While a post-doc at Penn State (2011-13), renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson gave a lecture on eusociality – an understanding of the evolution of social cooperation and alturism among insects, such as ants, through: i) cooperative care of offspring; ii) overlapping generations within a colony of adults; and iii) a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Wilson extends these observations to human interactions and evolution.
“Paul Gauguin – D’ou venons-nous” by Paul Gauguin – Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Wilson asserts that religions do not have the necessary scientific understanding of the universe. And since the decline of logical positivism, philosophy has “scattered in a kind of intellectual diaspora and into those areas not yet colonized by science”. Not afraid of a non-sequitur, Wilson concludes – “by default therefore, the solution to the great riddle, if it has an answer, has been left to science”.
Wilson claims that eusociality and evolutionary biology provide the best answer to Gauguin’s questions. Rather than address the veracity and usefulness of Wilson’s eusociality, I want to focus on the type of answer that Wilson’s eusociality is and whether it address Gauguin’s questions.
In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.
One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.
Foucault describes this strategy as “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”
The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:
[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.
In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to
“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”
Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,
if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).
Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.
Here is another humorous example:
Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.
see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)
I have just arrived home from the Candle Light Vigil held at Penn State in recognition of the victims of child abuse at the University, and more broadly. I will reflect further on the evening before posting here, but an immediate response to the event that continued to resonate during the walk home was the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine during the ‘service’.
While I have flirted with Imagine over the years, the despairing emptiness of the song was brought home tonight. To be clear, I am not pushing some “you have to have religion or nationalism to have meaning” agenda, but you need to try a lot harder than the insipid and vacuous lyrics of Imagine if you want some substantial meaning. Religion (in the abstract) may be full of paradoxes, knots and apparent contradictions, but at least it is full of something. Lennon’s Imagine is merely a carefully constructed list of platitudes that attempt to mimic depth and gravitas.
The sheer hollowness of the lyrics was driven into my bones like the near freezing wind blowing across the lawn. Apart from the complete detachment from reality, the sentiment promotes empty thinking rather than critical thought. The imaginary of ‘Penn State’ provided the conditions for these abuses to occur and the hubris to attempt to cover them up. The last thing that is needed is imaging. What is needed is mourning, humility, reflection and silence. Not circuses and children’s song about some utopia (literally no-place) where it is always school holiday and ice-cream is served instead of vegetables.
“Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear
“This is one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State”
– Rodney Erickson, Interim President of Pennsylvania StateUniversity
I will not recount the details of what has occurred at Penn State over the past 47 years to lead to this point of ‘sadness’.* And I do not think it is an exaggeration to appeal to Shakespeare or the notion of tragedy to make sense of the fall of mighty men, the unravelling of moral pillars and the tearing of identities. This is not just about football or Penn State. If these events are isolated to either, then a narrative that allows us to create distance from the actors will cover the many lessons of this tragic drama.
A danger is to isolate victim and villain, innocence and guilt, and wounded and perpetrator to self-contained individuals. To be clear, the role of victim intensely belongs to the boys who suffered sexual abuse under the care of a senior football administrator. I do not want to reduce or take away from that. But the victimization does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles. Similarly the perpetration of the crimes can be isolated to an individual. But this also does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles, which expand to exhaustion and overlap with the expanding circles of victimization. In this area of overlap there is confusion, anger and frustration. Perhaps a lot of the students and wider Penn State community feel positioned between the overlapping waves of the expanding circles of victimization and perpetration – far removed from the either actions but affected by both.
From my observations, a bulk of the student body are experiencing deep confusion over these events, their place in them, who is to blame, and what can be done. Emotions for this institution, community, football and coach run deep. To see these sources of identify and selfhood scrutinized is extremely troubling.
As the seeds sown 47 years ago have revealed their bitter fruit this week, some students and alumni have turned their anger and confusion toward the messenger – the media. Viewing the media as the only participants in this drama standing to gain, students have directed uncontrolled emotion toward them. Culminating in a riot.
In response to the riot, the Penn State Facebook page requested students vacate the downtown area. However, a number of comments to the two messages (on the right), supported the students rioting and suggested the media presence justified, if not required, violent action. For example:
Adam: tell the media to vacate. not the students
Nicole: So glad they are making a point of attacking the media, what goes around comes around media!!!
Brian: Should have thought about that before handing the legend over to the mob media. Penn state gets what they asked for tonight.
Tarrie: What a shame that a brilliant career is ending over this. I can’t believe that this honorable man is as deeply involved in this as the media is making out. I’ve been a Penn State fan for as long as I can remember and I”m 52 years old. I think you should protest, protest and protest. Let your voices be heard loud and clear.
Mardizone: show luv for JOE PA yall…shame on da media!!!!!! shame on PSU!!!!
David: Susan, the media is what caused this. The media is the one who villified Joe Paterno. The media is the reason his career was called to end. The media is the reason his legacy has been entirely destroyed. The media is entirely at fault.
Susan: My son has just been pepper sprayed trying to help a girl that tripped-thanks b of trustees and media.
Kvision: Joe Paterno did not deserve to be fired! All those that are protesting against him are victims of the media and miss information. This is what the media does because they have no morals either. They are about making the buck just like Penn State.
As is clear from these comments there is a lot of anger and confusion. While it is important that certain actions are taken quickly and decisively, it is also important to acknowledge that quick solutions and answers will not satisfy the need for deeper inquiry. Slow thought and careful consideration is crucial in order to learn from errors of the past. Some of us may be victims or perpetrators of these errors, and some of us may be an uncomfortable mixture of both. However, it is important that artificial stories are not grasped for as quick remedy to our discomfort. As the Bard notes, time has unfolded what plaited cunning hides, yet time should also be allowed for somber rumination, sensitive dialogue and ethical consideration.