Tuesday, July 21, 2015

ribbonfarm on cooperative ignorance, part 2: on degrees of plausible deniability and the information culture of Mars Hill

Wenatchee The Hatchet has discussed Mars Hill use of social media in the past at the following posts:

What was striking about the disciplinary case of Andrew Lamb at the time was how not-anonymous it was for anyone who was familiar with long-term local coverage of the growth and change of Mars Hill.  Wenatchee The Hatchet managed to write about 12,000 words demonstrating just how not-anonymous the disciplinary situation was at Mars Hill.  There's a tagged series here.

What was remarkable about the thing was how much information had been bursting forth in waves from Mars Hill in broadcast and social media making it pretty straightforward to identify a number of parties at the time the incident made headlines.  Nothing Matthew Paul Turner did really did anything to prevent the identities of the notable parties from eventually being known to just about anyone inside Mars Hill at the time, or even former members. It took a weekend in 2012 to identify most of the salient parties.  But during 2012 when the controversy swirled about, Mars Hill claimed it did not want to share more details about why it believed its disciplinary approach was appropriate out of consideration for the privacy of parties involved.  Unfortunately for Mars Hill that a few parties involved had info-dumped everything necessary to identify them on social media in the months before Andrew's case became news was what it was.  How could anyone in the upper echelons of leadership at Mars Hill actually believe that the matter was truly private even before a letter got posted to The City? 

From 2012 to 2014 The City turned out to be a city without walls ... or perhaps it could be likened to a city with an exterior wall that was permeable and interior walls that were pretty tough.  What became a refrain in the final years of the corporate entity known as Mars Hill was reports that people inside the organization were turning to blogs and news coverage to get a clearer sense of what was going on.  That at least suggests a culture in which information silos existed for which that were little overlap.  This process of siphoning information into non-overlapping silo points seemed to begin around 2007 with the suspension of the Midrash 2.0 php system and its replacement with The City. 

Even though The City was designed to reinforce existing social connections in theory, in practice it became a top-down leaders-to-led communication platform.  People at campus A would not have much chance of figuring out what was going on at campus B. When the controversial firings and trials of 2007 occurred the information culture at Mars Hill was a unified whole and with a few possible exceptions anyone could contact anyone regardless of campus or regional affiliation. That abruptly ended in the wake of the 2007 re-org.  Whsat came up in its place was the campus affiliation and having information limited to that campus affiliation.  You'd have to pick Lake City or Ballard or West Seattle at the expense of having access to other information networks on The City. 

A practical implication of this was that when systemic turnover in staff appeared in the organization a person at campus A wouldn't know a pastor or a deacon was laid off or even fired at campus B.  After the 2007 trials there may well have been no trials for the removal of pastors or deacons.  There were scattered indications to the contrary in one or two cases but nothing is very certain there. 

Wenatchee The Hatchet had access to The City from about 2007 through early 2012.  It wasn't much of a thing of interest, actually.  Ironically, once Mars Hill leadership finally shut down WtH's account on The City sources began to volunteer information.  Why that was, exactly, may remain at least a little bit of a mystery.  A couple of sources over the years mentioned that within Mars Hill leadership there were at least some questions as to how so much content that was published on The City ended up at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  There's no plan to answer that question in detail at any practical, nuts-and-bolts level ... but this post can shed some light on some impressions Wenatchee The Hatchet has had about Mars Hill as an information culture.

So we're back to a previously linked piece at ribbon farm:

Often the value in strategic ignorance is not ignorance itself, but being able to plausibly claim that one is ignorant, in order to avoid the consequences of knowledge. [emphasis added link highlighted below]

...The effort among senior management to demonstrate non-knowledge of [a low-level medical researcher’s] actions suggests that the most important managerial resource during the scandal was not the need to demonstrate prescient foresight, or the early detection of potential catastrophes. What mattered most was the ability to insist such detection was impossible. [emphasis added] For senior staff at SocGen, the most useful tool was the ability to profess ignorance of things it was not in their interest to acknowledge.

…[O]rganizations often function more efficiently because of the shared willingness of individuals to band together in dismissing unsettling knowledge.
There is a truism about scams that a mark can only be deceived if he wants to believe; all deception relies on self-deception. The ideal victim of a scam is a person who desperately wants to believe in a reality different from actual reality

In other applications, "we're not entirely sure who they are." 

As well, one of the things that has been complex is the fact that a lot of the people that we are dealing with in this season remain anonymous. And so we don't know how to reconcile, or how to work things out with, with people because we're not entirely sure who they are, and so that has, that has made things a little more complex and difficult as well.

You might be thinking, "Right. That can't possibly be true."  And there's a case to be made for the impossibility of Driscoll's claim as an individual and on behalf of the upper echelons of leadership within Mars Hill.   Joyful Exiles is as anonymous as the Declaration of Independence and has been up since March 2012. We Love Mars Hill began publishing stuff accessible in their archive in May 2014. Repentant Pastor started publishing material in March 2014. Wendy and Andy Alsup's review of Real Marriage dated back as far as 2012, and let the record show that Driscoll declared in his spiritual warfare session from 2008 Alsup was above reproach and not like many other demonic busy-body gossiping women. So when Wendy chose to address issues that emerged in the wake of Janet Mefferd's on-air conversation with Mark Driscoll about his published works, Driscoll could not honestly say he had no idea who Wendy was or avoid what he'd said for the record about her theology and character being impeccable.  WtH discussed what had been going on in the wake of that on-air moment over here.

So Mark Driscoll continuing to claim people were addressing problems within Mars Hill online anonymously continues to fly in the face of a good deal of evidence.

Now perhaps some of you reading may say, "Well, isn't Wenatchee The Hatchet anonymous?"  No, anyone who spends half a dozen seconds can find out stuff, even if a person might run into "What's in a name?"  When Scott Harris sent a certified letter to Wenatchee The Hatchet the letter did not discuss much in the way of what was going to be of interest to Harris. What sources said to WtH was the concern on the part of MH leadership seemed to be that, if possible, to get WtH to stop blogging about Mars Hill entirely.  Failing that, the secondary goal was to at least stop the steady flow of leaked content from The City that was getting on to Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Even if there are those people so lazy by disposition as to not have figured out who writes at Wenatchee The Hatchet it is no proof that the leadership of Mars Hill has not known for years who writes at the blog. So "we're not entirely sure who they are" is a hard sell. 

Worse, let's also keep in mind that thanks to the taunts of Justin Dean, somebody at Mars Hill not only knew some guy named Rob Smith had been discussing potential litigation but could remark that he had failed to produce any litigation in over a year.  That was March 9, 2014, which means at least Justin Dean, at some point, figured out Rob Smith was one person critical of Mars Hill and that he'd failed to produce any litigation since at least February 2014.  Moreover ...
Justin Dean · Top Commenter · Buford, Georgia
Rob Smith Rob you're in no position to speak of integrity. You're currently threatening to sue the church and my friends and colleagues, raising over $11k for the cause while making outrageous RICO claims. Yet your company Thain Boatworks has a $100k federal tax lein against it, and you haven't produced a lawsuit in over a year. In fact no one has filed a lawsuit. All you hoped to do was hurt our reputation, not help the church and not help others. What are you doing with that $11k when you owe $104k?
Reply · Like · March 9 at 2:28pm

You can't very well bring up federal tax leins against someone if you're ... not entirely sure who they are.

Thanks to Justin Dean's comment, he cracked the plausible deniability of Mark Driscoll's "we're not entirely sure who they are." in an awkwardly specific way.  Now Wenatchee The Hatchet did get an invitation from a Sutton Turner to attend a Vision Breakfast some time in January 2014 and WtH knows what a fundraising event is and had other things of more interest, but the invitation was appreciated even if not accepted.  Turner may not always be popular with the former MH crew but he's come across as, even if he might be covering his butt, a straight shooter compared to other former leaders.  So that's another level at which "we're not entirely sure who they are" seems like a tough sell, and let's keep in mind Wenatchee The Hatchet did not leave Mars Hill under any church discipline and left on great terms with his campus pastor and stayed on friendly terms with a lot of people. 

Meanwhile, Mars Hill experienced an astonishing level of staff turnover in the 2011-2013 period and, by Driscoll's account, was at one point close to going over its own fiscal cliff.  In earlier 2014 Mars Hill's BoAA addressed the unusual degree of staff turnover as part of a web of issues in the wake of the Result Source controversy. Remember the Michael Van Skaik communication about 100+ former staffers getting an invitation to participate in an exit interview process? 


It would seem pretty clear the leaders of Mars Hill knew how to contact more than 100 former staffers and leaders to solicit their feedback on things.  If they could do that how did they manage to not know who they could meet with to potentially reconcile?  Where was the "we're not entirely sure who they are?"

Cumulatively the claim that "we're not entirely sure who they are" can't hold water if MH's BoAA was involved in sending out more than 100 letters; if campus and even executive leadership made attempts to contact Wenatchee The Hatchet; and MH's PR guru could publicly taunt a publicly identified critic of Mars Hill as having a) failed to produce litigation and b) become the subject of tax leins.  So at length Driscoll's "we're not entirely sure who they are" only seems plausible if we propose that it's a royal "we" that is a circumlocution for Mark Driscoll saying he's not sure who these people are and if he's not it's not for lack of information on the part of the guys who worked for him.

Still, wouldn't it have been more direct and accurate to say "we know who these people are but we don't trust their motives and do not believe they really want reconciliation?" That could be what defenders of Driscoll are saying to this day and if that's true why did the leadership of Mars Hill run so hard with the idea of "we don't know" when there is a pile of evidence establishing otherwise? 

Even though many people will assume the simplest explanation is that the leaders of Mars Hill are liars (and that's not ruled out), let's consider the possibility of a culture of cooperative ignorance. 

At the risk of using a specific case history, we could consider Wenatchee The Hatchet.  After all, content from The City got leaked to Wenatchee The Hatchet from about mid-2012 through to 2014ish. It was conveyed to Wenatchee The Hatchet by a couple of sources that Mars Hill leadership considered the steady flow of leaked information from The City to the blog to be a problem.  How did the leaks happen?  Well, don't expect Wenatchee The Hatchet to ever disclose sources, but what seems germane to the leaks problem Mars Hill faced that IS going to get shared here is a musing on the nature of information distribution.

What had previously been a potential strength of the information culture was that it bracketed members across the campuses so that A could not talk to B easily within the information culture that was available.  That strength is a weakness, however, and a considerable one, if ... say ... a blog by former members is networked with people across a majority of the campuses who volunteer information.  Mars Hill leaders had reportedly had trouble not with the identity of Wenatchee The Hatchet.  That was no mystery to them at all.  Possibly hundreds of people could easily make the identification.  The problem was figuring out how wide or deep the network of sources was. 

There's an old chorus from a Mars Hill worship song that comes to mind, "strength is my weakness." 

In the case of Mars Hill the top-down lateral separation of information distribution with a history of punitive disciplinary processes created a problem when the new problem of how many people were actually leaking things to Wenatchee The Hatchet came up within the leadership of Mars Hill.  With the catastrophic turnover in staff from 2011-2013 and a ground level dislike or distrust of the new regime, cooperative ignorance could have taken two forms.  Driscoll had spent years dismissing bloggers as the sort of jobless types who blog from their mamma's basements, so the leadership class would be in a pickle trying to discuss the identity of Wenatchee The Hatchet within such a culture.  If you didn't already know you couldn't afford to ask inside the culture without signaling that stuff was showing up at the blog that was troublesome. 

From the trenches, the problem was a bit different.  You'd be better off not discussing the issue of who blogged at Wenatchee The Hatchet at all even if it did come up in a season of high turnover.  Given the way those who were sympathetic to Petry and Meyer were shown the door with some sternness back in 2007, it wouldn't seem prudent at the juncture of 2011-2013 to say "Oh, yeah, we totally know who this blogger is!"  Not that jobs would have been at stake, but it would have been awkward.  Anyone who did admit such knowledge could have been suspected as a potential source.  So what's "possible", though this is speculation, is that a culture of cooperative ignorance may have been in play, a don't ask--don't tell scenario. 

As journalists and bloggers began to investigate more of the history of Mars Hill the mission of meteoric growth became self-defeating.  If you aim to keep growing the church as fast as possible that works great until you can't grow it any further.  Mars Hill was for all practical purposes leveraging real estate debt in a way that would lead to its demise once the growth hit a plateau, let alone numeric decline.  But beyond that was the other problem, which was that as Driscoll and his coterie of insiders at the tope redesigned the governance to become more centralized and more like the "God box" model Driscoll spoke against from the pulpit a decade ago, the masses of people who saw these changes could feel like they could not register any protest moving up the chain of command. Since 2008 Mark Driscoll had broached the topic of any disagreement with the executive leadership of Mars Hill by describing it as not only figuratively demonic but literally demonic.

So if longtime members or staff felt things were going wrong where could an expression of disagreement go?  An audience within might lead to no changes at all.  An audience outside the organization risked giving information out that might be awkward.  But if there were no safe ways of expressing dissent internally; if respected and loved staff were resigning right and left; and if outsiders and former insiders with journalistic interest kept lines of communication open the secure silo approach Mars Hill seemed to have would only stop being a culture of cooperative ignorance when things began to leak outside.  The culture had reached a point in the 2013-2014 period where people were reading blogs such as Throckmorton's to get a clearer idea what was going on inside their own church. 

Had Andrew Lamb been allowed to just resign his membership without a shunning edict getting posted to The City somewhere things would not have changed that much, really.  The catastrophic turnover and high profile resignations were going to become issues in the 2012-2013 period even before the fateful on-air conversation Mark Driscoll had with Janet Mefferd. There was obviously no one thing that made things difficult for Mars Hill as a leadership culture ... unless we're talking about the leadership culture itself. 

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