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.
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.
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.
I believe that the core of life is the creation and sharing of meaning. It is easy to forget this core when things are going along smoothly and we can ignore most of what passes before us without any great risk.
That time is past.
We live in a period of intense volatility, and we not only lack tools for dealing with such rapid and unpredictable change, we carry with us a set of assumptions about how our society works that might have been useful as rules-of-thumb in the past, but are no longer so.
In fact, these assumptions drive us to make poor choices, triggering changes and consequences we can’t predict, and forcing more poor choices on us.
The only way to manage this astounding level of uncertainty is to craft a strategy that will provide us with a framework for making difficult and tentative decisions over and over.
Nowhere is this change in how we make choices more important than in the disability community.
As all of you are aware, our struggles to build access, inclusion, and choice into our society have stalled and retreated at the Federal level because of the actions of the current administration. But, our progress has always been incremental and hard-fought, requiring persistence and a relentless commitment to our values over decades.
Now, while persistence and relentless commitment will still be very important, there are many forces that will actively work to undermine and destroy the progress we have made.
I want to talk to you about our struggle for rights in the larger context of long-term changes in our society that are now and will be constricting our community’s social and political capacity to innovate and expand freedom and choice for ourselves. The legislative and regulatory frameworks we have used for progress in past decades are currently eroding, and it isn’t clear that we can stop that erosion, much less reverse it.
In addition, there are large social forces that will make those legislative and regulatory frameworks less effective even as we succeed in defending them against attack.
In the future, it will not be enough for us to demand our rights. We will also have to create the social frameworks within which our rights will have real meaning and through which we can live fulfilling lives of choice.
We will not be able to depend on others for the success of these efforts.
There is a deep similarity between the way we have used fossil fuels and debt to drive our political and financial economies. And the results of this use are also very similar:
There are unavoidable limits to both. These limits are not just an amount (quantity in fuels and bubble size in debt), but that both become increasingly difficult to extract as their use increases.
The habit of their use also makes it increasingly difficult to change their use. This is a kind of addiction.
Their use is always to allow short-term success and a parallel ignoring of long-term consequences.
When the consequences become too great to ignore, very significant costs are required to alleviate these consequences.
In turn, the costs of dealing with the consequences of short-term, non-strategic use further undermines the original advantage of their use.
This cycle of short-term planning in use of resources and the lack of attention to consequences is fractal. That is, the mistake occurs systemically at every level. It is a characteristic of our complex adaptive system, and it has as much to do with the momentum of our ongoing lost control over our future as anything else that we currently believe to be wrong in our society.
We can’t use the way we created and maintain the degradation of our society to change that degradation in anything other than small ways, ways that over time will wash out in the same way that ripples from the splash of a small stone wash out in a river.
We need a strategy, not more short-term operational planning.
All public communications are inaccurate: Doesn’t matter from who or why. No communication can be trusted on its face. In many cases, our choices are either to simply believe something from those we perceive to be in our community or spend time we don’t have researching the truth.
All political systems are corrupt: Not all individuals, just systems. Corrupt systems use corrupt practice to sustain corruption until collapse. Corruption is never eliminated by criminal proceedings, does not reduce until collapse, and impacts all the transactions of the system even when most of the system isn’t engaged in the corruption.
The legal system is too complex to be generally effective: The only way the legal system will simplify is a collapse. It is nearly impossible to eliminate laws without making the legal system even more complex. In the mainstream of legal practice, lawyers know more and more about less and less as every dimension of law increases in complexity and the corpus of the law “requires” more and more of all of us.
I don’t know how to demonstrate this, but my impression is that in any instance of legal use, more and more of the extant law is simply ignored.
A great example is the way plea bargaining has taken over the criminal justice system and its necessity has extended and made the corruption of the justice system more complex and more difficult to reduce.
All saviors aren’t: Goes without saying? Desperate people always make the same strategic mistakes. As life becomes more out of control, as our society=complex-system becomes more brittle, there are no longer obvious solutions to chronic problems, and we retreat to those beliefs that let us feel better or express our fear well.
Our society has some large-scale demographic, financial, environmental, and social forces that can’t be eliminated or even dramatically reduced. These forces will have a profound impact on our ability to pursue our disability community’s rights and freedom agenda.
These include (only as examples. There are many others.):
Debt-Fueled Growth: We have been using debt to fuel growth nationally since the Great Depression. But when debt is an order of magnitude bigger than wealth, how do we pay it off? Mostly through economic crashes, whether small or large.
The Aging of America’s Taxpayers: We are all getting older, which means our incomes will drop and we will pay fewer tax revenues overall. And we seem hell-bent on stopping any new young people from expanding our economy and making up for that loss.
The Missing $20 trillion: The 1% have been squirreling away wealth for decades. The recent Federal Tax law is only the latest example of supporting that loss of wealth. And, there is no politically practical way to get that wealth back.
Incidentally, American sovereign (government) debt has also reached $20 trillion and is now equal to the USA Gross Domestic Product ($20 trillion). I guess we could call this the triple $20 trillion threat;
Relentlessly Increasing Complexity: Every second of every day our society is getting more complex. Every effort we make to fix the broken parts results in greater complexity. Every local improvement we make in the system makes some other part of the system more complex.
The increasing complexity makes our society more brittle, and less able to respond to the unpredictable disturbances of our common future. And, the only way we have traditionally simplified the system is through some kind of collapse, big or small.