Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part One

First in a multi-part series about the complex flow deep in our entangled society…

“There is no such thing as security for any nation — or any individual — in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism.” – President Franklin Roosevelt, in a “fireside chat” to the nation after the Pearl Harbor attacks, and a first take on insurgency.

In my senior year in high school (1964–65), I got my first glimpse of our common entangled insurgencies, though I didn’t know it at the time. Our local John Birch Society gave a copy of “None Dare Call It Treason” to every member of my senior class. This amounted to somewhere around 650 copies.

I suspect I was one of the few Social Justice Catholics in our class to read it. Most copies of it had been tossed everywhere around the school campus and in various places on the many routes to our family homes.

I asked a classmate who was more familiar with right politics than me what this distribution was about. He told me that local JBS members had decided that they needed to begin advancing their beliefs in a more organized way after the much earlier collapse of McCarthy, and the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater in the presidential campaign, through what were viewed as the lies and manipulations of political advertising (isn’t all political advertising manipulative?). This book was published so that it could be distributed widely during the 1964 presidential campaign.

All I thought at the time: “All our parents are weird”, with the typical adolescent roll-of-the-eyes.

Looking back, if you changed the core villain from the communists to the various yellow, brown, and black enemies that are now the targets of right hate, and updated the names of the villains to the current ones in roughly similar jobs and social classes, you could republish it today with a few other changes. To me, that means the framework of NDCIT is mythic in its meaning, and can and will be applied to whatever is going on currently by those who are entangled in the myth.

But back then, I used the balm of young obliviousness to the outside world to dismiss the idea, and it faded from my consciousness.

Something must have stuck though. I began to notice stuff from the right that I had never paid attention to before.  My deepest ignorance was my lack of understanding of insurgencies, and how they operate as flows of meaning.

My ignorance had two dimensions:

  • I didn’t see my catholic social justice value system, socially just action, and our larger social justice community as an insurgency. I thought it was a nice way to be a human being.
  • I couldn’t see the birth of a much larger right-wing insurgency in the  expanding number of similar local organizing initiatives going on across roughly all rural areas and college campuses of the US, because I was simply unaware of them, or I consigned them to some dustbin of irrelevance.

Over the decades since then, I’ve tried to resolve my ignorance as best I could, and I have deepened my understanding of insurgencies.

I experienced insurgency first hand as a combat soldier in Vietnam, known people who participated in our American cultural entangled insurgencies and those who fought insurgencies in our overseas wars and our home-spun revolutionary movements, learned the history of insurgency through reading, board games, and video games, and, most critically, learned about systems theory, especially the theory of, and change in, complex adaptive systems (CAS).

These experiences and learnings helped me see the dynamic of our entangled insurgencies as a flowing shifting evolution with a broad disposition, if not a game plan. I want to pass on something of that observed flow in the stories in this series.

Part Two: So, How are We to Understand what Our Long- Entangled Insurgencies are?

The Dark Triad of Evolving Bureaucratic Systems

In addition to what I described as the typical bureaucratization of support and advocacy systems in my last post, there is a darker path that any system development can take in a facilitating context. We can understand this path by using a metaphor borrowed from a social media trope about personality characteristics called the Dark Triad:

  • Machiavellianism
  • Psychopathy
  • Narcissism

We aren’t going to view these as part of some continuum of personality disorders. Instead, we will look at them as corrupting forces driven by larger socio-political environments that aren’t necessarily connected to the personalities of people in the system. Rather, the forces are incentive-driven contexts for decision-making by actors in the system, actors who wouldn’t qualify under the criteria of the DSM as persons with these disorders.

In a word, the forces create “functional” versions of the disorders, guiding and enforcing decisions that mimic the kinds of decisions persons with these disorders might make. Because these are not medical concepts, but enabling and governing constraints in systems, we will use simple abstractions to define them. We don’t need to meet the DSM criteria to understand how such decision-making affects the evolution of support and advocacy organizations.

Next: How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems

Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances

The power of advocacy arises from engaging the anomalies in the SOF’s evolution. These anomalies are affordances for effective change. Anomalies means weak signals from the SOF that are not in alignment with its stated purpose or mission. Anomalies are not just hypocrisy about mission values.  They are programs, funding sources, political connections-anything in the SOF ecosystem that doesn’t support its mission. There are always a large number of anomalies in any complex adaptive system, including our advocacy organizations. If we wish to make use of them, we have to be able to perceive them.

The nature of weak signals makes them easy to ignore if they make us uncomfortable, or if recognizing them requires us to make unpleasant or difficult changes.  Also, we are taught almost from birth, to believe that strong signals, and only strong signals, are worth our time or effort. (Note that common signals are viewed as strong whether they are or not.) Strong signals are viewed the way they are because there is an assumption that the power of a signal to, say, punish or force change, is related to its strength.

There is just enough truth to this assumption that we believe we can safely ignore weak signals. We can’t-at least if we want to have an impact on our common future.

The other problem with focusing on the processes associated with strong signals in an SOF is that they are the ones best defended. If we try to use strong signals and those internal processes that support the reproduction and expansion of the SOF that those signals represent, the system will have no trouble mobilizing resources to oppose our change efforts.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t confront the underlying processes of an oppressive or discriminatory SOF. I’m saying that changing those core processes will require a long term effort and a lot of resources.

We can also think of going after weak processes by identifying them in weak signals as a way to force the SOF to use resources to counter our change work that the SOF would prefer to use in support of its core strong processes. The tendency for the SOF will be to try to minimize the use of these core resources which will, in turn, slow an effective response to our advocacy. In fact, there are advocacy techniques which disguise the real potential impact of our advocacy to exploit this SOF tendency.

In the context of our engagement with an SOF over the long term is the potential for corruption of the SOF purpose and, frankly, for the corruption of our advocacy purpose.  We need to understand how this corruption works in order to not lose the thread of our advocacy purpose.

Next: Corruption of System Purpose

Complex Adaptive Engagement and Advocacy

If our change vehicles are to be complex adaptive systems engaged over the long term with those complex adaptive systems we call “Wicked Problems”, we need to understand how the evolution of this engagement is driven.

The deepest driver for advocacy in our community is the web of meaning we share that sees an individual as unique, and the purpose of advocacy as support for the realization of life’s possibilities through personal autonomy and membership in a supportive community. The old school label for such an intuition is “personalism”, which has a long secular, religious, and philosophical history, and has been recreated in every generation by some community for its members. Our disability community is the latest, and, I believe, has gone the deepest in making the personalist vision practical.

Person-centered planning is an expression of this, as are support concepts like intervenors and personal assistance. Even a technologically focused conceptual framework like assistive technology is only meaningful in the context of a personalist perspective.

On the other hand, the deepest driver in the evolution of wicked problems and the vast majority of support organizations that are the Systems of Focus (SOF) for our advocacy, is the authority and responsibility they have for the resources within them.  This way of thinking about resources leads SOF to prioritize preservation and expansion of resources as their purpose, not the publicly stated mission.

Remember that the purpose of a system is what it does, not what it says it does. When we are advocating for the use of these resources on behalf of ourselves, others, or a community, we understand that use to be in service of personalist outcomes. When a system is engaged with us during our advocacy, it views the engagement as a negotiation about the distribution of the SOFs rightfully held resources (all types). Our advocacy is viewed as an unwarranted disruption of their  control and disposition of those resources.

Thus the conflicts that arise from advocacy.

If we activate an advocacy community through organizing, we build the possibility of long term-engagement, and at least some possibility of a renegotiation of our advocacy as part of normal reality, instead of a one-off intrusion by advocates into areas where we have no role. This change in how we and the SOF engage is less an epiphany than a change in ritual or a habit or a state of mind that makes the engagement easier to carry out, but does not change the fundamental purposes in our mutual engagement.

When such engagement becomes typical, we can invest our advocacy with more sophistication, understanding our SOF more deeply in its complexity and drive for the control of its resources.

Next: Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances

Third Order Advocacy: Organizing

Although Organizing to support advocacy has a long history of framing advocacy efforts, the easy availability of organizing models (and their diversity) undermines their usefulness.

The Midwest Model (see the Midwest Academy website), for example, assumes that an organized advocacy effort can identify an individual or a role capable of changing the current situation to an outcome valued by the organized advocacy effort. There certainly are many solutions that can be achieved through such an operational approach, and organizing needs to be a catalyst for operational success.

But, as we are starting to understand, many of the foundational problems that we face in the disability community, and intersectionally, across the full range of marginalized identities, are “wicked”. They arise through the ongoing and constantly evolving process of complex adaptive systems.

Wicked Problems don’t have authorities in them  that can change any specific issue to what we want.

Because wicked problems are complex and adaptive, there are a very large number of theories that can be generated to explain any such problem we might face. Furthermore, we will not be able to engage the wicked problem without SOME theory. But, there is no “correct” theory of the wicked problem. There are only different ways to engage the wicked problem system, each of which will cause some change in the Wicked System and adaptation by the System without necessarily resolving the issue.

This means that, while we might use a Midwest Model operational plan to engage with a specific issue, we will need to have a sustainable organizing vehicle for the long term if we expect to produce more systemic change.

Which is to say, that our organizing effort must become a complex adaptive system, and  we want it to be adaptive in its engagement with our chosen wicked problem.

Most organization work is driven by tactical (FOA) or operational (SOA) frameworks. Though necessary, such causal planning models are not sufficient to engagement with wicked problems. How we bundle our tactical, operational, and organizing efforts to impact wicked problems is the subject of the next post.

Next: Complex Adaptive Engagement Over the Long Term…



The Basic Practice of Second Order Advocacy (SOA)

Second Order Advocacy takes the tactics of First Order Advocacy and turns them into an Advocacy Operation. You can understand an Advocacy Operation as a coordinated web of FOA Tactics.

A System of Focus (SOF) has weak relationships with far more than just the legal/rights community that we typically use in a basic advocacy effort.

Remember that the basic tactic in advocacy is to disrupt a weak relationship. If your disruption is effective, the SOF still has to expend resources and time to rebalance it.

Some other kinds of weak processes to consider for disruption:

  • Local elections that affect the funding of the SOF.
  • Disrupting a part of the SOF that isn’t the focus of your advocacy (i.e., going after regular education disability discrimination when you are trying to change special education policy).
  • Making more work for the boss of the point person you are advocating with.
  • Getting your issue into the press.
  • Forcing the SOF to follow “all the rules”. This works best if you segment the multiple complaints, so that they seem to pop up without notice.
  • Filing complaints with multiple organizations, using related but different rights frameworks.
  • Pressuring local officials or allies for help.

By combining various efforts to disrupt over a period of time, you can create an operational campaign. This is especially effective if you can overlap the threads of disruption so that individual threads don’t get resolved before a new thread develops.

Next Time: Third Order Advocacy-Community Organizing

What the SOF Is, and How We Engage It

The System of Focus (SOF) might seem to be an easy concept to use, but it isn’t. Because “Everything is connected”, we choose the system we focus on, and that focus doesn’t eliminate all those connections.

The System of Focus is a real system in our current understanding of Systems. That is, the SOF is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). It behaves as it does because the relationships between its parts drive the state of the system as a whole. It is not a machine, and it can’t be changed the way we change a machine (changing parts one at a time). The apparent stability of a SOF is an illusion, and the stability is only maintained by active reproduction by the SOF.

A Simple Model

We can conveniently view the SOF as two circles, an inner one that contains all the strong processes that reproduce the system, and an outer one, consisting of the relationships the SOF has with its stakeholders in the real world. Strong processes reproduce the SOF, weak processes make small demands on the SOF.

The ordinary way the SOF deals with the stakeholders who are making weak demands on it is by negotiating an efficient predictable relationship with each stakeholder. The weak processes that are important here are the ones the SOF can’t just ignore, the ones the SOF must accommodate. These can be funders, political actors, and, of course, laws, regulations, policies imposed from the outside, and direct constituencies that it does not employ (like parents and students in an education system).

These Weak Processes, once accommodated, can be ignored, even though there is a small continuing resource cost to the SOF to accomplish this.

Enter the Advocate. Using the laws that allow access by our advocacy community to the resources available to the SOF, we disrupt the low cost, easily ignored relationship that the SOF has under ordinary circumstances with its stakeholders. Suddenly, our demand is requiring attention, time, and resources from the SOF that won’t be available to be used for some unpredictable period to reproduce the strong processes of the SOF. The way this is done by the advocate is to use the simple abstract script described in the last post:

  • Disrupt the ordinary process of the System of Focus (SOF) by challenging some part of its typical behavior.
  • Threaten to cause a bigger and less controlled change in the SOF if the advocacy demands aren’t met.
  • The SOF chooses to make a smaller adaptation to avoid a bigger, uncontrolled one.

This script operates in all First Order Advocacy, using anything from a simple verbal complaint to a federal class action lawsuit. Regardless of the scope of the disruption, the leverage for change is the same.

I will expand this model to show how we might also expand the impact of our advocacy with an SOF. I call this expanded model Second Order Advocacy.

Next Post: Second Order Advocacy

The Basic Pattern of Disability Rights Advocacy

There are as many ways to advocate for rights as there are systems, contexts that are oppressive, and creative advocates to invent disruptive engagement with those oppressors. Understanding advocacy as a tactical and operational tool of social justice transformation requires experience and practical knowledge of the concrete realities of the System Of Focus (SOF). To use advocacy to extend the impact of social justice transformation, we need to also extend our understanding of advocacy as a scaffold for making our Strategy facilitate that transformation.

Virtually all approaches to first order advocacy follow this abstract script:

  • Disrupt the ordinary way of business of the System of Focus (SOF) by challenging some part of its typical behavior or some relationship it has with the outside world.
  • Threaten to cause a bigger and less controlled change in the SOF if the advocacy demands aren’t met.
  • The SOF chooses to make a smaller adaptation to avoid a bigger, uncontrolled one.

Active advocacy is (thus) a negotiation process, no matter how the process proceeds. But, while advocates are focused on an individual or community outcome, the SOF is focused on the externally forced (re)distribution of resources that they believe they have the right to control as they wish.

This standard pattern of rights advocacy is reimagining the distribution of the tools of life-it is a political struggle. This is as true of a struggle over an Individual Education Program, as it is over a presidential campaign.

But, as an advocate, it is important to remember that this pattern is not just a negotiation over the distribution of resources. That might be true for the SOF, but it isn’t for the person or community whose life possibilities could be expanded by successful advocacy. Buying in to the SOF view of the purpose in the negotiation, is a slippery slope toward the financialization and politicization of advocacy as a social justice tool. It turns social justice advocacy into a  zombie.

Before going into the more sophisticated advocacy patterns available to disability advocates in our 21st century future, it is important to ground ourselves more deeply in the underlying dynamic reality of First Order Advocacy (FOA).

Next Post: What the SOF Is and How We Engage It

Expanding Disability Rights Through Advocacy

In the last half-century, the disability community has gone from a fragmented, cure-focused, disconnected aggregation of individuals isolated in their families or in institutions to an identity-aware, active, present, and organized advocacy movement.

The kind of advocacy that led to this blossoming of our community can be thought of as driven by the same model that black civil rights, feminism, and other identity-based rights movements have used:

    • The passage of legislation that mandates certain rights.
    • The development of procedures to define rights and due process when those rights are violated.
    • The use of legislative solutions to the trade-offs and detailed reification of those rights.

Essentially, rights, in this model, are only those which can be legislated and bureaucratized. This process of rights expansion is driven by presence, protest, policy proposals.

The successes of our common effort are real, but not complete. Both the larger world and the requirements of future success with advocacy have changed and will continue to change. The ongoing resistance to our advocacy over the last half-century has gradually muted our impact. We must face up to these realities if we expect to further our project of social justice and personal empowerment.

The core of a new approach to advocacy for our community requires an understanding of the advocacy environment as a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) , and not as a machine that we change as we would a car engine.
Seeing the constraints on our community as processes in a CAS is not a new technique of advocacy, though it does offer us a new way to view how we change The System.

There is a basic pattern that we have used to pursue rights, and in my next post, I’ll go over that pattern as a prelude to a version for advocacy in a complex adaptive system.

(P8): The System as Tool

An absurdly complex swiss army knife with scores of tools.
Swiss Army Godzilla

We mostly view government (The System) as a repository of solutions to problems we can’t solve ourselves. I don’t know if this was ever true, but it certainly isn’t true now, especially in the lives of our community of people with disabilities. The capacity of government to take responsibility for solving any problem is undermined by pressure to reduce expenditures, frank corruption, incompetence, and a virtually universal refusal to ever take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. This “Not Me” attitude occurs both in disaster, and more recently, as a general marketing framework. “Don’t expect much from us”. Government’s response is randomly useful and randomly destructive,.

So, when we act as though the government has as its purpose the solving of our life problems, and we suffer disappointment when it doesn’t, we are perpetuating a species of victimhood for ourselves from which we can’t exit. We can only feel more deeply victimized and helpless.

We need to stop looking at The System as a Solution to our problems in living as people with disabilities. It will never be that. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of resources tied up (embedded) in The System, even if an ever-increasing amount of those resources are used in monitoring, administration, and political purposes that have nothing to do with support. The mission of support, the supposed purpose, gradually becomes more and more to deny support, investing in administrative complexity to make support increasingly difficult to access. Everything about The System is double-edged, and we can’t ever be sure what edge we will get when we try to use it the way it is supposed to work.

While we can’t depend on The System, we can’t simply ignore it either. We must make use of The System or forgo the resources. Frankly, we currently have no way of taking the resources in The System and making them directly available, nor are we likely to anytime soon.

As we think they were intended.

To deal with this reality, we must adopt a dual approach that will seem unnatural:

  • We must get better at extracting support from The System as it is, not as we wish it would be. This will require us to be far more strategic in our interactions with the System, and we will have to understand that The System will continue to deteriorate even as our advocacy creates some local real improvements in how it works. Local improvement, but System-wide slow breakdown is the trend for the foreseeable future.
  • In addition to extracting support from The System, we will need to disassociate resources from The System that we can use for building an alternative that I have called Our System. For example, we might advocate to move resources from parts of The System that are moribund or useless to ones where there is a better chance of being able to use them to create Our System.

This is an abstract overview of how the three motifs must be woven to expand our control over our lives and our freedom of choice.

Next Time: Using the System as a Tool

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