Saturday, December 29, 2007

What matters to technocrats?

What was the most complained about TV ad in Australia this year? Not surprisingly, it was the Nando's ad in which a mother performs a pole dancing routine in a skimpy g-string and then later sits with her husband and children eating a Nando's dinner in a classic happy family scene.

The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) rejected the many submissions against the Nando's ad, such as the one which pointed out that "It promotes working in a strip club as an “ordinary” acceptable vocation for loving, family oriented mothers."

Curiously, the ASB did find against three other ads, even though they only received 10% of the complaints filed against Nando's. The ASB was extraordinarily strict in banning these three ads on health and safety grounds. One was a McDonalds ad which showed a girl taking a ride on a UFO with some Martians to have lunch with her dad. It was thought that the ad might encourage stranger danger.

When asked to comment about her year's work, the chief executive of the ASB, Fiona Jolly, blithely ignored the most complained about ads, in order to claim that the public was most concerned about health and safety issues:

ASB chief executive officer Fiona Jolly said the public seemed most concerned about depictions of activities which contravened community standards on health and safety.

Why would she take this line? Perhaps some recent comments by Jim Kalb on the technocratic mindset help to explain the situation:

Liberals adopt the standpoint of a technocratic administrator who wants to run the world in a way that brings results that make simple sense to him. He views the people in his custody as an aggregate of individuals without personal responsibility or connections to each other that need be taken seriously. All that matters is that the individuals for whom he is responsible be protected from harm and treated equally by the system as a whole.

Conservatives in contrast view themselves as participants in a human world that surrounds and transcends them. There’s no overall system responsible for everything. Accordingly, they take the particular connections through which life gets carried on very seriously (loyalty and authority), and make sense of those connections by referring them to conceptions of what things are and should be (purity).

So the people complaining about the Nando's ad were being protective of "the particular connections through which life gets carried on" (family connections). The ASB represents the technocratic position in which people are seen as a collection of individuals without connections to each other that need to be taken seriously, but who must be protected from harm (hence the exacting attitude to health and safety issues).

The Kalb quote looks at things from an interesting angle. During the ASB hearing on the Nando's ad, the company defended its portrayal of the mother on classic liberal grounds by claiming that she was a woman,

who was clearly in charge of her own destiny. The woman we depict in the commercial is shown to be intelligent, in control and making her own choices. She is not being coerced by the man in any way. She is acting in accordance with her own free will … Many women see the open display of female sexuality as a forthright display of empowerment.

This is liberal autonomy theory: what matters is that we are making uncoerced choices and have the power to enact our individual will. What we choose to do or be isn't so important, in this view, unless it directly impedes someone else.

What happens, though, to an elite who have long ago adopted such a view? How do you manage a society based on liberal presumptions?

Here the Kalb description of liberal technocracy is well worth considering. Note again the idea that for conservatives there is no overall system to be applied, so that particular connections are taken seriously and made sense of by reference to conceptions of what things are and should be. Therefore, conservatives will not only take the role of motherhood seriously, they will also have a concept of what motherhood is in reality and as an ideal.

In contrast, the liberal technocrat does think in terms of an overall system, so the aim is to apply a simple framework equally to individuals. Particular connections don't need to be taken seriously.

When the ASB rejected the complaints against the Nando's ad, there did seem to be a lack of seriousness in considering what might represent family life. For instance, the ASB had this to say on the connection between stripping and family values:

The Board noted complaints about the inappropriateness of stripping or pole dancing being shown in conjunction with images of a happy family and the disconnect between poledancing or stripping and family values. The Board considered that poledancing was not incompatible with family values.

Is this a serious view on what brings people together in family relationships? Does it really attempt to get at the defining qualities of motherhood?

It seems to me to be a long way off target, and Jim Kalb's description of liberal technocracy does seem helpful in explaining why it is so unrealistic a view.

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