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The Hidden Art : Category Manipulation

The Art of Non-Decision-Making (Part #3)

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 The techniques and examples reviewed above are some of the more visible aspects of the art of non-decision-making. More challenging to detect, comprehend and communicate to others are various forms of category manipulation. Each is easily denied.

  1. Definitional games : This is the process of defining categories in one way in one document or organizational unit, and then defining them in another way elsewhere or at some later time. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the United Nations system has, for example, demonstrated great skill in using this technique in framing its approach to 'nongovernmental organizations' and 'civil society' ( see). The art is to use this approach to obscure opportunities or to selectively advance particular strategies. At the same time competing definitions may be used to justify apparently incompatible strategies.

  2. Neglected or repressed categories : This approach is familiar to those who experience discrimination, whether in terms of race, gender, age, intelligence, class or culture. Women experience exclusion through exclusive reference to the male gender in documents supposedly relevant to both female and male. Unwritten rules may specifically exclude those of a particular ethnic group or class. Non-English speakers, for example, may be handicapped in their access to information. On the occasion of the 1997 World Assembly of Youth (Paris), the Pope refused to meet with non-Catholic youth because in reality the conference was a 'world assembly of Catholic youth'. Skillful neglect of certain categories can ensure that any initiative will be subsequently undermined. Certain approaches to 'unemployment' may be specifically excluded from 'comprehensive reviews' of the challenge at the highest level.

  3. Over-simplification : This technique is typical of those forcing through an agenda in which it is convenient to exclude categories and especially the relationships between them. A classical example is Agenda 21, whose chapter and paragraph structure avoids any recognition of relationship between the included elements, even though these necessarily have functional relations to each other. Many declarations of principles and ethical charters follow this pattern. This is commonly justified by the necessity to render the text simple enough to be communicable to the media and to various constituencies. Unfortunately the process of simplification seldom ensures the memorability of the text and tends to guarantee limited life for initiatives based on such oversimplification.

  4. Over-complexification : This technique is widely practiced by experts to limit access to their field of knowledge. It becomes a means of requiring that the expert be personally consulted in order to convey the insights in practice. In the medical profession, it is the basis for the abusive use of the referral system.

  5. Narrowing the time-frame : This technique consists of elaborating initiatives without any reference to historical precedents from which insights might be usefully obtained to ensure the viability of the new initiative. By encouraging ignorance of the past, in pursuit of the current initiative, there is every probability that the new one will remain equally unmemorable. Similarly, by avoiding sensitivity to more than the short-term future, factors in the medium and longer term (that will probably counteract the initiative) can be ignored. Effective non-decision-making can be achieved by benign positive focus on action in the immediate present.

  6. Focusing on the inaccessible : In one form this technique involves one of the parties in a decision-making arena indicating that they are prepared to go ahead 'only if everybody else agrees'. This gives the appearance of a positive approach. It is especially successful in avoiding decision-making if it is unlikely that others will agree in this way. In another variant, the party indicates that it is only prepared to consider an issue within a broader framework (eg not overfishing of a particular species but of fish stocks in general). This ensures avoidance of decisions if other parties are not prepared to explore broader issues even though there may be scope for agreement on narrower issues. As with the 'Peter Principle' of personnel promotion, this technique can be an excellent way of positioning issues at a level at which institutions are incapable of dealing effectively with them.

  7. Ignoring cultural variants : This technique emphasizes paradigms typical of a dominant culture to ensure that alternative cultural perspectives (see Encyclopedia of Conceptual Insights from the World's Cultures Proposal to UNESCO in relation to the Decade on Cultural Development, 1988) are demeaned, ignored or treated as irrelevant or outdated. This is widely practiced in the English-speaking Western world. Faced with this inadequacy, a response may simply be to provide translations without recognizing that these do not necessarily provide an adequate vehicle for other cultural perspectives.

  8. Favouring the fashionable : At any one time, there are fashionable conceptual approaches to issues, and consultants 'on the circuit' who enthusiastically promote their use. Institutions can be successfully panicked into exploring the latest intellectual fad for fear of offering a competitive advantage to their competitors through inaction. Because an approach is fashionable 'nobody gets fired' for adopting it. By encouraging institutions to take up a succession of particular fads, a broader view of the range of possible initiatives is inhibited. No sense of the strengths, limitations and complementarity of the fads emerges.

  9. Rejection through negative association : Genuine innovations can be successfully marginalized and rejected by focussing attention on any disasters associated with their development. In this way social experimentation on alternative lifestyles and modes of employment has been conceptually linked to "sects" and therefore tainted as dangerous because of widely publicized incidents (Rajneesh/Antelope, Jonestown, Waco, Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, etc). Such experimental failures are in no way considered equivalent to disasters associated with the development of any new technology.

  10. Disqualification : Evidence and insights are easily dismissed by claiming that the witnesses or originators are in some way unqualified to comment on the topic in question. This process is used by a given discipline against those outside it, including other disciplines. It is used within a given discipline, between schools of thought and universities, between "seniors" and "juniors", between 'top' specialists and 'mediocre' specialists. It is used by clusters of disciplines against "practitioners" or the general public. Alternative approaches to healing have provided a number of examples. Many conceptual innovations have been subjected to this process, especially since it is difficult to be 'qualified' in a field which is only in the process of emerging.

  11. Conceptual 'roll-on, roll-off' : This process involves apparent acceptance of a new perspective - but for a period only. When collective attention is focused elsewhere, decreasing weight is attached to the new perspective, until it can finally be ignored. This is widely used in the treatment of elite, or well-connected, offenders. When resistance to their punishment is finally overcome, they may indeed be convicted -- but after media interest has died down, their sentences can be shortened and they can be released. A similar approach is used in matters involving regulation, notably with respect to the environment. Regulation and inspection may indeed be introduced, only to be relaxed or 'rolled back' once the pressure is off and other pressures are given priority.

  12. 'Classification' to protect interests : New insights and approaches can be effectively quashed by appropriating them - whether in the national interest or under corporate copyright. This process may be undertaken preemptively by requiring that all personnel sign nondisclosure agreements. This is characteristic of both national and international civil services. Nobody is then qualified to comment publicly on issues documented in classified documents. The quantity of classified material indicates the extent to which insights are suppressed in this way.

  13. Exertion of pressure : This is one of the most developed techniques. It can be effectively used in any peer group simply by implying that failure to act in a particular way will cast an unfavourable light, prejudicing career advancement, funding, honours, etc ('the stick'). Pressure can be increased by offering rewards, career advancement, or promises of honours ('the carrot'). There is suspicion that attribution of a number of major prizes is occasionally affected by this process. Pressure can be further increased by unadulterated bribery and intimidation (including threats of exposure or even physical violence).

  14. Delay: This classical technique may be used in combination of several others. A variety of excellent reasons may be found to delay decision-making until 'the right moment'. The effects of delay are most evident in response to crisis situations, including massacres and those requiring disaster relief such as the Kobe earthquake. The 'international community' is very skilled in the use and justification of delay as has been most clearly seen in the case of Bosnia and Rwanda.

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