There has not been a time in my life when the idea and possibilities of social struggle have been so deeply a part of every community and social network in America. Yet, in many ways, our social struggle is flailing about, looking for a path without finding one.
We understand what is wrong immediately in front of us, but have a hard time seeing the larger forces in the more distant context.
A variety of trends, none of them new, are slowly shifting our society toward various outcomes, none of them good. The ones I’ll discuss are only examples, not all of those trends:
We are all aware of the current chaos in our society, but we tend to focus on the cause of this chaos as the changes that have occurred recently, rather than seeing those recent changes as the product of long-standing large-scale ongoing change.
If we don’t grasp the large-scale context of what we face now, we will make strategic errors in our rights and freedom campaigns. These errors will reinforce the failure of the very things we are trying to transform.
As Gregory Bateson claimed, the possibilities of choice in the near future hinge on us understanding the full range of affordances (opportunities for action) in the environment of where we are right now. We must not leap to premature action.
We don’t see those affordances very well because we tend to use what we are afraid of as a filter, eliminating the vast majority of what we might do before we consider the possibilities for changing our future. This filtering effectively leads us to fall back on old habits of fearful response.
This is true of individuals, families, groups, organizations and larger social entities. Our human instinct to herd reinforces our use of those filters resulting in a narrowing of our dreams for the future.
“Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” – Edward Gibbon
“Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.” – Henry Kissinger
“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.” – Jay Leno
All complex systems age, grow, peak, and decline. There is no magic way to keep any complex system young, any more than you can somehow live forever. There are reasons for this reality, but we often refuse to accept it for the same reasons we refuse to accept our own aging. This doesn’t mean that we can’t improve our lives or our society, but these improvements don’t stop us or our society from aging.
If I have arthritis in one hip and it gets bad enough, I might have a hip replacement operation. If it is successful, the quality of my life will be dramatically improved. But, I won’t stop growing older.
We have been trained to simply accept the decisions and opinions of experts all of our lives.
But, people with disabilities have often learned that expertise does not assure respect for our lives and our choices.
It isn’t that some people don’t know more than others about some topic or skill. I certainly wouldn’t want just anyone to perform brain surgery on me. It’s that there is no such thing as isolated expertise in the real world. Every expert has another agenda (their career, their income, their reputation, their kids going to college, their political beliefs, their religion, their drive to prey on and exploit others, and so on), And when you ask someone for their expertise, you never know what else you are getting along with it.
Also, anyone can and does claim expertise these days and the standard we have for judging that is becoming less and less useful as the world becomes more and more chaotic.
We also tend to think that somehow people who are disinterested in some issue are objective. But the reality is that their disinterest means they are likely to hold whatever stereotypes and bigotry are prevalent in the general society. Nowhere is this more obvious than in opinions about the disability community.
A better standard for judging decisions and opinions, especially when they affect your life, is to ask whether the decider or pundit has any “skin in the game”? Is their life affected in a meaningful way like yours is by their decision or opinion? Or are they so distant from your concerns that their decision or opinion can just reflect their interests regardless of how it impacts you?
Then discount the value of their opinion or decision accordingly.
The larger the system, the higher the decision level, and the more distant from you, the more that decision or opinion reflects their interests, not yours.
Rank beliefs not according to their plausibility but by the harm they may cause. Nassim Nicholas Taleb
An ideology is nothing but a complicated set of assumptions that has the same flaws in the complex, rapidly changing, and unpredictable world we now all inhabit as all the other concepts I have described in the last few slides. The fact that people are willing to die for an ideology is no different than the willingness of an adolescent risking death by riding on top of a car with tie-downs at 80 miles an hour, or someone who never leaves their house because of a phobia.
I have come to believe that all belief systems are like membership cards for participation in some human community, with the accuracy or consistency of the beliefs being a low priority concern. Belief serves social but not predictive purposes.
An ideology SEEMS different because it has a much more sophisticated meaning framework attached to it, but it is no more accurate nor useful as a guide to future behavior than any other driven behavior. And ideological belief is as clearly driven as any drug addiction.
While modern political/religious ideologies all tend to talk about rights, the rights they variously support as critical are actually obligations. Someone who takes an ideological position of weapon ownership or freedom of speech is OBLIGATED to use that right. Freedom has nothing to do with it. The ordinary use of the idea of a right is that it opens up an arena of possibility, not that it imposes an obligation. Hence, ideologies are driven, though not all for the same reasons.
The substitute for an ideology is to work hard to improve life for yourself and others through creative and persistent effort with no prior assumptions about what might work. But such an approach seems hard to do (it is) and it is so much easier to delude one’s self that the truth is clear and easily understood. We don’t have to make real choices once we have chosen our overarching System of Truth and Obligation.
Real deep change isn’t easy. It requires that you create something genuinely new for a real-world test. Variation requires creative action even when it just involves bacteria. It most certainly is required to deal with the forces at work in our lives.
Some adolescent males reliably do very dangerous and stupid things that violate common sense. A meaningful number die as a result. They do so because they are driven to show off. They don’t think about getting hurt or dying, they don’t assess the cost of their death on those who care about them, they don’t pay any attention to who else will be hurt. They do this because they are driven to take risks and pay no attention to the actual uncertainty of injury. In the decision-making moment, they have no common sense.
Lest you think that this is only an issue for teenage boys, let me remind you that all driven behavior whether toward or away from something (drugs, sex, rock and roll, mountain climbing, extreme sports, casual investment, gambling, and all the subsidiary behaviors that go along with driven behavior, as well as all fear-driven choices) reliably produce an ignoring of risk and uncertainty or severe underestimation or overestimation of it.
This lack of respect for real uncertainty and the acceptance of the real uncertainty in life becomes especially damaging when the decision makers have no “skin in the game”, which is to say when someone else pays the price for their decisions. There are so many examples of this, and there are so many new ones that surface every day, I won’t bother to give examples.
The greatest lesson you might ever learn in this life is this: It is not about you. Shannon L. Alder
The constant change that I mentioned in the last slide also applies to the resources necessary to our economic, personal, and social well-being. We are beginning to become used to the idea that something (a constantly changing something) will always be in short supply. We just don’t know what it will be until it is in short supply.
For example, there was a shortage of IV bags because the most important source of them was a factory in Puerto Rico and the factory stopped producing because of Hurricane Maria and our failure to respond to the devastation in a timely way. There are now chronic and ever-changing shortages of medical treatments of all kinds. And shortages aren’t restricted to healthcare.
There are many reasons for the unpredictability of resource stability, but the most important drivers of our inability to predict what will be in short supply is a combination of the increasing cost of extracting any resources from anywhere, increasing and unstable efforts to make production more efficient, and the unpredictability and size of disasters, political events like terrorism, and social/political upheavals of every conceivable kind.
The obvious answer is to steward resources and not waste them. But every pressure of social, political, and economic elites is to increase profits and to extract those profits for personal and family use rather than to conserve them to use when things go wrong with the system for the rest of us.
So, no matter how obvious it is that we need to practice stewardship, the short-term always seems to win out over the long view.
The groundhog is like most other prophets; it delivers its prediction and then disappears. Bill Vaughan
It is dawning on most of us that the world seems less predictable than it used to be. Every day brings events that are surprising. In trying to gain a foothold on this ever-changing reality, we bundle the surprises and give them some abstract name, like terrorism or climate change or natural disaster. But there are a lot of problems with trying to bunch very different things under a single term.
The biggest is that we tend to use the same response to all of the problems under a single umbrella.
To use terrorism as an example, some of the terror groups became friends of ours when they stood against the Russians or Assad or ISIS. The most illuminating example concerned the jihadists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, backed by the US. They defeated the Soviets, and we abandoned them eventually moving them back toward the enemy category, only by then well-armed by us through our earlier friendly relationship. And then there was 9-11.
In the old days, these decisions about who was a friend and who was an enemy would have remained relevant for several years. Today, the label of friend or enemy can change in weeks, and decisions that made sense when a community or organization was a friend, suddenly make no sense. It becomes too late to change the earlier decision or its long-term effects. So, we treat the effects of changing a friend to an enemy as though it were a new problem unconnected to our previous decisions and actions, and we continue to ignore our role in the creation of those inevitable unintended consequences.
It has always been clear that we can’t predict large-scale physical events (say when an earthquake will occur or how powerful it will be) or social/political events over long periods of time. But now a long period of time in our society is measured in weeks or even days. We regularly make decisions that will turn around and bite us on the ass far into the future, long after our original assumptions are proven to be inaccurate.
So it isn’t just that we can’t predict. We also can’t assume that our “good-faith” decisions based on those poor predictions won’t make our lives more dangerous, violent, and costly than it seemed at the time we made them. There is no on/off switch that goes along with, “Oops, my bad” to stop the continuing damage to ourselves from our short-sighted decisions.