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5.4 Governance through confidence artistry

1. Confidence artistry as a source of insights

Despite the pejorative connotations normally associated with confidence artistry (Richard Finch, 1991), there is much to be learnt from the strategic skills that it implies (Douglas Shadel, 1994). Furthermore, construed in a positive light, it can indeed be argued that governance is primarily the art through which the confidence of the people is transformed into various forms of action -- however surprising that may prove to be to those whose confidence was used to give rise to it.

To the extent that governance is deliberately manipulative, or even corrupt, there is yet more reason to understand the repertoire of strategies which confidence artistry offers in order to ensure the sustainability of such governance. Whether benevolently used or not, it offers a valuable perspective on how a pattern of governance can be sustained in highly dynamic situations with support which may range from the cynical to the gullible.

2. Challenge of comprehension

A major feature of confidence artistry is the manner in which it works with the interface between that which has been comprehended and that which cannot be comprehended, between that which is known and that which has been concealed. For whatever reason, governance too is obliged to work with this interface. Much information cannot be communicated to the public, however attentive. Reasons may range through: information overload, privacy, confidentiality, complexity, security-related issues, concealment of information from political or other competitors, public relations concerns, embarassment and the need to "cover-up", and inability to gather information appropriately.

At this interface both government and the public play on the challenges to comprehension. Traditionally the public will endeavour to conceal from government matters in which interference is unwelcome. Government also endeavours to conceal matters on which public enquiry might be disruptive to its operations, whether in the "public interest" or for reasons of "national security". For both government and the public the best form of "concealment" is deceptive openness. This relies on the art of distraction, misinterpretation and disinformation, encouraging the observer to see what is not in fact there.

Confidence artistry therefore plays with comprehension. It lures the observer into a confident misunderstanding which leaves the artist with a relatively higher number of degrees of freedom to pursue his course of action without interference.

It is precisely because its essence lies in this play on comprehension that it is difficult to explain in practice. This is also the challenge of explaining the art of governance and of exploring ways to improve world governance.

3. Complementary approaches

One response to this challenge might be to undertake a systematic collection of information on the skills of confidence artists. This could in theory be distilled into a set of principles through which governance could be examined in a new light. Such an approach might well be severely handicapped by the reluctance of skilled practioners to reveal more than those skills that had been widely publicized. This attitude would be similar to that of professional magicians who in fact cultivate many such skills to bemuse their audiences. It is one thing however to have such a collection of principles and another to be able to apply them -- as any aspiring amateur magician will know. Acquiring many such skills requires much practice. It is what practice teaches that it is so difficult to comprehend or explain.

A second response to this challenge could be to take a much more abstract approach. The focus would be on identifying the dimensions of the set of ways in which confidence artistry is effective. Here the emphasis is on the nature of that whole pattern, rather than attempting to build up a pattern from a large repertoire of cases. Asan abstract exercise it would of course suffer from many deficiencies, but it has the considerable merit of being feasible with limited investment. The remainder of this note explores this approach.

A third approach could be to explore those traditions sensitive to the variety of forms of deception to the point of having synthesized their principles in the form of a set. Chinese and Japanese authors in past centuries have been much concerned with this approach -- at least for strategic purposes. Their insights could be usefully confronted with those emerging from the second approach.

4. Guiding experiential references

As a short-cut to developing an understanding of a set of skills which plays on degrees of (mis)understanding and (un)certainty, there is merit in making frequent reference to known domains in which echoes of this experience may be found. Some interesting domains include:

(a) Parent-Child relationships: Richly explored by many, frequently from both sides, this relationship hones the skills of confidence artistry to an extensive degree. At its most innocent, a parent makes extensive use of a range of distraction techniques to manoeuvre a child into a required pattern of behaviour. The child quickly learns to exploit many of these techniques too. Examples include:

  • Manipulation of mutual understanding of time: You can have an ice-cream "soon" (parent); I will do my home work "soon" (child).
  • Manipulation of understanding of relationships: Mummy is going away for a weekend with "uncle John" (parent).
  • Manipulation of understanding of space: It is "too far" to the seaside (parent); The teacher lives "too far" away for regular extra lessons (child).

(b) Teacher-Student: This familiar pattern, like that of parent-teacher, develops many skills in confidence artistry. Pupils seek to dupe teachers and teachers seek to manoucre pupils.

(c) Employer-Employee relationships: A matter of daily experience to most of the working population, this relationship develops many skills in confidence artistry. Workers need to create an appropriate impression with employers; employers need to motivate workers, irrespective of the workers best interests.

(d) Seller-Consumer: Few people fail to develop skills in the confidence skills associated with the management of this relationship. Consumers need to be canny in their response to the skills of salespeople and advertising.

(e) Expert-Client: If only in the doctor-patient relationship, few people lack experience in the confidence artistry associated with this relationship.

(f) Psychotherapist-Client: For the therapist, as for the doctor, the task is to untangle the web of perceptions that the client offers. For the client the task is to determine when they are being inappropriately exploited.

(g) Priest (guru)-Believer (follower): In this case examples include the skills of the charismatic leader in "working" a crowd of potential believers. But those clailing to be believers can also manipulate the relationship to their advantage.

(h) Adversarial relationship: Whether in hand-to-hand combat (martial arts), with sophisticated weaponry, or in dealing with political or institutional opponents or competitors, the ability to use confidence artistry bestows considerable strategic advantage.

(i) Affective and courtship relationships: Many processes in courtship and friendship involve a play on what is said or left unsaid, on what the other is allowed or led to believe.

5. Confidence artistry versus Strategy

The art of strategy could be considered as that of confounding one's opponents in order to advance one's cause. It could be argued that all good confidence artists are good strategists. It is less clear that all good strategists are good confidence artists.

In the sense of this note, confidence artistry is the ability to channel confidence to a chosen end. Strategy may involve many technical skills in the use of resources that lead to success irrespective of the nature or level of confidence. In this sense confidence artistry is that aspect of strategy which cannot be effectively taught -- it is a natural attribute of the strategic genius.

Strategy is a skill required in governance to deal with opponents and "external" crises by which government is confronted. It is less acceptable for any leadership to be seen deploying such strategic skills internally against those whom it represents -- and especially its own followers. Such treatment of electors as opponents has a questionable status somewhat similar to that of insider dealing in financial circles. In such cases leadership can call upon confidence artistry but not upon strategy. Indeed effective response to the morale or confidence of followers is a major requirement of good leadership. Especially when the prospects are gloomy, confidence artistry is all that leadership has to rely upon.

See also: Table of strategems
See also: Table of confidence ploys