Y2K paternalism, democracy and responsible openness
It seems that the federal government and its associated networks are moving
increasingly towards secrecy and public relations to deal with public Y2K
fears (see "Feds
Plan Y2K Spin Control"). While I can understand their position,
it is a bit like not telling the kids that daddy has lung cancer. The kids
will pick up the bad vibes anyway, make up their own stories about it, and
become increasingly unable to talk about the problem openly and intelligently.
If this happens, family life rapidly deteriorates.
On the other hand, it isn't advisable for parents to just walk into the
kids playroom, announce that daddy has lung cancer and a 70% chance of dying
in the next year, and walk out.
The parents would be better off sharing with their children the full situation
-- including, and especially, all the positive things that could be done.
They would explore what the children think they and their family should
do help the situation. First off, the kids might tell daddy to quit smoking.
(My own daughter got me to quit 17 years ago. It makes you wonder who's
Not that the feds are our parents. But since they're thinking in paternalistic
terms, we might as well pursue the metaphor. The main point is that there
is an untried alternative to secrecy on the one hand, and unrestrained openness
on the other. We might call that alternative "empowering openness"
or "responsible openness." Responsible openness involves releasing
information into a context where those involved can use it creatively to
deal well with the situation.
Here are a few ways federal authorities could do this:
1) Engage the media in co-creating responsible openness. A government
has a hard time being responsibly open when the media report government-sourced
information in ways that create public disengagement and panic. The government
could call a conference of media leaders to ask for their ideas in how both
government and media can practice responsible openness with Y2K.
2) Do a PR campaign -- but not about how everything's fine, because no
one can guarantee that it is. Rather, tell people about all the positive,
pro-active, pro-social work being done by citizens to engage creatively
with Y2K. If the media environment is filled with positive possibilities
and guidance about what people can do, the public will respond in positive
ways to each new piece of information. And then the government can feed
THOSE NEW POSITIVE RESPONSES back through the PR loop, further enhancing
awareness of positive possibilities and the likelihood of further positive
3) Set up public forums designed to evoke collective intelligence and community
wisdom about Y2K. Poorly designed forums can result in little more than
heated exchanges of rumor and mud. But more wisely designed forums can
facilitate intelligent evaluation of information, expression of deep feelings
and values, shared exploration of a full range of options, and the development
of broadly supported visions and plans. (For further information on this
approach, see The
Co-Intelligence Dimension of Y2K)
Is the government going to do these things? Who are we to ask that question?!
We, the people, need to keep in mind that our government will be as paternalistic
as we allow it to be. It isn't likely to take initiatives like I've described
unless we demand it. Our silence makes paternalism a fact. Our voices
make democracy a fact. The sooner the better.