• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Thinking Out Loud

On transparency and its limits.



September 8, 2016

“In a world of imperfect transparency, the main effect of mandatory transparency is to push people into workarounds.”  -- Matt Yglesias

When I saw Camelot for the first time, I was charmed by the idea that the king could decree that it could only rain at night. The idea had an obvious first-blush appeal, marred only by the fact that decreeing wouldn’t make it so.  

Transparency is like that.  

As Matt Yglesias’ recent piece notes, the impulse behind mandatory transparency is to ferret out, or prevent, corruption. The idea is that if everyone knows what’s going on, it will be nearly impossible for anything really awful to happen. After all, if you’re on the up-and-up, what do you have to hide?  

But somehow, with each new mandate for transparency, people find new ways to avoid it. I don’t think it’s only ever because they’re trying to hide something sinister.

Yglesias uses the example of the different standards applied to emails and phone calls. Emails are treated in the law like memos. They can be subpoenaed years later, and ripped out of context in the service of whatever cause.  Phone calls are ephemeral, and in some places, illegal to record without consent.  

That disparity, as he rightly notes, means that it’s safer to think out loud on the phone than over email. Seasoned administrators learn -- ideally not the hard way -- that certain discussions shouldn’t happen over email.  

And that’s not just the sinister ones.  

For example, sometimes groups workshop or brainstorm. That process necessarily involves thinking out loud, shifting positions in the face of persuasive counterarguments, and playing devil’s advocate. An email with a devil’s advocate position can be quoted out of context and do great harm, whether through intention, ignorance, or carelessness.  

Some ideas are inherently complicated. They require working out, often through an iterative process of “what abouts?” There, too, quoting someone later out of context can be damaging.

If any statement can be ripped out of context at any time for any reason, good luck having candid conversations. The thoughtful will remain carefully circumspect, while the thoughtless will bloviate uninterrupted. I’ll leave parallels to our elections as an exercise for the reader.

Now, texting and various mobile apps are becoming popular. They further blur the line between formal and informal communication. We frequently treat them as informal, like speech, even if they’re discoverable, like emails. That leads to no end of trouble because we’re applying two contradictory sets of rules, one of them retroactively.

Yglesias proposes transparency of outcomes, rather than transparency of inputs, and that strikes me as a good first step. Let my rough drafts be my own. A clearer line between public and private communication could allow for more candid private discussion that would lead to better end results. The rules would have to make exceptions for threats and harassment, among other things, but that’s fine. Those should be discoverable.  I’m referring here to half-formed thoughts and ideas in progress.  

Finally, clear lines allow for a rarely-acknowledged virtue of the public sphere. (Hat-tip to Richard Sennett on this one.) Many of us -- myself included -- will blow off steam privately, sometimes muttering snarky asides to our spouses, before going into public and rising above our own petty moments.  Some would call that hypocrisy, and would say that the private comments show what someone “really” thinks. I think that’s exactly wrong.  The fact that we rise above our petty moments in public shows the truth of what we think of other people: we think they’re worth making an effort for.  What some call “political correctness” is often, in fact, being considerate of other people.  That’s a good thing.  Aspirational behavior may be imperfect, but it’s worth encouraging.  Good manners require effort; making the effort suggests caring.  The fact that it’s difficult is what makes it worthwhile.  

If you could read my mind, you’d discover that I commit murder in my mind several times a day, just on my drive to and from work. (It’s usually prefaced by mentally screaming at someone “JUST MAKE THE *$&^#$*^ TURN ALREADY!!!”) But I don’t actually do it. The public-facing self -- the non-murderous one -- may be consciously chosen, but is no less “real” for it.  I suspect other people do the same, and I’ll happily take the results of their self-control instead of trying to suss out deeper impulses.  

Transparency is, at best, an instrumental good. It should be used pragmatically, rather than absolutely. Let’s come up with some agreements on the boundaries, and then be glad we have them. My public self is much nicer than my private one, and I bet yours is, too. Let it be.


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