Thursday, August 10, 2006

Small Dictators

In the grand scheme of things, the object of today's entry shouldn't even register as a speck of dust. I look at the news, and what I come upon cannot but make one pause and wonder at the state of our world. It's not necessarily getting worse, but it certainly isn't getting better either. Humanity (or lack thereof) goes in cycles, and currently we find ourselves at one unpleasant extreme. As I have argued in the past, the only difference is that we increasingly have the means to make one of those swings our very last one.

But I digress, and I did net set out today to write about the ills of this world. In a way, this should provide the reader the occasion to take a deep breath and to stop thinking about Afghanistan and Lebanon and North Korea, to name a few, for a moment.

Having kept the reader in suspense for much too long already, my topic today is small dictators in the workplace. Many of us (and unfortunately perhaps all of us) have, at one point or another, had to deal with a supervisor who for some reason felt that his subordinates owed him abject respect. Last year around this time, I resigned from a position at government after having suffered under such a person for fourteen long months. Coming, I think, from a great sense of insecurity—as the people she supervised were for the most part much more competent and educated than she—she would bark at any attempt, however honorable, to question the manner in which we were doing certain things. In her defense, she happened to be part of a paramilitary-like system in which authority is never defied, and with hindsight I now understand that the entire organization could not survive if that system were to change. Having had enough of this (coupled with very serious moral issues), I resigned, thinking that I would never have to deal with such people again. The private sector, I kept saying, has the solution. Since the idea is to maximize profits, good innovative ideas would be welcome—at least listened to.

So sometime in November, my girlfriend and I moved to Asia and relocated to a country that for the past fifteen years has been among the so-called Asian tigers, what with their very successful economies. Surely, I thought, if there's a place where creative ideas will be welcomed, that country would be it.

A few weeks later, I was hired by a publishing company as an English copywriter and editor. Equipped with a Master's Degree and a number of years of experience writing and translating for the media (and for a year writing threat assessments for the government of Canada), I was coming to the job with the full confidence that my educated perspectives would be tapped into and used to their fullest. After all, part of our job as editors was to bring the English world to the local students and to help them deal with the complexities of the language.

Little did I know, however, that Confucianism still rules that society, which means that age, as opposed to skills and qualifications, often determine who's who in the hierarchy. Now that I think of it, what years of service is to government, age is to a Confucian-based society. As time passed, I came realize that my editor-in-chief, a man whom I nicknamed Cao Cao, after a most villainous character in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, expected nothing but unquestioning respect of his dictates. (How fitting, come to think of it, that his initials are also C.K.S.) He was boss, and the mere suggestion that we might want to do something differently was met with anger, invidious accusations and slander via email and "official" letters. I faced his wrath yesterday, which resulted in no less than two emails, along with a printed version dropped on my desk this morning. "I am the boss," the letter informs me, "and I am always right. You never question me and should always do as I say." It went on and on and, as it certainly didn't make for good reading, I shall spare my esteemed readers. Needless to say, I did not even dignify his accusations with a response, knowing fully well that doing so would only add fuel to the fire.

Now, had this situation only occurred with me, I might eventually have been led to believe that I was the problem. But as editor after editor ran into similar hot water and received the same idiotic letters, I realized that the issue was once again insecurity, along with a great fear of the different views westerners bring to their job, in that it is right to question things and to debate—as long as what results at the end is a better product, idea, or whatever. But out here, that's not the case. It's about face and respect for older people. Questions are insults, even worse if there happens to be other people around when the question is raised. In the end, whether the product suffers for it is beside the point.

Anyway, I rant. It just seems that wherever one goes, he is bound to encounter small dictators. Travelers beware, therefore, for some parts of Asia are no different. This being said, if everything goes according to plan I will be starting a new job as copyeditor at the Taipei Times sometime in early September. Ah oh—the editor in chief there is from Australia.

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