an opinion on decision-making

This morning on the news, there was an interview with a small business owner. The news I watch is fairly objective and informative, but they seem to really like doing these random interviews with random people. Usually I see these at the start of lockdowns in different cities around the country. 

There was one time they interviewed a celebrant to ask her about how many weddings had to be postponed because of lockdowns. Another interview I saw was with a winery owner who talked about the impact of reduced tourism on his business. The other day they spoke with a bakery worker who was willing to give up his savings in order to help save the business.

In these interviews, the interviewer asks the usual questions about how the people are dealing with the situation, whether they had been able to receive government support, what their outlook for the future is like, and so on. I sort of get the feeling that these are just fluff pieces to break up the dreary headlines.

Today’s interviewee was a barista who also runs a business providing entertainment at weddings.

In the interview they asked him all the usual questions, but also asked him about his opinion of the current lockdown, and about the recent anti-lockdown protests. Understandably, he was annoyed because each lockdown means significantly less business for him at the cafe, and complete loss of income from repeatedly postponed weddings.

But, whilst everyone is allowed to have an opinion, I was surprised they asked him about the lockdowns and protests. It’s good to have different viewpoints available for consideration, and perhaps he had a few good points — mostly against the government’s decisions, and supportive of the right to protest — but he also has no epidemiology or health background that would justify broadcasting his opinions to a national audience.

Watching this interview made me think of a chapter in War and Peace that I had been meaning to write about. (With how long I’ve spent reading this book, I should be surprised that there aren’t more things that remind me of things in War and Peace.)

Anyway, this particular chapter is in Volume III, and is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, at the point where he is nearing Moscow. After a great battle with significant losses on either side, the Russian commander in chief, Kutuzov, decides to retreat beyond Moscow rather than staying to defend the city.

Tolstoy, writing about this historic event several decades after the fact, defends what some probably considered to be the wrong decision. He argues that it’s easy for people (such as historians and other military experts) not directly involved in war, but who only look at events from a very removed viewpoint, to criticise these decisions, and suggest options that seem clearly more advantageous. But war is not as simple as looking at a map with a known number of soldiers on either side, in known locations with known terrain and conditions.

The activity of a commander does not have the slightest resemblance to the activity we imagine to ourselves, sitting at ease in our study… A commander in chief always finds himself in the middle of a shifting series of events, and in such a way that he is never able at any moment to ponder all the meaning of the ongoing event.

— Chapter 2, Part 3, Volume 3, War and Peace

At the time that I first read this part of War and Peace, I thought about what I do at work, leading a team of technicians. It’s nothing like leading an army into war, but it is about coordinating a team to complete certain tasks that vary each day depending on a number of factors. Everyday I need to make decisions that influence the outcomes of that day, and some of these decisions need to be made before all the variables are known. 

Of course, toward the end of the day, I might reflect and think that it would have been better to do this or that instead, but at the time it was a reasonable decision, and perhaps certain other options hadn’t presented themselves yet.

In a similar way, this passage gives me some empathy for the leaders of our state. There is so much information available to them, so many opinions and recommendations; and also so many possible courses of action with so many unknowns. And yet, here is this barista who thinks he knows a better way to implement a lockdown. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I’m just saying it’s probably not as simple as he thinks it is.

4 thoughts on “an opinion on decision-making

  1. Nothing is as simple as you think it’ll be. That’s a secret of adult life. I sometimes wonder why ordinary people are asked questions about current events, then their answers broadcast to the world. Then I remember back to journalism class in college, wherein we were encouraged to find a way to make an interview memorable. I suspect that has something to do with the questions you question. Fame.

  2. Sharon, it seems sometimes like everyone’s opinion is given equal weight any more; it is so rare for anyone to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not qualified to give an opinion on that” no matter the subject.😐

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