The techtivism series covers frameworks and skills to help you embody your values as a producer and consumer of tech products—particularly as an individual (as opposed to collective action, which is critical, but not the focus of this series). Here’s the whole series so far.
In the previous post of the series, we talked about dividing individual social responsibility in a capitalist system into four areas: patronage, patronage advocacy, talent, and talent advocacy. We called these “The Four Levers.”
The Four Levers help us build personal strategies for embodying our values, but that leaves the question of tactics. How do we do any of this advocacy stuff? And what do we do once we are subscribing something, or we are working at a place?
The rest of this series will focus on those questions. So today, we’re going to talk about the role of disagreement in effecting change.
An Impractically Narrow Set of Goals
We have talked about disagreement before: specifically, in the notorious rubric piece, we talked about evaluating people on their ability to capitalize on alternate perspectives. Also, in the piece about anger and sadness in the workplace, we talked about two disagreement anti-patterns: doubling down and shutting down.
But we haven’t talked in this series about organizational change yet. The Four Levers don’t automatically lead to organizational change. At best, they lead to a natural selection effect where morally reprehensible organizations die out, and do-good organizations stay alive. That’s kinda…too simple to work.
See, if we make choices about the four levers without communicating directly with the organizations we’re using them on, they have no idea why it’s happening and cannot change in response. You’d think they’d figure it out, but organizations are astonishingly poorly set up to know about (and therefore care about) missed opportunities, as we discussed in this piece (Ctrl + F “false negative” on that piece to see where we talk about this).
That narrows the goals we can accomplish with un-communicated use of The Four Levers. If we do those things without talking to the organization, we can, at best:
- force an otherwise viable organization to shut down, or
- allow an organization that might otherwise be forced to shut down to continue operating.
Individual use of The Four Levers can sometimes accomplish #2, if the person is exceptionally skilled or rich or well-connected, or sometimes if the organization is very small.
It is exceedingly rare that individual action can accomplish #1. Divesting from Uber because of their labor practices is great, but one person divesting from Uber won’t put it under. Probably, one person convincing their network to divest from Uber won’t even put it under. And that’s just Uber, which doesn’t have a monopoly on ride share. Suppose you object to telephone service operators’ military contracts to assist with remote, extrajudicial drone operations. How are you gonna boycott basically all of them and still be able to call your mother? And, if you think that sacrifice is worth making, do you really think you will convince enough other people to make that sacrifice to put these places under, or are you just foregoing calling your mother for no effective social gain?
Disagreement and Organizational Change
Particularly for individual action (and in fact, for collective action too) need a wider spectrum of goals than killing or starting/rescuing organizations. We also need the ability to effect change in existing organizations. So we need to communicate with those organizations.
We also need to communicate with our existing friends and contacts: for example, to advocate that they buy/donate/volunteer/work at a place, or not. I have shared skills in the past that can help with this, most notably in the “How to Socialize Big Changes at Work” series. Moreover, patronage advocacy and talent advocacy can borrow a lot of tactics from marketing and sales, upon which reams have already been written, so I’m skipping that for now.
Let’s focus instead on how we might convince an organization to change something. There are many reasons to do this. One example: we have chosen not to buy from an organization, but we’d like to if they changed something. Another example: we find out that an organization is doing something after we already work there, and we think working to change it would be more impactful than leaving.
How do we communicate disagreement in a productive fashion?
Confrontation and Avoidance
We’re steeped in a culture that tends to conflate “disagreement” and “conflict.” The idea that “this person and I disagree, so we are now in conflict” engenders, reasonably enough, fear.
Trauma therapists Marie Dezelic and Gabriel Ghanoum relate conflict responses to states of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, with confrontation being a sign of hyper-arousal and avoidance/shutting down a sign of hypo-arousal.
This piece covers physical interventions to use to deliberately move back toward the “window of tolerance” between hypo-arousal and hyper-arousal, where we have the mental capacity to avoid succumbing to fear-driven confrontation or avoidance.
The thing is, even if we’re in our “window of tolerance”, we still don’t have practice with other ways to disagree besides confronting and avoiding. It doesn’t matter how calm, cool, collected, and connected I am if I literally do not know any tactics for disagreement besides saying “Hey, I don’t agree” or letting it go.
I have seen a few resources, like this bias interruption guide, that attempt to distinguish between “calling out” (characterized as confrontation) and “calling in” (characterized as not-confrontation). I think these guides are useful: I highly recommend taking a look. But they don’t really present alternatives to confrontation: they present, usually, slower versions of confrontation. If you ask someone “why do you think X” instead of saying “it’s wrong that you think X,” they’re still likely to see that as confrontation, especially if the asker does, in fact, think X is wrong. We don’t get to decide how other people receive the stuff we say, and once again, we’re steeped in a culture that’s prone to defensiveness and fragility.
That doesn’t mean “don’t ever confront people or avoid disagreement.”
How to Disagree: A Goal-Oriented Heuristic
Confrontation and avoidance are both useful to accomplish certain goals. Neither one is that useful for changing your interlocutor’s mind. So when are they useful?
- Examples: divesting from something, without saying anything. Keeping silent when someone says something objectionable.
- Useful: to keep you safe (in the short term) to act another day.
- Not Useful: if employed to the exclusion of other types of disagreement in the long run.
- Examples: sticking up for someone when a colleague puts them down. Correcting a statement that someone else makes in conversation.
- Useful: to show bystanders that not everybody agrees with the speaker and/or the status quo.
- Not Useful: to change the mind of the person you’re confronting, probably. Defensiveness often kicks in, and folks double down or disengage.
We’ll devote one upcoming post to each of these tactics for disagreement: when to use it, what it can do, plus examples.
And what if we want or need to change an interlocutor’s mind?
To accomplish this, we need alternative methods for challenging or disagreeing with others besides confrontation and avoidance. We’ll also devote a future post (two, actually, I think) to when to do this, and how to do this.
In the meantime, here are all the posts in this series so far.
If you liked this piece, you might also like:
The teaching series—I teach an online class about software engineering. Then I write about my teaching techniques.
The Raft distributed consensus algorithm series—I’ll be honest, every time I write about ethics or community, I feel compelled to put an obligatory “Checkmate SJW critics, I am in fact technical” series in the recommended links.
The Listening Series—Totally separate topic. I have a funny feeling, though, that there will be a lot of crossover between people who like this series and people who like that one.