Friday, July 31, 2009

They Came; They Drank; They Left: Group Therapy in the Rose Garden

Apparently the President and Vice President of the United States have nothing better to do than to engage in some group therapy with Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley.

Our commander-in-chief still sees himself as therapist-in-chief. Leader he is not.

Why waste your time negotiating with foreign powers or working with Congress on new legislation when you can down a few cold ones and conciliate a local dispute?

When you do it in plain view of a public that just wishes the whole thing would go away, you are simply abrogating your responsibility to provide leadership.

Obama's therapy session was telling in itself. It was not designed to make the dispute go away; it sought to elevate its importance and to provoke discussion. It seems that Obama believes that the nation is suffering from not having done enough therapy on our race issue.

Among the more interesting commentaries on this kerfuffle was that of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, chaired professor at Harvard Business School, a leading authority on corporate leadership. Link here.

There is good and bad in Kanter's article. First, the not-so-good. For those who do not want to burden themselves with a close examination of the facts of the case, Kanter tells us that when two people of two different races encounter each other, race is always the issue.

Given that assumption, she assumes that the urbane gentleman, her friend Prof. Gates, was humiliated by Sgt. Crowley.

Kanter does not even allow for the possibility that Prof. Gates, by mouthing off to a police officer, humiliated himself. A gentleman does not go for the drama.

I would mention that when Kanter calls Gates a "distinguished professor and gentleman" she is drawing a class distinction.

As I argued in my previous pose on this matter (link here)once you run the situation through your race narrative, then you must conclude that the white man was disrespecting the African-American man, even if he was not.

Kanter does not have to evaluate the situation; she has prejudged it. She finds what she expected to find. And those who might see it otherwise should be subjected, as she puts it, to therapy. That is, to more interpersonal dialogue about race... the better to develop their capacity for empathy.

In other words, the way to overcome racism is to talk about racism. And the way to respect people in the present is to keep reminding them of all the times they were disrespected in the past.

This is what the therapy culture would recommend. The fact that it does not work does not seem to prevent eminent professors of management from telling us to keep trying.

In order to incite our repressed empathy Kanter tells about the white man who is an executive in an Asian corporation. He does not speak the language; he does not totally understand the culture; he cannot participate in the corporate rituals; he is not respected when he offers an opinion at a meeting.

He feels like an outsider. Apparently this means that he can feel what it feels like to be Prof.

Clearly, this is an exercise in specious analogies. However compelling it may feel at Harvard Business School, it does not hold up to minimal scrutiny.

First, if this man is so thoroughly disrespected, how did he get his job? His position belies the notion of discrimination.

Second, does this white man belong to a group that has suffered systematic enslavement and discrimination at the hands of his Asian corporate masters?

If not, why should his experience be analogized to that of Prof. Gates?

Beyond that, Prof. Kanter makes an excellent point when she says that in a world of free trade and international commerce it is necessary for people to learn to get along.

Getting along is the real issue. As the estimable non-Harvard non-professor non-gentleman Rodney King put it: "Why can't we all just get along?"

Getting along is not about drama. And the world of commerce is not analogous to a courtroom drama. It does not run on guilt, suppressed or sublimated.

How can people who come from different parts of the world, who have different life experiences, who were brought up in different cultures... get along? How can they get along when the one was brought up in a society that oppressed, massacred, or enslaved the other?

We are not going to solve these problems by learning what it feels like to live the lives that other people have lived. If you are not African-American you will never really know what it feels like to be African-American. Similarly for every other ethic or racial group.

And dare I say, given the multiplicity of cultures and peoples in the world it is a complete waste of valuable psychic resources to try to feel what it feels like to belong to each and every group one will encounter.

To discover how best to "just get along," look at the way our culture has dealt with the problems created by social mobility. This has been going on for centuries, so we do have something of a test case.

Here Great Britain and America have clearly led the way. In America, even more than in Britain, social status is less based on family, heritage, bloodline, or race than in other parts of the world. In that case, status and prestige can be based on achievement and accomplishment.

Social mobility throws people who have grown up in different circumstances together? How do they learn to get along?

By learning the rules of etiquette and decorum; by practicing civility. Even by inventing new rules.

If rich and poor alike have equal access to the rules of proper behavior they have a way to interact socially, to get along. The important point is that while titles are only available to a privileged few, good manners are available to everyone.

The solution to the problems of social mobility and free trade between nations was simply to be courteous and respectful.

Courtesy means treating people with respect. Ask yourself this: is it respectful to remind your interlocutor that you belong to a higher social class? Of course not. The behavior is rude and disrespectful.

And is it respectful to remind the person that his ancestors belonged to a lower social class? Again, you would not want to do so. The behavior would be rude and disrespectful.

Prof. Kanter is correct to note that the whole situation would have easily have been defused if both parties had acted courteously. The problem is, by all appearances, that only one person acted disrespectfully. That person was her friend, Prof. Gates.

The counseling session in the Rose Garden seems to have been designed to restore the dignity of the distinguished Harvard Professor.

After all, the fact that you have been treated horribly in the past does not give you, or me, or anyone else, license to behave badly in the present.

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