November 05, 2008

Confidentiality and Censorship

Sometimes I wonder if my only real talent is to annoy people. I’m not always sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Today I managed to annoy my thesis project co-chairs. I moved forward on an avenue of my project without consulting with them. Apparently, they think this particular method of participatory planning is more tricky than I think it is. I started a website. They are annoyed I didn’t consult with them, I suspect they are wondering in the back of their minds if I was trying to pull a fast one, and they believe I didn’t give the matter much thought.

Well, they have a right to be miffed, wrong to be suspicious, and at least half right on the last one. I really didn’t give this particular action much thought. I didn’t think about it because I am relying on positive past experience and because of a preconceived philosophical position.

Lots of planning projects have websites. Every planning department, city or county, that I know of has a website. Lots of developers have websites. Churches and schools have websites discussing their growth objectives. I see these websites all the time and use them in my research. I have always found them enormously helpful, both as a researcher and as a participant in the planning process in my community. If anything, have only been disgruntled by a lack of more detailed information.

I have a website, a couple, in fact. I’ve been blogging for over two years now. I’ve been writing columns for the paper for several months. I’ve been putting myself out there, opening myself up to feedback and criticism and I’ve gotten some. It hasn’t all been puppy dogs and roses, but overall it has been a very positive experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Also I have a philosophical commitment to openness, honest, inclusiveness, full-disclosure so to speak. I tend to think the more we all know about each other the better off we are. I believe in collective wisdom. I encourage informed decision making. I think it’s easier for a group to move forward together if they know where everyone is coming from and have some idea of where things are going. It’s a belief that has occasionally come back to bite me in the ass. I have to admit, a good portion of it is born out of a strange naïve optimism. I don’t always see the ways people can use information against each other, let alone the reasons for doing so. I’m completely lacking in realpolitik, which I honestly don’t regret. So of course, when I put something out into the world with the best of intentions, I naively assume that people will react to it in the same manner.

My professors think I’m opening up a can of worms. They are concerned there will be elements in the community who will see this and be adamantly and violently opposed to the entire project. They are afraid this could be the match and once the fire is started, there is no putting it out. My initial reaction is that this is ridiculous on many levels. Yet the fact that I am so immediately dismissive makes me question my motivations.

I’ve never handled critique well. Am I just trying to avoid being wrong? I can understand their concerns and some of their objections but I believe that these would be concerns no matter what feedback mechanism we used. We always knew community participation was going to be an important component and I don’t see that this is any riskier. I also have a high comfort level with this form of communication and I think it was telling that between the two professors, the one with the most tech savvy was also the least annoyed with me, though he still expressed deep concerns.

So now I’m wondering about the relationship between privacy, confidentiality, and censorship. When does one become the other? Does privacy apply to groups? What about when the actions of those groups affect a larger community? Privacy implies that the information, if known, could be harmful. The last thing I want to do is harm someone. Is it okay to keep some things confidential even when you know the other party could use the information and would like to know? Is it okay not to tell someone something because you are afraid of the response? Is there a way to present information in a way which would not provoke a strong negative reaction? Is there really anything you can do about people who are likely to be pre-prejudiced from the get go? Is this a lie by omission or a form of censorship? Am I really just silly and naïve to believe people react to you the way you approach them? How can I control the information flow which still allows plenty of opportunities for feedback from two different groups with two different agendas? Will it further bias one group if they find out that other discussions have been going on “behind their back?” All of these questions broaden my understanding of dealing with others. Not that I have any of it figured out yet, of course.

Of course, the biggest question being: am I letting my own need to be right and fear of criticism (or fear of admitting criticism is legitimate) color my response? The only answer I can come to is: of course I am. I’m bringing my own baggage to the table. That’s the thing about baggage. It follows you everywhere. So, if I recognize that, I can look forward at my professor’s concerns as legitimate, merited, and worthy of deep consideration as I look for a solution. I’m not sure I’m wired to think that way. I’m not sure I can competently consider all the angles or even figure out what they are, just because it’s so against my ingrained habitual patterns. It’s good to try, though.

So now how can I have my cake and eat it too?


wolfie185 said...

Hi Monica,
When it comes to criticism I have to remember to "grow some skin", my way of thinking is
"I have had my ass chewed before and I will have my ass chewed again" and by some of the best, my dad and a full bird colonel. For me there are usually 2 ways of looking at being criticized (spelling???) 1)did I make a mistake out of ignorance or wrong perspection, one in which I thought I was doing the right thing and my intent was right but just made a human error. 2) did I make a mistake because I was being lazy and selfish, in which I got caught because I was trying to make things easier for me. In both cases I always "own" my mistakes and move on. One of my pet peeves is people who don't "own" their mistakes and try and pass the buck. Mistakes cause suffering and I try and see what part I played in the suffering, usually there is some part that comes back to me whether it was intentional or not.
What you wrote about was just an opurtunity for growth, use it as such. Working with people on a group project is always a challenge in communication. Sometimes my best thought out ideas change after listening to the perspective and experience of others.
Good luck, enjoy this windy Fall weather, look up see the trees, hear the geese and cranes, the majestic clouds as they shuffle across the universe.

Samantha said...

Plates, Forks and Cake for everyone!

You said the magic word girlfriend,


It's funny, before I was a Buddhist I found criticism curious and interesting. I kid you not, I used to study it, especially when directed at me. Especially then, because it was mine, I could do with it what I pleased. I developed this habit of stepping outside myself, and looking at it from different angles, removing the attachments to it, and taking it as a set of benchmarks against which something could be improved. Along the way I found myself less attached to the emotional aspects of it, and in criticism found a certain freedom to excel, that had the side effect of making me, and other people happy.

No small wonder I'm a Buddhist these days. So much of my life before that was heading there more and more. Then too there is the fact that this isn't my first trip as a Buddhist, so it becomes a question of how much of the past was impacting my future in ways at the time I couldn't see.

Which off course is the essential nature of criticism, the past impacting the future. Other's experiences, knowledge and feelings causing them to decide what is, isn't, should, or shouldn't be. It's in the nature of human beings to try and reinforce things that are, it is a subconscious dodge around impermanence that can never really work. Which of course brings us back to perspective, choice, and my way or the highway.

Times change, but people not as fast. Criticism has power only because we are "attached" or invested in someone else's view. What makes it that much harder of course, is more even than we are, they (others) are heavily invested in their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, so it becomes this sort of feedback loop that gets deeply personal for everyone involved.

It is, realistically, a no win scenario at worst, and serves only to cement habits and patterns in our lives that we could all do without. So it's an quandry, especially given that sometimes criticism is spot on, and we can really gain something important from it.

Gee, I think I'm babbling here. I know what I mean, I'm just having trouble confining it to language... I hope this made some sense...

Monica said...


You made sense to me. I'll have to try that stepping outside myself the next time I'm in critque and see how it goes.

And I'm totally with you on the cake part!