Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Chair

I pulled this out of the New York Times today.

In his classic 1972 book, “Groupthink,” Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.

It's just an elegant way of saying what most of us know, how in a group setting many of our convictions turn to sand. Ah the danger of false consensus. Give me a series of hearty 6-3 votes and then drinks afterwards because the losers feel that have been listened to and all disagreements have kept focus on the thing under consideration, that there has been minimal "slosh" from the issue to the person.

On the other hand, what happens if one minimizes disagreement and the focus on the particular is used to avoid acknowledgment of the deeper schism? We do need some deep focus sometimes, a depth of field, both foreground and background.

Oh to be a bully, to have absolute certainty that what feels good (to me) is good (for everyone).

Or not. I am tempted to say "whatever," but I despise the way the word is now used so dismissively for it is never Whatever. It is always Something.

Sigh. They say there's art in being chair, which makes me think of Matthew Arnold, who asked (rhetorically):

Who prop, thou ask'st in these bad days, my mind?--


But be his

My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul,
From first youth tested up to extreme old age,
Business could not make dull, nor passion wild;
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole (emphasis added);
The mellow glory of the Attic stage,
Singer of sweet Colonus, and its child.

That would be your Sophocles, who said tragedy -- whatever else it was -- was always character.

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