“We’d like to take out ten rows of auditorium seating,” says the producer.
“What?” quoth the tech manager, eyes a-flutter.
“But… our get-in is only half an hour every night. And the seating weighs a tonne. And there’s only three of us. And there’s no where to put it. And we’d have to put it back every night but don’t have the turnaround time. Or the tools. At all.”
“Alright,” says the producer, “but what you’re saying is that it is possible.”
There is a form of… I think I will call it bullying… that takes place in the modern world, that I intensely dislike. It is a bullying that hides itself behind very reasonable tones. It buries itself in words like issue, resolution, solution-finding, viability. Is there something that can’t be done? Tell us what you need to get it fixed. Ah – you don’t think it can be fixed. Tell us why you don’t think it can be fixed. You don’t think it can be fixed because of the killer shark? Okay, what do you need to do to fix the shark issue so you can fix this other thing too?
It is a form of bullying that talks down to people. It assumes some very basic and unpleasant truths: that you, with your intelligence, experience and expertise are not merely saying something can’t be done, you’re refusing to do it. You’re refusing because you’re perhaps lazy, or difficult, or don’t share the vision, and only through the guidance of your betters will it be done. A problem is never insoluble; it’s just that you’re not trying hard enough.
And arguably, no problem is insoluble. But in theatre, for example, there are a hell of a lot of problems where the solution is cash. Gimme cash. I am a lighting designer; I cannot magic haze and the illusion of a volcano erupting down stage centre out of my left shoe.
“What do you need to make it happen?”
“What apart from cash? How else can we achieve this?”
“Nothing. I need a budget to make this work.”
“Yes, but apart from the budget.”
“There is no apart from the budget.”
“Now listen… you’re not being very reasonable…”
It’s a form of bullying that hides itself behind tactics so apparent you could spot them on a foggy evening in a swamp. Phrases such as: “I’m sure we can both agree that this is important… I know you’re trying, but perhaps you’re approaching this the wrong way… it would be terribly disappointing for us if this didn’t happen… I’m really not comfortable with… it’d be letting yourself down if you, as a professional, can’t make this work…” And of course, my personal favourite: “I think you agree with me when I say x…”
No! No I don’t agree with you when you say that! And saying it in a very slow, considerate voice doesn’t make me agree with you more!
And worst of all, is how easy it is to to think you’re in the right, if you say something utterly unreasonable in this careful and considerate tone; how easily this can escalate.
“You’re not being reasonable,” says the 21st century bully, “I’m doing everything I can to sort this out, but you’re not listening to me. I don’t know how to get through to you; do I need to hurt you? Is that what it takes, because you’re just not being reasonable.” These are words I’ve heard, spoken to me in all sincerity; I suspect I’m not the only one.
Few things make me blaze with anger more than the injustice of the powerful bullying the weak. Find me that person who, thinking through their lives, has not felt a glimmer of outrage to see the righteous quiet man subdued by the loud. Look at my government and tell me that the poverty of the poor is not increasing relative to the wealth of the mighty; consider your own life, dear reader, and ask yourself if never once you haven’t seen the meek knocked down by the great, or witnessed the powerful – be it boss at work, be it wealth, be it social status – be it whatever denomination of power you can name – demonstrate their greatness by the reduction of others. Have you not been in the queue where the bully muscles in front; have you never been in a meeting where the loudest person calmly explained a ridiculous idea, only for the room to fall silent for fear of being seen to be unreasonable in their righteously indignant replies. Tell me, yea who have had the joy of bartering with government departments for benefits for a disabled relative, or with a local council for some vital bit of information that only they hold and you need – tell me if you have not come away ever, face flushed with rage, because someone who has the thing you need, which only they can provide, cannot in all reason listen to your request. But will not for the life of you tell you why.
Reason, to me, is the ability to listen to another person’s argument. It is the capacity to consider your own errors, to find that half-way house between what is desired and what is possible. It is the ability to think independent thought, not spout words whose value, if they ever held any, have been reduced down to meaningless tripe. We hide what we mean behind ‘issue’ and ‘solution’, and what is worse, the language of ‘reason’ in this context now obscures genuine debate.
“That’s not the issue at hand… you’re being very unreasonable…” explains the bully patiently, sighing between steepled fingers as you shake and rage at the cage of placidity being built around you.
I do not say that all this language is inadequate or did not once have a purpose.
I say rather that so much of it has become stolen, abused and corrupted by that most unreasonable of all traits – not listening. Reason is having a debate, a meaningful conversation. ‘Reason’ is respecting the person you speak to as an equal, not as an human obstruction in your path.