31 December 2012

An Honest Conversation

Everyone has their own notions of how to "wrap up," blogwise, the end of an old year. For me it seems as good a time as any to try, at least, and take stock of where we as an American society are going. And why we keep failing to get there. Or so it would seem. Anyhow, whatever other factors may be involved, and however we may solve or fail to solve or resolve our fiscal and other cliff issues, for me one key issue remains at bottom of the cup, as it were, when all else has been drunk or spat out. It is this old business of social trust. That, along with our persistent failure to be fully honest about its real importance, or even non-importance, in our 21st-century lives.

Note how every so often, in this “Bowling Alone” generation, you run across an article mourning the loss of a certain hard-to-pin-down something or other we call community. Which I suppose in practical terms, as often as not, translates into grief and worry over a loss of trust. And in a sense the mourners are right. After all, how long can you enjoy even playing on a bowling team minus a certain rudimentary level of trust on both sides? And after being the repeated target of ridicule for playing badly, or of envy or “sabotage” for playing “too well,” doesn’t even the most ardent team-bowler reach a point where it’s more fun playing alone?  

In sum, whenever you want to have fun with other people, it always helps to have people around whom you feel comfortable and at ease. And few things are easier than feeling at ease around folks you know you can trust. 

But now suppose you had decided you wanted to be a team bowler of real vision. And I do mean real vision. Imagine you were to start seriously thinking beyond the mere fun of the (current) players, to the future good of the team. And suppose you’ve already defined the good of the team as one that habitually runs through any number of existing team members – uses and discards them, to put it plainly – in pursuit of the perfect bowlers. How far, in that case, do you want bonds of firm trust existing among players who very shortly will be jostling for the few secure places on the deck of an ever-faster-moving ship?      

And so I sometimes wonder if trust between individuals (trust among institutions being an entirely separate matter) isn’t rather grossly over-rated these days. Especially as a means, not of having fun, or of amusing ourselves or others, but of getting really important things done. And in particular many of the things deemed most urgently and profitably worth doing nowadays. Just how important, after all, is trust among individuals in certain modern work situations? And especially when the most direct and immediate benefit of their work is that which accrues, not to the human agents themselves, or even to their individual customers, but rather to the institutions they respectively serve? I’ll grant you, a good deal of today’s economic activity still involves the serving of individual human beings. Yet note how much of that benefit to ordinary folks – like you and me – is secondary, indirect, contingent. Ask yourself honestly, how much of that benefit depends on how successfully – or even, it may be, how ruthlessly – we all cling to the primary beneficiaries: those notoriously hard-to-clutch life-rafts* known as companies, or corporations, or God knows how many other employers of every description, private or public, legal or illegitimate?    

*Indeed one wonders if our rafts aren’t becoming expressly designed to yield less and less handhold and foothold. And that just as the waters are becoming choppier, or more shark-infested. In truth, I’m often moved to ask what will be the future value of us mere humans, even as individual customers, apart from the degree and quality of our attachment to – or better yet, identity with? – some “Inc.” I still shudder to recall how, not too long ago, I was trying to gain entrance to a (now apparently) high-security building for a private appointment. I must have been asked at least 3 times by separate individuals (and all in the space of less than half an hour): 
“What COMPANY are you with?” 
And who knows if, in the not-too-distant future, an affirmative answer to that question becomes the one – and only – sure means of facilitating any transaction? Perhaps the time isn’t far off when your company or other institutional affiliation will be the blanket that covers a multitude of counter-terror suspicions and uncertainties. But, once again, in that event it will be the collectivity (i.e, that which we humans create), rather than the individual (that which we have been Divinely created), whose rights, needs and privileges are deemed primary.

But now I want you to picture an even more curious turn of events. Imagine that more and more of this, shall we say, human component in any institution is in fact taking on the character of a skin the latter acquires and sheds, or of feathers it grows and moults. Suppose that, as with any barnyard chicken, the health of the institutional organism depends on the ease and speed with which it can shed once-functional human accoutrements which have since become (or are now deemed to be) useless appendages. In that case, why should the organism care to invest in precisely those relationships, typically involving a deep and mutual trust among its human cells, as will incur the most burdensome obligations down the road? What if, indeed, even the most elementary forms of trust became an impediment to smooth functioning? Imagine I’m your boss. I trust you to do a good job, and so far that trust has been rewarded. You in turn trust me to keep employing you, and so far that trust has been rewarded. But suppose I, or others above me, were most wisely to determine that the very continued health of the institutional organism, of which you and I are both cells, depended on my freedom to fire you at once, and without a hint of anything in the least resembling either forewarning or “good” reason. Picture, if you can, some future “enhanced” barnyard hen evolving the power to shed feathers at will – in preparation for those times, say, when emergency moulting may be necessary. Well, and what of it? Why should any robust future egg-producer, healthily immersed in the struggle for existence, have to worry herself over the fates of those feathers “unnecessarily” discarded? Is any one feather – or any whole coat for that matter – indispensable?      

Now I’ll grant you, even some of the most automated of our productive activities still require, at one remove or another, the use of human creatures as well as human creations. Yet how hard it is, sometimes, to resist the impression that both most and least automated modes of work are coming to involve human beings in a somewhat attritioning way. A manner not wholly unlike the way making paper involves trees. In each case there can be sometimes very little appreciable difference between using and using up. It is true that in becoming a book a tree acquires a certain remarkable - albeit wholly untree-like - dignity. One might even say that the tree has finally become free of the burden (or alternatively, some few might argue, the privilege) of being itself. But whatever final value such dignity may have, it remains one that gives us precious small notion, if any, of what the original dignity of the tree in itself was once like. Much less what that same dignity was once worth. Now most of us would agree, I think, that a tree has very little about it of we’d call spirituality, assuming it has a spirit at all (but cf. Romans 8: 19-22 for a decidedly more hopeful view of the spiritual prospects of trees, plants, rocks, creeping things, etc). We also safely assume that, whatever “spirit” may ultimately be or mean, we humans have a good deal more of it than other living things. So that a tree may be cut to pieces and yet lose comparatively little of what was a most minimal spirit to begin with. Whereas I imagine most of us can think of instances in which a human creature may be to all appearances physically unchanged, and yet spiritually reconstituted in such ways that make her all but unrecognizable. Perhaps even insufferable.  And not just to her closest loved ones – parents, spouse, children, etc – but, I daresay, even to herself. My point is not that, like the tree become paper, the human worker dies or disintegrates in being so used – at least not right away. My point is that, however many genuine and valuable future uses a tree may acquire in becoming paper, it will never again have recourse to those older uses and pleasures it enjoyed when it was being most itself. It will never again experience that peculiar good, let us say, with which God was once pleased to make it, and to fill it. In a similar way, even a quite highly-placed worker – even sometimes, I venture to think, a CEO – may become so thoroughly adapted to a particular set of uses that, like the paper once a tree, she ceases to be much use or good for anything else. Or at least much use that’s much of any good.
Not, mind you, that there’s anything God made that He can’t remake and renew. My question is whether any instrument we create for the sake of our future power – be it institutional, procedural or technological – has the right to test and strain us to the limits of our present humanity. To drag us to the sort of brink, as it were, from which only God can turn us back. To strain us in ways that, I’ll admit, may be of immense benefit – well, perhaps not to our own human longevity, but at least to that of the post-human instrument we are serving (and even, arguably, to its “welfare”*). But ways that may not only close us off from our older, deeper, pre-specialized selves. They may also cause whatever part of us is left to become more and more unliveable and insufferable. And, again, not just to our loved ones, but to our own souls.

*Though, to the best I can determine, only so far as that welfare is defined as inversely proportionate to any sense of permanent human obligation. 

I wrote that last sentence almost on the assumption of practically anybody who hears it being appalled by such a result. But the modern reality is that a good many of us see little or nothing wrong with such use of human beings, at any level of an institution. And that, no matter how seemingly degraded or dispirited it may leave the great bulk of its employees, or how apparently debauched and corrupted it may render its highest levels of management. And you know, even assuming the worst (at least from one standpoint), what difference does it make? What does it matter how far our labor force is reduced to "machines," or our management swollen to monsters? And both made ultimately, if not utterly, miserable? Logically speaking, how far can any of us afford to be invested in the future of any one human soul? I mean, so long as our primary concern be with the immortality of the post-human instrument?  

At all events – and regardless of your opinion of my logic – let no one say an advanced, intimate and pervasive degree of social distrust doesn’t also have its social uses, and economic utilities. And in particular when it comes to people we must work or interact with very closely and collaboratively. Or whose ongoing services we require for one reason or another. Indeed, unless I wholly misread it, our modern dogma is that there are vastly more important things than trust between even the closest collaborators in any enterprise. First and foremost, there is everything that flows from our modern definition of Liberty. Remember, the present wise Age has more or less pre-defined the essence of liberty as freedom from encumbering obligation. And that to pretty much any one and every thing. The freest individual is the most “unfettered” – the one best able to cut even the most traditionally binding ties at will, and with the least shame or fear of social stigma. In a word, we hypermoderns like – or claim to like – nothing better than to be free of each other. It’s not exactly the way we were made; let’s just say it’s the way we’ve more or less created or fashioned ourselves. After which, of course, not satisfied with being merely our own gods, we go on to create institutions, procedures, tasks, etc, in more or less our own image. And then we marvel at how easily and quickly the various profit-making and other organizations we create come to embrace that same “freedom”-loving side of our human nature, and human striving. Once again, we like our independence. So why shouldn’t the various works we’ve fashioned like theirs? Why shouldn’t they want nothing better than to be free of us?    

But if we define freedom above all as independence and detachment, then surely the ultimate detachment must include freedom from those most irksome and crippling of all obligations: those we feel towards people we know we can trust, and on whom we know can depend. Let’s face it: If there’s one individual whom most of us find hard to turn our backs on, it’s the one who comes through - both for us and for the success of our operation - again and again and again. Conversely, if there’s one sort of person to whom most of us feel not just very little obligation, but little or no grounds for being obligated, it’s somebody whom we feel compelled not to trust. How easy it is to cut her off without a backward glance, and all the more so if we have reason to believe, or even plausibly suspect, she may be taking advantage of us. 

My key question is, Are these two classes of people really as opposite, or even as different, as we typically imagine them to be? And even assuming they are – again, if we truly value our utmost freedom, isn’t there some way we can reduce these seemingly opposite categories to one odious class?     

After all (I may argue to myself), how do I know I can trust either of you? And for how long? And under what degree of pressure and extremity?        

So now, instead of polarizing the two categories, let’s try to conceive the reverse situation. Let’s see if I as an employer can’t get the best of both worlds. Suppose, again, that I’m your boss. And that, despite a wealth of both data and personal experience to the contrary, I’ve convinced myself that I’m supremely wise not to trust you. It may even have got to the point where I fervently believe I can’t get any least bit of good work out of you “on your own” – that is, apart from my own constant, hectoring, badgering interference. Otherwise known as micromanagement. But to what purpose? What conceivable advantage might that set of dogmas – regarding not just you but perhaps all my employees? – yield to me in the short term? And to my institution in the long? Among other things, might it not just prove the one soundest moral argument for, on the one hand, paying you less (or even trying to get away with paying you as little as possible)? While, on the other hand, continuing to require of you more, and more, and more? Until such time, that is, as I find I have no further need of you at all (even though, why, just the other week I may have needed you, working to your utmost limits, every blessed minute of an utterly routine, 6-day, 60-hour stretch). In which event the best service you can now render me is to get out of my face, my space, my life, as quickly as possible.       

Because if there’s one thing more burdensome than somebody you can’t trust or rely on, it’s somebody on whom you know you can. 

“Now don’t get me wrong: she’s a very good worker, given the right amount of pressure. But you’ve got to keep ON her – ALL the time.”  

“I see. Keep her always more or less on the edge of want, and she’ll keep coming to work.”  

“Exactly. And keep her always more or less on the edge of instant termination, and she’ll keep doing good work. Until, of course, I decide to terminate her anyways. You know, just as a reminder – to both of us – of who really needs whom.”

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