Exit, Voice, and Rachel Chu

My father has a poster on his office pinboard, which says “Love It, Leave It, or Change It.” If I have a failing, it is that I tend to leave it rather than change it or love it; but my personal failings are not a subject for this post; and perhaps not even for this blog. What I wanted to say is that I vaguely imagined Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty to be a scholarly framing of this very sentiment; with Exit being “Leave It”, Voice being “Change It”, and Loyalty being “Love It”. A major problem with this is that I had never actually read the original Hirschman book, only seen lots of references to it, especially in all the Deirdre McCloskey books I had read last year. But I resolved to read it as soon as possible, only to encounter unexpected hurdles: first, there was no Kindle edition. Second, Amazon didn’t have it in stock in India and was demanding an import fee depost and proof of identity to ship it from the USA. Finally, grumbling, I imported it in August; and read it over August and September.

Now that I’ve read it, I can confidently say two things:

  1. It’s a fantastic book, one that is short and yet very dense with insight
  2. If Albert Hirschman ever intended his framework of exit and voice to be applied to families, he didn’t reveal it in this book. He was more concerned with how either business firms or organisations like political parties, committees, unions, or governments responded to exit or voice. His acknowledgement of families as a sort of organisation wasn’t non-existent, but it was tangential.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take Hirschman’s ideas and apply them to families. For many of us, our families are the first tiny dictatorships – or, if we’re lucky – semi-authoritarian but principled structures – that we encounter. And as such, they too will respond to exit or voice. And one sort of exit and voice keep cropping up in pop culture: young lovers whose getting together is ferociously opposed by one or both of their families.

In the twilight period between knowing about Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; and having actually read it, I remarked to the incomparable Chilli that we should categorise movies (and songs) into Exit, Voice, and Loyalty based on the decisions taken by the romancers with regards to their family. Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Desi Kalakar, with its exhortations to Billo to run away with everything from her passport to a packet of roti and bhindi1, is very much on the exit side. The chorus of chhad de, chhad de, chhad de takes it to the pinnacle of exit as a strategy.

As a grimmer and darker votary of exit, Sairat starts off with exit, and closes with a message of what a mistake it is to choose voice or loyalty.

Practically at the opposite end from Sairat lies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which pushes loyalty to absurd levels. Hours of refusing to either run away or to do anything to persuade Amrish Puri to cancel the arranged marriage lead up to Amrish Puri magically changing his mind2 Loyalty for its own sake and bearing the consequences is one thing, but loyalty getting you what you wanted all along is quite another.

And as for voice, there’s… well, that’s the thing. Indian pop culture isn’t very good at voice. There are bizarrely few movies where couples talk other people into seeing their point of view. Admittedly, an open and honest statement of positions, followed by negotiation, doesn’t make for very riveting movies if you’re used to chase scenes and fights, but there could still be negotiations that do make for good drama? Which brings us to another point that Exit, Voice, and Loyalty doesn’t go into great detail on: what does count as voice?

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty first tries to point out that sometime the point of deserting is not to kill a bad organisation; but a way of communicating that its quality is poor and needs to improve; and secondly, that because economists are obsessed with the possibility of switching from competitor to competitor, that they don’t consider the possibility that frustrated customers (or members) simply tell their supplier or organisation that the quality is lacking. His major insight is that telling somebody that the state of affairs is unsatisfactory, and asking for a change is also a valid strategy. But that’s where it ends; and it doesn’t break down the different types of asking for, or bringing about, change.

If voice is anything that doesn’t involve quitting or switching to a competitor; or accepting that you’re stuck with bad quality; then all of these count as voice:

  • Polite requests and petitions, like the Indian National Congress’s early days
  • A bargaining session filled with negotiation
  • A flaming row (which usually get nowhere, so they would be followed by loyalty or exit)
  • Or customer imposed quality audits and factory acceptance tests
  • Civil disobedience movements
  • Negotiation made under false pretexts (think of PG Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning, where Sue Brown impersonates Myra Schoonmaker in order to be taken seriously, but honestly, think of most of Wodehouse)
  • Negotiation that shades all the way into blackmail (Wodehouse again, and think of Aunt Dahlia threatening to cut Bertie Wooster off from Anatole’s dinners)
  • Storming the Bastille and beheading Marie Antoinette
  • Expelling or massacring anybody who happens to be inconveniently sitting over the crude oil that you want, as in Tintin in America

I am hesitant to place blackmail in the same category as a three month long drafting of a product specification document; and immensely queasy about placing violent revolution in the same category as an election campaign, but that’s what broad and simplifying categories get you. I wonder what would make the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty categorisation more useful – to separate out violence3 and deceit as separate categories; or to place them all on a spectrum of ethical and less ethical voice.

Let’s return to our frustrated lovers, and let’s also consider the spectrum of voice. On the spectrum, they could start with politely asking their parents to change their minds; move on to bargaining; move on to guile and trickery; and end with violence.

So when it comes to fiction, violence is a different kind of story. The dramatic possibilities of politely asking and getting what you want are highly limited. Thanks to PG Wodehouse, we have lots of stories centred around guile and trickery. Smooth talkers who negotiate a happy outcome for themselves without resorting to tricks, bluffs, or a hidden card up their sleeve can be interesting too; though the suitability for fiction goes down the less smooth a talker you are. And as fiction goes, it’s probably the most acquired taste, having none of the things that immediately appeal to our sense of drama.

Which is why it’s such a pleasure to come across fiction that does cards-down, no-trickery negotiation – and successsful negotiation – well. And there’s a shining example of it I came across recently – the Crazy Rich Asians movie. Note: spoilers for the movie follow, even if you’ve read the book, as the movie departs significantly from the book.

I am referring, of course, to the end of movie mahjongg parlour showdown between Eleanor Young and Rachel Chu. Up until that point, the couple – Nick Young and Rachel – have been trying honest and polite, but not very firm voice to win over Nick’s family; only to be rebuffed in ugly terms. So, finally, Rachel Chu meets Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, for a final settlement of terms over mahjongg.

This is the major departure from the book, where things just sort of happen, and the main characters roll with events, culminating in Nick and Rachel walking out on his family in despair, or as Hirschman would put it, exiting. The movie, however, turns Rachel Chu into a stupendous badass4, who decides to sieze control of events instead of just going with them. So, over mahjongg, Rachel tells Eleanor that Eleanor has created a no-win situation for Nick, and that she, Rachel, refuses to be made to play this no-win game5; and is therefore deciding to leave, but on her own terms. And to reinforce how she’s doing this on her own terms, she passes a crucial mahjongg piece from her own winning hand to Eleanor, letting Eleanor win the game.

Good grief, what amazing writing that scene is. It was ostensibly exit, with Rachel deciding to walk out rather than be pulled into what her mother-in-law would make a miserable marriage; but instead of the simple, voiceless exit that Hirschman accuses his fellow economists of celebrating, it was exit combined with voice, or perhaps even voice masquerading as exit6, and it makes such an impact on Eleanor that the very next scene is Nick proposing to Rachel with his mother’s implicit blessing. All in all, the movie ends up being what Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge could have been if all its characters had been sane and reasonable human beings instead of complete idiots.

Of course, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie. The depressing thing about reality is that no matter how good your arguments, or how persuasive you personally are even if your arguments are terrible, you might always find yourself stuck in a situation where voice just isn’t getting you your happy ending; and having failed to change it, you have to love it or leave it. But, as I frequently have to remind myself, you don’t know if trying to change things will work or not until you try.