It's been an action-packed few days here at Vole Towers. Since my last post I've been the external examiner for a PhD at Aberystwyth (on Jan Morris, Iain Sinclair and post-devolution Welsh literature), done some serious miles on the bike, seen The Play That Went Wrong – highly recommended – co-presented a paper at the Dissent Studies conference at Keele University and talked to lots and lots of students about their work. I've been appraised, planned next year's modules (ish) and done as much union work as I can. Tomorrow we're interviewing for a Chair of English, and then I'm off to AWWE17, my beloved annual Welsh literature conference. I'm not presenting this time, just doing Secretary-of-the-Association duties, so I'm paying for it myself. Oh yes, and there's apparently a general election on.
So I could bore you with all sorts of things, but I won't. Instead, I want to draw your attention to an innocuous-looking invitation that dropped into my email the other day.
Module 1 - NLP techniques for Leading Change (for line managers only)
Enables Managers / Leaders to guide their team through some of the challenges associated with change. The focus here is ‘Leading People and Self through Periods of Change’.I'm not a line manager, so I'm not invited. But NLP rang a worrying little bell. I discounted the possibility that it stood for Natural Language Processing because some of my friends work on that and it doesn't help Lead Change (though teaching computers to understand corporate management discourse is probably easier than teaching managers not to use it). So if not that, then what. All I remembered was that it was something slightly sinister.
Got it: Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
I'm used – though not resigned – to being described in university systems as a Resource, but I'm not sure an organisation literally founded to foster a culture of rational inquiry and debate should be talking about 'programming' human beings.
But this is surely Vole being his usual resistant, paranoid self, isn't it? Let's have a look at NLP. Where does it come from? What's it been used for? Does it actually work? Would it pass an ethics panel if I proposed using it on students?
NLP is a psychological model and set of techniques widely used by life coaches, corporate counsellors and similar types as a means of self-help. Here's one such company's explanation:
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who didn’t speak your language, and they couldn’t understand you? The classic example of this is when someone goes out to a restaurant in a Foreign country and they think they ordered steak, but when the food shows up, it turns out they actually asked for liver stew.To me, this is unadulterated woo with no scientific or philosophical basis other than a very, very distant descent from Freudian models. But it's simply yet another quick-fix for the suckers who obligingly keep getting born every minute. No real harm done in applying it to yourself (other than the cultural damage inflicted by the acquisitive, individualist assumptions underlying guff like the above.
This is the kind of relationship that most of us have with our own unconscious mind. We might think we are “ordering up” more money, a happy, healthy relationship, peace with our family members, and being able to stick to a healthy diet…but unless that’s what showing up, then something is probably getting lost in translation.
In NLP, we have a saying: the conscious mind is the goal setter, and the unconscious mind is the goal getter. Your unconscious mind is not out to get you–rather, it’s out TO GET FOR YOU whatever you want in life. However, if you don’t know how to communicate what you want properly, it will keep bringing steaming bowls of liver stew out of the kitchen.
Where it gets properly sinister is when NLP is applied by one person to another to manufacture consent. NLP is the motor of those vile sex/dating systems promoted by 'pick-up artists'. Here's disgusting author of The Game, Neil Strauss:
How To Use NLP For Seduction
NLP’s greatest asset to a pickup artist is its comfort-building technology. Building comfort is a lot like being a therapist, in that you’re trying to create an atmosphere where she feels safe enough to share personal stories with you. However, unlike a therapist, you will be sharing your stories with her in an effort to build a strong emotional connection.
The key is to listen to the words she uses when telling a story and decide whether they are based on sight, sound, or emotion. Once you decide which representational system they use most, respond in the same modality. With practice, the seducer should notice that the TARGET is much more responsive to everything being said.The use of the word 'target' is instructive: the person on the receiving end of NLP techniques is not an equal partner. She is being manipulated through linguistic devices to respond in pre-ordained ways to particular stimuli (if you explore The Game and its eco-system you'll find nasty concepts such as negging, the practice of undermining a woman's self-esteem until she's sufficiently depressed to accept anyone so amoral as a pick-up artist).
So NLP is first and foremost an exercise of unequal power in which the user overcomes the victim's worldview and emotional/intellectual autonomy. It is emphatically not the use of rhetoric for persuasion on a level ground. It is a specific technique for evading analysis of the communication's content, by appearing to operate on the subconscious level. It is, and I don't think this is hyperbolic, a subtle form of rape, because it aims to achieve unconscious consent.
In a sense, 'does it work?' is a secondary question, like 'does torture work?': it's clear to me that there's no ethical justification for employing NLP techniques on another human being. However, if you really want to know: very little serious research has been done on NLP, and the well-designed papers that tackle it are clear that no, it doesn't work and claims made for it are scientifically unverifiable (e.g. Sharpley 1987, Sturt et al. 2012).
NLP is being used at my university to get us all to agree to 'change'. Any change. It is clearly being used to avoid the examination of proposed change on rational grounds. The purpose is to manipulate colleagues covertly rather than to engage them in a process of debate.
If I proposed to use NLP techniques on my students it would not pass an ethics panel. There is no way that NLP constitutes informed consent to anything. Furthermore, it is entirely at odds with the ethos of education in general, and of this institution in particular. Here's are the first two points of our 'mission statement':
The University of [Cthulu] is a learning community promoting excellence, innovation and creativity. We are committed to being:
An agent for social inclusion and social changeI cannot see how the use of covert and discredited techniques of psychological manipulation conform to ideals of inclusion or critical thinking - it is antithetical to both these concepts. Whether the proposed change is a different coffee blend or the abolition of lectures, colleagues in collective endeavour of education should expect to be treated as equals and to be respected. The use of NLP reveals both the paucity of management thinking (because they've fallen for a load of mumbo-jumbo despite being able to call on the skills of a whole department of qualified psychologists) and its moral bankruptcy. A course on applying NLP does not magically appear. This is a bureaucratic system (not necessarily a bad thing: bureaucracies can often guarantee fairness) which requires multiple levels of decision-making. Essentially, lots of people have calmly considered the use of an immoral technique of psychological manipulation and decided that yes, on balance, it would make their lives easier. While this might be what you'd expect of the more slippery corporate organisations out there, universities have legal, social, cultural and moral histories and public positions which supposedly protect their staffs, students and publics from this kind of thing.
An arena for the development of ideas and critical thinking
Not any more. The existence of this single little course is enough to tell you at here, at least, the humanist values of higher education have been replaced by a pragmatic, goal-oriented and morality-free system pursuit of other priorities - namely, I think, the frictionless exercise of power.
I intend to pursue this internally. If this is happening elsewhere, please let me know.