Saturday, 20 September 2014

Plausible Deniability - The Meme That Drives Modern Exclusion

The sky should be the limit
 Ever try swimming without water, or playing tennis on your own? Both are zero sum games that go nowhere. It’s the water that provides the buoyancy and if you partner does not return your serves you run out of balls, the game has to stop.

Tidal wave of impacts
Modern discrimination is not about calling people nasty names or epithets. That is so yesterday. Use the “N” or “P” word and most modern fascists would go “tut tut” and all liberals would jump down your throat. Such blatant abuse is universally despised and indefensible. Modern discrimination is not like this at all, on the contrary it is plausibly deniable. It manifests as little actions which taken individually have little weight, and which if responded to make the actor look hyper sensitive or even paranoid. Examples, say in the context of a meeting would be; repeatedly forgetting a participant’s name; not making eye contact; not listening or paying attention to what they say, followed by not referring to anything they say; not inviting their views on the subject; not inviting the subject to participate in the group conversation; being distant from them or sometimes being over familiar in a way that violates their personal boundaries. None of these actions are on their own sufficiently weighty to merit a response without looking aggressive or defensive. Together however, they form a tidal wave of impacts that exclude the person from the meeting literally as if they had never been there.

Plausible Deniability
Because none of the individual actions are strong enough to merit a response they become plausibly deniable. Plausible deniability was a doctrine first devised by the CIA in the fifties as a tactic for protecting senior officials from the consequences of official malfeasance. If the senior officials knew nothing of what was being done they could publicly plausibly deny whatever they were accused of thus protecting themselves from any legal or political blow-back. In this world of smoke and mirrors no one knows what is going on or indeed if anything is going on at all. If there is no discriminatory behaviour then there is no problem to solve. The denial and deniability of modern discrimination is its very defence.

Exclusion always impacts performance (pic by Blogman)
The impacts of exclusion by tiny acts of non-acknowledgement, each plausibly deniable, for a business, an institution or a society is always catastrophic. The excluded party‘s performance declines as the motivation to participate drops following habitual exclusion.  Jane Elliot and her controversial Blue Eyes Brown Eyes experiment with third grade American schoolchildren dramatically shows what happens to performance when people are stereotyped and systematically excluded. I found it a powerful tool for teaching management skills to very adult senior executives of multinational corporations round the world, and the lessons are clear. This decline in output or performance by the excluded party provides an excuse or rationale for further exclusion, after all they’re just not pulling their weight. After a while the victim of exclusion is presented as the cause of their own downfall if not the perpetrator of their own “self” exclusion.

The Glass Ceiling - palpable but deniable
Just like the lottery, you've got to be in it to win it. Without  a paid ticket there is no chance of scooping the jackpot. Without participation in the meeting, the business, the society, the discussion, there is no way of constructively influencing it or maintaining your performance. Any more than you could swim without water. Now think about politics. How do disenfranchised groups feel and what forces are at play in their disenfranchisement? Think about why as many as 45% of Scots voted to become independent in the recent   referendum. Think about how women feel in the work place - are they really included, and how does this affect their output? Think about race and how minority ethnics are included or excluded in the work place. I became self-employed when I realised I’d reached a glass ceiling in the UK. The stereotype of an articulate, cultured, well-travelled, well-educated black male who was focused and determined just did not exist in the popular imagination. The presence of the very few prominent non-caucasian men in senior positions just feeds the plausible deniability of the possibility of discrimination. My work environments responded by just ignoring my existence and then very plausibly denied it. If this ever happens to those who are less thoughtful or life experienced, the consequences can be far more dire. Younger men with less life experience are infinitely more vulnerable to extreme, uber-radical ideas that give them a sense, however fantastical, of belonging and being worthy. It will of course always be their fault for falling prey to nihilism in the case of religious fanatics, but let’s not imagine that the environment played no part in this awful scenario.

The big issue is the plausible deniability of how exclusion works, for with denial comes the option to not take responsibility for the tiny acts which together create a tidal wave of impacts.