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Film Review: Thank You For Smoking Offers An Advanced Tutorial in Negotiation Strategies and Ethics

“And God said unto Adam, ‘Of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,’ thou shalt not eat,’ or something likes that. Anyway, the dilemma that remains for us human beings in general and conflict mediators in particular, is what exactly God intended. Did God really intend to foreclose humans’ search for knowledge, informed decision making and free will? Or, is the admonition merely the ploy of a trickster deity that knows telling people they can’t do something almost assures they will — the ultimate paradoxical injunction?

The recently released movie “Thank You For Smoking” cuts to the core of this simmering cultural issue — dealing with deception, manipulation and dishonesty in our public and private lives — and is especially wrenching for professional negotiators and mediators. Their work in particular is reliant on techniques and skills that require twisting words, shifting and shading peoples’ stated intentions and meaning, re-framing issues, and other manipulations necessary to allow people to see their adversaries and disputes in a different light. Thus, the “Tree” dilemma concerning the nature of informed decision making is ever-present. Practicing mediators face the issue daily.

Although sometimes compromised, most mediators work on the operating premise that clients’, if well informed, are best suited to manage and control their own lives, and should have the right and opportunity to make decisions in their personal and business dealings, to the greatest extent possible, without undue intrusion from outside agencies, courts or professionals. This belief has spurred the emergence of many modes of private dispute ordering outside of the formal legal and governmental systems over the past 25 years. The movement also hints at a deeper and slowly gathering political storm. In an increasingly complex and regulated world, what will be the balance between ordering ourselves by hard and fast rules, laws and regulations, as opposed to pragmatic informal processes reliant on the exercise of individual discretion and personal relationships?

So the film THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, about an smooth talking tobacco industry lobbyist, Naylor, who advocates for his client in a zealously anti-smoking world — the post ‘Marlboro Man’ age — is a rapacious satire, all the more effective because it is exceptionally well done. Naylor is the slick operator many fear the most, turning words around and playing us for fools. He is the current day incarnation of the snake in the Tree of Knowledge. He is like an engorged tick attached to the warm underbelly of our cultures’ self-righteous indignation over smoking. He feeds by sucking the blood out of the mania and smugness generated by the crusade. Socially acceptable and even prevalent just a scant 15 years ago, smoking is now legally outlawed and morally reproached almost everywhere. Nowadays, detesting the tobacco industry is de rigueur to establish one’s credentials as a social activist and smokers are to be “chased out of the Temple.” He is a self described agent of the evildoers, advocating for the right to engage in activity that is scientifically proven to be an affront to the publics’ health.

At the same time, Naylor is beguiling. While I wanted to hate this guy, I marveled at his negotiation skill and found it worthy of careful study. His technique in twisting and turning issues around, blurring the distinctions between argument and negotiation is masterful. He avoids the frontal attack, knowing that any direct argument in defense of smoking will be rejected out of hand. Instead, he deftly sidesteps the issue and shifts the focus to the libertarian principle of an individuals’ right to smoke as a matter of informed, personal choice. Curiously, he does not shy from the truth; he offers it up with disarming honesty, admitting that tobacco is poison. Then, without missing a beat, suggests that fact should be considered along with all others as people make their own choice about smoking.

The film forces us to focus on the nature of message ‘spinning,’ word twisting, and other communication and negotiation strategies used as much to confuse as to clarify. This is the stuff of advocating, selling, and persuading with which we are bombarded daily in our ‘infomercial’ society. In watching the movie, the viewer is obligated to separate the strategies and techniques of influencing from the purposes and ends to which they are placed in service. The fact that manipulative and deceptive strategies are used is less troubling than whether it is being done for good or ill.

The best negotiators and mediators are able to recognize the surreptitious strategies in play and constructively counter-twist and reframe in response. But to become sufficiently observant and resourceful means reconsidering the prevalent and conventional notion that negotiation of difficult issues is merely a matter of “come let us reason together.” Much of the field remains caught in the grips of rationalist notions that negotiation is a matter of logic, an analysis of interests and needs, costs and benefits, and the application of straightforward problem solving techniques. This movie will be troubling to many practitioners because it means the careful study of tactics and techniques considered to be less than straightforward. Some might call them artful and indirect; others would see them as outright deceptive and manipulative.

As sophisticated negotiators and mediators, our best defense is not to refuse to deal with morally tainted issues and the ‘devils’ who present them, but rather, to be well schooled in those sleights of hand; to be able to strip-out those very tactics intended to place one at a disadvantage, and to constructively use those same tactics to our advantage. Doing so, however, means accepting that for human beings, being deceptive is very much a part of how we survive in a complex world. The question is perhaps not, are we deceptive, but, rather, are we constructively or destructively deceptive? Are we being deceptive for our own personal gain at the expense of another person, or are we deceptive to re-set peoples thinking about issues in a different way that allows for a greater prospect of resolution?

Almost touchingly — some suggest, scarily — Naylor takes sufficient pride in his craft to discuss and involve his ten year old son in his work, just as another father might teach his son to fish or play baseball. He counsels him on how to negotiate with his mother, Naylor’s former wife, not out of vindictiveness, but out of genuine concern. On one level, the idea that children might be taught early-on the all-important skills of negotiation is laudable. On another level, many are likely to be distressed by the prospect of teaching ‘innocent’ children to be manipulative, as if they need much instruction. Consider William Goldring’s, The Lord of the Flies. Will teaching children to effectively negotiate make for a better or a more disingenuous world?

An amusing and particularly poignant irony is that in the movie “Thank You For Smoking,” none of the actors are shown smoking cigarettes on-screen, save a few brief scenes where the tobacco industry tycoon, played by Robert Duvall, smokes a cigar. A testament, it would appear, to the self-imposed censorship practiced by the movies’ producers, reportedly to avoid criticism by the real life anti-smoking lobby. Even so, there is still criticism about the release of a film from which the slightest sympathy for smoking could possibly be inferred. Perhaps even more troubling than overt government censorship, this self-censorship is a particularly pernicious by-product of our age. Have we become so hammered by the strictures of political correctness and preoccupied with every conceivable way our language might be misunderstood that we fail to say anything at all? Communicating too carefully may have the unintended consequence of inviting even greater misunderstanding. We distrust those who choose their words too carefully; what they don’t say is all the more open to speculation, guess and reading between the lines. Sometimes, curiously, mediators and negotiators face this challenge in being overly careful to present them as ‘neutral,’ impartial or objective parties in settling disputes, thereby running the risk of losing authenticity and discouraging exactly the kind of trust they need to engender if people are to trust them.

Some will dismiss “Thank You For Smoking” as being little more than another depiction of the sordid world of the back-room deal. Harry Frankfurt, the moral philosopher and author of ON BULLSHIT (2005), likely views this movie as illustrative of his worst fears of a culture overrun by duplicitous spinning. Negotiation has been historically –and still is — treated with suspicion, thought to be little more than a tactic employed by those who lack evidence or conviction for their position, or worse, are sleazy and deceptive, if not downright immoral. The film doesn’t allow us to be too clear about who is right or wrong. William Macy, who plays the Birkenstock shod crusading Senator from Vermont, bent on destroying the Tobacco Industry, and does not come off looking much better than Naylor. Although not comfortable, the film obligates us to come to terms with the nature of negotiation in the real world, not in a fanciful world of our imagination where good, reasonable and cooperative people could be distinguished from those who are calculating, unreasonable and untrustworthy. The movie brings home that negotiation is not just for the nice folks and, but rather, a human ritual forged out of the necessity to survive in the midst of ugly, difficult, and frequently unfair circumstances that are, as often as not, far removed from any notion of a “level playing field.”

The movie captured the feeling I often have when I am caught spell bound at 3 a.m. in the morning by the never-ending TV infomercials. Like Naylor, I know the fast talkers on TV are just playing to my vanity and insecurity, but they sound so enticing. I feel like smoking a cigar in tribute to by right to choose. It’s depressing how easily I can be played for a fool. Ironically, however, lobbyists like Naylor and infomercials may have a more constructive role than is at first apparent. Anthropological evidence suggests that being compelled to discriminate between specious and valid arguments is healthy and elevates our overall intelligence as a species. Some suggest that learning to sense deceptions and become more adept at protecting ourselves from them through the centuries, has been a significant factor contributing to the increased size of our neo-cortex. In the meantime, nothing has been easy since having bitten that damn apple from the Tree of Knowledge.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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