Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Wal-Mart, RG4N, and Defensive Projection

People like stories, and they especially like stories that pit a good guy against a bad guy. This story is such an important part about how we understand the world that we try to make all sorts of situations fit into it, and, when there is a conflict, one of the first things we try to understand is: who is the good guy, and who is the bad guy?

Because this story has two (and only two) parts, one thing the bad guy can do is to point out something bad the good guy has done, and then people flip the characters: because the good guy looks bad, what had been the bad guy must be good.

[It was pointed out to me that this is a leetle abstract. So, I'll make it clearer. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Or, if that doesn't work, how about this? "Stop! Thief!" (One of my favorite Goebbels' quotes--he was pointing out how effective it is when a thief distracts someone from his having picked a pocket by accusing someone else of having picked pockets.)]

One way to get that to happen is what's called "defensive projection." You defend yourself from an accusation by accusing the other side. It works.

One reason it works is that very few people are saints, so you can always find something bad about them, and goodness/badness exists on a continuum (not as two categories). The "he's bad, so I'm good" argument works because people tend to think in terms of good and bad rather than better and worse.

So, if I am a politician, and the major flaw in my record is that I embezzled, the smartest move for me to make is to accuse my major opponent of embezzling. Even if it's totally false, I'll benefit from making that accusation. If I can get a third party to make the accusation, I'll look even better. And it is likely to be completely successful if I can find anything--even something trivial--to support my claim. So, for instance, if you once took some work pens home in your pocket, I characterize that as embezzling, and accuse you of it, and then people will lose track of my embezzling a million dollars.

If you don't believe me, think about the respective records of Bush and Kerry in Vietnam. George Bush had an appalling record in regard to Vietnam, and a record about which lies had been told. So, the Bush campaign raised the issue of Kerry's record, and whether he had been entirely honest about it. Kerry's record may have been less heroic than he presented it (or not--there were supporters of his, but they didn't get the media attention), but he had a record in dangerous places Vietnam, and Bush had gone AWOL from a safe situation in Texas. The Bush campaign's projection of "bad record regarding Vietnam" worked--many people got confused by that ploy, thinking Bush and Kerry had equally bad records, and many people thought Kerry's was the bad guy--the question of better and worse got lost.

Another place one can see this kind of dynamic is in abusive family situations, or in any case involving whistle-blowing. If there is abuse in a family, and a family member calls attention to it, the whole family will jump on that person. If there are bad consequences (e.g., legal problems), the family will accuse the person who objected to the abuse of having caused "the problem." "The problem" just shifted--the real problem is the abuse, and the legal issues are the consequence of that problem, and that problem is caused by the abuser. But, that gets lost when "the" problem gets projected onto the person who objected.

Whistle blowers, similarly, are blamed for having spoken up, as though they caused the problem to which they were just drawing attention.

Finally, people who resist are regularly condemned for resisting, and this, too, is a form of projection. If you threaten to beat me up if I don't give you my wallet, and I refuse to give you my wallet, and you attack me, and I fight back, who "caused" the fight?

You did.

But, that can get lost. There are two ways it can get lost. The most obvious is for you to say, "She caused the fight because she refused to go along with my request. If she had just given me her wallet in the first place, there wouldn't have been a fight." Rhetorically, that's risky, so the second choice is the savvier one: you say, "She fought me." That is, you don't mention what I was fighting against, or why. If the fight caused any damage--a broken window, for instance--then you make a big deal about how much I cost the community. You say, "Look at all the money she is costing the community through her fighting me."

What you do, in other words, is make "the fight" my fault because I resisted. Had you not tried to take my wallet in the first place, of course, there would not have been any need for me to fight, but, you can distract people from that. What a PR person would tell you to do is to make "the fight" (and the consequent costs) my fault.

So, what any decent PR person will tell someone who is costing a community a lot of money is: demonize the people who are fighting, and project your behavior on to them. Claim that *they* are costing the community money. If possible, get those claims made by a third party.

My analysis of this situation is: Wal-Mart has a decent PR person.

What is the problem right now? There are several ways you can describe it:

-Wal-Mart is trying to build a SuperCenter against the wishes of the nearby community;
-the city violated their own procedures for approving this kind of site plan;
-Wal-Mart and Lincoln, having benefited from an irregular approval process, are not willing to make the process right. They are willing to negotiate (to some degree), but not on the most important things.
-they threatened to sue the city if the city tried to undo a bad process.

So, what is the problem? Either the plan or the process whereby it was approved. Neither of those was caused by RG4N.

As I understand it, Wal-Mart and/or Lincoln got a plan approved in ways it should not have been approved. If they wanted to make it better, they could retract that plan, and do it right. They haven't offered that, have they?

As I understand it, Wal-Mart and/or Lincoln has threatened to sue the city if they don't get their way. If they wanted to make it better, they could drop the threat of a suit. They haven't done that, have they?

Either Wal-Mart or Lincoln could make this problem go away instantly.

RG4N is resisting, but Wal-Mart/Lincoln started this fight. Unless there is information I've missed, and they've never threatened a lawsuit, or they've retracted their plan, and are willing to go through the process all over again (without any violations), they are the ones costing the city legal fees.

Does that mean that I think RG4N is the good guy in this story? Not really. I don't like their press release, I think their accusations of fiduciary misconduct are rhetorically (and maybe even legally) unwise, I don't like their hyperbole, and I wish they'd get a decent PR person. But, they're blowing the whistle here, and are at fault only to the degree you think the person who resists handing over a wallet is at fault for a fight.

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