This is my favorite joke of all time.
Transcript of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland:
Americans: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”
Canadians: “Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”
Americans: “This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”
Canadians: “No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.”
Americans: “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH, THAT’S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.”
Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”
This never really happened. Both Snopes and the US Navy have pages debunking it. But the joke is funny because it’s easy to conceive of a possible world in which it were true — everyone’s either met someone who’s tried to move an immovable object, or been that person themselves. Usually the immovable object doesn’t tell you “We’re a lighthouse, your call” quite so bluntly, which is why it’s a punchline. But it’s a form of ha ha only serious humor — true of a concept, whether or not the event actually took place.
Albert Hirschman, in his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, identifies two strategies for members of an organization who grow dissatisfied with the organization: they can voice their dissatisfaction, i.e., speak up, or they can exit, i.e., leave. It’s a useful view of organizational dynamics, and indeed exit and voice are the primary forces that change the shapes of organizations. Hirschman also posits a third option, “do nothing,” which to him entails passively suffering the slings and arrows of an untenable situation. But there are other strategies as well, which may have the appearance of doing nothing, but are not so legible as voice or exit. Hirschman fits them into his typology as “mental or emotional exit,” but focuses mainly on citizens checking out of the system. I don’t know whether the research literature investigates more agentic options — but fiction certainly does.
I refer, in the first instance, to Herman Melville.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is Melville’s story of a copy clerk in a Manhattan law office. Though at first he works consistently and diligently, intermittently he replies to orders with “I would prefer not to.” Copy a document? “I would prefer not to.” Explain his refusal? “I would prefer not to.” Leave the office? “I would prefer not to.” The only positive preference he expresses is to be left alone. In the end, unwilling to use force on Bartleby, the lawyer moves to a new office, and Bartleby does not move on. The old building’s landlord tries to evict Bartleby, fails, and has the police arrest Bartleby for vagrancy.
Not exactly the most uplifting ending. That said, following anything off a cliff usually ends in a less than uplifting manner. Bartleby’s passive resistance is a naïve one, rather than the strategic nonviolent resistance of satyagraha half a century later. The science fiction writer Eric Frank Russell, yet another half-century on, envisions the continued evolution of this strategy to planet-scale organization in “And Then There Were None,” the ending of which I, at least, consider a happy one.
One of the points that comes up repeatedly in Russell’s story (and Gandhi’s philosophy) is that organizations that seek to coerce fundamentally require cooperation from the members of the coercive apparatus. Cooperation — by submitting to some degree of coercion — signals loyalty to the group, and ostensibly protection from coercion beyond that which the organization demands up-front. The mutual extortion racket paradoxically creates social support that people grow to depend on — and noncooperation becomes increasingly unthinkable, right up until the point where it isn’t.
The lighthouse joke takes nonviolent resistance a step farther: “Buddy, even if we wanted to comply with you, how the hell do you expect us to?” In Russell’s story, the Gands’ long-distance transit vehicles come equipped with manacles that passengers can put on if an “anti-Gand” offworlder tries to coerce them from their seats, but manacles can be cut. Good luck moving Newfoundland in the timeframe you want.
Over time, the social technology of passive resistance has transformed from the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts outcome of individuals refusing to get up from the “whites only” counter or move to the back of the bus — “Freedom: I won’t!” — into a not-so-passive social technology for the distributed airing of (certain) grievances. If you can get a few dozen other people to sit in a bank lobby with you, posters, noisemakers, and smartphones, you can probably get your cause another 15 minutes of fame on your way to central booking for making a public nuisance. Greenpeace garners its publicity from physically interfering with oil exploration, sailing races, whaling, and other activities it opposes on environmental grounds. This is “You won’t,” rather than “I won’t.” A social technology for opposing coercion has become a social technology for coercing others to cease their own actions. Increasingly, it is becoming a social technology for coercing others to take new action.
This is a dangerous change of strategy, because it is vulnerable to the Gands’ ultimate weapon: “I won’t!”
It’s easy, in a world that changes more quickly than it feels like we can keep pace with, to feel unmoored, like there’s no solid ground to stand on when the swell of the crowd insists you move with it. When it happens, though — before it happens — consider whether you can find that solid ground by sitting down and stating, “I won’t!” If your short-term survival and stability are contingent on your going with the flow, firing that weapon can feel a lot riskier than it’s worth. Not rocking the boat frequently becomes the price of social support because humans are vulnerable to the sunk cost fallacy, otherwise known as escalation of commitment.
Make some friends who don’t hold your agency hostage, though, and all kinds of doors open up. I mean, they’re open anyway, even if you’re unprepared, as long as you’re willing to expose yourself to Bartleby levels of risk. Bartleby went all in; the coda of Melville’s story portrays him as a many-time loser with nothing left to lose, which is pretty close to what Kris Kristofferson wrote and Janis Joplin sang. But despite reality’s well-known liberal bias, physics and mathematics have an equally strong conservative bias (even when conservatives themselves don’t).
Islands in the intersection of these domains and the domain of human action are where we build our lighthouses. A carrier group can try to threaten them, can likely do some damage by turning its weaponry on them, but if it wants to budge them, it’ll have to run itself aground.
Bartleby’s goals may have been of questionable utility. But his only mistake was building his house upon the sand of human interpretation.