Responding Strategically to Authoritarianism

A mash-up of the American, British, and Nazi flags
Our Future?

All warfare is based on deception.-Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu’s observation seems obvious. After all, even individual soldiers in combat do everything they can to deceive their immediate enemies about where they are, how powerful they are, what they are going to do next, etc.

Bu the reverse statement is also true. As the communication in any conflict becomes more completely deceitful, that conflict becomes a war, whether weapons are used, or firefights occur, or people die of wounds. And in a war, deceit is both forgivable and self-sustaining.

Forgivable because, for the participants,  the war seems to be about the continued existence of the lying community’s most critical values (or those of specific individuals in the community for that matter), and self-sustaining, because lying is like any other arms race, driving the combatants to some sink of end-point effectiveness. It doesn’t matter that there are no corpses on the field of battle. Everyone believes that they can become a casualty if they don’t lie well enough, and that they can experience ultimate victory over their opponent if they just lie a little better than that opponent.

Our current use of the weapon of lying is reaching its ultimate possible value, and it will have less and less effect over time. But it will continue to be used for a long, long time. And it is not at all clear that there is any alternative to lying within the system of our current conflicts.

Lying has become a basic parameter of our ongoing political, social, and financial discourse, and it drives the effectiveness of the entire agenda of global political, social, and financial elites, whether governmental or corporate. It is the context now, not the exception. Even the mildest of messages is tweaked to hide the negative implications and to make it easier to absorb. After all, only the message matters, right?

No more deliberation among communities over uncomfortable differences so as to arrive at some common step forward.

Our recent election is a good example of this truth. There are now bots whose sole purpose is to generate lies that are provocative so that people will expand attention and energy finding out more about them, and adjust their beliefs, perhaps ever so slightly, to accommodate the deceit.

Lies are a core weapon of this war, for all the communities involved in it.  And lies are a form of authoritarianism, as our world’s dictators have always known. Lies are the foundation of the more obvious activities of authoritarian governing, whether political, social, or financial. And no amount of tinkering with the algorithms of social networks will get rid of that reality.

It is not possible to undermine this self-sustaining system of lying from within the self-sustaining system. The only options inside that system of lying are victory or failure. Note also that the lies themselves don’t matter. What was viral today can’t be remembered tomorrow. It is the constant novelty of the lies that seeds their continuation, not the content. In the long run, it is this requirement for constant novelty that dooms the weapon of lying.

So what should be our response? I think we have to take the long view and build something that doesn’t perpetuate the current self-sustaining system of lies.

The core of building that new strategy must be organizing and community support, as has always been the case in dealing with authoritarian regimes.

But we can’t fall for the trap of organizing community and building social support in the midst of the self-regulating system of lying that has become our national and global arena of discourse. That would be like standing in a relentless hail of bullets, holding up your hand, and saying, “Stop Shooting”.

First, we have to create spaces within which community can be built locally  and support offered locally. Our engagement with that larger self-sustaining dynamic of lies must be truly strategic, so that we don’t get caught up in the kind of enormous waste of energy that we have witnessed recently.

We must substitute  foundation disruption for short term victory or defeat.

Next Post: Building Community Capability and Direct Social Support



3rd Time’s A Charm

Red smoke showing the wind vortex behind an airplane
Vortex Produced by Airplane

This is the postponed post, summarizing my recent posts on the necessity of introducing newness as the core of your change strategy.

  1. There is no mechanical, “7 steps to change”, procedure that will reliably produce strategic change, because targets of change advocacy are complex rather than mechanical systems. Complex system will respond to every effort we make to change them, changing themselves to counter our effort.
  2. Because of this unavoidable reality, our change advocacy has to introduce our targets to real novelty, innovation, newness-something they haven’t experienced before. The charge to a advocacy change organization is to continue to invent this novelty and make the target pay attention to it.
  3. When we introduce this true novelty to the target, they will begin to adjust to it. At some point, they will have adjusted enough that we will get little further change out of repeating that effort, so surprising to the target initially. If we continue to repeat our initially successful effort, we will expend more resources for less effect over time. This very common process often settles into a cycle of signal and response that can’t produce strategic change.
  4. So, it isn’t enough to come up with a single good novelty. We must keep doing that until the target produces outcomes that actually embody the values of our advocacy. This is hard to do, and requires a different approach to change advocacy from the approach we use in all our other organization management practices. Which is to say, people who are great at managing standard aspects of organizations aren’t necessarily good at managing strategic change efforts. (And vice versa.)
  5. As an example, efficiency management as a goal in advocacy eliminates our ability to produce strategic change in our target. We must accept the inefficiency of developing and using novelty in our change initiatives. And we must be quick about it.
  6. The most effective use of novelty is to trigger change in a target with something new, and then introduce another novelty before the target has adjusted to the first one.
  7. Doing this disrupts the target’s decision-making system and produces a sense of loss of control in the target’s decision-makers. In practice, this means that we introduce small novelties more or less as experiments, watch for the trend in the response of our target, and then immediately introduce another novelty modified to capitalize on that response. This also requires a much deeper understanding of the target’s decision-making than we usually have.
  8. This cycle of disruption is not just unique to the strategic change outcome desired. It is unique to the change of the target as it tries to adapt to our continuing introduction of novelty.

For a deeper view of all this, go through Cynefin 101. For a much deeper view, go through Dave Snowden’s Introduction to the Cynefin Framework.

Next time, I’m going to try to apply the ideas in these posts to the new context within which our disability community now finds itself.

Next Post: Responding Strategically to Authoritarianism

History As Cycle

Police Violence in Chicago 1968

The turmoil of American politics in the last week reminded me so much of the election of 1968, that I did a quick review of it to refresh my memory. What struck me after the review was not the differences, but how the flow of the change, both in the Democratic and Republican parties, mimicked the current election. There was even a fairly successful third party bid by George Wallace (much more successful than the current third party bids).

I was in Vietnam during the entire election, so my view of it was largely the highlights, rather than the details:

  • There was an insurgent, Eugene McCarthy, who ran against the Democratic Party’s establishment nominee, Hubert Humphrey.
  • There was significant disruption of the Democratic convention (much more than this year)
  • There was a surprisingly close election. Humphrey lost by half a million votes, and Nixon won the electoral college with 301 votes.
  • The biggest points of contention throughout the election were war and minority rights (race).

After the election, there were a series of political actions by the stakeholders that led to the implosion of the Democratic Party, and the elimination of an effective liberal political agenda for many years:

  • Progressives got rid of the then existing Democratic Party elites
  • They changed the system of  choosing the candidate for president (and the down ticket candidates) so that it would more clearly reflect the specific wishes of insurgent candidates, and prevent the marginalizing of progressive issues.
  • The progressive wing of the Democratic Party used this new system to nominate a very nice man who shared progressive values, George McGovern (note, not Eugene McCarthy).
  • Although Richard Nixon had promised peace with honor and the reestablishment of law and order, he succeeded in achieving neither during his first term.
  • Nonetheless he defeated McGovern by almost 18 million votes in 1972 and took the Electoral College by 520-17.
  • It wasn’t until the election of Bill Clinton on a centrist (not a progressive) agenda in 1992 that it was feasible to resurrect individual progressive issues effectively, and it was slow going even then.

It is obvious in stories surfacing now (though there is a huge amount of noise out there, what with social media), that the Democratic Party is going in the same political direction as it did in 1968.

Based on these admittedly abstract parameters, I would predict:

  • Donald Trump will fail to achieve the major promises of his campaign
  • The Democratic Party will nominate a candidate in 2020 who will embody progressive values
  • Donald Trump will be reelected by a wide margin in 2020.
  • Progressive values will wallow in the swamp for another decade

This question is not rhetorical: Why are these predictions wrong?

On another note, this election also “re-privileges” race (in the much expanded framework of identity politics and activism) and war (in a framework of war as insurgency, combining both terrorism and the Trump political campaign, an idea so foreign to most of human history that it wouldn’t be regarded as war by past generations-see John Robb’s latest) and reminds me once again that life is the creation and experience of meaning, with anything like truth well down on the list of importance for everyone.

P.S.: It is amazingly difficult to find pictures of the riot on Michigan Avenue at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. This is despite the fact that even in Vietnam we saw video on TV and huge numbers of pictures of police violence. Conspiracy?  Where are they?  The one above was from pictures taken by Life Magazine at the time and was the only photo I could find that showed swinging billy clubs.

Next Post: Third Time’s the Charm

Plastic Electric Brain

Blue Plastic Brain on a pedestal with electric charges going through it
Plastic Electric Brain

I decided to postpone my post summarizing my recent work on the importance of variety as a basis of change advocacy because of a blog item by Jon Lieff, M.D. on new information about brain plasticity. In the post he referenced an overview article that he did a few years ago about brain plasticity. Jon’s articles are typically very dense and technically daunting, but this overview article was much more accessible and it triggered some thoughts from my distant past (well, 4 + decades ago).

Plasticity of brain function has become a popular topic in the last few years. There has been an explosion of websites and software that promise to improve brain flexibility. But there are significant problems with simple mechanical approaches to making use of the plasticity of our brains for new learning, and they arise out of a lack of appreciation of how it is that our brains learn and develop. Dr. Lieff’s article points to some of those with a clear overview of what research tells us, and the research is fascinating.

Plasticity is at the basis of all our new learning, even memories, and it is the reason why recovery works, whether rehab is effective or not, and whether our change efforts actually affect individual lives. So, though not usually considered in our change advocacy, engaging the plasticity of individual brains is an important component of success, and understanding how that engagement works is an important dimension of building effective change interventions.

When I began interacting with individuals who had severe brain injuries in 1970, the conventional wisdom was that recovery from such injuries was entirely up to the individual and if they showed no improvement in 3 months, they were a “lost cause”. Improvements after that time were described as “anomalies” or “miracles” and families of persons with severe brain injuries were told they were unrealistic outcomes and shouldn’t be considered. Over the decades, the time frame for possible improvement after brain injury has stretched out to the “rest of your life”, and the frameworks of neurological and neuropsychological rehabilitation and recovery have also dramatically expanded.

Even in the 70’s, there were those who felt that significant improvement was possible, and their way of thinking about this improvement was very different from the conventional medical view. As an example of that thinking, there was a general model of rehabilitation that said you should engage the individual in every kind of activity that might support the valued outcome and only fade supports after the person could do the activity well enough for it to be useful. This was the exact opposite of typical medical treatment, which requires failure in the cheapest solutions to an issue before considering the value of more comprehensive approaches.

So which one of these models do you think fits our growing understanding of neural plasticity better?

As Dr. Lieff points out, the larger the neural circuit engaged in the learning process, the better the learning outcome. You engage larger circuits by using more of the brain’s capabilities during the learning process. He points out, for example, that just squeezing your right fist while memorizing words and squeezing your left fist while recalling those words improved performance. And we all know of our personal support activities that improve our learning, such as listening to music (or for some, definitely not listening to music).

If you want an easily observed example of engaging the largest neural circuit possible to maximize learning outcomes, you need look no further than 3-year olds just going about their daily business. They automatically shift to engage the largest learning circuit they can.

The reality of plasticity has profound implications for how we approach, for example, building the ability to manage our personal symptoms of mental illness in our daily lives, and it also has implications about how we include engagement with individuals in our change initiatives. Are our change activities actually helping our targets to learn a new way of dealing with expanding the freedom and choices of our community?

I hope you will take the time to read Dr. Lieff’s summary, and reflect on how you might use the new knowledge to impact your personal and social change efforts.

Next Post: Another Try at the Summary of variety as a change tool.