“…with that understanding, I believe I will be able to strike the right balance between instituting change, and keeping in mind the results and considerations of administrations past.”
– From the manifesto of a candidate for the 16th MC.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
– A fourth-year’s reflection on the 16th MC candidates’ Q&A.
This year’s elections Q&A has come and gone. I was not in attendance, but I’ve been reading mantarui‘s piece about his experience there, and I’ve also been talking with other alumni/senior students about some of the sentiments and proposals that the 16th MC candidates have made available online. For mantarui, who’s been through a fair few of these himself, there was a sense of déjà vu, perhaps from the feeling of having heard some of these pitches before.
As for the online proposals, regarding the idea for GUI coordinators, one response it provoked from my friend was the following:
For context, the ‘pillars’ refer to MC portfolios that existed prior to the 14th MC. There were five ‘Community Pillars’ during the time of my MC (the 12th), which had Directors for Academic Affairs, Community Service, Cultural Activities, Social Activities, and Sports. These Directors each spearheaded a Standing Committee for each portfolio that coordinated and supported the activities of relevant projects and Interest Groups (GUIs being an innovation1 of the 14th MC).
To be clear, it’s not that my friend thought that the GUI coordinator proposal was merely an unnecessary rehash of an old structure that would yield no real benefit. What I’m trying to show is merely that there was some irony to be appreciated, from a perspective that saw the similarity with the benefit of a slightly longer historical perspective.
Our chat also brought to mind some ideas I’ve had from around the time I was considering the question of how best to structure2 the MC and USC’s activities. These ideas were, more specifically, about the pattern year-to-year changes in the structure of student committees, where the leadership is consecutively handing over their offices to their successors.
For clarity, I’ll state these ideas a pair of principles describing the political structure of student organizations.
Principle 1 (‘Principle of Institutional Conservatism’). Student organizations are conservative institutions. Getting rid of projects and portfolios is generally avoided.
Principle 2 (‘Principle of Institutional Expansion’). Even on the exceptional occasions when projects and portfolios are culled, over time the leadership structure will expand, rather than contract or remain stable. This is because the mandate of every batch of leaders is to institute improvement.
Although I’ve stated two principles, on a deeper analysis the trends they describe stem from the same underlying logic.
The social/political logic behind Principle 1 is that, fairly or unfairly, a suggestion to axe a post or project can be read as a negative verdict on the necessity/performance/quality of the position/office-holder/project. I described the context of having directors for each ‘community pillar’ earlier, and as an illustration of the logic I describe, imagine suggesting that the post of, say, the Academic Affairs director should be eliminated or derogated to a lower level in the subsequent committee structure. At the minimum, not just the Academic Affairs director, but also his predecessors might wonder why the proposal was being made. (And perhaps the more general human tendency here is to rationalize the value of what we already have, and what was done in the past.)
The practical implication is that only rarely would outgoing office-holders find it worthwhile to impose a reduction in scope. Politically and practically, it’s virtually all downside – the risk of criticism and unpopularity, having to justify an unfamiliar idea to people – and no upside.
For Principle 2, the considerations are likewise thoroughly pragmatic. Assuming outgoing office-holders retain a measure of influence and cachet, it is difficult to run on a platform with the primary purpose of getting rid of portfolios and marquee projects. On the other hand, to appear to believe that existing systems and initiatives are good, just either limited or in need of improvement, is simply the path of least resistance3. The savvy candidate intends to streamline processes, or improve the implementation of things, or ensure greater accountability for projects and areas of concern, etc. Principle 2 succeeds because it just so happens that creating portfolios, rather than eliminating them, seems a plausible measure for achieving these goals, e.g. I’ll have a director in charge of X so that he/she can plan and coordinate and be responsible.
To sum up, the practical consequence of the stated principles is that, all things being equal, projects and portfolios tend to proliferate (but so will expectations and disaffection, if the real situation never actually changes).
In the economy of human effort and ideological investment, however, there tends to be a stable state from which it is difficult to deviate. Indeed, I would argue that a further implication is that where the state remains stable (i.e. no proliferation), the main predictor is the existence of projects and portfolios that are time- and resource-intensive enough that it becomes difficult to proliferate new ones; perhaps certain examples come to mind…
So is it really case that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Is progress an illusion? Is becoming a jaded senior inevitable?
Something else I’ve recently been examining is one USP student’s call to ‘try a little kindness’. I’ve mentioned that I wasn’t present at the Q&A, and I suspect that if I’d had been I’d more readily sympathize with this writer’s distress. The attitude she decries in the audience – destructive, self-indulgent, and nasty – is one she describes with reference to blood sport.
The writer further likens the questions, comments, and reactions from Q&A attendees to the candidates to the throwing of missiles at the candidates. Here, however, I believe she is in error. One cannot sanction the idea that just the manner in which a criticism or a question is expressed should disqualify or discredit it – or that, conversely, being ‘nice’ in putting forward an opinion should increase its currency. That way lies destruction. Should criticizing the police for the mishandling of a case be taken as tantamount to undermining their morale and reducing their effectiveness? What about publicly ridiculing Arsene Wenger’s transfer strategy through meme-y videos?
I think the fact is that it may, but it really shouldn’t. Likewise, perhaps the tone of the Q&A was nasty and non-constructive. Still, this is something that all sorts of leaders and representatives deal with, either during campaigning or on the job. And all credit goes to them – rather than their detractors, or even their boosters – if they do well despite this AND the deliberate efforts of opponents to undermine them.
I think I speak from experience when I say I’d be enthusiastically for ‘trying a little kindness’ to your elected agents and representatives. At the same time, I’m also enthusiastically for the active exercise of the ability to question, criticize, and dissent – and I’d go so far as to say that the more active, the better.
Why? Well, this actually comes back to the nature of institutions – specifically, the problem of institutional inertia, and the cynics who understand it.
You’d be forgiven for rating me a cynic for my statement and analysis of Principles 1 and 2. I do think that they describe reality, not in the way of physical laws, but perhaps in a way closer to economic theory4. Given that the reality I’m trying to describe is social rather than natural5, deviations are possible and, indeed, expected (unless you’re a cynic).
Just take the fact that there are going to be just 6 positions in the 16th MC. If you were trying to keep count, you might have deduced that there were 11 positions in the 12th MC. Obviously, something went wrong (or right, depending on your outlook).
Philosophically, the question (of wrong or right) is of course more complicated. Concerning the social reality, how are we to agree on whether the decision to down-size (or streamline) the MC resulted in more benefit than trouble? Under the 14th MC, Ground-Up Initiatives were seen as the way to go, rather than the rote obligation for a bunch of Standing Committees and Working Committees (which were often named for their specific project or event) to organize things. On the other hand, maybe the intangible value represented by each community ‘pillar’ wasn’t something the 13th MC should have been so ready to write off.
But regardless of whether the course of official action was beneficial or detrimental, at least within the paradigm I outlined earlier, the fact that there was a deviation from the general tendency signals that there exist concerns apart from practical and political calculations, which the paradigm would otherwise have sufficed to account for.
In my estimation, the only difference between cynical political operators and genuine reformers is that, for the latter, there are stakes. Why else (aside from a martyr complex) would someone consciously attempt to push through something unpopular or troublesome (or put in the effort to spin it such that it isn’t seen that way at crunch-time), when it would be so much easier to promise the kinds of modest improvement that everyone understands?
In a similar vein, I think the difference between the truly cynical bystander and the jaded-but-sincere critic is that while, for the latter, tone is at the service of necessity, for the former, tone is invariably the most convenient value. This is the reason I resist even the suggestion of using tone as the benchmark for the value, moral or practical, of opinions. One cannot but surrender to the cynics eventually, if one must surrender to the tone police.
The truth is that there is no easier position to be in, than to be a cynic on the right side of institutional inertia. All one has to ensure is that nothing difficult is agreed on or discussed.
I began this post with a pair of epigraphs. Placed side by side, I think they speak to each other.
In a way, as well, they come from places that might be polar opposites – one from the vantage point of imminent responsibility, the other from the vantage point of imminent [haha sorry me too] obsolescence.
The first statement, about ‘[striking] the right balance between instituting change, and keeping in mind the results and considerations of administrations past’, certainly has a cynical reading; however I propose that the challenge worth attempting is appreciating, simultaneously, the reality of institutional inertia and the possible value of persevering towards something despite that. Therein lies the potential for something like progress.
As for the second statement (‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’), that comes from a place closer to my own vantage point. In fact, my initial attempt at a statement of Principle 2 was gloomier than the current version.
Principle 2 (Initial Version). Even on the exceptional occasions when projects and portfolios are culled, in time they will be reintroduced, if in slightly modified form.
The forecast here is that we are doomed to continuously re-treading old ground, without even recognizing that we’re doing it. Upon further reflection, this was something I had to reject – though I still suspect it tends to be true that the easiest solutions are often the ones with precedent, and that the causality runs both ways, i.e. easy ↔ done before.
So at the end of it all, I think the question is, What’s the best we can do?
Not everyone who is involved in the life of the social community is going to be able to (or should) take up a committee post, but I think the choice to be conscientious and cognizant about the direction the community is taking is available to everyone, and that it does make a difference. Against the context of institutional inertia, I believe the active exercise of the ability to question and dissent are a positive indication of socially constructive participation, and therefore to be welcomed more than discouraged; at the same time, I agree it’s worth remembering that there’s always room to be kind.
But against the theme of ‘institutional inertia’, something important to recognize is that it’s not that institutions are inherently repressive or retrograde. It’s just that expediency militates against institutional change, and that eventually sets in everywhere (yes, even at that upstart new technology company).
Something else I believe, is that there’s nothing inherently meritorious in upsetting the equilibrium. Perhaps, even, more often than not, it might be counter-productive. So if one believes in the need for change, I think a decent place to start is in ensuring a reasonably comprehensive understanding of the situation, understanding the practical constraints on possibility, and having a thorough understanding of the nature of the change that one is trying to effect. A tall order, but perhaps the principle could be summarized as first understanding the equilibrium, before essaying to subvert it.
I think ultimately the challenge is not to overcome inertia, but to manage it towards the (social) goal: not a tug-of-war, but a controlled roll.
- As far as these things go – cynically, just to the extent of nomenclature… ↩
- The Community Life/Student Welfare distinction is an artefact of those considerations, with the dual-VP system having been handed over to me in the form of Community Pillars/Houses. ↩
- This is not meant as advice – if anything might inspire a residual feeling of proud tribal identification, it’s the idea that USP students can be trusted to recognize legitimate criticisms and thwart sycophants seeking a cheap in. Neither is it meant as a condemnation. ↩
- Or syntactical rules, for the linguists. Shout-out! ↩
- In the sense of ‘natural sciences’. ↩