…thoughts on and about my PhD journey and beyond…

Below is my abstract, just accepted for the 2009 International Conference on Thinking to be held in June in K-L, Malaysia.  The theme of this conference is Thinking Minds: Nurturing the Design of a Better Future.

Invisible Barriers to Better Futures: Exploring HE Leadership through a “5 languages of war” lens.

Using the Perkins framework of the “five languages of war” this paper will explore how the language of hegemonic economic rationalism has permeated everyday work in the higher education sector in Australia. As Perkins spoke about the rhetoric and consequences of his five languages of war at ICOT-07 the dawning realisation for me was that I was being equally managed by this oppositional language in the guise of economic rationalist practice.

The experience of being in the audience that day had a profound effect on me and influenced the direction of my current PhD study This paper will draw on Perkins’s five languages of war: the language of gain and God; the language of dominance and resistance; the language of good and evil; the language of regrettable necessity, and, the language of zealous allegiance to surface the rhetoric and consequences of oppositional language when it is played out in organisational settings, using the Australian Higher Education sector as a case in point.

This paper also draws on a literature review for a current PhD study to support Perkin’s arguments about oppositional language to open the discussion more widely to illustrate how we are managed by hegemonic language—particularly during times of paradigmatic change. So long as hegemonic practices lie under the surface and remain undiscussable they present an invisible barrier to designing and nurturing better futures.

After reading a review of Tony Taylor’s new book “Denial: History betrayed” (McFadyen, 2009) over the weekend, I might just add another category–denial.  Taylor explores Anna Freud’s four main categories of denial: blocking of reality despite evidence to the contrary; acting to support the denial; building a fantasy world to cocoon the event; and the power of words to strike at those who question the denial, and to perpetuate its life. 

These categories of denial strongly resonate with Argyris’s views on the question of undiscussibility which can be explained in theoretical terms through his “Theory-of-Action” which looks in depth at people’s ‘espoused’ versus ‘in-use’ behaviours (Argyris, 2004, pp 8-9) and identifies the prevailing Theory-of-Action model that seeks unilateral control by encouraging defensive reasoning and single loop learning. This long standing Theory-in-Use model named by Argyris as Model I behaviour seeks to win-at-all-costs with entrenched defensive routines prevailing in societal, organizational and personal practice, and is commonly played out thus:

Denial/undiscussability of a problem occurs, followed by covering up or stifling debate, then denying such cover ups have occurred. 

This entrenched pattern of behaviour is hardly new and is very difficult to counter—despite longstanding cautionary tales that relate to Model I Theory-in-Action behaviours—like, the ostrich with its head in the sand; shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic; or, Emperor’s new clothes, etc—even though these type of behaviours are at odds with the recommended management and leadership styles required to operate in a knowledge-based society. Argyris (2004) exposes these latent and entrenched practices when making the point that:

Defensive reasoning thrives in contexts where the defensive features cannot be legitimately challenged. One consequence of this is that not only are issues undiscussable, but that undiscussability is itself undiscussable.

The consequences of defensive reasoning include escalating misunderstanding, self-fulfilling prophecies, and self-sealing processes.  All these escalate because the logic used is self-referential, which does not encourage the detection and correction of error.

When these conditions are combined, a generic syndrome against learning is created. This in turns leads human beings to doubt that errors are unlikely to be genuinely corrected. These doubts and conditions combine to create a sense of helplessness [i.e., protect and defend act or or organization; use self-referential logic in primary reasoning processes; avoid transparency and deny self protection; deny self-deception by cover-up and in order for the cover up to work, it too must be covered up] (Argyris, 2004, pp 1-2).

I will be pondering all of these rhetorical language influences to shine a light on the undiscussibles in the higher education sector in Australia, namely why we aren’t discussing why Australia continues to be an underperforming knowledge nation.

Argyris, C. 2004, Reasons and rationalizations: the limits to organizational knowledge, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Davis, H. (2006) Golden capital and other knowledge-based intangibles: measuring for excellence not compliance, TEM International conference, Sydney, 28 August

McFadyen, Warwick. (2009) Unflinching dissection of history denials: Review of Taylor, T. Denial: History Betrayed, The Age A2, January 17, p. 24


Comments on: "Rhetorical language and how it manages us" (3)

  1. i loved the title of your blog- referring to how the language manages us. Very ANT like. The policies and the presentation of an argument have an effect, as much as i might think that i am directing my own actions, i am also being directed. Certain aspects of language co-opts me. I am so easily led … there is an obfuscation in the use of words whereby i am persuade because i think there is shared meaning.


  2. What is undiscussable? Most everything to do with management…. ooops the M word… bloated, self-serving and wost of all blind to big pic and firmly focussed on local advantage (i.e. self).


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