3 Reasons 'Saving Face' Is Overrated

That requires mutual respect and mutual assistance. Besides, what Washington needs is more action and less obsession with appearances.
Larry Downing/Reuters

There's a lot of talk now about how any resolution to the shutdown/default crisis will have to allow leaders to “save face”—particularly Speaker John Boehner, whose weakness in his own caucus precipitated the crisis and now prolongs it. A speedy and non-catastrophic resolution would of course be ideal. But there are three reasons why the concern for face-saving in Washington is misguided.

First, as a matter of political strategy, if this crisis is truly to end rather than just be deferred, it will have to end in something like unconditional surrender by the radical conservative rump of the GOP—something Boehner has said he could not abide. If and when such surrender occurred, face would not be the prime consideration; restoration of sanity would be. A successful denouement couldn’t allow everyone to pretend the last couple of weeks were acceptable and everyone was equally a winner or loser; it would have to draw a bright, toxic line around these weeks and the tactics that created the crisis and say, “No more.”

But put this question of strategy to the side. The second and deeper reason why face isn’t a legitimate issue in the current crisis is that a concern for face—specifically, for sparing another the loss of face—is rightly the consequence rather than the cause of healthy norms. When such norms don’t exist, or when one side obliterates them, that side doesn't deserve solicitude or compensation for the reputational costs of their actions. Shuttering the entire government to relitigate a law and an election—to say nothing of blithely threatening national default—is a norm-obliterating act.

In classic game-theory experiments called Tit-for-Tat, what emerges organically as the best strategy for building a functioning society is called “strong reciprocity.” You help me, I help you. You hurt me, I hurt you back. This pattern of rewarding norm-compliance and punishing norm-violation holds things together more effectively than either presumptive mistrust or pure altruism.

This is how it is in real life, too. As someone raised in a face-conscious Chinese family and now active in cross-partisan citizen engagement, I’ve long been attuned to how face plays out in different contexts. Across all cultures, the basic deal is that face is properly invoked only when both sides in an interaction share a prior set of prosocial norms: propriety (what Confucius called "gentlemanliness"); mutual obligation (what both Confucius and Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, called "benevolence"); strong reciprocity; and, not least, a capacity for shame.

What has to happen in Washington today is that GOP radicals have to be isolated and shamed so that the rest of their party—conservatives who truly want to conserve rather than destroy—can reaffirm the norms of mutuality and trust in self-government. Only when that happens should the president (or the American people) care much at all about whether those who needlessly plunged us into crisis lose or save face. Otherwise our political culture will be doing what conservatives profess to hate: defining deviancy down.

And what about President Obama? He isn’t blameless in the metastasis of this crisis. But the pattern of his dealings with congressional Republicans actually underscores the danger of caring too much about face when the other side cares too little. He tried in recent years to negotiate rationally and earnestly on taxes and spending, to give the other side something they could call a win, all the while finding that he was yielding more than he was gaining. (Remember, the funding “victory” he seeks right now would maintain Paul Ryan’s sequestration spending levels). Obama’s reward for this earnestness was a shutdown. This explains why he’s taking a hard line this time, and why his former strategist David Plouffe now concedes that by accommodating too much in the past Obama only encouraged GOP intransigence. If there’s a face-related risk for the president now, it lies only in caving.

But the third and perhaps most enduring reason why we should care less about face in politics is that ultimately, it values posturing and positioning over substantive action. Washington today needs more civility, more compromise, more practical problem-solving, more distaste for fanaticism, more of a realization that politics is a game of repeat play rather than sudden death. It can have all these things even amidst deep philosophical differences. What Washington today doesn’t need is more attentiveness to appearances. 

Presented by

Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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