Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Embracing Change

I had to attend one of those "all staff" cheerleading sessions at work today*, and was struck by their use of one of those platitudes we hear so very often, yet about which we rarely think very much. And, as the title suggests, that is the all too common statement that we "need to embrace change". In a way, this is a truism. Without change, things obviously would stagnate. Without change, we could not take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Without change there would be no improvement. And on and on.

On the other hand, that does not mean that "change" in the abstract is beneficial. Change, or lack of change, like anything else in life, has value only in context. For example, if you are ill, it would be a change to return to good health. But it would also be a change to drop dead. As you can see, it is not change as such, but the specific change which matters. And that is often something we forget.

I noticed this most clearly when arguing with FairTax advocates**, when they responded to any criticism of the FairTax by arguing "you must like the current tax system." This false dichotomy, FairTax versus current system, was noticeable enough to inspire posts such as "Gardasil and Logical Errors", but more than that, it pointed out to me a mindset I had noticed, but not really consciously, among many on the left. It was same mindset that inspired the "Clinton for Change" motto, or, later, inspired many to support Obama on the strength of "hope", because he would bring "change". The mindset was probably best expressed by one of my FairTax boosters who asked "if you are on a runaway stage, isn't any change good?" That thought, that if we are unhappy with our current circumstances any change is good is the one I want to address here, as, in many cases, that sort of reasoning is often smuggled in under the rubric of "embracing change".

I have written before about our troubling tendency to confuse novelty with a judgment of worth (See "The Virute of Novelty and the Value of Tradition"), so I won't go into great detail concerning the origins of that belief. Instead, I will simply discuss the way this mistake is commonly expressed, and why it is such a dangerous mistake.

As I said, we often hear the argument that we should not fear change, but must embrace it, that change is a part of life, that change leads to a vibrant and productive organizations and so on. And, I will grant, on one level all such statements are true. Change is inevitable, and necessary in some contexts, and at times should not be feared. However, there is a disturbing tendency to extrapolate from these truisms to an unwarranted degree and assume that all change is beneficial, that change alone is a viable approach and that any opposition to change in unacceptable, and that is a mistake.

Change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. Change is simply a description. Change can mean moving from an undesirable situation to one that we enjoy more, but it can equally mean moving from a desirable situation to one we dislike. Thus, unless we are certain that our situation is wholly and completely undesirable, in fact the worst situation possible, and that there is no way a change could make it in any way worse, we need to accept that change is, of itself, neither positive nor negative.

I almost blush to write such an essay, as it seems these points should be self evident. And I would say they were had I not had so many argument with people who stated, things such as "given our current situation, could things get any worse?" or had I not seen two presidential campaigns run on promises of undefined change. Thus, I feel the need to point out what really should be obvious, that change, divorced from any context, is not to be praised or condemned, that it is the outcome which makes change valuable, and that change can produce bad as well as good.

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*  It is probably just me, but I have never been a big fan of these rah-rah cheerleading, team building, morale boosting things. I always imagine that they could have provided me with the relevant information in a five line email, or a five minute presentation and left me an hour or two (or sometimes more! ugh!) to actually do my job. But then again, I am not a real "team player", and I have a job not a "career". Though I am a professional, I think of work as  a means to support myself, not my identity, that comes from family, from activities outside of work and the like. So, maybe others find these things useful (though the generally sarcastic comments by others convince me management is really the only group that thinks anyone wants these, but maybe I am just speaking to the wrong people.)

** See "The Runaway Stagecoach", "Ch-Ch-Changes", "The FairTax's Liberal Assumptions", "Recurring Bad Argument", "Why I Dislike the FairTax", "Reply to Fair Tax Comments", "Reply to FairTax Comment II", "Reply to FairTax Comment III", "Why Do I Bother?", "Short Reply to Doctor Adams", "A Partial Reply to yt_knight" and "Another Reply to Yt_knight".

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POSTSCRIPT

As a man who despises needless jargon, since when did the banner at the top of a web site become a "hero"? And who thought up this awful name? Web jargon has always been hideous, from "phishing" to "spam", cutesy inside jokes, Pythonisms, needless erudition and simple nonsense have predominated, but it now seems, with the influx of millions of marketing staff (who, in my own neologism, I have dubbed "marketrons" -- see, I can make needless jargon too!), the terms have simply become idiotic. How, in any conceivable way, is a large banner on a web site, a "hero"?

POSTSCRIPT II

For those puzzled by the postscript and its relevance, part of our meeting centered on the redesign of our website. And we now have a "hero".

POSTSCRIPT III

As so few read the articles linked, I decided to reproduce a quote I found in "Recurring Bad Argument". It struck me as a rather good summary of my argument here:
Of course not! If you doctor diagnoses you with cancer, giving you a 75% chance of recovery with treatment, would you shoot yourself in the head in order to "change"? If you are bankrupt, do you burn down your house to change your circumstances? Clearly, we can go from bad to worse, and any change is not inherently good by being change. Outside of the Obama and Clinton campaigns, "change" is not apodictically good. We can change for the better, or for the worse, or to a situation equally bad and equally good. Change can take any number of forms, and produce countless outcomes.
And another from "The Runaway Stagecoach" :
Now, even assuming that the premise of the runaway stagecoach were valid, I would still not agree. Even a runaway stagecoach offers degrees of trouble. If two people on a runaway stagecoach argue over solutions, one proposing regaining control of the horses and the other shooting themselves in the head, are we not to "pick holes" in the competing theories and just pick one on faith? Even in a crisis it is possible to make the crisis worse by an ill considered choice. In fact, if anything, the panicked decision making that yt_knight proposes is liable to result in making the situation worse. In a crisis more than any other time we need to choose carefully. So, to use his wording, we need to "pick holes" in a crisis even more than at other times.
There are probably more, but these two struck me as particularly worthy of reproduction.

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