Making A Difference Through Questioning Authority

Screenshot source:
Emma Goldman was a Jew born and raised in late 1800s Russia. There was no such thing as dissent in her world, which was "ruled by fear and the ubiquitous secret police, a world in which even the mildest expression of dissent would be summarily crushed."

She joined the Russian revolutionary movement with the intent of overthrowing Russia's leader, the Czar. Once she emigrated to the U.S., she also plotted the assassination of the capitalist Henry Frick as a political statement.

But people admired, and continue to admire Goldman for her belief in freedom. As a young revolutionary she and her peers imagined, as PBS puts it,
"...a society of free equals, a tantalizing Utopia in which all problems could be solved on earth, by ordinary people."
Questioning is the key to freedom. In an 1843 letter to his friend Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx said that change can only happen when we begin to question our thinking - a lot:
"The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions."
Unfortunately, said Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), we can't question ourselves most of the time. This is because our behavior is determined by the unconscious mind, which can only be reached indirectly. For example:
"Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious."
Modern-day business theorist Chris Argyris is known for trying to help organizations change their cultures. But this can only be done, by helping them to look at their misguided assumptions. He states:
"Effective double-loop learning is not simply a function of how people feel. It is a
reflection of how they think—that is, the cognitive rules or reasoning they use to design and implement their actions. Think of these rules as a kind of ‘‘master program’’ stored in the brain, governing all behavior." 
In the toxic organization, people say they want to learn new and better ways of being, but they're blocked because of flawed assumptions. Argyris goes on:
Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high, just as a computer program with hidden bugs can produce results exactly the opposite of what its designers had planned.
In practice, dysfunctional organizations are all alike in one respect. They tend to have people in power who demand allegiance without question. And when people do stand up and say something, they are rapidly shoved aside - either because they are somehow stupid, or crazy, or even disloyal.

This happens everywhere, for example:
  • Governments
  • Businesses
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Charities
It may sound paradoxical, but even in an organization dedicated to free speech, a toxic culture can mean that dissenting voices are silenced. Or voices who sense a disconnect between what they are seeing on the ground, in their lives, and the theories espoused on TV.

So the greatest thing a person can do, who otherwise has no institutional power, is to practice the art and science of questioning. It opens the door to rational thinking and sweeps away the cobwebs of dictatorial assumption, including the assumption that only one approach is right and true and all others are obviously to be discarded.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Freedom and the Problem of Informed Consent

"I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it."
– Col. Nathan R. Jessup (actor, Jack Nicholson; writer, Aaron Sorkin), A Few Good Men

I see a lot of stuff out there criticizing the U.S. on its handling of foreign policy, criticizing the President personally, suggesting that internecine conflict hampers us from making a move, or suggesting that an intelligence agency or secret world conspiracy is behind the many seemingly inexplicable things we see.

You could argue any of these points of view, but in the end your arguments will be flawed. Because you do not know what you do not know. You're not in the room when the foreign policy discussions are held. You aren't the President. You would only have a second- or third- hand account of a story leaked by someone who has a bias or vested interest in portraying things a certain way. And you definitely aren't still on the inside an intelligence agency or the pit of a secret world conspiracy and simultaneously standing on the outside talking about it.

Does that mean the information bubble is hermetic? No, obviously. But it can't be trusted because the nature of secret information is to remain as such.

The real issue is informed consent. We need it, but what if we can't afford it?

What if "the people" need to be protected from themselves in order for the world to survive?

You will respond, and I won't blame you: "That's unacceptable to me," because "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

You will say: "The very same people who claim to 'protect' us will, in a world without informed consent, also be our physical and virtual jailers, and will be impossible to resist or overcome.

You don't want to live in a police state.

I don't have the answer for you.

I can only say that the basic human need for free choice compromises the two opposing models of governance we're seeing in the world today.

* The first is the open dictator model, which essentially says: Our ruling group is in charge, we only care about ourselves, stay out of our way, and if you don't we will kill you.

* The second is the model which says: Our inter-denominational ruling group is in charge, we have to manage this world together, and whoever doesn't want to play nice gets isolated from the rest of us.

The people in charge of these modes of governance don't seem to get it.

They say, in effect, you don't get to know what we know, because your open debate of secret information compromises the integrity of our rule (Model 1) or our ability to keep you safe (Model 2).

They don't understand that freedom is so basic a need that people will die for it. They will exhaust their entire lives seeking it, like a suffocating person chokes for air. They will stand on their sword, ruin their careers, walk away from lives that were formerly bought and paid for with silence.

Open communication is fundamental to freedom. People will not rest. They will force the issue.

People will make up stories or piece them together in order to force communication happen.

And so - since you cannot silence the people even though you may think this is a necessary thing - what has to happen is as much credible communication as possible.

The government, any government, must say: I can tell you this much, this is real information, chew on that. I can't tell you any more.

And the real information has to be as extensive. The data has to be raw and cooked, that is people need data sets as well as an explanation of what those data sets mean. Not an ideological explanation but a narrative.

There arises the question, what happens when the enemy uses this data against us? That is not a light question. Someone has to sit down and think about it, logically, rationally. It's an issue that must be debated, in the open, in public.

I believe that government can do better. Official communication does not have to be clumsy and flat-footed and leave us lurching toward chaos. It can be measured, and reasoned, and believable and calm. It can be the kind of talk that speaks to intelligent adults, as opposed to the substitution of Tweets for speeches. (I cannot tell you how much that irks me.)

It wasn't always this way. Something has gone off the rails. Either the threats are worse and we can't talk about them at all, or the solution is so radical that we can't talk about the vision that is unfolding, and so we try to pass the time in the meantime, hoping that people won't notice.

They notice.

Sometimes I want to crawl into my old TV set, I want to live in The West Wing. I want to be the C.J. who represents Martin Sheen. I want to be Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, a hopeful young Republican admiring the image portrayed by Ronald Reagan.

I know we can get back to where we need to be. We don't have to accept murky silence as the price we pay to avoid Model 1 dictatorship. But we will need an honest debate about freedom and the boundaries of official communication to get there.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Transparency Is Impossible. Now What?

Currently I'm in the middle of Homeland (Season 3), having just finished the latest season of Tyrant on VOD. Before that it was 24: Live Another Day.

I watch the shows and the messages about national security come through loud and clear. This is art, not life but art frequently gives people permission to air things that cannot be said in ordinary discourse:

* From a security perspective, transparency is a ridiculous concept. Information is power and when you give it away, you're giving it to your enemies and not just your friends. Why would you give the enemy your secrets?

 * The facts are much more interesting and complicated than anything the media will portray. Whatever we are getting downstream is not the reality closest to the action. In a democracy, it is that reality that the public wants, needs and has a right to know, in order to make good decisions rather than be inflamed by hype and huff. The question, though, as indicated in #1, is how far can and should you go? If you tell everything, the public is at risk. If you tell nothing, you've surrendered to totalitarianism.

* Public opinion is regularly manipulated. The purpose of doing so is regularly offered as a noble cause, although some are honest enough to simply admit they want power. It is done through the omission of information or the provision of information that is incomplete, misleading or false. 

* The line between bitter enemy and close colleague is not only blurry but ever-changing. We tend to think of enemies as people difficult to understand and remote from ourselves, but actually if you want to gain power over someone you need to bring them close and leverage their interests so as to advance yours. (Only when you have no other choice do you push on their weak spots.)

* Within any social system, there are different factions vying for power.  Some factions attain and maintain power over other factions by holding onto information, or by conducting operations without the other factions knowing (and having the opportunity to "ruin" them).

* The term "crazy" is used as a tool. It may indeed be that the person's mind has snapped. Or it may be a convenient excuse to nail them to the wall so that they don't interfere with someone in power.

* The best national security assets are 1) technical experts with 2) superior judgment about when to break the rules, who are 3) also willing to die for the cause. To be great at this kind of job, you must have absolute mastery of each of these three areas - having one or two but not all three puts everyone else in danger.

What do we do about this as citizens? Perhaps take the time to evaluate multiple perspectives with a critical eye. Refuse to jump to quick conclusions. Consider facts but also the unsaid nature of much that surrounds them. Connect things that don't seem to go together. Be willing to change one's opinion.

Above all, participate.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

How Coca-Cola's "Sharing" Campaign Messed Up Its Brand

This is a can of Coca-Cola.

This can holds memories, sweetness, refreshment, joy.

I don't care how many calories are in this can.

This can is a selfish pleasure, all for me, now.

This is a can of a Coca-Cola with someone's name on it.

It is a sacrilege to all the brand stands for.

By creating this can Coca-Cola has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of its own core product.

And this is the Coca-Cola sharing campaign.

It magnifies the original error.

All I want is a classic Coke. Not New Coke, not a soda with someone else's name.

I don't want to share it.

And I don't understand who messed up what was the #1 brand in American history, or why.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Screenshots via various Google searches for Coca-Cola cans and the "sharing" campaign online.

5 Management Lessons From My First Year At NARA

Screenshot via LeadershipFreak

When I took the job of Digital Engagement Director almost exactly a year ago I had in mind to "live blog" the experience of being a senior, second-level executive with two dozen staff. I thought that it would be cool to make the experience transparent, in all its ups and downs.

Quickly I learned that this was not a good goal to have, because in a job where you're essentially focused on management as opposed to communication content, you need to think about organizational dynamics a lot. And if my experience/training has taught me anything, it's that if you're constantly turning the kishkes (intestines) of a place inside out, it ceases being able to function. Nevertheless, I think the following 5 lessons are both generic enough and specific enough to be meaningful:

1. A person is happy in a job if it suits their personality.  I like mine because I am "commanding, problem solver, want to make a difference, collector of data, adaptable" (from my StrengthsFinder results). What this means is that in most career planning conversations, there is too much emphasis on the type of work a person does, i.e. whether you are a marketer or a welder or a healthcare administrator. (For more on this see Penelope Trunk's career blog.) I appreciate that my boss not only recommended the SF but also ensured we had access to the book and the test itself. I have long been a fan of personality testing, Myers-Briggs, even astrology to align person with job and StrengthsFinder is by far the best.

2. Leadership and management exist on a continuum. Leadership is articulating "where we're going" and demonstrating the will to get there - e.g. taking action to enforce the vision, holding people accountable. Management is ensuring we get there in a measured way, and that people are well taken care of, supported, motivated, understood and provided with clear expectations and a fair system of organizational justice. You can't have one without the other. You may have to adjust one in consideration of the other, e.g. mindless management where you keep the train running on time, but it effectively goes to Auschwitz, is ridiculous and doesn't meet any good goal whatsoever. There has to be a dialogue.

3. You have to know how to listen, but not listen at the same time. In every organization there is going to be a stratosphere of talk. People need information that is not necessarily forthcoming. People want to have information they don't necessarily need. People want to become more important through the positioning of themselves as bearers of information. In every place, there is miscommunication, disinformation and sometimes confusion, because the right people aren't talking to each other or don't understand what the other is saying. You have to take what you hear with a grain of salt, always, understanding that necessarily, "you don't know what you don't know" or what you think you know, you might be getting wrong.

4. Respect for self, other and community are the basic values of every organization. These are values taught at school and they apply everywhere. The organization has to care for the person at the individual level regardless of how "busy" things are. There has to be enforcement of basic human decency between people, mechanisms for not only establishing what we mean by "order" but resolving the normal conflicts that crop up all the time. And recognition of the fact that we exist in a place populated by other people and groups that we will never see, but who are part of our world. This can happen through the establishment of affinity groups, internal social networks, and so on. But ultimately (though work is about work) it has to be about the relationships between people and modeling the highest quality of these.

5. In the end you either like the culture or you don't. I like it at NARA. A lot. It's not so much about the mission, although I could have a philosophical conversation with you about the critical nature of preserving history and how we can't have a democracy without access to "what really happened," at least to the extent we can preserve it. I could talk for days and days about the Google nature of our cultural knowledge and how people search superficially for headlines to gain quick understanding rather than actually looking at texts to draw slow and careful conclusions. I could go on and on about the importance of contextualizing information rather than always abstracting and comparing it with "like," a passion archivists have that is not well understood by people on the outside. But it's not really about all of that, if I am to be truthful. It is about the fact that NARA people are extraordinarily smart, and funny, and cognitive, and low-key and kind and socially appropriate. It is a joy to be in the room with them. It is an honor to work with some of the most respected people in Washington. Although people can't really understand how I fit in there...I see in the culture the qualities that I aspire to have and be known for. And I empathize with the struggle they are going through right now, one in which you recognize all the problems but have to prioritize and triage which you're going to deal with and when.

About being in management.

I saw a really good thing the other day about being an executive, about how you have to accept a kind of superhuman load of responsibility. It's not a job for people who want to clock in at 9 and out at 5. And what I see at NARA, as I saw at USAID and at CBP and the OCC previously - all the federal agencies where I've worked - is that our most senior civil servants take their job extremely seriously. They aren't fat cats living off the taxpayer's dime. They are sitting up at night worrying about how to carry the load effectively.

About civil servants versus political appointees.

It has been sad for me to watch criticism directed at the Administration somehow conflated with what our civil servants are doing, because these are two very different mechanisms and need to be understood each in its own context. Each has its problems that require fixing, but they aren't one and the same.

It also wouldn't be a bad thing to recognize the good work that gets done every day. Maybe it's sort of fun and exciting to criticize the government endlessly, but running a country well is a pretty hard job and not one that you can automate.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Search This Blog