“There is no such thing as ‘getting it right,’ only ‘getting it’ differently contoured and nuanced. When experimenting with form, ethnographers learn about the topic and about themselves what is unknowable, unimaginable, using prescribed writing formats.” –Laura Richardson “A Method of Inquiry” In The Handbook of Qualitative Research (1991, p. 521)
“The major issue is how to use the variety of available textual formats and devices to reconstruct social worlds and to explore how those texts are then received by both the cultural disciplines and the social worlds we seek to capture.” Paul Atkinson and Amanda Coffey in Theorizing Culture: An Interdisciplinary Critique After Postmodernism (1995, p. 49)
“You’re not the boss of me!”
“It’s a good thing you’re a volunteer then, since you’d make an awful employee.”
“To hell with you!” They both glowered at each other like a pair of hungry house cats eyeing the same can of tuna. It was 10:34PM, the printer was out of toner, and this meeting was going nowhere. In the next room someone was watching a youtube video with lots cussing and something that sounded like a revving truck engine. The florescent lighting made everyone look sallow and empty.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying the numbers worry me. There’s nothing in here that’ll guarantee a win in Cuyahoga or Franklin county.” Jeffrey motioned with an open hand to a printed excel spreadsheet on the table, the tips of his fingers briefly jabbing the top page before going back to their default position as support beams for his head. Jeffrey always held his head in his right hand when he was feeling attacked. He thought it made him look unaffected.
“So you’re saying I can’t take five people off the phones to go buy supplies for the rally?” Susan leaned forward in her chair and made a face halfway between exasperation and confusion.
“Its not a rally Susan, we’re calling it a storm relief event. The supplies are for people displaced by Sandy, remember?”
“I don’t care if we call it a sympathy ploy extravaganza! Its gonna look bad if no one brings anything to this event. We called it at the last minute and there’s no good way to secure participation. We have to have something for people to give Mitt in front of the media.” Everyone else at the table became intensely interested in their email. The intern went to start another pot of coffee. He knew when it was needed.
“Fine. Do it. Take the college kids though. They suck on the phones anyway.” Susan broke her granite stare and looked down at her legal pad. She scribbled down a few words, put her pen behind her left ear, and wordlessly left the table for, what the paid staff unaffectionately called “the corral.” Susan’s silhouette darkened the doorway and the three remaining Ohio State students looked up from their make-shift desks.
“C’mon, we have to buy hurricane supplies at Wal-Mart for the event tomorrow.”
“Really? I didn’t think it was going to be that bad here.” Paul was always slow on the uptake. He never read emails
“Its to give out at the rally. For the cameras and shit. We give them the stuff and they give it to Mitt.” Amanda was very savvy. She had a dedicated blackberry for work.
Susan had picked Amanda after her answer to the first (and what ended up being the only) interview question: “Why do you want to work for the Mitt Romney campaign?” Amanda had been making textbook eye contact with Susan, her head tilted slightly to indicate legitimate thought.
“Because reality no longer appeals to my generation.” Susan’s head cocked back in surprise but Amanda continued. “Everyone knows that they’re either being lied to, or that the truth is what you make of it. Or maybe… A better way to put it is that everyone knows that there are two ways of looking at everything and when you hear one person say it a particular way, it either resonates with you or it doesn’t. If you are going to change minds, or at least convince people that your interpretation of the world is correct, you have to tell them something that resonates with them. Even if you’re a millionaire and you have to explain your plan for food stamps or whatever, you have to show them that you understand what it means to live with food stamps and what’s important to people who get food stamps. Anyone that says they know the ‘real’ way people live with food stamps comes off as suspicious because everyone knows that politicians are too out of touch to really know. So you’re obviously faking it. Better to say what you think is important for people with food stamps. Not what you know is important (Atkinson & Coffey, 1995).”
“What’s important to people who get food stamps?” Susan tapped her pen on her clipboard, trying to make it seem as if Amanda still had to work for the job.
This girl is hired. Susan thought. It had been non-committal, four-month long, possible letter of recommendation-worthy love at first sight. The others had not been quite as promising. The current conversation reminded Susan of this disparity. Paul was being a realist.
“Would if someone notices?” Paul, in many ways, was a genius. It was his only weakness. He made a sweeping glance of everyone at the room, ending on Susan.
“If they do, it’ll play well on ThinkProgress for a news cycle. We don’t expect the network news to even run the story. If they do, it’ll be a smaller story than if we do a campaign event when The Other Guy is looking presidential, coordinating relief efforts with a Republican governor.”
“No Jason, you dipshit. Chris Christie.” Amanda was terse, but effective. Susan liked that about her. She also liked her penchant for checking emails on time.
“Oh… Okay. So we’re gonna lie to everybody about the donations so that we are just as good as Obama talking to Chris Christie?” Paul’s relentless realism was almost too much to bear. He, often accidently, revealed underlying assumptions that made easy decisions seem complicated. This was why he would end up in the NGO sector, never making into the big leagues of political parties.
Amanda quickly swiveled in her chair and shot Jason a look of visible disdain that quickly morphed into a look of honest self-doubt. She began looking at the ground: her eyes seemed to search for answers in the stained carpet. Susan was afraid of this. Sometimes inane requests for clarification led to profound and undermining realizations. Institutional momentum would prevail but countervailing winds were, nonetheless, unwelcome.
Paul had made a nasty habit of accidently disturbing campaign staffers with basic questions about messaging and the Mitt Romney brand. Questioning the narrative of the campaign—or any dominant narrative, really– was an affront to power (Atkinson & Coffey, 1995). It meant playing with the very essence of what changes minds and influences decision-making. The power to scaffold and shape voters’ opinions is wrapped up in the metaphors we live by and the unconscious connections we make between our lived experiences and abstract moral principles (Richardson, 1991). To accidently trip over such high-voltage power lines was dangerous and deeply troubling. Susan would have to send him on more coffee runs and less phone banking. Regardless of her future plans for job assignments, she would have to discourage this kind of behavior immediately. “You are about as useful as a bible at the DNC, Paul.” Paul looked genuinely hurt, but his cluelessness would soften the landing. Amanda snickered and did a bad job of hiding it.
“I remember reading once in class about this guy named George Lakoff and he says that metaphors are everywhere (Richardson, 1991)! They’re all around us and shape the way we think and act. It was super cool. I guess that means you’re really religious or something.” That was Laura. Laura was hired after the other applicants’ Facebook profiles revealed copious drinking and racist Halloween costumes. Susan would never make that mistake again. Susan suspected that while her peers were out dressing like sexy whatevers and stereotypical minorities, Laura was locked away in her dorm emailing her professors about her latest revelation related to the assigned reading. “You use a lot of religious metaphors and you are a part of the demographic that always goes to church, so it’s pretty obvious.” She was also good with spreadsheets.
“Thank you Laura, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now.” Laura kept smiling vacantly but nodded her head in confirmation. She began typing. Susan could expect an email from her in the next five minutes. Laura was better—or maybe just different—in text than while speaking. It gave her more time to think and less opportunity to make unproductive connections. Perhaps if she gave orders now, she could interrupt the email as well. “Grab your debit cards and your jackets, we’re going to Wal-Mart.”
As Susan pulled out of the parking lot and stared out onto the two bustling lanes of on-coming traffic she, in spite of herself, began to dissect the events of the last hour. She had no problem with the constant political spin and the constant responses to the overtly political actions of the “other side.” She agreed with Amanda that reality was in the eye of the beholder. That it was more effective to get a firm grasp on and understand your subject as well as your audience. As a political strategist, a copywriter, or even one of those damn university professors (she assumed) you had to get to know people, but also tell their story the way they tell it to you. Change it only as much as it takes to make it digestible to your target demographic. Nothing comes off as more dishonest, fake, and misleading as someone coming to you with the Absolute Truth. No one believed in that anymore. Not when there are such great stories to tell.
The above story is fiction any semblance to real or existing persons or events is purely ideological. Follow me on twitter? da_banks