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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Comments: Problem perception and deception

World Problems Project

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1. Explicate versus Implicate

The way in which information on problems is handled, or denied, in society suggests that fruitful insights might be gained by contrasting explicit and implicit responses. It is obviously in the interests of institutions to accept the existence of only those problems that correspond to their mandates, and only when they are under pressure to do so. This is an explicit situation, especially since such responses are determined and documented by written texts. Other problems may be recognized and discussed informally, or they may simply not be acknowledged at all. The ability to discuss problems whose existence cannot be explicitly acknowledged indicates what might be called an implicit situation.

The contrast between the two situations can be illustrated by two examples. Urban planners in developing countries tend to have maps indicating land use around a city. On the map certain areas may be indicated as "parkland" without any habitations. Decisions on that area will be based on its reality as parkland. Corresponding to this explicit administrative reality, detailed in technical and legalistic terms, there may well be an implicit reality in which that parkland is totally covered by semi-permanent shanty-town dwellings. These do not constitute an explicit problem (in terms of sanitation, etc) because they do not exist in the explicit reality.

2. "Honne" and "Tatemae"

Within the Japanese culture, special terms are used to distinguish these distinct realities. An example is the response of corporations competing for new university graduates. The "tatemae" of the situation, the explicitly stated reality, is that no potential employer starts recruiting before an agreed period of the year. But the "honne", the unspoken reality of the situation, is that the competitive hunt for graduates is undertaken as a free-for-all long before that date, to the point of threatening the survival of companies unable to compete with the largest. In another Japanese example, according to appearances Toyota does not control the company Koito in which it has a 19 per cent stake, especially since it has no seats on the board. But the unspoken reality, recognized by all concerned, is that a number of the directors are former Toyota employees. Control is ensured through a range of friendly shareholders.

3. Official denials

Appearances ("tatemae") can thus be used as a more or less polite way of discouraging discussion of, or even obscuring, the underlying reality ("honne"). The distinction between the explicit and implicit realities is not sufficiently clear. "Official denials" concerning problems are made in the realm of explicit appearances and can thus never be construed as "lies" within that context. Such denials have totally undermined the credibility of institutions in the eyes of those exposed to the problems whose existence is being denied. The dissonance is perhaps greatest in the case of various forms of corruption. The existence of corruption may be officially denied, although it is a continuing lived reality for many.

4. The "shell game" as a metaphor of political deception

The history of the processes whereby problems are accepted into the explicit reality may well reveal phases in which advantage is deliberately taken of these two realities to manoeuvre public opinion. An interesting way of exploring this is by reflecting on the classical "shell game" as a basic metaphor for use of the interplay between the two realities for purposes of deception.

The shell game has a long tradition in many cultures. It is a basic trick of carnival magicians, although neglected by many of them as being unworthy of consideration because of its simplicity. Yet with three nut shells and a pea-sized pebble, the basic arts of deception can be explored -- in the process of guessing under which shell the pebble is currently located. Its special merit is that it relies on the close attention of those to be deceived. Its appeal lies in its evading qualities and the operator's mute challenge to the onlooker's perceptive faculty. The human mind, by instinct, does not admit defeat. The recurrent failure to designate the correct shell not only aggravates the situation but improves the proceedings by creating greater interest.

The game is normally demonstrated with three split nut shells and a pebble. The pebble is covered with a shell and all three shells are then pushed around a flat surface with the ostensible purpose of confusing the victim. When he is asked to pick the one covering the pebble, he fails to indicate the correct shell. This, in essence, is the effect of the Three Shell Game. In actual practice, of course, the operator prevents the correct choice by controlling the secret passage of the pebble from one shell to another. The movement of the shells cannot by any means confuse an attentive spectator; it is an easy matter for anyone to follow visually the target shell around the table. The shells, however, are pushed around to satisfy two different aims. First, to provide a natural piece of misdirection. Secondly, to supply the operator with the logical and necessary excuse for touching the shells.

Whilst moving the shells, the operator accomplishes his secret designs. He propels the pebble, adroitly, from under the shell marked by the spectator to another (using momentum transferred to the pebble from movement of the shell). For so long as the spectator relies on his visual judgement, he will never succeed in making the right choice. In fact the closer the observation, the lesser the chance of making the right choice.

As a metaphor, the shells can be viewed as features of the explicit reality, whether as organizations, programmes, procedures or legal instruments. Any problem is handled through them. A new problem is thus "covered" by one of these organizational shells. Thus the observer is led to assume that it is being dealt with under that programme. But the dynamics of the political arena are complex -- an alphabet soup of organizations and programmes. Politics is the art of surviving and manipulating those dynamics. The concerned observer may continue to assume that the problem is being dealt with as before. But on investigation, when the "shell" is lifted, it becomes clear that it is not. The effective focus on the problem has shifted elsewhere, so it is claimed, to some organization to which the observer has not been paying attention.

5. Displacement of problem responsibility

The art of managing problems from the explicit reality is thus to constantly reassure the observer that the problem is being dealt with where he assumes, whilst maintaining a fallback position, when challenged, that the real effort is taking place at some unsuspected location. Better still, the claim may be made that the problem was poorly formulated and is currently being more effectively tackled through some more fundamental problem handled by some other body. In a classical shell game, the observer must of course pay to see the location of the pebble. This is also true in the world of organizations where the observer must effectively pay for hard information, if only in loss of status through the failure of a challenge. He cannot afford to pay too often. Even elected representatives, members of parliament, can be continually led on by the confusion of information as to where, or whether, the problem is effectively being handled, if at all. As with shell game spectators, it is often easier to assume that you know where the pebble is rather than to pay to find out.

6. Emerging standards of subterfuge

It is useful to question appropriateness of the mind-set behind four fundamental arguments to avoid responding to issues:


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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