As I have followed discussions in several news sources leading up to the current shutdown of the U.S. government, and the discussions that have unfolded since, I have been struck by the largely unexamined use of the word “negotiation” to describe what has been happening. The assumption that what is happening falls under the realm of negotiation, just because two sides are involved and one wants something from the other, is worth examining.
Imagine that two parents have a custody and support agreement regarding care of their child, which was legally entered and is now part of the court record. According to the terms of the agreement, (1) Parent A pays a set sum of child support to Parent B, and (2) the child is to be in the custody of Parent A from Friday evening through Sunday evening, on alternate weekends, and at all other times with Parent B. One weekend, Parent B awaits the return of the child on Sunday evening as usual, but Parent A does not show up with the child. Parent B calls Parent A, saying, “Why have you not brought the child home on time, as you have always done in the past?” Parent B replies, “I am keeping the child until you agree to reduce the amount of child support that is in our agreement and the court order. When you accept less, I will return the child.”
Is this a negotiation? Is Parent A able to unilaterally frame the nature of the interaction as a negotiation? Is Parent B now obligated to bargain with Parent A? Is Parent A now entitled to “get something,” i.e., concessions from Parent B? Or, is this bullying, hostage-taking, or even extortion, that Parent A is entitled to resist?
How we name the interaction is important. Certain types of social interactions are ritualized – they have rules and expectations for proper behavior. If the rules are broken and expectations are violated, there are consequences. For example, if the interaction is a negotiation, then Parent B can be scolded if he or she fails to play the game, join in the bargaining process, and make concessions, even though Parent A precipitated the crisis. Parent A would actually get to act wounded, play the victim, and complain of unfair treatment by Parent B.
On the other hand, if the interaction is framed as bullying, hostage taking, or extortion, there is no expectation that Parent B engage in bargaining. In those cases, bargaining would be seen as appeasement – a concession to an abuse of power. Appeasement merely emboldens bullies and makes them even more aggressive. Isn’t this why so many leaders claim that there should be no negotiation with terrorists? Thus, under that frame, Parent B would be justified and supported in refusing to negotiate and seeking out other options for resolving the matter.
My point is that negotiation is a particular and specific type of social interaction, and the interaction is only a negotiation if both parties involved frame it as such. One person does not make an interaction a negotiation. There must be agreement from the other, through words or actions, that negotiation is indeed the game being played. After all, negotiation is, by definition, voluntary.
The importance of naming and framing the interaction goes beyond the immediate consequences, rights, and obligations. The assumption that every interaction in which one person makes a demand for compliance by another is a negotiation is ideological. So, too, is the companion assumption that everything is negotiable. Ideological assumptions are socially shared beliefs about what behavior is considered “normal, right, and good” under the circumstances.
Ideological assumptions are transmitted through discourse. Moreover, ideological assumptions promote, legitimize, and naturalize certain beliefs about the nature of human interaction and the nature of power, including the privileges of power, who has power, and who can use power. Using the word “negotiation” to describe what is happening with the government shutdown carries these ideological assumptions into public discourse. It would seem to be the responsibility of the press, commentators, and others who are using the term to at least examine what it means and whether it is an accurate depiction of what is going on.