Tuesday, 9 April 2013

First published in the Backbencher 7th April 2014

Professional boundaries – solid or see-through?

The civic world is built by professional boundaries. Normally there is a uniform involved – the sharply pressed suit for the executive, the wig for the judge, the Range Rover or Mercedes for the successful manager. Normally there is a place in which particular actions are performed – the senior management team in the boardroom, the doctor in the surgery, the teacher in the classroom. Normally there is a professional voice which operates by virtue of specific boundaries.

This is what many a social scientist would call a ‘subject position’. It is a position which is both policed – some things can said but not others – and serves to police  – you must do what the professional decides. It also constructs identities – professional people very often feel like they are the subject position they fulfill. In fact many people really believe in their social identities and see their roles in terms of a natural calling, an expression of their innermost being.

Some people feel comfortable in the clothes they wear, others less so. These are discontents – those who don’t buy into the constructed identities they have to fulfill and contest what they see as the artificial boundaries of normality. To them their projected identity feels arbitrary. The social trappings, the emperor’s new clothes and King Lear’s ‘vile lendings’ are so thin and built from such shifting and contradictory grounds that there seems very little to really substantiate the authority being exerted.

For the outsider this artificiality becomes clear when the professional abuses their boundaries or, in fact and not uncommonly, they don’t know really what they are talking about - they are guessing and claiming a legitimacy for what they say only by virtue of their social status. Even worse, at the point the professional decision maker negotiates best position in the market-place, so-called professional standards are routinely ejected to the dustbin in the interests of market share or brutal exigency.

Being ‘professional’ can be genuine but it can also be a smokescreen to the fact that nobody knows what to do in new situations - people are just doing what seems right and what will probably preserve their jobs. In such situations the fragile see-through figure of ‘the professional’ becomes apparent. In the real world decision making is driven as much by hope, guesswork, opportunism and responsibility avoidance as it is by so-called professional knowledge or experience.

The practical reality though is that we need the doctor, the manager and the teacher. We need the structure of professional relations in the same way we need family relations. We need parents to tell their children what to do as a matter of practical management but also, ironically, in order that the children can contest the power being exerted and thereby find themselves. Boundaries, whilst frustrating, are necessary at many levels and in many ways.

Our identities are defined and given status by the society we live in and this is a necessity – how else could we function? But the fact that social identities are necessary, isn’t, it appears, sufficient to confer real meaning and real authority on what ‘the professional’ says.

Operating boundaries in the civic world is a matter of survival. It is impossible to to exercise your duties for long if you don’t. But in these days of deep cultural anxiety the professional has to grip their boundaries both more tightly and more sensitively. Like a hunted animal they have to be constantly alert to potential threat. They live in fear of the next performance review or legal challenge to their authority or shift in the game-plan that will leave them high and dry.

If you’re not any good at operating professional boundaries (probably because secretly you don’t believe in them), you’re likely to be paying a high personal cost. Actually your boundaries are more porous than professional standards expect. Actually you don’t really want to live like that.

How long can you carry on?

Friday, 5 April 2013

John Issitt tries to talk sense

First published in the Backbencher 8th March 2013


We are hard wired with the assumption that the world and the people in it can be understood.  The belief that there are causal, probably simple, underlying explanations that we can find and live our lives by, is fundamental to the human psyche. Surely the world is coherent, surely we can make sense of it, we just have to find the right keys to unlock it. The eighteenth century Enlightenment and the beliefs in science and reason that flowed from it, has structured the western mind with an ironically religious faith that world will yield to sense.

Yet we get the Holocaust, the insanity of wars, the perpetual fact of inequalities reproduced again and again by a system of market capitalism through which there is seemingly no alternative. Our aspirations, our life energies are driven towards sense and coherence, but reality confounds us at every step. And its not just the big questions and dilemmas that contradict sense. What was going on with that fashion for young men to wear their trousers so the gusset was round their knees? Why is Boris Johnson the Mayor of London? I haven’t found anybody who can make sense of these delirious features of the human condition.

Many of the confusions here are due to slippery semantics which serve to put us off the track. Smokescreen delusions comfort us with the implication that actually there really is a sense – we just haven’t found it yet. For example there is what analysts might call a ‘category slippage’ in the movement from ‘sense’ to ‘being sensible’. Was the decision to drop the atom bomb ‘being sensible’ Yes at one level – it saved lives in the long run but it was hardly sensible if you were underneath it. Did it make sense? Yes at one level but no at another. But it is in that movement – that ideological and rhetorically fuzzy movement from ‘sense’ to ‘being sensible’ that humans are lead from a strictly cerebral demand for understanding to the world of action. The problems have beguiled us over the centuries and leave us floundering and struggling with the dilemma. In the Hindu religious tract the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna is on the battlefield. Should he act to take arms against his brothers? He acts but not through the determinations of sense.

Looked at closely it is very often difficult to discern sense either in the world or in the actions of people. Consider the current UK weather patterns – arctic conditions at Easter? The spring buds on the trees that were just appearing 10 days ago are in a state of utter confusion – should they grow? No but their DNA driven reproductive cycle is telling them they must. Consider the panic over the euro and the problems in Cyprus. What sense will all those be-suited bankers, politicians and publics make of that? You will find a localized kind of sense – a sense made by particular people and particular conditions but German, Brussels, Russian and Cypriot ‘sense’ is starkly, and in that case ominously, different. At least it won’t be any sort of universal sense that sorts out a solution – it will only be raw power and self preservation that will do that and the end result will not make much sense if its not you being preserved.

Yet the assumption that somebody or something will be able to make sense of it all is written in the sub strata of our being. Surely we are merely temporarily confused? What are the candidates for a source of sense? God? Well I leave that to you. A super computer? Possibly but I doubt that the multiple processing of zeros and ones will do the trick. The progress of science? Doesn’t look likely given the current state of physics. Aliens? Err.

What about taking a different approach and accepting that we just don’t know -accept that we cannot make sense of it? One of the insights of the normality confounding philosopher Jean Baudrillard, was that that there is nothing more profound than the absence of sense.

Food for thought?