Saturday, September 6, 2014

Making A Difference Through Questioning Authority

Screenshot source:
Emma Goldman was a Jew born and raised in late 1800s Russia. There was no such thing as dissent in her world, which was "ruled by fear and the ubiquitous secret police, a world in which even the mildest expression of dissent would be summarily crushed."

She joined the Russian revolutionary movement with the intent of overthrowing Russia's leader, the Czar. Once she emigrated to the U.S., she also plotted the assassination of the capitalist Henry Frick as a political statement.

But people admired, and continue to admire Goldman for her belief in freedom. As a young revolutionary she and her peers imagined, as PBS puts it,
"...a society of free equals, a tantalizing Utopia in which all problems could be solved on earth, by ordinary people."
Questioning is the key to freedom. In an 1843 letter to his friend Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx said that change can only happen when we begin to question our thinking - a lot:
"The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions."
Unfortunately, said Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), we can't question ourselves most of the time. This is because our behavior is determined by the unconscious mind, which can only be reached indirectly. For example:
"Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious."
Modern-day business theorist Chris Argyris is known for trying to help organizations change their cultures. But this can only be done, by helping them to look at their misguided assumptions. He states:
"Effective double-loop learning is not simply a function of how people feel. It is a
reflection of how they think—that is, the cognitive rules or reasoning they use to design and implement their actions. Think of these rules as a kind of ‘‘master program’’ stored in the brain, governing all behavior." 
In the toxic organization, people say they want to learn new and better ways of being, but they're blocked because of flawed assumptions. Argyris goes on:
Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high, just as a computer program with hidden bugs can produce results exactly the opposite of what its designers had planned.
In practice, dysfunctional organizations are all alike in one respect. They tend to have people in power who demand allegiance without question. And when people do stand up and say something, they are rapidly shoved aside - either because they are somehow stupid, or crazy, or even disloyal.

This happens everywhere, for example:
  • Governments
  • Businesses
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Charities
It may sound paradoxical, but even in an organization dedicated to free speech, a toxic culture can mean that dissenting voices are silenced. Or voices who sense a disconnect between what they are seeing on the ground, in their lives, and the theories espoused on TV.

So the greatest thing a person can do, who otherwise has no institutional power, is to practice the art and science of questioning. It opens the door to rational thinking and sweeps away the cobwebs of dictatorial assumption, including the assumption that only one approach is right and true and all others are obviously to be discarded.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.