Monday, August 26, 2013

Control of Information is Where the Action Is

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
August 26, 2013

                Social control manifests itself to us as control of flows of information.  The ultimate agent of control over flows of information among people is the individual human mind.  The source of this agency is what each of us knows about her- or himself, in relation to what s/he knows about others.  At all moments in which we engage disarray in our relations, our response depends on choosing between two attitudes toward applying what we know to the situation.  We may give others information we think they need to know for their own good, and be prepared to silence or contest their voices if they don’t go with our program, or we may share information to learn from one another.  I was struck learning Norwegian that the basic Germanic word for learning also meant teaching.  Teaching was learning TO others, while learning was learning FROM others.   When the power of information flows is shared,  conversations about conflict become alternating flows of talking, listening and reflection, where what is talked about moment to moment, and who knows and learns what, moves back and forth among actors.
                Knowing better than others implies power over others.  Learning with others implies power sharing.  I have lately called taking the former approach to social control “violence,” and the latter “peacemaking.”   The former approach to social control is a matter of warfare, of mission, of contests of will, of superior control of information.   The latter approach is a matter of discovery, of creativity, of cooperation, of mutual learning, of conciliation.  In my case as a career teacher, adopting this attitude entailed my questioning the premise that I knew better than students what they needed to know, or that I knew what they had to teach me about myself.
                From my peacemaking point of view, the news these days keeps showing new knots of absurdity we humans getting tied up into trying to hold onto knowing things about ourselves and others which others don’t.  As I write, one hot political contest for information control is between establishing privacy of personal information, and assuring that only those in law enforcement and government-sponsored “intelligence” know what they know and think about us and everyone else in the world.
                   Trust that information about oneself can be shared and understood is requisite to sharing information with others rather than controlling information about them.  Trust depends on information being direct and honest rather than evasive and misleading.  We have limits to our honesty and openness.  We all protect zones of personal privacy.  From the times that created the story of Adam and Eve to this day, our most intimate struggles with power over others are to keep private our control over  where, how, and with whom we undress parts of ourselves, and over how and whether we let ourselves be touched.
We likewise set boundaries over other information about ourselves we will share with others.  I have my limits.  While I don’t mind Uncle Sam and others knowing my bank transactions, I don’t want anyone but myself and my wife to be able to take money out of the account.  While my liability for fraudulent use of my credit card is limited by federal  law to $50, I’d rather not deal with the hassle of anyone but my wife using our account.  I and the holders of my internet accounts share a major interest in cyber-security.  I don’t want uninvited people walking into my bathroom while I am taking a shower, or in bed.  When people get into my personal space while they are talking to me, my defenses go up.  I don’t want people trying to hurt me by saying things about me behind my back that they won’t say to my face.  And for years until I stopped drinking, my mind became increasingly consumed with hiding my inebriation from others.  I set boundaries on whom I invite into my home (notably, not solicitors).  I consciously monitor what I say and refrain from saying in serious discussions.  I have learned most of all that to enjoy others’ trust and openness, I need to respect their confidentiality.   All in all, I try to respect privacy where I encounter it in others as I reserve it for myself.  I do so because I believe that the honesty I get and the honesty I convey depend on it.  I have learned to prefer letting others disclose their personal secrets as they will, rather than as I want to know.  Hence for instance I have befriended prisoners and convicts for years without ever asking, or learning, what “their crimes” were, let alone knowing more than bits and pieces of those events, in order to let them tell me what they have wanted me to know about their pasts when they found it useful and safe to make those parts of themselves known.  The same goes for listening to stories from the many survivors of childhood sexual assault and torture whom I have gotten to know well.  In matters of conflict, I find it pays to hear others account for themselves before I presume to know anything else that needs knowing about them.
I am privileged.  I no longer need to work for anyone but myself.  There may be things I don’t care to tell people, but there is nothing much left I can think of that I fear becoming known about me by anyone who doesn’t already know.  Equally, I have learned never to presume that anyone else feels likewise about the privacy of what they know about themselves.   I see people’s demands for privacy escalating in face-to-face and cyber-reality, as now in epic struggles between maintaining privacy and confidentiality of information about ourselves, and government and for-profit corporate control of information about how to sort us out and manage us.  At law, what one can say and ask depends on being granted “standing to be heard,” which depends in turn on rules of words one can use, and information that is “competent” by be heard by arbiters of “facts,” on which judgments rest.  In job and student applications, essential information about oneself is reduced to categories, as in certificates and diplomas received, grade point averages, and having references say “strong” things.  In all contests over information about ourselves, there are winners and losers.  In the field of criminal justice, we call losers “offenders.”  We call those who control information about offenders “the authorities.”  Power over information about themselves and about those whom they regard as their subjects “of interest” is their game.
Meanwhile, we keep getting more demands to share personal information with public and private strangers who hold power over what to do to or for us to transact daily personal and professional business.  Examples of falls from among the high and mighty demonstrate that some information we have given up somewhere, sometime in the past, will come back to haunt us proliferating,  disparate storehouses of information about us, beyond our control, against our wishes.  The less we can foresee adverse consequences of each piece of ourselves we disclose.  The more guarded we become about what we say.  The warier we become of involving ourselves in other people’s lives.  The more diffident we become that others will want to hear what we are feeling or thinking about, in a climate that puts a premium on taking care of business, of getting to the point, of not putting people off by intruding our issues into others’ busy lives.  By the same token, we have less time for distraction from getting on with business, or in the long term, of achieving personal and professional goals “efficiently,” “productively.”  It is increasingly recognized that without practice we lose track of our own feelings and opinions.  As we attend more to limiting what we reveal about ourselves to anyone in particular, we lose our sense of self-identity, our knowledge and awareness of ourselves and of how others see us apart from whether they are for or against us.  I am reminded of a time when I entered therapy in a state of clinical depression, feeling useless and purposeless, thinking I might be going crazy.  My therapist would generally start our sessions by asking how I was doing.  I found myself saying “okay…” or “I dunno.”  I was so afraid that my feelings and thoughts were socially unacceptable that I literally felt my mind go blank in self-defense.  My therapist stuck with me through years of self-examination, of willingness to share parts of myself with so much as a single listener, let alone in moments alone with myself.   As I let myself know and embrace myself, I have become less inhibited about revealing myself to others, let alone becoming conscious of myself in others’ eyes.  As I give myself time to open myself to others, I find myself allowing more time to listen and learn from others.  In these moments I am able to share information with others rather than defining information for others or having their information define me.  In these moments, direct currents of power over others become alternating currents of power between and among each other, constantly shifting directions and agendas in social discourse.  In the realm of social control, power over others becomes power sharing.
In cyberspace and in everyday lives, time for one another is becoming scarcer.  The honest and openness to share information depends not only on acceptance of oneself and others, but on having time to talk and listen, time to explain ourselves, and to hear others explain themselves to us.  The more numerous the discrete demands that we provide or respond to information about ourselves and from others, the lower our capacity to notice and hear others and ourselves even when we say we are listening and taking note.  Without time to listen and reconsider what we do next, we are reduced to controlling and being controlled by others, or else to being out of control.  Without awareness of ourselves, we have no awareness of the effects of ourselves on others, and less information about our effects on others.  That leaves us more protective of our privacy, more guarded about becoming known.  It becomes safer and easier to talk about the weather or sports or what “those people” are doing, than to open ourselves to becoming subjects of our conversations.  And so police officers are trained to ask rather than answer questions, and as a professional I have been taught to set boundaries on how much I let students or clients know about myself—to keep the conversation focused on them and what they know and are learning.  This in turn limits what they are willing and able to tell me.  In this game of power over others, I become less able to depend on anything I hear, more insecure about the future of relationships, more subject to frustrated intentions for and expectations of others.  Social control spins out of the hands of those who would establish control over others by controlling information about themselves and others.  Essentially, how freely we know and share information about ourselves with others determines how much our relations with one another are under control.  Love and peace--hal

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