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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Garlic And Crosses: Keeping Functional Stupidity At Bay

Safety Earrings
These weapons are well-placed, tactically speaking

I've titled this post exactly backwards, since vampires are culturally symbolic of freedom (perverted symbols, of course, because actual freedom is a fearsome thing and it's important to make the "outsider" a blood-sucking monster), but I wanted to get your attention (pretty cool earrings, huh?)

Now that that's out of the way...

Dmitry Orlov has come across an article in Journal of Management Studies called “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations” (no online links, contact info is included in Orlov's post,) which he is kind enough to meditate upon for our benefit. In his post Understanding Organizational Stupidity , he writes (I've brutally excerpted here, of course, go read the whole thing):
I never ascended the ranks of middle management, probably due to my tendency to speak out at meetings and throw around terms such as “nonsensical,” “idiotic,” “brainless,” “self-defeating” and “fucking stupid.” If shushed up by superiors, I would resort to cracking jokes, which were funny and even harder to ignore. Neither my critical faculties, nor my sense of humor, are easily repressed....

And so I was happy when I recently came across an article which goes beyond such “hand-waving analysis” and answers this question with some precision. Mats Alvesson and André Spicer... define a key term: functional stupidity. It is functional in that it is required in order for hierarchically structured organizations to avoid disintegration or, at the very least, to function without a great deal of internal friction. It is stupid in that it is a form [of] intellectual impairment: “Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications.”... Before I start, I would like to mention that although the authors' analysis is limited in scope to corporate entities, I believe that it extends quite naturally to other hierarchically organized bureaucratic systems, such as governments.
He proceeds with a very useful and interesting discussion which I found to be pretty riveting on its own merits, but I write this post for different, personal, reasons, triggered by his own corporate experience described above, and by this statement from one of his commenters:
...We humans tend to be quite vulnerable to ideological indoctrination early in life - which is why many religions do their best to get us when we are young. The "my country can do no wrong" attitude comes from the same kind of early conditioning as well, I believe....
This is a perfectly sensible statement to make, but it made me wonder why this sort of thing never "took" with me. I mean, my contrariness to conventional wisdom and practices go way back to to elementary school and indeed proceeded in my adult life in much the same fashion as described by Dmitry's "self-defeating" and "fucking stupid" meeting behaviors. After all, there is not a whole lot of positive feedback with that kind of attitude.

When I refused to hold my hand over my heart and recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" as a child (remaining seated would have required a strength that I could not muster at that age,) and when I vainly and rather vulgarly laid bare some of the "nonsensical" sentiments at a business meeting, you can be sure that I did not leave these situations feeling particularly loved and admired. Not to mention that there were frequently consequences-to-be-paid in the latter case.

Interestingly, I am moved to conclude that a fair amount of judicious dysfunction is responsible for my iconoclasm. Of course, there are many who consider such iconoclasm a dysfunction in and of itself - certainly the gatekeepers of hierarchy do - so this might not be such an interesting revelation to them. I am the vampire, after all.

But I consider it a strength, an affirmation of human spirit and freedom, a higher calling, as it were - and this is my blog and I get to set the tone. All kidding aside - the dysfunction to which I refer is the lack of concrete role-modeling in my formative years.

Without going into the sordid details here, let's just say that the adults in my life were less than inspiring. They showed no firmament, there was little to "look up to." I was cornered into premature and awkwardly-executed maturity - left, emotionally speaking, pretty much on my own.

What I conclude from this is that there was no anchor for the sort of indoctrination that the commenter above alluded to. I was not "vulnurable" to it.

There are not many who would say that this is a good thing, this lack of impressively mature adults in my life, and I will not go so far as to recommend this as a healthy approach to child-rearing (I think.) But it is interesting that the "garlic and crosses" of healthy thought should be of such ill provenance.

Perhaps this is the mechanism by which a dysfunctional society reflexively breeds rebellion and non-cooperation. Perhaps in an age where there is not such fragmentation and confusion, where organization doesn't require "functional stupidity" to remain cohered, then there perhaps the "good" of questioning authority is truly obsolete.

In any case, it's pretty clear that we don't. at the moment, live in those times.

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