Contempt and Engagement

bullying word cloud

Contempt is the emotional/cognitive/social version of biological revulsion, that feeling you have when you see something that is tainted, decomposing, or mutilated. As such, contempt is universal. We all feel contempt. Generally, we express contempt out of fear or anger at the loss of power, or against some other kind of social threat. Also, people who believe that their control over others comes from their inherent superiority spew contempt around them continuously like the smell of decomposition on a hot day. In this case, contempt is a habit of delusional superiority and ignoring the environment and the people in it, like sneering unconsciously at the homeless as you pass them by.

Bullying is the specimen example of contempt, but there are many others. There is a sort of continuum of contempt ranging from the one percenter who doesn’t know the names of the staff who see to his daily needs to the screaming man in the street with a face so red and a sneer so deep that you are afraid he might have a stroke.

And behind every single expression of contempt,  regardless of where it is on the continuum, is the threat of violence. For all I know, the expression of contempt might have served in our past as a social substitute for overt violence. But there is so much contempt expressed in our world now, and its impact is so universal with the advent of the internet that I view it as inciting a constant and spreading low-level violence that is entirely out of our control, like a forest fire.

Just as our sense that food is tainted makes us avoid it, so the expression of social contempt ties a taint to a target, with social isolation and lack of accurate perception of the target as the ordinary concomitants of that expression.

And, of course, everywhere there is the experience of shame, lurking somewhere outside or inside is contempt. Think about how common shame is in our social matrix. That is a reasonable index of the amount of contempt.

Contempt has always been a part of politics. Political opponents are often targeted as tainted, using metaphors that point to spoiled food (think, “my opponent is a rotten bastard”). But the current level of mutual contempt across every part of the political landscape and the huge rate of repetition of expressed contempt that has become a constant din in our minds is producing significant social disintegration and it is undermining our ability to take any other political actions.

Contempt is currently the only viable way to organize politically at the national level, and it is the most effective way at every other political level.  The far right spent 50 years using contempt as an organizing tool, but it has only been with the advent of the online world that it has become singularly successful. There is no fundamental difference between the politics of “None Dare Call It Treason” and the national political agenda of the current Congress. The difference is the instant reach of the contempt.

And every other political stripe has learned that same lesson from the recent election. The winners are disintegrating into factions and the losers are unrelentingly demonizing their internal opponents.

Expressed contempt is disruptive of the current target all right, but it has no upside. It is the social version of an IDE. Its purpose is only to spread fear, anger, and hatred. The actual attack is secondary to that spread. If that wasn’t enough, there is no way to get rid of contempt or even reduce it. Right now, trying to reduce contempt is like trying to spray insecticide on a week old hamburger. You can kill the flies, but you can’t change the basic problem.

There is a way to replace contempt called engagement. The next post will talk about what engagement is. But I’d like to close this post with what engagement isn’t:

  • It isn’t being nice and polite to your opponents
  • It doesn’t require anyone to no longer feel contempt
  • It isn’t suited to the internet or meme based organizing
  • It isn’t “reaching out” to your opponents so you can neutralize or convert them
  • It isn’t accepting third-party analysis about why your opponents are the way they are.

Next Post: Engagement

Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption

4 persons in wheelchairs occupying a congressional office presentinga statement of demands
ADAPT action in a DC Congressional Office

Nonviolent disruption is unique among frameworks for contesting political and cultural control of lives because it assumes that all who are here now will still be here after the conflict is resolved. The point of nonviolent disruption is to force reflection and discourse on an issue, such as a re-distribution of community resources, political decision-making, or enhanced community understanding, rather than the elimination of an enemy.

In the early history of human communities, violent conflict tended to be resolved by ritual or annihilation. Because of the latter, there are unknown thousands or tens of thousands of human communities that were simply wiped from the face of the earth-the elimination of conflict by the elimination of everyone who is on the other side, however that is defined.

Ritual conflict tried to maintain the larger framework of community relationship by banishing the current conflict but did not alter the underlying dynamic. Annihilation often included variants such as the incorporation of the enemy by the preservation of resources through selective murder and rape.

Not paths anyone would freely choose for our common future…..

Yes, we have.  These approaches remain the primary ways that solutions to conflicts are seen to operate in the so-called “real” world. This is true even though the price for any annihilator today is extremely high, and ritual (i.e, negotiation) has a terrible record in modern times of actually resolving conflicts.

No one argues anymore that a negotiated settlement is an actual resolution. They are all seen as “cease-fires” that somehow allow substantive negotiation that never seems to get at the underlying issues.

One way of viewing the impact of traditional solutions to modern community conflict is to see them as more or less stable processes that cycle through different states of conflict forever without any resolution. To describe this forever war between the traditional and modern use of ritual and annihilation, there is no better example than the Middle East.

In the streets of Jerusalem on the day after the end of the 1948 war (the negotiated agreements were finalized in February of 1949), I doubt there was anyone who thought that the issues then facing the peace would still be on the table nearly 7 decades later.

The current actors have all developed a tolerance for their citizen’s deaths that, while having limits in the short term, seem to have no limits at all over the long-term (70 years and counting). All the actors accept a level of violent death as though it were the unavoidable requirement for the tactical creeping toward their various objectives that passes for sophisticated strategy in that degraded moral environment.

There are many people on the various sides who privately discuss the possiblity of an actual genocide of their enemy whoever that might be. But, any attempt to implement such a plan would result in the loss of all that is most valuable to the responsible actor. So, such talk remains private.

Additionally, the current actors seem oblivious to what they are losing with their continuous use of mini-violence. They make the “hard choices”; they defend some set of values to the last drop of anybody’s blood but their own.

While violent insurgency is the most obvious way that we seem to be chasing our own tails, modern politics has been drifting toward this same view of conflict resolution and there is no reason to think that political insurgency will be any better at resolving underlying conflict dynamics than the quasi-military/political/propaganda battles being continuously waged across our”global” human community. Not unlike mushroom blooms when the conditions are right.

I have an abiding interest in the eternal rebirth of books that claim permanent and boundless victory for some political ideology or insurgency after a temporary victory in the polls or on a battlefield if only to remind myself that the only thing that is truly permanent and boundless is the human capacity for delusion.

There are many entangled human issues involved in these violent human choices (always described as unavoidable and “realistic”, like the laws of physics) and I hope to carve out those entanglements over the next few posts. For now, it is worth reviewing the state of nonviolent disruption as it stands today, and I know of no better primer than 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.

Next Post: Contempt and Engagement

How Does Disruption Work?

street pothole with garbage bag in it
Street pothole with garbage bag in it

Summary of assumptions for this post:

  1. Many of the institutions of our society are deep into the Conservation phase of the Adaptive Cycle. They are approaching the point where they will drift into the Release phase. This is a slow, but inevitable, process, and not anything like a planned revolution, though collapse during a Release phase might resemble one.
  2. Resistance=competition for existing target resources. While resistance is necessary and unavoidable, the resources that are the objective of resistance will not survive this release phase in their current form. To the extent that resistance is successful in changing who decides how to use resources (say, by winning an election), the “new boss” will be severely constrained by the institutional structures that conserve current resources. Power over current resources is always limited unless you accept the assumptions of that target system. In a word, resources embedded in an existing system are not perfectly fungible.

What is Disruption?

Disruption, like the pothole in the picture for this post, is an alteration of a target system that makes it harder for the target to fulfill its purpose. Unlike resistance, which provokes the allocation of target resources to defense and counter-attack, disruption requires the target to use more of its resources for repair, unpredicted maintenance, and restoration. Disruption has the effect of accelerating the evolution of a Conservation phase target further toward the Release Phase.

An “enlightening” overview of how disruption drives the evolution of a system is The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. The breakdowns and pressures on our grid are not driven by political sabotage or organized “resistance” in the usual sense (sorry for the puns). The power outage model of disruption is a good metaphor for understanding disruption in general, because of the immediacy of the disruptive effects on all of those affected.

Although we usually think of disruption in terms of political maneuvering and violence, the Grid metaphor shows us that neither of these is necessary for the undermining of well-conserved targets. Their evolution has its own momentum.

John Robb (whose blog, “Global Guerillas”, is a great resource about the evolution of modern insurgencies and their tactics) authored a recent piece on the different kinds of insurgencies and the different moralities of disruption. In the post, he discusses three choices we can make about the kind of future we wish to pursue:

  • Trump’s successful effort to undermine the standard election process by paying no attention to the rules and focusing his entire effort on resonating with his supporters.
  • The counter-insurgency, gearing up now, to restore a mythical if recent past, and to resist the initiatives of the current administration.
  • Something John calls a Participatory Insurgency, like the 5 Star Movement in Italy using social networking and apps, and rapid and repeated voting to quickly evolve their response to events.

I think we would all like to see the third option become real, but John’s cynicism suggests that we are most likely moving toward a destructive version of a civil war between the first two kinds of insurgencies. I’m afraid that he is right. An earlier version of this similar pattern occurred around the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.

Next Post: Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption


Disruption of Complex Systems

black and white electron microscope photo of viruses attacking a cell
Viruses Attacking a Cell

Most change initiatives that focus on complex systems are organized to outcompete for the resources that the system currently uses to maintain and grow itself. For example, political parties in the United States fight in cycles both short and long to control the tax and decision resources of government.

Although competition for resources seems the most natural way in the world to change a complex system like government, competition has built-in problems:

  • No way of framing the use of taxes and decision-making (i.e., a political ideology) is perfect. Each model (and there are a lot of them) will produce different outcomes in the short term (with winners and losers), and if the frame is around long enough will deplete the government of resources and capabilities in specific and different patterns. Losers will organize themselves and expend more energy, money, and time to gain control of what they lost. Thus, a cycle of political control.What this means is that US politics is like professional football (or professional wrestling for that matter). There is a superficial appearance of total victory, but only until the next game or season or election cycle. The actual outcome of the competition is stable, if shifting, change in control, that mimics more or less well the current perceived needs of the social system. The point of the system is rough stability, not any particular pattern of resources and decision-making. The death of the cycle would embed the particular flaws of the winner in concrete.Elites invest in the stability of the long-run, not the particulars of the short run. They care only about the rough stability. As a whole, elites could care less about marginal or devalued communities and the hard realities they might face, other than the use they might be put to in supporting or undermining the larger stability.
  • The core assumption that supports the willingness of people to compete for a long time in such a complex system that is “big-picture” stable is the idea that the resources and decision-making power are easy to convert to the winner’s goals. Like the cash in your pocket or purse, taxes and decision-making seem to be simple resources that can be used for any purpose. But they aren’t.Taxes and decision-making are deeply embedded in the system that uses them, and they can’t be drawn out the way cash can be pulled out of your pocket or purse. Instead, like any complex system, all of the particulars of funding and decision-making are tied to each other in ways that aren’t clear and which take a long time to discover. As you make the changes that drove your victorious political effort, you find that the changes cause changes cause changes, etc. and that the very people that supported your victory get hurt, as well as the ones you were deliberately trying to turn into losers. This networked complexity supports the longer sort of stable cycle.
  • What I’ve just described is another way to look at the aging of complex systems. The cycle is maintained by the aging of the current winner’s reformulation of the funding and decision-making pattern. The winners’ plan becomes gradually encrusted with the control they have gained, just as a ship becomes encrusted with barnacles in its purposeful journeys.

Well, if competition does not produce a deep change in complex systems, what does?

Disruption does. It changes the processes that reproduce the system and drive the particular cycle of that system. Disruption focuses on altering the process of maintaining the system, not the superficial appearance of, in our metaphor, governmental policy and resource allocation. And disruption often does this from outside that cycling complex system.

Next Post: How Does Disruption Work?