The No Feedback Culture

In this state of denial, you are not responsible for the consequences of your actions as long as no one exposes the real you.

By Ted Mitchell
Published November 23, 2006

Recently, Sacha Baron Cohen crossed the line. I am not talking about his Borat character's offensiveness, but about the fact that Cohen has effectively held up a mirror to America, and you just don't do that. They, and we, live in a no-feedback culture. In this state of denial, you are not responsible for the consequences of your actions as long as no one exposes the real you.

Many have surmised that North America is near the peak of the bubble, on the verge of something ominous, perhaps even heralding the end of an empire. But do not say that! Don't even think it, as if our economy and culture is so fragile that the mere suggestion of failure will make it so.

For a civilization to fail, it needs to have an Achilles heel. I have heard varied speculation on what it might be: greed, obsession with growth, economy as religion, godlessness, evangelism, terrorism, religious war, the pursuit of zero unemployment, self-centred behaviour, environmental degradation, and resource depletion, to name just a few.

I suggest there is a simple underlying factor - a building block of all the above - that has received too little attention: we live in a culture of no feedback. This phenomenon happens at many levels, but for now let us focus on the individual.

It is no secret that we live in an individualistic society. This has several important consequences: growing separation of personal freedoms and responsibilities, reverence of the private sector while marginalizing the public sector, and growing external costs dealt out to anything or anyone too weak to mount a defence. These and other crimes are effectively catalyzed by the twin Achilles heels of no feedback: none given, none accepted.

Our culture starts with children to guarantee this becomes true. It is common to hear toddlers scolded "don't do that", but almost never an explanation of why not to do that. Even as children enter school and can better see and comprehend the effects of their actions on others, there is no advice. Good behaviour gets praise, while bad is undetected, ignored, or addressed with power-imbalance discipline. No explanation, no discussion, no learning to walk in another's shoes: why would we expect them to learn responsibility?

Opportunity lost with the young kids, we move to teenagers. Here, the separation between freedom and responsibility is widened. Let them get away with it, we think innocently, because soon enough they will be bogged down with jobs, mortgages, and children of their own. So when these realities hit, is it surprising that we have adults who only accept these things with resentment, if at all?

Universities focus increasingly on job training. Any hope of a balanced education is achieved only by accident, for those who by dumb luck do not conform to the system. In professional schools, it is nearly criminal the way in which assertiveness is cultivated with only rare and feeble attempts at honest performance feedback.

If any criticism is given, by this time the student is so expertly defensive that anything remotely critical, even if highly constructive, will just bounce off with no responsibility accepted. Not surprisingly, then, among our educated, affluent elite, this imbalance can be breathtaking. Assertiveness is fully developed, while receptiveness to constructive criticism is juvenile.

Now if people want to walk around in a self-centred stupor, why not let them? The problem arises when they become the majority. Remember, we live in a democracy where power lies with the majority. A belief or policy doesn't have to be sound, just popular.

Take, for example, the belief in a geocentric universe. If Galileo presented his case in today's culture, he would not be incarcerated or excommunicated. He would be marginalized by the media and reviled by the public, with a similar fate for his supporters. Heaven forbid people would actually hear him out. That would mean the unthinkable - what you believed all your life was wrong. The blow to fragile egos is too much to bear. Sadly, no learning can occur when one is unreceptive to thinking about new ideas.

So it is with politics today. How many people are open to ideas: Hmm, let's hear what s/he has to say? The suggestion is almost laughable. No, they already know what they want to hear, look for those who agree, and demean those who disagree. A better recipe for societal division could not be created.

Our underdeveloped receptiveness leads in a vicious circle to less feedback generated. Humans are intelligent, social beings, with a number of subtle social skills. One of those is the desire not to offend. So as to avoid that risk, we are often silent when someone's behaviour cries out for rebuke. This brings to mind a quotation from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".

I have come to develop both receptiveness to criticism and disinhibition in providing it. Remarkable learning can be accomplished when one steps backs and asks, "What can I be wrong about today?" Try this game: Assume your understanding of something is completely wrong, and then search for evidence to prove and disprove that assertion. It can yield surprising results.

The battle for responsible individual behaviour is not yet lost. I believe that winning it is essential for the survival of our society, and perhaps of all humankind. You can help to change our culture of "no feedback". Starting with yourself, your family, neighbours, and co-workers, I want you to think about two simple but very important tasks:

  1. Make yourself more receptive to constructive criticism. Work especially to rise above defensiveness.

  2. Make an effort to provide feedback to those who cause harm. Do not get emotional; just call it like you see it. The response might be startling; remember, it is possible the perpetrator has never had any negative feedback on the subject, and is armed with an infantile toolbox of responses.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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