Double-Binds that Win

Generally double-binds give us a tough time. We all have been there – dammed if you do, doomed if you don’t kind of situations. They herald difficult times getting ever more difficult, threatening us with dire consequences no matter what we do – like the case of a political aspirant who declares fast unto death but meets a cold government. A few days into fasting, whatever he does, he loses – if he continues fasting and the government does not grant his demands, his appointment with Yamraja is confirmed. If he calls off the strike and goes back home, he just walked over the dead body of his unborn political career.

Fasting, like many threats, is a very delicate weapon and should be used very carefully – only a few can pull it off successfully.

Recently in a class on Leadership and OD, the discussion intensified around comparing Mahatma Gandhi and Hitler. An opinion surfaced, proposing that methods of Mahatma were also aggressive, though they were named non-violence. Did they not force people to fear him? Could fast be not labeled as an emotional blackmail?

Interesting, isn’t it?

I think that we need to look at the consequences of fasting, and not the declaration of’ “I will  fast unto death if you do/do not …”

Sounds like a threat, and we can picture people grimacing as they drag their feet to do/not do thing(s), feeling coerced, loathing the fact that they are having to go through all this mess and hating the fast-er for that.

But – what if they decide to call the bluff? The greatest cost is the life of the person who declared fast.

That is where Mahatma won hands down. His simplicity, dedication, open and ethical life and no personal interest had created – as a by product – a double-bind of a slightly different kind, and it won.

When he sat fasting, the government did not want to call his bluff because they knew the massive public support he had. So it was hardly ever the humanitarian ground or love for Mahatma, but what the death of Mahatma would mean in terms of public reaction that forced the politicians to the negotiation table with him.

The public, on the other hand, could not call his bluff because he often seemed to be the only person who could stare into the eyes of powers-that-be and speak for the masses. Second, they could trust that whenever there was a dilemma or ambiguity, Mahatma would never place personal interest before public interest. This created safety even when many thought that Mahatma’s convictions were faulty and sometimes – just wrong.

I wonder why Baba R did not realise this – it is not rocket science, is it?


2 thoughts on “Double-Binds that Win

  1. ‘Emotional blackmail’ is the word that caught my attention. How about those who say, ‘escalation of issues’ in hierarchy is also kind of an emotional blackmail, since it can be potentially perceived as a threat (we know that is how it works, often!). Now, the question is: Is ‘escalation’ ethical in this perspective?

    There can be more and more similar questions surrounding that notion of ’emotional blackmail’.


    • Vinay,
      I think that we need to understand the context, the other people involved, their power equations, the values of the people concerned and the issue that is under ‘escalation’.

      Say, an employee has been raising an issue that his/her boss has a different view on. The employee might look at it from the view of his/her own, the students’ and his/her understanding of what ‘education’ means and how it can be best imparted and what should be the roles of the educator, learner and the system in it.

      The administrator(s) might look at it from the administrative ease and efficiency, legal implications, cost-revenue balance and their own understanding of what their and teachers’ roles are, what students’ role is and what the system should and should not do.

      In this scenario if the employee repeatedly asserts his or her position which is in disagreement with the view of administrators, we have a ‘situation’. If the employee makes some part of his/her functioning conditional to some change in the stance of the administrator(s), the latter might perceive a blackmail.

      But is such a thing ethical? Hard to answer. What are the terms of the service contract? What are the moral implications? How are the stakeholders’ interests distributed and would be redistributed? Some of these answers would help decide the answer to your questions – which are ever so often the questions of many of us.


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