Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shadow Boxing

Transparency has its limits.

My campus recently got into a nasty little kerfuffle over something that shouldn’t have been an issue at all. Some very smart people became uncharacteristically enraged, and had trouble even putting together a reason for it.

After a few days of baffled questioning, I think I’ve got a bead on it. They were mad about issue A, but there was no obvious venue in which to discuss it. So when issue B came along -- the moral equivalent of a typo -- the frustration with issue A boiled over. And the conflict was as unsatisfying as it was precisely because it wasn’t about what it was about.

In subsequent discussion, a few folks started with the usual mantra about transparency, but actual transparency discredited the rage. That didn’t really help, of course, because the animating anger was about something else.

Lesboprof has a wonderful post up about learning to edit herself as an administrator. That’s hard to do, especially when you realize after an extended and draining conflict that you were shadowboxing the entire time.

There’s a real tension between transparency and discretion. I’ve learned that I have to try to edit my own emotions, while being utterly transparent about work goals. When a professor who has shown herself, again and again, to care only about the next course release comes along with yet another proposal for a project, I make myself resist rolling my eyes and try to pretend that I’m naive. It’s an emotional lie, but a work truth; even annoying people can have good and useful ideas, and peremptorily dismissing them for being annoying would carry a real cost. It may be inauthentic in the moment, but moods can lie.

Transparency works fairly well when the conflict is correctly identified. But that assumes that the issue at hand is actually the issue at hand. When it isn’t, transparency about the proxy issue won’t really get the job done.

To be clear, I don’t think that (most of) the parties to the conflict were being deliberately deceptive. The issue was more a lack of self-awareness, or perhaps misunderstood courtesy, than actual lying. But the fact of shadowboxing rendered transparency irrelevant. Shadows are already transparent.

Getting to a deeper transparency -- “what are you really angry about?” -- is maddeningly difficult. People don’t always know their own motivations, and might not want to share them if they did. And amateur psychiatry as a response to dissent has a dark enough history that it would be wise to tread lightly.

The only method I’ve found that ever works -- and it’s not foolproof -- is slow, patient listening. It’s emotionally inauthentic, but necessary. And even there, it only works with some people, some of the time. Some people are just too far gone, and some just enjoy being angry.

In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out a venue in which to discuss issue A, so we can stop the misplaced histrionics. I’ll be happy to have a transparent, cards-on-the-table discussion of issue A, just as soon as we can admit that it’s what we’re actually talking about.