Bureaucracy

The dictionary defines bureaucracy as follows:

a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
  • a state or organization governed or managed as a bureaucracy.
    plural noun: bureaucracies
  • the officials in a bureaucracy, considered as a group or hierarchy.
  • excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of bureaucracy.
    “the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government”

It is the last bullet point that I am most interested in talking about today, but I guess they are sort of part and parcel of the same.  Regardless of where you work, if you work in an organization that has a hierarchy you have faced some degree of bureaucracy.   We’ve likely all felt frustrated at times, and it seems every time you’ve figured it all out, or at least gotten used to a certain level of bureaucracy the game changes and you go back to being frustrated.

Bureaucracy can seem like a giant monster you have to contend with everyday and I’ve often wondered is this the intention, or is it more like Frankenstein’s monster.  We didn’t intend to create this dangerous creature, but well it’s out there now and we just have to live with it.  I think the answer is that likely both types of situations are true.  One can see how a bureaucracy might build innocently enough.  When things are small in a company the interface might just be a few employees directly to a boss.  Then as the business grows and there are more and more employees, the number of people in between the top and bottom grows.  It seems also possible that this middle serves important functions and if working efficiently can actually allow that organization to achieve a lot and improve everybody’s happiness in the workplace.  More often than not this middle takes on a life of it’s own, has it’s own hierarchy and over time becomes a nightmare. Here are some of my favorite people in a bureaucracy…perhaps you’ve met them.  Be aware there is much overlap in character here…it’s possible that all these people could exist in one person and these people are especially painful! 🙂

The Immortal – Every bureaucracy seems to have the one person who never seems to age.  They stay in the exact same position.  They aren’t particularly good at their job, but usually competent enough to not justify firing them.  You retire and somehow they are still there, even though they were there before you started.  When combined with one of the other types of bureaucrats, they become a nightmare that never ends.

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The Soulless – These bureaucrats are typically the type that work for immigration, embassies or consulates, but you find them elsewhere also.  They don’t care about your particular situation.  They don’t care if the rules don’t make sense.  They just don’t care.  They can’t even offer a sincere, “I’m sorry, I understand this must be difficult, but you are going to need to come tomorrow with the long form of your birth certificate.”  In fact they’ll usually let you know that you should have read the instructions more carefully regardless of how confusing and unhelpful those instructions are.

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The Follower – This person’s attention is only on their boss at all times.  Maybe they are sycophant, maybe they just live in fear of getting fired, either way they don’t see themselves as any type of authority even when their job grants them some authority.  It’s also possible that they are one of the soulless, who just like to use their boss as an excuse for why they can’t process your paperwork or help you in any way.  If a rule doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter.  They are just doing what they are told.  They don’t say things like “You make an excellent point, I’ll bring this up to my superior to see if we can’t design a more sensible process.”  They don’t show any signs of independent thought.  If you point out that something doesn’t make sense, they simply can’t agree with you.  They just point you in the direction of people above them.  These bureaucrats are often demeaning to those who work for them especially if they seem brighter than they are, and are presenting ideas of how to make things better.  They hate to look less competent than people under them to their boss, so they often lie to their superiors about the competence of those below them.

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The Not-My-Problem Stickler – These are some of the worse people.  They can be any of the above types as well.  These are people who know every rule, expect no boxes to be unchecked.  Anything missing in your paperwork or any rule not followed to a T according to their interpretation will lead them to refuse to help you.  Furthermore they may not even tell you that you haven’t followed the rules properly or filled out a form incorrectly.  It will simply sit on their desk, waiting for you to spend the time tracking down your paperwork as it moves through various offices, only to discover it is sitting on this person’s desk and so when you send a polite inquiry as to when they will process your paperwork, they respond to you as if you just reached your dirty hand in their bag of chips (crisps for you English types). “You had a date wrong here that didn’t match the date on page 3.” is a response you might get.  No explanation as to why they didn’t just call you and ask for clarification.  You made a mistake, you shouldn’t have made a mistake, and it’s really not their problem that you made a mistake.

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The Big Fish in a Small Pond – This is the worst of the lot, and also quite common.  Combined with any other types, which is usually the case, this is the type of person who makes you consider whether you should have hope for humanity as long as such people exist.  This bureaucrat is poster child of middle management.  They wield incredible amounts of power over their very small area.  The reason they are so powerful is because their position is important.  This is the type of person who might be the head of purchasing through which all parts of an organization must go through at some point.  While there are some upper management might like to have these kinds of people about, most of the time nobody likes them, and nobody can get rid of them because they technically do their job.  But they are so unhelpful in every way that the organization’s efficiency is reduced, because they have this incredible belief that they are the safeguard to the integrity of the organization like some Samurai Warrior uphold some ancient code of honor.   They are quite aware that they are untouchable and relish in the power they have.  They have authority to bend the rules, but they won’t.  They also will make up rules if they are in a bad mood, just to ruin your day too, and they do it with the utmost confidence that you have no recourse to them just deciding that you are not someone they feel like helping.  You’ve never seen them smile, except sardonically.  You wonder whether they’ve experienced anything good in their lives.  You wonder if they actually can’t even find joy in eating a cookie fresh out of the oven.  You wonder if maybe they just need some good sex and maybe then they’d become a reasonable human being.

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Whether the intent of the bureaucracy is to actually make it harder to get things done, or whether it’s just some accidental beast that grows out of control, the people who make up the bureaucracy cause a great deal of pain.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they are villains, or just people of less than average ability who were unemployable anywhere else.

Discussion: How do we know worshiping the divine is moral?

A recent exchange I had on someone’s blog post about morality and what standards we use to gauge them had me thinking about a question I never really asked before in regards to theism.  In this thread the theist was arguing that God represents an objective standard to what is moral and what isn’t moral, and atheists have no objective standards for morality.  I feel theists are equally subjective and I think atheists can objectively evaluate the morality of actions through non-divine standards.  I honestly couldn’t get through to to this person to convince them, but no matter.  The question that occurred to me that I had asked before is “by what standards to we decide that we should be worshiping Gods and living according to their desires?”

I mean let’s say there is a God, by what basis do we decide that this is somebody we should worship?  If they have a bunch of rules for us to follow do we get to question whether those rules are something we should follow? If we do not it seems following those rules is not based on a decision about the rightness of the rules, but rather a default position to authority.  Are we to follow all those who are more powerful? Is it a duty to a creator to follow rules blindly?  Are we to follow those who promise consequences that make us fearful should we choose not to follow?

Despite the claim by many theists that God represents an objective standard of morality it does not seem that morality plays a role when it comes to following God.  One can’t say, “Following God is the moral thing to do,” unless we are somehow able to evaluate the rules that God wants us to follow.  In which case God is no longer the standard that we judge the morality of the rules.  Can we even say something like “God is good” ? Aren’t we using a separate standard to evaluate God’s goodness.  It seems God is only good because of his power, not his morality.  Thus whatever happens to us or anybody else is because God allows it to be so, making everything simply good.  The punishments, the rewards, the rules, everything.  I guess it’s always bothered me to give anything that much authority.  Even if I had conclusive evidence of God’s existence, I think I would still want to evaluate him.

I mean let’s say God and the Devil stand before you, incarnate in some human form.  How is one able to tell the difference between the two?  How do I measure God’s goodness?  Is it that one sends me to punishment while the other does the punishment?  Surely it’s by one having a greater power over the other.  Because it cannot be by actions of goodness, because according to at least the definition of the Christian God, anything that God does is good.  Because God is the supposed objective standard of morality and my differing is not permissible if I wish to be moral.

It seems to me that what religion then teaches us is that worship is to be given to beings who are more powerful.  If that powerful being is deemed to be the standard good then whatever that being does is by definition good and we cannot question but follow blindly.  The consequences of our actions have no bearing on the situation providing we are following the rules laid out by that being.  What then is the value of our ability to reason?  Isn’t existence then rather empty having to set aside reason to follow blindly that which is defined as the ultimate good?

It still seems to me that someone had to have a pre-defined notion of good to even decide that God met the ultimate definition.  More importantly I think it seems worth asking the question whether the worshiping the divine is even a moral action or an action meant simply to ensure obedience to entities more powerful than ourselves.

Rhapsody #109 – Entropy and Disorder

Recently I wonder,
Why don’t more of us just spend our days crying?
I’m just so tired of being outraged,
But the things people do to each other.
It’s enough to really make you question: What’s it all for?

I’m also tired, of being tired.
But what right do I have to complain?

The very essence of life is survive,
And there are some strong people out there,
Who have been at the receiving end
Of senseless and unimaginable cruelty,
And there is a toughness there that often goes unnoticed
The toughness to choose to stand on this Earth another day
To try and move through each moment
While painful memories gnaw at them
Trying to drag them back down into a hole of despair.

And people have the gall to criticize safe spaces,
You can’t really know what another person’s been through,
Yeah you may be tougher, but so what,
Life isn’t all about toughness,
Toughness is just the cost of life,
It ain’t none of the flavor.
And everybody…I mean everybody has their safe spaces
Just for some people their safe space is in their head,
Manifesting into a black and white world,
Full of a few simple rules that will keep them alive,
Those rules are the fiction they cling to,
Just to feel safe while they rail angrily at everybody,

Word to the wise,
None of us are safe.

The only real rules are in physics,
And it’s like a chess board.
The set up looks ordered and tidy,
But the universe isn’t the set up, it’s the game.
We don’t know how the game will play out,
And it might amaze you to know,
There are more possible moves in a game of chess,
Than electrons in the universe,
And somehow the universe has chess in it.

One thing makes me feel better and also worries me,
Is that from the perspective of the universe we are all idiots
The universe is behaving exactly as it should
We are too,
There are so many mysteries about us to discover
And the universe has us in it
So many people think they understand
The nature of the universe
The nature of us
What happened to humility?

You may think now that this should all come back to a single unifying point,
So that the strands of what I said could clump together,
Maybe a hammer that swings down and crushes life.
But that’s not this universe.
The last time we were one thing,
The last time we were all the same,
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 billion years
We were hurled off into space and change began
Branching into smaller and smaller strands,
Moment by moment,
And we’re all unique and we’re all beautiful
We’re all kinds of freaks of nature,
And that’s how we’re all equal
And maybe accepting and loving that thought,
Is all we can really hope for.

And then I ask myself,
Is all this self-indulgent pondering of the grandeur of the universe,
Just a way to make myself feel better?
Maybe it keeps me strong to take on the world,
Maybe it’s my safe space
But if we all have a safe space
The best we can do is try to move that space
Into something, bigger and more elastic
With lots of blurred edges
Because learning never stops
And change, is our only certainty

Boundaries

We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner.  My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like.  One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head.  They are dark and wooden.  My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose.  My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held.  His only response was “Well where is its legs?  If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.

As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together.  A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams.  A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you.  It helps you sort and categorize.  And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information.  Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening.  Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can.  And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.

And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary.  And sometimes we can even laugh about it.  Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society.  And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives.  Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize.  Rather small really.  You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world.  But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs?  Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic.  Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit.  Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.

All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something.  We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules.  It doesn’t make sense.  As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away.  Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough?  The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others?  I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions.  Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better.  I hate when older people get down on younger people.  As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy.  Is it easier than we had it?  Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective.  The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it.  And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy.  It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked.  This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created.  The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly.   Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages.  Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate.  Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “

“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas

 

You Know It Just Ain’t Easy

There are a lot of things in this world…perhaps brought about by humans, but nevertheless exist at least as part of our lives.  They are important things, things we fight for, things we live for.  I’m speaking of things like freedom, justice, love, spirituality, loyalty, equality, truth, and there are probably others that I’m not thinking of right now.  These things often give rise to a lot of disagreements in terms of what they mean, they often lack a specific definition, and very much depends on one’s perspective based on the family, culture, society in which we were raised.

But they do. And maybe sometimes they should.

All of these things are core to who we are as a species and have the ability to impact our own personal happiness and sense of well-being, as well as how we treat each other and all life in general.  All of these things can also be extremely frustrating because of how different we view them.  Ever tried to love someone who wasn’t all that impressed with the way you did it? Ever had someone question your loyalty even when you thought your behavior expressed loyalty?  Ever fought for some group’s freedom, but have the very same group question the way in which you fight for that freedom or even claim that you weren’t helping but making things worse?  Ever believe something was very important to spiritual health only to be told by someone else that it was irrelevant?  The truth is that that all of these things are really really complex, regardless of how simple and natural it might feel to you.  These things are often very dynamic, leaving us with moral and ethical conflicts over time, sometimes changing our views slowly or rapidly as we experience new things.  They are often tied strongly to our emotions and sometimes seem beyond reason, they are just how we feel.  It also tends to be not very satisfying to be alone with our perspectives.  We seek connection to those who share similar perspectives and points of view.  I would say all this is good, and that our perspective should change over time.  We should be seriously considering other points of view and striving towards some sort of universal truth about these things even if we never actually reach it in our lifetime.  Because if we can nail down these things it is the benefit of all.

However there is another core part of who we are as a species.  We don’t like things that are hard to define.  We like to organize, we would prefer things to be simple.  Simple is less costly, it gives us more time for other things.  We spend less time sitting their thinking when we need to make sure we’re safe, getting resources to survive.  It’s very evolutionary. When things are actually hard, when they are not quite within our grasp, that’s when the real trap springs.  Our need for organization, categorization, and simplicity begins to create rules.  It begins to create rituals.  Rules and rituals are easy.  I’m not saying that we haven’t created some convoluted rules and rituals, but they are easy because we know that when we follow them the conclusion is guaranteed.  At least that’s the way we tend to think.  They give us the intangible in tangible form.  They turn things that are dynamic into the static.  It takes things that might take a lifetime to learn into an instant discovery.  For those with a penchant for defaulting to authority, it is a Godsend. Literally.  And while it might be natural for us to do these things, it is a complete disservice to these lofty ideals and values we live and die for.  And maybe it’s not even a bad thing that we try to create a system that fits these things, but when we reduce it to the system alone things usually turn out badly.  Love has to be more than just placing a ring on someone’s finger.  Justice has to be more than just an immutable punishment for an immutable law.  Whenever we think we’ve reached a state of equality or discovered a truth, we must still question and test instead of resting on our laurels.

The Geocentric Theory. One of the best examples of human fallibility and seeing connections in nature.
The Geocentric Theory. One of the best examples of human fallibility and seeing connections in nature.

I think that we have developed a very good “way of knowing” with the scientific method. It is demonstrably the best way of knowing we have so far.  It takes very little effort to look around the world and see that the best way is not only not the only way in which people come to know things, and it is often by no means obvious.  I mean it’s not to say we don’t start off life as little infants constantly testing and trying to understand our world through observations, but we do often make mistakes in trying to understand the world around us.  Mostly related to our tendency to find patterns that done’t exist.  Our senses often deceive us because we evolved for life in a small geographic environment, with a small group of people, and that is often what matters the most.  As “ways of knowing” get better and more effective, it reveals our fallibility.  It tells us we aren’t as smart as we think we are, and that we might not be doing things as well as we could.  Even as a scientist, who feels like I know my way of thinking is a more reliable one, it can often not feel like enough in a world with so much suffering and when so many need help quickly.  It is not realistic to simply wait for people to come around to a better way of looking at things.  As much as I like to philosophize “ways of knowing” we must also remember that such things are not so easily divorced from “ways of feeling”.

Collapse after angle of repose is exceeded

History tells us that change comes through slow increments like weathering and erosion and also through suddenness of revolution, yet in both cases forcing it doesn’t necessarily help matters.  It’s like life is like a slope of sand which slowly over time, grain by grain is deposited on a slope until we reach some critical mass beyond the angle of repose and the weight of the sand causes a sudden change in the landscape.  With no real way to predict which grain of sand will cause it all to shift and give way.  It’s like we all have to really try to do better, while at the same time just watch it all happen as if we aren’t even a part of the story.

So what is the answer to seeing eye to eye on these very important values?  I don’t know.  I think the best we can do is accept that things change, and that nothing is settled.  We can still try to create rules, as long as we are not a slave to them.  We can try to make things tangible, as long we accept that those rituals are empty without a lifetime of effort.  One thing we can say for certain is that life would lose far too much flavor if it all could be settled so easily.  We must accept that life is hard in large part because it simply can’t be done alone. And while I might be an idealist thinking that we might someday reach at least some level of harmony among all humanity, I see no harm in striving towards that.  What we have to gain, I think, is too great to just give up and say “It can never happen”.  As I always say, there is much more in this world that we all have in common than what drives us apart.