infantilism and power

I am back in Brussels, this time to help in the evaluation of proposals. As always I feel uneasily embarrassed at the total dominance of English in the glass-walled anthill of an evaluation building, where experts from across Europe and beyond gather to decide how taxpayers’ money should be spent. They range as always from serious scholars to consultants with specialist expertise in various forms of policy claptrap and include growing numbers of non-Europeans. In the morning rush there is some sharp-elbowed shoving to get into the overcrowded lifts but what everyone has in common is a confident command of the global language. Perhaps because everyone regards him or herself as an expert, perhaps because this fluency has not been acquired without effort, I have noticed recently an increasing arrogance in the way that it is deployed. Twenty years ago, most people seemed to make an effort to adress security guards, receptionists, canteen assistants and so on in French. Now they act more like British tourists and just repeat what they have already said more loudly in English if they are not at first understood. The Welsh half of me recoils at this linguistic imperialism; the English half is (perhaps snobbishly) distressed at the mangling of grammar and narrow, jargon-ridden vocabulary. I have had to bite my tongue on many occasions when given a lecture on what can, or cannot, be written in a consensus report as ‘good English’ by someone whose native language is Estonian, Portuguese or Turkish. Absolutely caught in a double-bind of my own making!
When I arrived, too exhausted to go out, I had dinner in the overpriced hotel restaurant. It was one of those places that serves extremely small morsels of food on very large rectangular plates, smeared with various unidentifiable coloured liquids. In this case the morsels were three very tiny scallops, each embellished with a single leaf of tasteless copper-coloured cress. The smears were ice-cream colours: pistachio, chocolate, vanilla and peach, with a scattering of droplets of dark oil. It was just like eating one’s dinner in the high chair of a particularly messy baby. Although of course one could have fed the baby for rather less than eight euros per mouthful.
Which set me thinking about the way that the more powerful people are, the more they seem to enjoy being infantilised. Arly Hoschchild has written brilliantly, in ‘The Time Bind’, about the way in which large corporations look after their managers, flying them first-class around the world and putting them up in luxury hotels, cleaning their offices and bringing them cups of coffee, in short waiting on them hand and foot. They are enticed to stay at work as long as possible and then, when they finally go home to their uncleaned houses, nagging partners and neglected children, they find it so unpleasant that they head straight back to the calm and order of the workplace. For such insiders (as opposed to the growing army of casualised workers) the corporation has become a surrogate family. This physical care represents a form of mothering; but the company is also a stern and macho father, simultaneously urging managers to be lean and mean (‘big boys don’t cry’) whilst humiliating and demeaning them by requiring them to show obeisance to their seniors, snap to attention or obey unpleasant orders, for instance to sack their underlings.
In my research I have often noticed that one of the biggest differences between freelancers and employees is that the former seem so much more grown up. In one survey of freelance translators, we found that, when asked if they would like to go back to full-time employment, they would often make statements like ‘Oh, they wouldn’t have me back’ or ‘I’ve got too used to my freedom’. These freelancers realised that they had lost the habits of deference and the knowledge of how deep to bow that are necessary for survival in a hierarchical organisation and had got into habits of judging people by external criteria, such as their helpfulness or intelligence. They found it ludicrous that someone should think it beneath their dignity to go out to the post office or put out the rubbish but did also rather ruefully realise that economic survival depended on concealing their propensity not to suffer fools gladly (I wrote this up in an article called something like ‘the autonomy paradox’).
There are professional management trainers and coaches who achieve enormous success by treating their clients like kindergarten children. I have been to sessions where the leader (usually these days called a ‘facilitator’ or ‘moderator’) does things like chuck a teddy bear at the assembled bigwigs asking whoever catches it to say the first thing that comes into his or her head about a given topic (perhaps ‘leadership’): a kind of learning through play that would most definitely be frowned on if, for instance, the office cleaners decided to indulge in it. The managers presumably get some cathartic pleasure from surrendering control for a couple of hours and shedding the load of having to make brutal decisions. Once cleansed, off they go to eat their nursery pudding, after which they will be all geared up to start bossing people around again.

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