The Real Matrix

anonymous matrix crossover wallpaper with V mask and message, we are anonymous, we are legion, we do not forgive, we do not forget, expect us
Anonymous Wallpaper

There are no adequate models of how the brain works. There are a lot of models, though. And, as they say in systems theory, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.”

Most brain models are the result of research projects. Someone sees a problem, comes up with a way to explain it, does some research, changes the model, and so on.

There are also models of the brain that are esthetic. An example is the holographic model of information storage in the brain. It is hard to imagine how very much empirical evidence in support of this model could be developed, but the model has its fascinations.

There are others, like quantum theories of consciousness or free will.

I am going to start offering one in this post, and some subsequent ones. It falls toward the esthetic end of the model continuum because it is a whole brain model and neuroimaging is still several years from being able to view the brain across all of its levels more or less at once.

My model is not about what reality is. I always thought it was peculiar to think that what our brains do gives us direct access to reality. This model is about how each of us creates and shares meaning over the always developing course of our lives. It is an evolutionary model, based on the idea that the brain evolved to help us individually and socially to adapt and anticipate.

The model is not original to me. I started thinking about it after reading a book, Making Up The Mind by Chris Frith, an entertaining, accessible, and dryly funny overview of research evidence related to how the brain uses its developed models to organize adaptive responses in life. My thinking could be called an extreme version of that model.

There are also many philosophical or conceptual versions of this same idea.

The other sources of the model were a variety of old neuropsychological research papers into how voluntary choice of movement occurs and what hallucinations are in the brain, mostly from Poland and the then Soviet Union.

So, let us say I have a formal event (a wedding or a funeral) to attend, and I spilled coffee on my only white shirt. I rush to the store, buy a new one, rush home, and rip the packaging off the shirt because I am now running late for the event. In the process, one of those little pins that are hard to find sticks in my arm. I swear and yell, “The pin hurt me!!”.

Now I know that the pin didn’t hurt me. It has been a long time since we have believed that the pin contains the essence of pain and that it transferred some of that essence when it stuck in me. We all know that causing pain has two different forms. One is that it is our brain that creates the agony and the other is that the pin triggered a series of brain events that result in our experience of pain. So creating pain and triggering pain are two different parts of the causal chain that result in our swearing. If the nerves between the site of the pain and our CNS were cut, we wouldn’t feel pain from the pin.

Also, the pin triggers our brain into noting the location of the pin so we can remove it and reduce the pain. This location is just as much a creation of our CNS as the pain, though we tend to think that the two parts of our unpleasant experience are different. One is real and the other is a concoction of our brain. My model says that in fact, the two aren’t different. The location and, for that matter, the whole arm are a concoction of the brain. More, the entire kit-and-kaboodle (which I will label as KaK so I don’t have to repeat it all the time) of our unconscious and conscious experience is created by our brain. Not just the outside world as in The Matrix, but also our self (and its parts)  and the interface between what we experience as outside and what we experience as inside.

So, to take one example, a hallucination is the brain acting as though, say, a person whose image we remember is actually in the outside part of the model. The brain puts that person outside and we experience the person as outside. There is an “other side of the coin” kind of error where a person experiences something in the outside model as though it were part of the inside model.

This model is an entirely unique personal creation of each of us over the course of our lives. It begins about 30 days into embryonic development and it continues until our brain dies, even if disease interferes with the constant work of building. It is self-correcting (within very real limits) through a process of error detection that uses our perception abilities and consequent updating (we notice a difference between our perceptions and our model and correct it). Much of its operation is not conscious, though you can see a pure sort of its operation in infants, where most of the world isn’t yet in their personal model.

And it is fluidly coherent, changing constantly as a direct result of our living, but always using meaning to tie together what our model is right now.

Next Post: So What?

Your Brain Has No Parts

cartoon showing various gut bugs paiting a picture of a brain
The Gut Biome and Brain Connection

Reduction is a tool used in research and day-to-day problem-solving. Reduction is a type of abstraction where you try to understand the whole problem through a single level or lens. Physics is a good example of the usefulness of reduction as a tool for problem-solving. Trying to understand all the things in the universe as arising out of a small number of forces and particles shows the value of abstract reduction.

Over the last 200 years or so, reduction as a tool has become reductionism as an article of faith.  The disagreements among us about the causes of problems like, for example, mental illness become “reduced” to fights about which level of reduction is the “correct” one (say biology or interpersonal relations or social justice). These disagreements about the right level of reduction to solve the problem of mental illness translate into irreconcilable differences over the correct intervention (say medication or therapy or social change).

We all get that a one level view of something like mental illness isn’t adequate, but with the template of reductionism firmly cemented into our thinking, all we can do is fumble through the interventions crafted from the various beliefs in different levels until we find an assortment of various tools from those different levels that we use to tinker, modify, or shift our symptoms.

There are other ways than single-level models to view complex problems like mental illness, but it is astoundingly difficult to give up reduction as an article of faith. Like any other bad habit, we will have to practice with a new way of thinking until it replaces reductionism. Perhaps the most obvious example of our addiction to reductionism shows itself when we are convinced by our fear that there is some simple cause for a complex problem that is threatening us or interfering with our life:

  • A particular political ideology becomes the one true answer to our social, economic, religious, scientific, etc. problems and only those who believe in that ideology without waiver can make that one true answer real (this is very similar to the old model of magic, in which our thoughts were manifested in the real world through incantations, spells, number diagrams, herbs, poisons, wands, summoning angels or demons, and so on. I suppose political platforms have taken the place of incantations).
  • Mental illness has a single (take your pick) medical, biological, dietary, environmental, psychiatric, social, political, religious, alien, or cosmic cause and only an intervention based on the correct choice of cause will always and reliably produce a “cure” (in fact, the entire belief in cure of anything is based on a reductionist approach to real problems in the real world).
  • Any model of progress or success (both forms of the idea of reaching perfection) as being due to some single personality characteristic, simple and repeatable technique, single skill, uniform and errorless belief system (think cult), a specific piece of literature, a specific moral stance, and so on.
  • Overall, we argue over whether competing theories of the solution to some problem are correct with the same vitriol accorded religious arguments. Sometimes the vitriol produces a particularly intractable form of violence that religion has visited upon the human race for eons.

A reductionist view of problem-solving sees problems at defective machines. The goal of problem-solving is to identify the broken part and fix or replace it.

Machines can be very complicated (say, a 787 plane or a space shuttle), but the approach to problem-solving is the same regardless of the complication. Identify the failure and replace it or repair it. The reason why this works with machines is because the parts of the system don’t change as the parts interact with one another.They age or break but don’t change their behavior permanently because of those interactions, no matter how complicated the system is.

But there are other kinds of systems besides complicated ones. Today, they are called complex systems, and their parts do change through interaction all the time. There is no more obvious example of a complex system than the one we carry around in our heads: Our brain.

The brain has been the subject of reductionist attempts at understanding for much of human history. Since the advent of experimental exploration, the various levels of brain function have competed with one another for the ultimate explanation of how brain complexity works and how it might be managed. Part of this reductionism was and still is due to the difficulty of doing research on the whole brain (all its levels at once). Also, the common assumption of reductionism makes us focus on the level that we think has the most to do with the problem in which we are interested.

The Connectome Project is building and integrating a complex set of technologies to enable imaging the whole brain while it is doing its thing to support whole brain study. But each part of this initiative is very complex and I have to believe that our habits of reductionism will continue to pose barriers to the necessity of multi-level understanding. So waiting for the end result of what I think is the right direction for science to pursue doesn’t help us right now.

When we say that the brain is doing stuff as a whole, we mean that it is using all those levels for everything it does every instant of our lives. And while it is difficult to imagine being able to understand how the many layers of function work if we view the brain as a machine or computer, there are ways to interact with complex systems of any kind to create real change and increasing understanding. Needless to say, these ways are not reducible to local repair or replacement of some part. They are the ways of interacting that evolution has produced in our brains for ordinary sociality with other people, animals, plants, and things as we do all the time every day.

And it is about time that we began to reflect on the wisdom of our brains and those tools of interacting with complex systems that we all have, and stop depending on useless metaphors and fruitless appeals to nonexistent truth outside the dynamic interaction that is our existence.

Time to grow up…..

Next Post: A Model of the Real Matrix

Using an Eddy to Support Advocacy

Micrograph of a neural synaps wuth a green globe holding many small neuotransmitter balls as the edge of the synapse gap
Micrograph of a Neural Synapse

One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.


We all know that it is impossible to craft a strategy that can truly manage chaos. Chaos is short term and its flow is unpredictable. We are in a time when chaos comes and goes as unpredictably as it ever has in my 70 years.

In my last post, I pointed to the metaphor of an eddy as a tool for managing an advocacy strategy in chaos.  How can we manage in chaos without being overwhelmed by it?

Mostly, people think of stability in chaos as retreating to a structure like a bunker. They believe they become safe by cutting off contact with the chaos, by “hunkering down” and waiting for the chaos to pass. Such an approach will work if the chaos is rare like a tornado. But we live in a world where one flow of chaos comes and goes to be quickly followed by another flow from an entirely unexpected direction. Finding safety in a bunker in this world can become a permanent way of living. If the chaos ever quiets, we may find a very broken and dangerous world when we emerge from our bunker. And there is always the possibility that the chaos simply won’t end.

An eddy isn’t a bunker. It is a flow with more stability than the middle of the raging river, but it is still a flow, not a structure. The eddy depends on the context (banks, boulders, trees, clay soil, etc.) of the river to keep reproducing an area of relative stability. There are two dimensions to maintaining and expanding an eddy for use in advocacy. The first is supporting the stable flow of the eddy and the second is expanding the stabilizing context of the eddy.

Stabilizing the Eddy

There are many ways we can stabilize our advocacy strategies, but they all boil down to not being pushed around by the chaos in the larger environment:

  1. The most important way we can stabilize our advocacy is to maintain and deepen our mission of advocacy. Mission drift, often driven by the unpredictable nature of non-profit funding, is the single most important cause of the “zombification” of advocacy so that our commitment to advocacy becomes no more than a commitment to stable funding (or the illusion of stable funding). See my presentation slide document on the two missions of every advocacy organization for more detail about how we lose our way.
  2. Parallel to deepening our commitment to our mission is deepening our commitment to the values that drive that mission. The only effective way to do this is to have everyone in your group or organization involved directly in mission-critical work. That includes managers, accountants, board members, even your funders, and suppliers. Internalized values are the best protection against the corruption of your work. The fastest way to undermine your work is to divorce some members or staff from those values by confining their jobs to things that are not directly driven by the values that underpin your advocacy vision. This is especially risky if people become managers or supervisors. It is also an issue for most nonprofit board members who come to view their role as financial control.
  3. Include values impact review as a specific part of every organizational change proposal, including new funding initiatives, reorganizations, media campaigns, and general fundraising efforts. You may need to simplify your message so that others can understand it, but watch out trying to broaden your appeal by undermining your values. Working on the story of your mission should be an ongoing task for everyone, and since management and fundraising don’t include this as a standard part of the job description, you will have to work to have authentic reflection and expansion/deepening of your story.

Expanding the Eddy

  1. Build partnerships with other stakeholders who share your values, and work to deepen your common understanding and commitment to the values that drive your advocacy. We often think we don’t have the time for this kind of work, but a broader collaboration stabilizes both your core mission and your organization.
  2. Build more regional stakeholder collaborations through the general strategy of bringing your values to the table of planning and policy venues. Examples could be local and regional emergency planning, education, local infrastructure, and similar initiatives that impact our lives, but often don’t include us.
  3. Constantly share stories that illustrate your values and you will find that they illustrate your vision and your mission. Using social media to tell these stories is now a necessity for all of us.
  4. Include involvement in supporting and participating in direct action when the opportunity presents itself. There is no better way to deepen value commitment and an understanding of your advocacy mission.

The framework of this discussion is really how to build and expand an eddy to make it easier to control your interaction with the chaos. It isn’t about getting rid of the chaos. Your advocacy and your group can be a model for other stakeholders and potential collaborators about how to negotiate the unpredictability and risk of our current reality.

P.S: I used the micrograph of a synapse for this post’s image because the many, many synapses of our brains are a core of how the brain prevents itself from spiraling out into chaos. Think of a synapse as a pause that allows for a short reflection about the importance and value of what you are about to do. Only when the next step is truly powerful and meaningful should we take it.

I’m going to start a series of posts about what other things our own brains can teach us about doing advocacy in complex systems.

Next Post: The Dynamic Wholeness of Your Brain

How Can An Eddy Help Us with Change Strategy?

swirling eddy in the clackamas river in oregon, with a very green rain forestlike bank
Eddy in Oregon River

Continuing with the flowing river metaphor from the last post, there are ways to build and support stability with your paddle even in a raging spring flow.

Eddies form behind boulders or other naturally occurring obstructions to the flow of a river.  A flowing river always fills every space it can.  You can think of the constraints of the bank, and other physical objects like boulders, as the context of the flow. If the river were to start drying up, the properties of the flow would change with every change in depth and water sources, because the physical geography of the context is tapped differently by any difference in the river flow. And our use of our”magic” (if limited) paddle would change accordingly.

Because the river flow is dynamic, and we don’t have a way to control the sources of the water in the river, we have to always think in terms of using our paddle to alter and respond to the local situation in which we find ourselves. It is much easier to do that in an eddy than in the rapids of the river.

We do this all the time. We look for immediately available places where our paddle(s) can be used to move us where we want to go.

But if you ask almost anyone how to change the impact of the river’s flow, that person will leap to the idea of controlling the flow as a whole, rather than focusing on local control of water flow or  local change of the context of the flow (digging the bank out to enlarge the eddy, for example).

Looking for an elected savior is trying to change the whole flow. Now, someone who has a bigger paddle and who can use that paddle to change your situation will look like a savior but isn’t ever changing the flow as a whole.

Who else wants the savior to use that bigger paddle to change the flow in their part of the river? How long will our claim on this savior’s support  “hold water”?

Looking for a silver-bullet ideology is also like trying to change the whole flow. I think that ideology is mostly a kind of membership card for a social group that has the same values or beliefs. I don’t think that truth is a meaningfully important part of any ideology. But the social network, especially the network’s core values, can be an effective tool for mobilizing an effort to change that local flow, and if you have lots of paddles all trying to change their own local flows using the same values, you can produce real change.

But remember that you aren’t changing the whole flow. You are directing a small part of the flow to expand the impact of the values and relationships you hold dear.

In carving out, building, and supporting a space to make our values real for those we hold dear, we need to understand just how fast and unpredictably the river flow is changing worldwide and put our hope in each other and our common efforts, not in some superstitious notion of directing the entire flow. We need to think of those with bigger paddles as tools we can use to support our network, but in no way should we buy into either saviors or ideologies and their claims to be able to control the entire flow of the river. Such claims are always a manipulation or a delusion.

Every bit of energy that we put into saviors and ideologies that doesn’t positively impact our values and network is wasted. And wasting energy while navigating rapids leads to sinking.

Next time, I’ll drag myself out of the river and dry off in the sun.

Next Post: What Is a Real-World Eddy Like?


The Impact of Illusion on Change Strategy

Wall with the word change on it. An elephant and a donkey are using red and blue paint to change the color of the word
Illusion of Change

The core of the BBC documentary, “Hypernormalisation” was that falsity is being used on a global scale to facilitate various policy, political, and economic outcomes. I think this is a true but inadequate formulation, and it is leading to a variety of tactics (various attempts to detect and publicize falsity, or an organized focus on electing saviors, for example) that will be ineffective at undermining this core global system flow.

Imagine that this flow of falsity is a river after spring snow melt. The river is producing chaotic waves, eddies, general unpredictability. Chaos in one part of the river triggers change in other parts of the river, but the local changes it produces are lost through interaction with the various sources of chaos in the river flow over time. Any local victory is temporary.

You have a canoe or kayak paddle. If you are skilled, you might well be able to steer your canoe or kayak through the river by using the paddle to make a local change in your path so that you can navigate even in a river that is very chaotic. But, you would never delude yourself into thinking that you were fundamentally changing the river flow, that you were “conquering” the river by not sinking. Instead, you understand that the paddle allows you to make use of the local flow to reach your local goals.

Now imagine that there are 7 billion paddles in the river. Some of the paddles are quite large (say a government or international corporation), and most are small and personal. None of the paddles will alter the fundamental flow of the river, even though large paddles allow larger local change. Even if you watch the impact of all the paddles at once, you will find that each is operating locally and the river flow dominates the interactions of all those local efforts to produce change.

So, I don’t think this raging river of falsity is going to change in any basic way anytime soon, and energy put into changing the entire flow of the river won’t do that, but could even add to the total burden of illusion in the system through small local apparently controlled changes.

In addition, the people or organizations that have large paddles actually believe that the local changes they produce with their big paddles are controlling the flow of the river. So, they support and drive falsity additively to increase what they believe is their top-down control. Not only are they deluded about the extent of the chaos in the river, they are adding to it, believing all the while that the additional falsity they create increases their control, and not seeing just how local that increase in control is until some form of local system disintegration occurs. Part of the point of “Hypernormalization” is that it becomes increasingly difficult to make delusions coherent as they become more complex. “Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

The most illuminating recent example of this was the economic crash in 2007-8. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, 670 billion dollars in wealth disappeared, and the total for the crash was somewhere in the vicinity of 30 trillion dollars. Most of this “wealth” was illusory, but the impact of its loss was real. The proximate causes of this disaster were many, but I am interested in two of them because of their deeply delusional composition:

  • Derivatives: Put much too simply, the derivatives used during the housing bubble were algorithms that bundled transactions (say mortgages) as single units aggregating the risks of the mortgages, so that the risk of individual mortgages could be ignored. The points of this were much faster transactions and much quicker profits. The people who developed the algorithms were very smart about aggregating the risk but very dumb about the actual consequences of their use (the basic one being that everyone who used them lied about their composition).

    This pattern is general. People who are very bright think that creating something sophisticated is a sign of their personal power. But, like all humans, however smart, they are poor at anticipating the future use of their creations. I have also observed that if they are trying to make money off their creation, they don’t care what the future consequences are. The victims of those consequences are much like the ants you kill when you are traveling down a sidewalk in summer. You just don’t think about them.

    I suspect that at some point in the next few years, there will be various combinations of blockchains and derivatives touted as the brand new ultimate solution to solve the problem of trust (i.e., the delusion of trust) in finance.

  • Bubbles: Economic bubbles are social illusions about wealth and value. People ignore or lie to themselves about the illusions so that they can make money over short periods of time and space (like the paddle in the river).  The wealth isn’t real, but the illusion nonetheless has a real economic impact when the bubble bursts. The game of winning in a space of illusion is to make someone else pay the price for your errors. See the behavior of banks and mortgage companies for how economic impact is passed on to others.

Now, the global flow of delusion covers many more interconnected bubbles of meaning than just the economic. And, as in any complex system, these various arenas of meaning mutually interact with inevitable, extraordinary, and unpredictable consequences. No aspect of modern human life anywhere on the globe is exempt from this complex interaction of aggressive delusions.

Corruption, as the use of system resources for a personal or social group aggrandizement, is another general delusional system. While drugs, trafficking, and arms sales show this delusional quality clearly, all corruption produces unintended consequences, some that support the delusions, and some that undermine them. And so do all the small, petty forms of corruption that are increasingly a part of our daily lives.

The delusions of global falsity are possible in their extravagant hubris because we have gotten good at using available resources and relationships for our small human purposes. I am not saying that our small human purposes are personally evil. They aren’t. But in the aggregate and socially, they are becoming increasingly evil in their impact. And again, no social component of the global falsity flow is exempt.

So, there is no way to control the entire flow of delusional meaning. That doesn’t mean that we can’t develop a strategy for operating more or less successfully within such a flow. It does mean that we can’t impose any top-down strategy that will somehow eliminate or even dramatically reduce the delusions over the short term.

Next Post: Principles of Effective Change in a Space of Delusion



Russian domestic worker answering question about her dreams (she has none)
Still from the Video

The full BBC documentary….

The link to this documentary was posted on FB by the son of an old friend that I have known for all the decades reflected in the video.

Hypernormalisation is a term created by Alexei Yurchak to describe the attitude of everyone in the Soviet Union during the last years before the crash in 1989. The people of Russia knew that the public relations version of their world created by the government was false, but it was so hard for them to imagine any alternative to the fake society in which they lived, that everyone behaved as though the PR version was the truth.

There is an old joke about a Soviet responding to a question about government control over the factory in which he works: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Note that the entire West was fooled by this faux version of the Soviet state and was shocked to find out that “things are seldom as they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream” when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

This documentary is about events since 1975 that point to the generalization of this substitution of fake for real around the globe. It is a long documentary (rolling near 3 hours) but can be watched in chunks on Youtube. It also contains disturbing images of violence, so be warned.

It has an air of conspiracy theory, and Adam Curtis reaches right up to that line, but he deftly uses the actual words of participants and actual events that I remember from the last 45 years to effectively build support for his ideas. I certainly can’t point to any of his notions and say they are obviously wrong.

He opens with an event that occurred in New York City in 1975 when the city’s sale of bonds to cover their debt of $275 million (a practice of the city of many years) had no takers. In the negotiations that followed, a board was formed consisting of 1 representative from the city and 8 representatives from the banks. It was this board that instituted the austerity program in New York City that destroyed its middle-class infrastructure and paved the way for the gentrified fortress of American elites the city has become today. At the time, I remember that this was recognized by social justice advocates across the country as a seminal moment, but its implications were generally lost from my memory, and I think others, through the intervention of the countless episodes of social degradation that have followed.

The major themes of the video are:

  1. Although money has always influenced politics, the politicians remained brokers for the use of it. The 1975 events in New York reversed this relationship. Curtis describes this as a shift in the role of who curates social stability. Traditionally that has fallen to politicians. Now, everywhere, finance has taken control over efforts to stabilize social systems as the standard way to reduce social instability, and politicians implement that control through financial, budgetary, and militarized mechanisms. Note that this reversal was deemed necessary because of the failure of politicians to provide enough social stability. Also, you should note the overlap of the banks that imposed austerity on New York in 1975 and the ones who were too big to fail after the 2008 financial crash.
  2. “Perception Management” has become the role of every elite institution globally regardless of apparent mission. While we focus today on “alternative facts” as though this process is new, the use of inaccurate favorable portrayals of events is so common and universal, that no one really notices most of it anymore. The accusation of “Fake” is now no more than a tool of ideological battle, and we simply gloss over the rest of the lies to avoid being overwhelmed. There is absolutely no concerted effort to restore the idea of “the facts control discourse”. There are so many lies told so relentlessly in the arena of public discourse that it would be impossible to do so.
  3. The management of perception has reached monumental proportions especially in any area where the use of financial control to gain social stability is failing. The poster child for this failure is the war on terror and it’s overlapping and various wars on black and gray markets. Curtis spends a lot of time on the Middle East as the foremost example of the chaos and misinformation (defined also as the impossibility of usable portrayal through perception management rather than simple lying).
  4. The rise of the use of personal suicide as a political and military weapon. The original inspiration for this was the elder Assad, but it truly flowered when Iran used thousands of children in their war with Iraq in 1980 to create paths through minefields by blowing up the mines with themselves. Although Iraq had a big advantage in weaponry (in large part from the US), they were first stalemated and then driven back by this hideous use of suicide. Now we see the worldwide use of many variants of such suicide including its use against the authors of the tactic, and the absolute inability of the West to stop it. We are beginning to become used to it. At the time, only war nerds like myself thought that was a significant military change in that otherwise pointless 8-year war.
  5. The failure of technological utopianism (and its allied idea of the individualistic focus as the path to happiness) to affect the rest of these forces. In fact, Curtis believes that art and culture have essentially abandoned the larger issues of social control and social justice by withdrawing to places of apparent safety. Art and Culture have been gentrified as much as the housing in New York City.

The video is also interesting because of the portrayal of the role that Donald Trump and his ongoing relationship with Putin has had on various aspects of this use of perception management.

What I took away from the whole of the documentary was the huge effort by global elites and social institutions to impose social control and create social stability, and the failure of those elites and institutions to actually succeed in doing that. They are trying just about every way imaginable to find methods of social control that lead to stability, and they haven’t been able to do that in finance, politics, insurgency, social conflict, cultural conflict, or ideological conflict. But, they are driving most of their potential allies (all of us), those who want real stability, from actual involvement in producing it by offering all of us only faux roles through the use of political slogans.

I think there are some exaggerations in the video, but it is hard to argue with the flow and overall impact of it. I am going to explore some of those exaggerations and why I believe that the trends, which Curtis identifies, relentlessly sabotage the very goals that both elites and insurgents pursue.

If you choose to watch the video, watch as much as you can, but don’t feel that you have to watch it all. It is brutal.

Next Post: The Impact of Illusion on Change Strategy

Trauma and Freedom

A sheep with its four legs tied
World View

Chuck Swinehart and I have had several conversations about the role of victim-proofing as a strategy to counter the trauma of bullying, and I wrote what is below to frame that discussion.

I tend to view recovery from trauma (regardless of the source) as an active process that involves choosing agency over safety, mutual support over invisibility, and a focus on managing symptoms that have arisen from the trauma experience(s) to free up time and emotional energy for a life of choice. On the other hand, victimhood is about avoiding social judgment, hiding, and denying or ignoring symptoms resulting from trauma.

There is a tremendous amount of moral judgment involved in trauma as evidenced by the universal experience of shame in trauma. The predator is always overtly judging the victim as inferior and devalued in the act of bullying. People who have been traumatized internalize these judgments about themselves, and they live as though social life consists of judgments of inferiority, victimization, and so on (see the current memes in reality shows for endless examples). Before a trauma victim chooses active recovery, they view every admonition to change the way they are as a moral judgment of their current inferiority and vulnerability. They don’t experience the admonitions as suggestions to move to a path of freedom. They experience them as threats.

Victim-proofing is a framework for building agency once you have decided to follow the path of recovery. Before that, it is viewed by the person as a threat of retraumatization.

Since parents, siblings, and friends often view their primary social relationship with a bullied or traumatized person as a duty of protection from further victimization, they buy into the idea that helping the victim hide and avoid are the requirements of their obligation to support the victim. Also, when family and friends get frustrated or burned out trying to support a victim, they become judgemental, reinforcing the victim’s view of themselves as helpless.

The key to getting past the strategy of safety first and move onto the road of personal agency and choice is peer support. Peers can deal with the false choices of victimhood because of their shared lived experience. They can treat the management of a particular symptom as a problem to be solved, with suggestions from their own struggle rather than judgments of the moral and social inferiority of the victim. 

A victim-proofing strategy without peer support will be interpreted as devaluing judgment by any victim who still thinks that protecting themselves is the only practical path for preventing further victimization. The way to use victim-proofing is to embed it in ongoing mutual support by peers with lived experience. Over time, the world will open up to the possibilities of personal free choice, as symptoms become increasingly manageable. 

Where Do We Start?

Picture of mountains with quote, That's the Beauty of Starting Lines: Until you begin a new venture, you never know what awaits you, by Amby Burfoot
You Have To Start Somewhere

It is less important, as they say, where we start than that we start. Resistance, like any other complex undertaking, doesn’t happen using some simple procedure. We live in a world of uncertainty and nothing will change that in the short to medium term of our advocacy.

For the disability community, the following values provide a framework for the first steps in the resistance:

  • Person Centered Planning (however and wherever it happens)
  • Ongoing Real Stakeholder Impact
  • Maximizing Resources for Supports (not just money)
  • Maximizing the Impact of Peer Supports and Peer-run organizations
  • Transparent Comprehensive Rights Protection

Although systems may set the environment of supports for our real lives through their control over money, rules, and marketing, they don’t set the terms for resistance.  We do that through our life experience, our relationships to each other, and our creativity.

One of the realities of disability is that it is the common experience of members of every single human community on earth.

I imagine you have heard that before. Although true, the statement glosses over the way that community differences in culture and history and the universal presence of stigma around disability, as well as around cultural, racial, and gender differences, interfere with our ability to work together to maintain the values I listed above.

It is precisely for this effort of building our disability community resistance across cultural, economic, and social communities that I believe the model of implicit engagement that I have described in recent posts has the greatest promise.

There are many potential communities with which we could pursue engagement, but the vehicle for great outcomes needs to be our common values as members of the global disability community.

Because implicit engagement is local and very quiet, its success needs to build from the bottom, whatever we might be doing nationally or publically. Our successes in implicit engagement will feed into our public efforts, locally, regionally, and nationally. We can also use our local successes to reach out to the communities with which we are engaging elsewhere through the successes we have implicitly developed.

We need to start thinking about who in our “neighboring” communities, communities with whom we have significant differences, might share our concerns about resisting the marginalization of people with disabilities in our local area. And we need to approach them quietly.

Next Post: Functional Psychopathy (I’m going to try it again)

Advocacy Through Private Engagement

social community engagement as diverse connected avatars
Community Engagement Network

Although engagement as a tool can be used in any advocacy relationship, I am focusing on the use of engagement between communities that are currently and historically unable to effectively communicate with one another. My examples in previous posts were chosen to illustrate that such communication is possible and productive if certain assumptions are embraced:

  • Communication will initially have to be implicit rather than explicit because of the current or historical lack of public respect between the communities
  • It is common in these situations for there to be a long history of mocking, disdainful, humiliating, and sometimes violent interchange between members of the communities. This framework of mutual disrespect and emotional/physical abuse drives the conflict along with the self-reinforcing belief that the never-ending win-lose-win-lose cycle actually constitutes progress. Every success, no matter how minor (or large-scale, for that matter) is seen as another sign pointing to “our” ultimate victory, and the collateral damage of the conflict is assumed to be the price of that victory. (Gee, where have we heard that before?)
  • Disrespect has to stop before engagement is possible. There has to be an arena in which respect is bounded but appropriate.
  • A vehicle for productive engagement is an outcome that both communities value, and especially where there is a long history of humiliation and hate, the outcome must be local and valuable to both communities on its face. Part of this equation is that the outcome does not depend on promises of future change.
  • Implicit communication allows the development of respect between the engaged parties through mutual support that doesn’t require public justification to the larger community.
  • The outcome stands on its own as a valuable product without there being any need by either community to accept the beliefs or the blame (however this is expressed) of the other community.
  • Repeat as possible over time.

Such engagement can be explored entirely independently of the larger regional, state, and national conflict/strategy between the communities. It can be started as soon as a practical outcome is discovered. Initially, it requires no resources at all other than a simple conversation about the possibilities of achieving the valued outcome. Also, since the beginnings are implicit rather than public, failure to engage over this first outcome is no indicator that another more successful one might be found.

I have learned over the years that the non-public nature of the success of such an approach reduces the risk of the ordinarily required public displays of trust and the possibility of betrayal and the reinitiation of hateful conflict. In fact, the public conflict can continue while respect is built over time.

Politicians have done this for years. We need to start embracing such a strategy for individual and systems advocacy.

Next Post: Where Do We Start?

Invisible Purpose and the Uses of Misdirection

2 hands shuffling card deck for magic trick
Card Magic Shuffle


In the early 80’s, I was working for Michigan Protection and Advocacy in Michigan’s Thumb. One day, I got a call from a Director of Special Education about a terrible problem he was facing.  His daughter had autism and a seizure disorder that could (and had) resulted in cardiac arrest. His family had moved to a county different from the one in which he worked to tap into a very high-quality autism program. Unfortunately, this was a time of funding shortfalls for many school districts, and all the staff in the autism classroom had been laid off and replaced through bumping.

The replacements of the teacher and the two aides in the classroom were a teacher who had only worked with adolescents with EI labels, and the two aides were replaced by secretaries with no previous experience working in the classroom with students who had severe disabilities.

There were six students in the classroom.  All had very significant communication difficulties and behavioral problems that merited significant support. In addition to the daughter who had the seizure disorder, there was also a young man whose eating behaviors were a significant risk to his health. His home and school routines were carefully coordinated to ensure that he took in enough food to maintain his weight. Disruption of this routine would result in steady weight loss.

The change in staff had produced the significant disruption of the classroom routines and this had the expected impact on student behavior and the atmosphere in the classroom. The disruption extended into the home environments as well.

No one in the district was happy with the situation. Everyone wanted a solution.

Because the job bumping process was part of the labor contract, there was no obvious or immediate solution available. A lawsuit could challenge the current contract language, at least as far as the way staff qualifications affected bumping rights, but both the district and the union had a deep investment in the negotiations that led to the current contract that went far beyond this particular issue, especially in a time of funding distress and job losses.

A lawsuit approach would also take a great deal of time, time that the students in the classroom didn’t have. Even a special education complaint would require investigation, and would also impinge on the contract, no doubt triggering an injunction if the complaint was successful. More time lost.

There needed to be a solution that didn’t directly surface the contract language if it was to be effective and quick.

All six families met with me to go over the issues and to come up with a common strategy. We settled on one that didn’t include the contract language and that, we hoped, would provide the impetus for the district to create a solution that would satisfy their stakeholders. Frankly, none of us had any idea what such a solution might look like.

Think about that. We knew we couldn’t solve the problem directly. We didn’t know what kind of solution would be acceptable to the district stakeholders, and we had no way of figuring that out in the short-term.  At the beginning of this process, no one in the district knew what kind of solution could work, either.

We settled on the following strategy:

  • Each family would develop a schedule for their child’s school day in 10-minute increments. This would be the ideal school schedule from the family perspective. It would include everything that was in the IEP and supports that the parents believed were educationally necessary for their child, but which weren’t in the current IEP. Each schedule also included a statement that allowed the family to enter the classroom at any time during the school day to check on whether the schedule was being followed according to the 10-minute increments. If it wasn’t, the family would file a special education complaint about the failure to follow the IEP.
  • Each family would write a separate letter to the district asking for a new IEPC. At the meeting, each family would hand the district the schedule. They would say that this schedule was what they wanted for their child and if it wasn’t acceptable to the district, they would ask for a hearing. In effect, the district faced the possibility of 6 separate special education hearings.

There were significant costs and risks for the district in this strategy. Each hearing was a separate expense (they weren’t cheap). This issue would most certainly hit the papers, and it would not be a labor contract issue, but a failure to provide adequate services to a particularly vulnerable group of students. And it was possible that through the six hearings, we would win one or part of one, and set a precedent for both the approach and the ability of parents to drop into special education classrooms whenever they liked.

After the meeting with the families and the development of the strategy, I met with the school principal, and I told him why we were approaching the issue the way we were.  I was completely honest about the family concerns and what we were trying to avoid. He took that discussion to the school stakeholders. Neither I nor the families were ever a part of those discussions. I never found out how those discussions went.

The district came back with a solution that allowed the current EI teacher to retire and do some contract work for the district. The two secretaries were given secretarial jobs. The original classroom staff were rehired on contract for the rest of the current school year and rehired into permanent jobs the following year. The families dropped the strategy we had developed.

As I look back on this particular advocacy experience, I see it as a clear example of engagement in the same way as the examples I described in the last few posts. The intent of our strategy was to provide the district with a way to achieve a common purpose across both the families and the district.  This common purpose was obvious but couldn’t be addressed explicitly.

The district’s solution was one that addressed the vast majority of the interests of all the parties involved. I would never have come up with this solution in a million years. Only through a peculiar juxtaposition of explicit threat and implicit cooperation was the solution found.

This approach to engagement has value far beyond the examples that I have described. In the next post, I am going to talk about a deeper use of engagement in our time of chronic seemingly unavoidable polarization in our efforts to achieve social justice.

Next Post: Engagement to Build a Path to a Common Future