny. Single person rule, while offensive and worthy of evolution, if not revolution, to erode such power, nevertheless, was so clearly visible, identifiable and also removeable, should adequate force(s) be brought to bear. With a single  stoke of a pen a ruler could dispatch an army, a navy, and any number of explorers, traders, conquerors, and empire builders. With a single stroke of a pen, a single ruler could also impose any one of multiple forms of tax, loyalty, feudal harvest, military service and even a geographic boundary.

In the pursuit of that maintenance of single ruler power, the lives of both the holders of such offices as well as many opponents of those specific office holders have been lost. Similarly, when the tolerance, and submission of those governed by tyrants grew too thin to be sustained, any of a number of forms of protest, conflict and even insurrection have erupted. One theory of leadership, deeply embedded in the North American culture, through the writing of Chester Barnard (mid-twentieth century), is that the “governor” can maintain power and authority and responsibility only with and through the consent of the governed, the people over whom s/he has responsibility.

Over time, however, that theory of consent, so lauded by the evolving and increasingly penetrating tactics of persuasion, influence-peddling, classical conditioning of rewards and sanctions for specific and required compliance (or its opposition) has been impacted, and perhaps even dimmed like a sepia photo, through the work of other theorists like Maslow, and Mihaly Csikszent’s “Flow”, Dr. William Ouchi’s Theory Z, (loyalty through a job and well being for life), to some of the more contemporary leadership/management theories, including transformational leadership, leader-member exchange theory, Adaptive Leadership, Strengths-based leadership, and more recently Servant leadership.

Transformational leadership is where a leader works with teams to identify needed change and seeks commitment to bring about that change. Leader-member exchange focuses on the two-way relationship between leaders and followers that develops through three stages. Adaptive leadership attempts to facilitate how organizations adapt to change effectively. Strengths-based Organizational Management (OBOM) focuses on maximizing efficiency, productivity and organizational success through development of ‘strengths’ like computer systems,  tools and people. Servant leadership, as its name implies, posits that the main goal of the leader is to serve through listening, persuading, conceptualizing, applying foresight and stewardship…examples include Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer and Mother Theresa.

Regardless of the relevant and currently deployed theory and model of leadership, underlying all modalities are some critical pieces of rebar that hold the organizational foundation in place: results have to be attained, costs have to be reduced, profits have to be increased. How the equation is framed and executed, including the relative significance of the “people” to the relative significance of the “leader” nevertheless determines the level of trust, compliance, integrity, openness and even effective and efficient “productivity” (however that variable is to be measured).

Power in every organization is interminably shifting, as the wind ripples, or erupts lake waters, dependent on the velocity, endurance, direction and the wind-breaks of that force. Unlike the formal study of physics, however, the flow of energy as political/leadership power and influence seems to be elusive and so far beyond the ken of algebraic equation. Whether or not this power/leadership/influence is amenable and expressible in an algorithm perhaps has been discovered in some high tech lab. Naturally, if and when this power/leadership/influence is finally captured as a finite entity, there will be a tidal wave of highly affluent ‘leaders’ seeking to acquire whatever means is more likely to make the achievement of that “finiteness”.

However, what is even less amenable to a kind of algebraic or alorgithmic definition, is the culture, the mind-set and the degree of compliance/defiance of whatever power and leadership they might be experiencing. Demographics have evolved almost to the power at which “knowing” about others by those seeking to know rivals or exceeds the long-time small-town attribute in which everyone “knows” everything about everyone else. Only, through digital technology, the personal information, collected, curated, compared and then sold and disseminated, has become a marketable commodity. Those whose business, political, cultural, philanthropic, educational, and even ecclesial goals and objectives depend on targeting limited resources toward increasing “revenue” (participation, votes, enrolments, trust donations, sales) rely on this personal “so-called” private information as the GPS for their organization’s growth.

Leadership, in some cases, has devolved to a point where, for example, knowledge of and interpretation of something called “analytics” is more important in assessing talent (especially in professional sports) that the former attributes like character, personality, work-ethic, and those old formerly reliable “bromides” of litmus tests for those in the hiring and selection business. Nevertheless, in whatever organization, corporation or whatever, there is a growing trend toward enhancing and even gildening of the ‘rose’ of the single leader, that is most offensive.

Single leaders, provide clarity and simplicity in a world seemingly gone nuts with the overflow of information and opinion, multiplied by the armies of dispensers of information and opinion (websites, podcasts, blogs, newsletters) to the point where opportunistic power-seekers, (themselves highly needy of adulation and attention) have even administered a kind of political thalidomide to the formerly trusted and reliable public news sources, defaming them as ‘fake news’.

So, one of the first and foremost tasks of ordinary people, is to be able to discern the difference between information demonstrated and verified to be accurate and the layers of opinion that is embedded in the presentation of every piece of information. And because this discernment is becoming increasingly complex, given the subtlety and ubiquity of much of the flow of paid advertising, marketing and political messaging, and unvarnished hard news.

Just recently, Susan Delacourt wrote in The Star, a column that took note of the difference between “messages” and “news”. As a long-time highly regarded columnist based currently in Ottawa, Ms Delacourt is growing frustrated with the plethora of “messages” that are being churned out as a method of ‘branding’ a political messenger. Is that messenger a “right” or “left”-leaning public figure? Is the (likely) press release inevitably devoid of hard information, and full of blathergab that reinforces the nudge the author (and/or his/her publicist) seeks to put on the scales of public opinion. Telling the people of a constituency the ‘brand’ the political operative knows will resound favourably among the ‘locals’ is another way of gobbling up free media coverage, given that many local media outlets themselves gobble up press releases from Ottawa, in their relentless pursuit of their own readership, who are themselves, ready and pliable consumers of the latest ‘gossip’ of the life of their candidate. Feathering that local nest is also like a saving account of public acceptance, anticipating a time (again almost inevitable) when the party or the candidate him/herself will stub a toe and will need to draw on that reserve account of public acceptance as an antidote to the bad news.

Some 40% of the American voting public in about to cast a ballot for trump, in the upcoming presidential election. Many of them are proudly attired in t-shirts blaring the epithet VOTE YOUR FEELINGS! This, to remind others that, regardless of whatever the president utters, does, or does not do, how one feels about him (as ordinary, a doer not a talker, a judge-factory, an abortion warrior, a health-care destroyer, as plain-if-vulgar speaker) matters much more than anything else. The obvious and indisputable facts that that he lies, that he defames everyone including American allies, that he fails to implement measures that would prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths, hundreds of enchained children separated from their parents. The feelings of those voters, apparently, take precedence over such glaring features of his tenure including a denial of knowing David Duke, a denial of knowing the Proud Boys (while ordering them to stand back and stand ready), the denial of empirical science, even if it is continuing to evolve) while exhorting governors to open schools and businesses, thereby threatening thousands of lives.

The “messaging” is an expression that comes from the corporate world, a world so dominating, ever so subtly, that much of North America hardly recognizes, and certainly would mostly deny the seduction we have permitted. Even the churches and the universities now boast or complain, depending on their relative affluence and attendance numbers, of needing to “serve” those in their orbit, or to “gather” new recruits in order to maintain or to grow their value. The public relations business is the heart and mind of the messaging business. How to manage a crisis, especially, has taken on a whole vocabulary, a methodology and a contractual relationship between the practitioners of the new business and the organizational or individual resident of the crisis. Corporations, and by default, individuals seeking to reclaim a public trust and reputation turn to the professional “message-makers” whose task it is, for considerable fees, to transform a public debacle into an easily forgiven or forgotten mis-step into a ‘win’ another of those “measureable” turning points in the life of an organization or an individual.

News, like the numbers of deaths and mental defects that will remain with the children in Flint Michigan, for example, are so painful and so tragic, that their capacity to continue to impact the life of the nation has faded, partly through the deluge of other competing headlines, and partly through the cultural tendency and proclivity to deny really painful information. Similarly, the encased and separated children at the border is another piece of news that has faded from public consciousness, in the tsunami of emotive sludge pouring through the president’s twitter feed, and into the Fox “news” channel.

There is an oxymoron, if I ever heard one, “The Fox New Channel”….no longer a channel for the dissemination of news, it has become the no longer alleged, but now openly agreed, official mouthpiece of the occupant of the Oval Office. The capitulation of Fox to the Oval Office, rendering Sean Hannity a literal subject to be channeled by the president, in pursuit of re-election, has effectively elevated propaganda to the level of formerly diligently researched, objectively confirmed, and articulately reported news. And once propaganda is indistinguishable from news and reliable verifiable news, in the minds of millions of voters, regardless of the reasons for that merging, the healthy pulse and the energetic breathing of a democracy, in medical terms, has to be considered in danger.

Whether that democracy can be judged to be ‘on life support’ or merely ‘in a coma’ or perhaps ‘under the influence’ (of a seduction), or even ‘infatuated like an adolescent’….the diagnosis seems irrelevant so long as the lifestyle choices, habits, perceptions and attitudes of that forty percent continue to be locked inside the cult.

Can the other sixty-odd percent provide the needed naloxone (opioid antagonist) to render the American body politic recoverable from this nightmare?

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