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?