Uncontrollable flatulence: narrative argument as strategy-making

In the following clip from the film Crash (2004) two employees negotiate strategy.

The LAPD has a strategy to stamp out racism, but a rookie police officer (Ryan Phillipe) has found himself sharing a police car with someone (Mat Dillon) whose behaviour towards black people makes him feel very uncomfortable. After unsuccessfully challenging Dillon about his behaviour, he decides he doesn’t want to go on sharing a car with him and goes to see his boss. But this creates a dilemma as far as his black boss (Keith David) is concerned. If the public reason for wanting to stop sharing a car with Mat Dillon is that he is racist, then what does this say about his performance as manager, particularly since he is currently putting himself forward for promotion? How could a racist policeman possibly survive in a police Department which has explicitly adopted a set of policies to combat racism, and presumably, has tiers of management who are responsible for implementing the strategy, like the rookie’s boss?

Crash seeks to explain the phenomenon of racism in LA, let’s call it a global pattern, through a series of micro-exchanges between multiple characters. There is no standing outside the patterning of racism as it occurs and reoccurs in every human exchange and has a disciplining effect, in Foucault’s terms. In order for the global phenomenon to exist, then, it has to occur every day in ordinary conversation creating selves and a sense of identity. Paradoxically, everyday activity creates the global pattern, and at the same time the global pattern constrains what is possible in local activity, but not in an deterministic way. There is no inevitability about the way things will turn out in the exchanges between people, because there is always the opportunity, no matter how limited, to exercise agency. Nor does the power figuration necessarily work just one way, against people of colour. Mostly there is a hierarchy of discrimination of whites against people of colour, but occasionally in the film black people find themselves in positions of greater power over whites or people of other ethnicities, or minority ethnic characters with US citizenship find themselves in positions of power over others who seek US citizenship.

To combat what they understand as the negative social effects of patterns of discrimination, politicians and managers introduce strategies to reverse them. So, for example, the municipality introduces an affirmative action programme to promote black-owned businesses. This has the unintended consequence of making Mat Dillon’s father go out of business, even though his son claims that he employed only blacks and paid them equal wages when no one else was doing so. The loss of the family business reaffirms, or even amplifies Dillon’s prejudice, the shadow of which we see re-enacted currently in Trump’s America, that it is the white majority who are discriminated against. The policy may or may not readdress some of the injustices of the current pattern of discrimination, but at the same time it entrenches feelings of resentment and envy from those who may benefit from the current figuration. So every attempt to change the figuration of power brings about both predictable and unpredictable consequences and provokes strong feelings and threats to identity in those who have a stake in what unfolds.

Equally, in the LAPD, the strategy to combat racism in the department calls out a series of dilemmas for staff about what to do. Strategies are generalizations and are never so detailed as to provide guidance about what to do in a particular situation at a particular time. As generalizations they have to be functionalized. Equally, a strategy to overcome racism in one institution is likely to be of limited use when the pattern arises in the city, and in the society as a whole. This is no argument against having such a strategy, but it demonstrates the limitations of thinking in terms of boundaries and the idea that one organisation can determine its future. The clip at the beginning of this post shows the negotiation of competing goods which goes on every day in every organization where staff are trying to work out how to take the next step together. On the one hand, as Robert Jackall argues in Moral Mazes[1], there is the obligation to make your boss look good: there can be no solution to this dilemma which compromises the boss. Neither boss nor employee can produce a solution which makes it obvious that the departmental strategy has not been followed, so in what James C Scott[2] refers to as the hidden transcript they negotiate an acceptable form of public transcript, which is largely in the boss’ favour, that the rookie has to drive alone because he has uncontrollable flatulence. Ostensibly the strategy to combat racism in the police department has been followed.

The other significant theme to notice, both in this scene and throughout the film, is the way that characters try to persuade each other with argument using rhetoric. Both rookie and boss are trying to co-produce a convincing narrative of what has happened and why a particular course of action is now required. In a later scene where the Mat Dillon character meets his nemesis ‘Shaniqua Johnson’ he has to persuade her with an argument about why it would cost her nothing to accept his father onto Medicare. Strong narrative and rhetorical skills, then, are one way of overcoming a disadvantageous power figuration, although there is nothing inevitable about the outcome, simply if one has the best argument.

I imagine that this kind of gaming behaviour is endemic in many organizations as everyone negotiates, from a variety of different value positions, how to go on together. People try to coerce, persuade, convince, using rhetoric and narrative to describe the benefits that taking a particular course of action would bring about. My conjecture is that the tighter and more unrealistic the targets, the greater the tendency to game, particularly if there is limited opportunity to talk about the difficulty of achieving them.

Spoilers

Crash is a fictional representation of reality, so of course it is possible to take everything I have said above with a pinch of salt. The fact that the Mat Dillon character, as aggrieved racist, later goes on to save the black woman he assaulted sexually and that the rookie policeman shoots an unarmed black man could be interpreted as Hollywood chicanery. However, the substantive point I take from these scenes is that in any situation where we negotiate how to go on together in a particular context, where global patterns are being particularized in the vocabulary of complex responsive processes, there are always competing goods. The outcome is never determined simply by the global social patterns which create our habitus. We always have choices, no matter how limited. We sometimes have the opportunity to co-create a persuasive narrative about an alternative way of going on together, which is one way of working generatively with power. Equally, what the film makes clear is that the intention to do good is not enough on its own as there are always unintended consequences of acting on our intentions, and for which we are still responsible.

[1] Jackall, R. (2009) Moral Mazes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Scott, J.C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale: Yale University Press.

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