Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Controlling defection and deviance

I was talking in the last post about Stanford professor Robert Sutton's book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. He says assholes are never worth the damage they do to a company, and should be changed or expelled.

This forcibly brings up the issue of how you encourage cooperation between people, and control deviance.

I discussed in an earlier post how the left tends to frustrate its desire for egalitarian social progress in practice, by refusing to deal with those who exploit or leach off society (unless they are "the rich" or "bankers").

The left/ liberal demand is to be 'inclusive' no matter what. Deviance is often explained away by structural forces or societal neglect, with little role for individual responsibility. Criminals or potential terrorists must be appealed to , and a perfect example must be set by society at large before deviants can be expected to comply. Equality is all.

This drives much of the right nuts. They believe breaking the link between individual behavior and consequences undermines the culture and demoralizes society as a whole.

Any society needs a way to deal with deviants. Not everyone can be 'included'. Some people must be "left behind,", or at least held responsible for their own actions.

How we treat the less powerful

However, the Sutton book also rightly argues that one of the best indicators of civilization is how the more powerful treat the less powerful in society. If you regularly "kick down", you are likely an asshole yourself.

And that produces a strong political force as well - a desire to be compassionate and 'just', a feeling that people should not be mistreated just because they are disadvantaged, or less educated, or less skilled. The underdog must not be kicked too much.

You want to control selfishness and deviance without becoming selfish and deviant yourself.

The trouble is I think these two instincts, responsibility and compassion, get confused or at cross-purposes. As the asshole example shows, the deviant and selfish can often be more powerful than their targets.

In fact, as Sutton discussed, more power tends to make people behave badly. Power corrupts. That applies just as much to union leaders or trail lawyers or big media as corporate CEOs or senior bureaucrats.

Sometimes the less socially powerful can also be very powerful in a small-scale, tyrannical way. A gang leader may not have the formal power or respect in society as a whole that a Senator or CEO does. But he may have more actual power of life and death over his followers, and more power to inflict unhappiness and mayhem and damage on an area.

An imam might be part of an unpopular immigrant minority. But he may also participate in forced marriages or even turn a blind eye to honor killings.

The less powerful may also be genuinely less deserving. In the standard liberal view, everyone has equal rights, and their personal history is not relevant. But what someone has done with their life and the opportunities they actually have has to mean something as well. Someone who chooses to devote their lives to crystal meth or cocaine should not get as much respect - or help - as someone who is in trouble because they have fallen sick or are injured.

Power is on a different axis than deviance. The powerless and poor are not simply because of same that fact also admirable and just and deserving.

The impulse to be very careful and suspicious when the powerful want to control the less powerful is a noble one. But "compassion" in that case can also produce social damage.

Compassion for criminals and excessively sensitive policing can condemn whole neighborhoods to be terrorized by drug lords and petty thieves instead.

Detoxifying the brand

I was partly thinking about this because I read an article the other day in the UK Telegraph about the Tory party conference in the UK. Even now, twenty years later, it claims the Conservatives still have to "detoxify" their brand. They had come to be seen by the mid-1990s as the mean-spirited, nasty party, which partly led to 13 years of Labour government.

It is very dangerous for politicians to find herself portrayed as "mean-spirited." But at the same time, society as a whole will not trust politicians who fail to deal with social problems, or believe the only answer is more government involvement and more resources.

No-one should be excluded or treated badly just because they are less powerful or influential. But people should be excluded if their behavior is irresponsible or wrong or evil. Too much value-neutrality undermines this.

The best way to deal with deviance and irresponsibility is to discourage it in the first place. Culture and socialization and moral expectations ought to deal with most of the problems long before actual sanctions are necessary.

We clearly do not want petty tyranny.

But you do have to impose some expectations at some point, or the cruel and spiteful and criminal will prevail.

Sutton says that one reason it is so important to deal with assholes is that they tend to hire people like themselves. They "breed like rabbits", he says, and the poisonous atmosphere causes other people to become assholes too, if only in self-defense.


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