Yah, Sucks, Boo to You: The Rules of Discourse and Governance

just_william_cover
Cover of ‘Just William’

I have long wondered what the etymology of ‘yah, sucks, boo’ was. The best bet so far seems to be Just William. Richmal Crompton (a woman by the way) sets out the tussles of 1920’s school children including the quite formalized expression of, in this case, a generalised disapprobation, expressed once other forms of discourse had proved unsuccessful.

It seems like our ‘post truth’ era, perhaps a subset of post post-modernity, is creeping very close to William and his chums. In one respect it is not, because this phrase used in the context of schoolchildren was precisely formalised, and no one took it to heart. In the post truth era almost every comment is taken to heart, and thus it becomes very difficult to challenge someone without them feeling personally insulted. Actors challenge Trump and they are immediately characterised as ‘rich and privileged’, which I assume means they have no right to question his motives, behaviours, or actions. Argument ad hominem bounces round like a pin ball machine.

One way of viewing this is ‘through the lens’ transactional analysis. In Games People Play  Dr. Eric Berne sets out discourse in the context of a neo-Freudian framework. The id, ego, and super ego are replaced by three ‘ego’ states of child, adult, and parent, and we all have them. In fact, he argued that we need to balance all three in our lives. But to cut a longish story short we play lots of different games with and through these ego states. One of the favourites is the controlling parent who targets the child ego state in the other. There are lots of ways to control that child, from sweet things, to shiny things, to fear. Fear is always a good one, because the compliant child will cede responsibility to the parent to do things for them. The different games are, of course, built around power, which sees a dramatic reversal when the power is flipped to the child ego state, the rebellious child, or the manipulative child, looks to offload everything on to the parent, and to look for their attention- aiming here for the caring/serving parent.

The point of this way of looking at our transactions is that we need to be aware of the games people are playing and then we can do something about that. The healthy game is to move to adult to adult or, if you playing actual games, child to child and so on. The job of the adult ego state is to lead the other to rational discourse, which is achieved, Berne tells us, by methods such as the broken record. With each attempt to gain power through feelings he suggests we respond with ‘yes I hear what you are feeling, however I am unable to give you what you want, so we need to work out how you can achieve it, there are other ways of looking at this ….and so on’.

It is a simple, doubtless simplistic, tool but one which is very empowering. It helps to centre our response so that we are not drawn into games, and enables us to empower ourselves and others more effectively.

I want to stress three things about this approach.

  1. Never underestimate the power of such dynamics. You can be very clever and still be drawn into games. I have seen countless committees and board meetings dominated by these, often leading to conclusions where few in the room understood how the conclusion was reached. On one memorable occasion a ‘parental’ CEO was dominating the board only for one member to leap to his feet and set off on rant beginning shout, ‘I will not be spoken to like that….’. He spoke from his rebellious child and at the end of the tirade had lost control. The CEO then with great ‘skill’, spoke from her wounded and vulnerable child, by which time the rebellious child had no idea where he was.
  2. I want to suggest that these games are not discrete or optional, they tend to be involved in all interactions. Instinctively, most people respond by sticking with the ‘racket’ (as Berne calls the regular practice of a particular game), and not engaging – better just to please the dominant parent figure. This has very important implications for the study and practice of effective dialogue. Philosophy can easily see dialogue as simply rational sharing, but rationality has to be worked at, and for it to emerge the underlying dynamics have to be engaged. And even when it does emerge it is does not continue without this awareness and work. (In the next blog I will say something about the nature of dialogue, and in the following something about Higher Education and dialogue).
  3. The maelstrom of political discourse today precisely mirrors these issues, with the inability of democratic leaders in particular to get to grips with the underlying dynamics. As soon as Hilary Clinton referred to the Trump ‘deplorables’ she lost the game. Doubtless there were deplorables (chaotic child ego state) involved, but sitting on the next but one seat were people who saw themselves as victims of globalization (vulnerable child), and sitting next to them were people with a strong sense of the need for protection (vulnerable child), and sitting next to them were people who believed in strong moral rules (conforming child)…..and all of them saw a controlling and disdainful parent who had caused their pain, failed to protect them, and contributed to the breakdown of their secure moral framework. Why would they trust such clever, rational, and rich liberals. Instead, many of them turned to a man who was both deplorable (mischievous child) and strong parent (I will keep you safe). The first made you smile and the second made you feel safe.

Therefore it is not surprising that rational reflection went out of the window, and with that any rules of discourse and governance. Chaos and surprise rule, not least because the press and others get drawn into the underlying dynamic, only to be surprised when the game has moved on and they are accused of being the ones who stand in the way of progress.

The only hope is dialogue, more of which anon.

 

Simon Robinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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