I’ve always been a bit of a fan of John Pilger. I was lucky enough to get to see him deliver a talk at the University of Kent a couple of years ago – a fascinating and thought-provoking experience. Whilst Chomsky is by far the biggest influence on me politically, Pilger is not far behind (although Naomi Klein is probably second). If you get the chance, pick up a copy of The New Rulers of the World (at your local library of course!) and when you have done with that, make sure you catch The War You Don’t See on DVD etc. Anyway, the reason or mentioning my fondness for Pilger is because he has written a very interesting article about ‘professionals’, specifically how they ‘muffle dissent’. Given that I am (on the fringes admittedly) of a profession, I was particularly interested in what Pilger had to say. As usual, he doesn’t pull any punches:
Professionals are said to be meritorious and non-ideological. Yet, in spite of their education, writes Schmidt, they think less independently than non-professionals. They use corporate jargon – “model”, “performance”, “targets”, “strategic oversight”. In Disciplined Minds, Schmidt argues that what makes the modern professional is not technical knowledge but “ideological discipline”. Those in higher education and the media do “political work” but in a way that is not seen as political. Listen to a senior BBC person sincerely describe the nirvana of neutrality to which he or she has risen. “Taking sides” is anathema; and yet the modern professional knows never to challenge the “built-in ideology of the status quo”.
the modern professional knows never to challenge the “built-in ideology of the status quo”.
Interesting stuff. And something that provoked a bit of soul-searching on my part. Do I fail to challenge the status quo? Do I just go along with fellow professionals and have I fallen for ‘ideological discipline’? I certainly abhor ‘corporate jargon’ and despise terms like ‘strategic oversight’. I try wherever possible to employ language that everyone can understand and avoid using language that makes me sound like some corporate robot. I try to avoid ‘ideological discipline’ and ‘corporate jargon’, but do I succeed?
The timing of this article was quite coincidental. First there was the whole ‘clique’ discussion which I have (successfully until now) managed to skirt around. The idea of a clique does, for me anyway, rather fit in with Pilger’s assessment. Cliques do, after all, rely on an ‘ideological discipline’ to maintain themselves. It was also interesting, however, as I had been mulling over writing a post about my feelings towards groups (and, by the way, when I talk about groups in this post I am referring to groups outside of the workplace). It is something I have been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks and I had been trying to find a way to put my thoughts into words and commit them to this blog.
It may seem weird given my involvement in VftL, but I have a rather ‘difficult’ relationship with groups. My antipathy towards them is one of a number of reasons why I initially held back on joining CILIP. It is also the reason why, to this date, despite holding strong political views (so much so that the idea of standing for election has been put to me more than once!) I have never joined a political party. The reason for my cautious approach to groups? Well, perhaps my biggest concern has always been the potential for ‘groupthink’.
Groupthink bothers me (well, let’s be honest, hopefully it bothers everyone). The idea that group members reach consensus quickly without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints is, for me, deeply troubling. I couldn’t be part of a group that doesn’t encourage such critical evaluation and likewise would hate to find myself in that mode of thinking. All ideas should be challenged and orthodox positions should be questioned at all times. Speaking personally, I am wary of consensus. If everyone believes something there must be (in my opinion) something inherently wrong with it. Of course, sometimes things are the way they are, but a consensus needs challenging not accepting. It follows from this that I am also highly wary of anything that is acted upon en masse. If more than half-a-dozen people follow the same course of action, alarm bells ring in my head and I go off in the other direction (unless there is a fire of course, then I will definitely run in the same direction – I’m not insane). I have no idea why. Of course, I do sometimes follow the ‘herd’ (not just when there is a fire), but it’s normally after a certain degree of pathetic hand-wringing.
Another aspect of group membership that concerns me is the urge for some group members to take it upon themselves to speak out on my behalf without my personal consent. That I cannot stand. You know that person that stands up at conferences and says “I think I speak for everyone when…”? I hate that person. But it’s not so much because they have made an assumption about my opinions (although that does annoy me). It’s more that they are putting themselves forward as the group leader, establishing to all others in the room that there is a hierarchy and they are at the top of it (they are speaking for everyone). Once a hierarchy is established, particularly in an organisation, it is difficult to ensure that the status quo of the organisation can be challenged. Leaders don’t always like their ideas challenged after all. As with consensus, any grouping that includes those seeking to establish a hierarchy is simply not for me. Every member has to be seen as an equal, else I’m out.
Which all takes me back to Pilger’s point about professionals failing to challenge the status quo. Do information professionals challenge the consensus enough? Or are we swept along on a wave without pausing to question or interrogate? I’d like to think that the information profession is perhaps the exception rather than the rule. I certainly feel like I am prepared to challenge ideas and viewpoints. I also think that, as yet, VftL does not suffer from any tendency towards groupthink and that is one of its great strengths (you can always ask my colleagues if this is true!). That said, maybe I have, for fear of a reaction, suppressed something in writing this post? Have I failed to challenge the status quo, thus demonstrating Pilger’s argument? Only one of us knows the answer. And he ain’t telling.
Incidentally, this post isn’t really related to the clique stuff that has been flying around. If you want more on that, read this.