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.
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
Engagement, as described in my last post, doesn’t easily fit into a standard negotiation, largely because the “enforcement” of the agreement doesn’t have an external accountability mechanism. Either the agreement is internally self-enforcing or it doesn’t work.
The cooperation of the parties doesn’t depend on punishment delivered by a third party, like the law, or a regulator, or a deity. An agreement that results from engagement lasts as long as the parties continue to experience the benefit (or potential benefit) and no longer.
Because engagement results in an informal (even invisible) agreement, it can be used as a way to make progress when more typical negotiation approaches would be impossible or would take too long:
As an approach between political opponents when public collaboration would have high political cost
When the explicit problem facing the parties is impossible to resolve publically in a time frame that would actually be of use to those parties
I am sure this all seems very abstract.
Well, it is.
While the examples I discussed in my last post are very concrete, they also aren’t terribly relevant to disability rights advocacy. I am going to go through an example in some detail using my next post that was the most complex special education advocacy case in which I was ever involved, to give more depth to the abstract discussion above.
Today, I’ll finish this post with a discussion of another special education issue that taught me how important the scope and public nature of a conflict is in securing a workable agreement.
In the early 80’s, I was working for MPAS at the Caro State Hospital as a regional advocate for the six counties in Michigan’s Thumb. About half my work involved representing students and families in special education disagreements.
One case involved a student in late elementary school who had a learning disability that involved a problem with something called internal language. Kids begin to use language to organize their behavior according to the demands of the outside world just as soon as they have language. But using that language to organize their internal behavior is something that starts at age 4-5 and continues into adulthood. An example of a learning difficulty caused by developmental delay in internalizing language would be a student who does well at math until story problems are introduced. Because story problems don’t map the procedure for a solution the way math problems do, the student has to manipulate the story to tease out the solution procedure, using internal language in support of that manipulation.
Although supporting the development of internalized language had a basis in neuropsychology at that time, there was no such concept in educational psychology or the standard view of learning disabilities in special education. This meant that it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to win support services for this purpose for this student using the typical advocacy approach.
In particular, the local district was worried about setting a precedent that would trigger a “woodwork” effect of thousands of parents storming the district with torches and pitchforks demanding therapy for a delay in internalizing language. For another, it wasn’t clear to the district just how much it would cost or what specialty could actually provide that support.
What to do?
The district suggested using a method in the rules called arbitration instead of the traditional hearing. I looked into it, but couldn’t find that it had ever been used in Michigan (it may well be that our use was the only one). In terms of this student’s situation, arbitration had many advantages. For one, it was much less expensive and much shorter than a hearing. Also, the arbitration decision did not set a precedent that the district would be required to consider for every student in special education. These two realities of arbitration undermined almost completely the system concerns that the school had.
From my point of view, it simplified my argument that the support should be provided to this specific student. I could use the general special education principle that the school needed to provide supports to enable the student to benefit from education, an assessment that said internalizing language was the educational problem, and an easy to understand rationale for the actual support. All of this was straightforward. And the decision of the process was very agreeable to all.
During my second tour in Vietnam, I spent most of my time at the 1st Cav Division base camp in Phuoc Vinh.
Phuoc Vinh had maybe 2,000 villagers including its farming “suburbs” and had been for most of its history an agricultural community. The French had used the area around the village as a base in the 40’s and early 50’s, and when the 1st Cav moved there, an early task was the removal of a large number of mines, some left over from the French. Also, the village became progressively dependent on commerce with Americans.
Phuoc Vinh was an “open” village. That meant that regardless of which side you were fighting for, as long as you didn’t do anything violent, everyone was accepted in the town during the day. Vietnamese friends told us that NVA troops had some dialect and accent differences and were easy to spot. I thought that there were small differences in the way they dressed, but I could never be sure. There were some accidents, but never deliberate assault while I was there.
The open village was not sanctioned and would never be publically sanctioned. It was, however, an enormous convenience for us, the villagers, and presumably the NVA troops. You could eat, buy, relax, drink, and do other things that were illegal without having to worry about being shot as you did them. This was as true for officers as it was for us grunts. Since there could be no official acknowledgment of this, it all happened without explicit effort; everyone who knew respected it and never brought it up in a way that would require any official attention. It was, as it were, an open secret.
If this implicit understanding had been violated, the town would have been cut off and would have suffered devastating economic collapse.
During this time in my tour, several members of my unit and myself decided that we would try to support some villagers in a more direct way. Basically, we saved pop cans and gave them to a family that made large trunks out of them, and a variety of other items for sale. We also encouraged other American troops to buy these. The cans were spread around through the village to people who did this kind of work, and there was a general uptick in the production. None of this was sanctioned.
This resulted in two benefits to us:
On occasion, some of us were invited by the village mayor or other VIPs to eat dinner with them. Since we were grunts and not officers, we had to get permission to do this, though refusing the invitation wasn’t really an option. We would eat Vietnamese dishes and get drunk and stagger back singing to the main gate of the base after dark. Fun for all.
For some weeks at the end of my tour, we would be told by villagers if there would be a rocket or mortar attack that night. The NVA always warned the villagers so that they wouldn’t be accidentally killed during the attack.
We would pass the information around but never acknowledge it publically because any official response would destroy our understanding with the village and eliminate the benefits. We would set alarms for 15 to 20 minutes before the time of the attack and go to our bunkers until the attack was over.
Does this strike you as bizarre, or somehow a violation of your assumptions about combat or the relationships between enemies in war?
You might think that these arrangements are rare. They are not. In every war, there are thousands of such arrangements customized to deal with some common good for all the participants. None of them are public even if they have components that are or become public over time. The point of the arrangements is to secure a good for all, and securing that good requires the cooperation and support of all the participants, even when there can’t be any talk ever about the reality of the agreement.
All such arrangements show the power of engagement over contempt. In my next post, I’ll explore more about how engagement can overcome contempt in any context.
Contempt is the emotional/cognitive/social version of biological revulsion, that feeling you have when you see something that is tainted, decomposing, or mutilated. As such, contempt is universal. We all feel contempt. Generally, we express contempt out of fear or anger at the loss of power, or against some other kind of social threat. Also, people who believe that their control over others comes from their inherent superiority spew contempt around them continuously like the smell of decomposition on a hot day. In this case, contempt is a habit of delusional superiority and ignoring the environment and the people in it, like sneering unconsciously at the homeless as you pass them by.
Bullying is the specimen example of contempt, but there are many others. There is a sort of continuum of contempt ranging from the one percenter who doesn’t know the names of the staff who see to his daily needs to the screaming man in the street with a face so red and a sneer so deep that you are afraid he might have a stroke.
And behind every single expression of contempt, regardless of where it is on the continuum, is the threat of violence. For all I know, the expression of contempt might have served in our past as a social substitute for overt violence. But there is so much contempt expressed in our world now, and its impact is so universal with the advent of the internet that I view it as inciting a constant and spreading low-level violence that is entirely out of our control, like a forest fire.
Just as our sense that food is tainted makes us avoid it, so the expression of social contempt ties a taint to a target, with social isolation and lack of accurate perception of the target as the ordinary concomitants of that expression.
And, of course, everywhere there is the experience of shame, lurking somewhere outside or inside is contempt. Think about how common shame is in our social matrix. That is a reasonable index of the amount of contempt.
Contempt has always been a part of politics. Political opponents are often targeted as tainted, using metaphors that point to spoiled food (think, “my opponent is a rotten bastard”). But the current level of mutual contempt across every part of the political landscape and the huge rate of repetition of expressed contempt that has become a constant din in our minds is producing significant social disintegration and it is undermining our ability to take any other political actions.
Contempt is currently the only viable way to organize politically at the national level, and it is the most effective way at every other political level. The far right spent 50 years using contempt as an organizing tool, but it has only been with the advent of the online world that it has become singularly successful. There is no fundamental difference between the politics of “None Dare Call It Treason” and the national political agenda of the current Congress. The difference is the instant reach of the contempt.
And every other political stripe has learned that same lesson from the recent election. The winners are disintegrating into factions and the losers are unrelentingly demonizing their internal opponents.
Expressed contempt is disruptive of the current target all right, but it has no upside. It is the social version of an IDE. Its purpose is only to spread fear, anger, and hatred. The actual attack is secondary to that spread. If that wasn’t enough, there is no way to get rid of contempt or even reduce it. Right now, trying to reduce contempt is like trying to spray insecticide on a week old hamburger. You can kill the flies, but you can’t change the basic problem.
There is a way to replace contempt called engagement. The next post will talk about what engagement is. But I’d like to close this post with what engagement isn’t:
It isn’t being nice and polite to your opponents
It doesn’t require anyone to no longer feel contempt
It isn’t suited to the internet or meme based organizing
It isn’t “reaching out” to your opponents so you can neutralize or convert them
It isn’t accepting third-party analysis about why your opponents are the way they are.
Nonviolent disruption is unique among frameworks for contesting political and cultural control of lives because it assumes that all who are here now will still be here after the conflict is resolved. The point of nonviolent disruption is to force reflection and discourse on an issue, such as a re-distribution of community resources, political decision-making, or enhanced community understanding, rather than the elimination of an enemy.
In the early history of human communities, violent conflict tended to be resolved by ritual or annihilation. Because of the latter, there are unknown thousands or tens of thousands of human communities that were simply wiped from the face of the earth-the elimination of conflict by the elimination of everyone who is on the other side, however that is defined.
Ritual conflict tried to maintain the larger framework of community relationship by banishing the current conflict but did not alter the underlying dynamic. Annihilation often included variants such as the incorporation of the enemy by the preservation of resources through selective murder and rape.
Not paths anyone would freely choose for our common future…..
Yes, we have. These approaches remain the primary ways that solutions to conflicts are seen to operate in the so-called “real” world. This is true even though the price for any annihilator today is extremely high, and ritual (i.e, negotiation) has a terrible record in modern times of actually resolving conflicts.
No one argues anymore that a negotiated settlement is an actual resolution. They are all seen as “cease-fires” that somehow allow substantive negotiation that never seems to get at the underlying issues.
One way of viewing the impact of traditional solutions to modern community conflict is to see them as more or less stable processes that cycle through different states of conflict forever without any resolution. To describe this forever war between the traditional and modern use of ritual and annihilation, there is no better example than the Middle East.
In the streets of Jerusalem on the day after the end of the 1948 war (the negotiated agreements were finalized in February of 1949), I doubt there was anyone who thought that the issues then facing the peace would still be on the table nearly 7 decades later.
The current actors have all developed a tolerance for their citizen’s deaths that, while having limits in the short term, seem to have no limits at all over the long-term (70 years and counting). All the actors accept a level of violent death as though it were the unavoidable requirement for the tactical creeping toward their various objectives that passes for sophisticated strategy in that degraded moral environment.
There are many people on the various sides who privately discuss the possiblity of an actual genocide of their enemy whoever that might be. But, any attempt to implement such a plan would result in the loss of all that is most valuable to the responsible actor. So, such talk remains private.
Additionally, the current actors seem oblivious to what they are losing with their continuous use of mini-violence. They make the “hard choices”; they defend some set of values to the last drop of anybody’s blood but their own.
While violent insurgency is the most obvious way that we seem to be chasing our own tails, modern politics has been drifting toward this same view of conflict resolution and there is no reason to think that political insurgency will be any better at resolving underlying conflict dynamics than the quasi-military/political/propaganda battles being continuously waged across our”global” human community. Not unlike mushroom blooms when the conditions are right.
I have an abiding interest in the eternal rebirth of books that claim permanent and boundless victory for some political ideology or insurgency after a temporary victory in the polls or on a battlefield if only to remind myself that the only thing that is truly permanent and boundless is the human capacity for delusion.
There are many entangled human issues involved in these violent human choices (always described as unavoidable and “realistic”, like the laws of physics) and I hope to carve out those entanglements over the next few posts. For now, it is worth reviewing the state of nonviolent disruption as it stands today, and I know of no better primer than 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.
Many of the institutions of our society are deep into the Conservation phase of the Adaptive Cycle. They are approaching the point where they will drift into the Release phase. This is a slow, but inevitable, process, and not anything like a planned revolution, though collapse during a Release phase might resemble one.
Resistance=competition for existing target resources. While resistance is necessary and unavoidable, the resources that are the objective of resistance will not survive this release phase in their current form. To the extent that resistance is successful in changing who decides how to use resources (say, by winning an election), the “new boss” will be severely constrained by the institutional structures that conserve current resources. Power over current resources is always limited unless you accept the assumptions of that target system. In a word, resources embedded in an existing system are not perfectly fungible.
What is Disruption?
Disruption, like the pothole in the picture for this post, is an alteration of a target system that makes it harder for the target to fulfill its purpose. Unlike resistance, which provokes the allocation of target resources to defense and counter-attack, disruption requires the target to use more of its resources for repair, unpredicted maintenance, and restoration. Disruption has the effect of accelerating the evolution of a Conservation phase target further toward the Release Phase.
An “enlightening” overview of how disruption drives the evolution of a system is The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. The breakdowns and pressures on our grid are not driven by political sabotage or organized “resistance” in the usual sense (sorry for the puns). The power outage model of disruption is a good metaphor for understanding disruption in general, because of the immediacy of the disruptive effects on all of those affected.
Although we usually think of disruption in terms of political maneuvering and violence, the Grid metaphor shows us that neither of these is necessary for the undermining of well-conserved targets. Their evolution has its own momentum.
Trump’s successful effort to undermine the standard election process by paying no attention to the rules and focusing his entire effort on resonating with his supporters.
The counter-insurgency, gearing up now, to restore a mythical if recent past, and to resist the initiatives of the current administration.
Something John calls a Participatory Insurgency, like the 5 Star Movement in Italy using social networking and apps, and rapid and repeated voting to quickly evolve their response to events.
I think we would all like to see the third option become real, but John’s cynicism suggests that we are most likely moving toward a destructive version of a civil war between the first two kinds of insurgencies. I’m afraid that he is right. An earlier version of this similar pattern occurred around the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.
Next Post: Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption
Most change initiatives that focus on complex systems are organized to outcompete for the resources that the system currently uses to maintain and grow itself. For example, political parties in the United States fight in cycles both short and long to control the tax and decision resources of government.
Although competition for resources seems the most natural way in the world to change a complex system like government, competition has built-in problems:
No way of framing the use of taxes and decision-making (i.e., a political ideology) is perfect. Each model (and there are a lot of them) will produce different outcomes in the short term (with winners and losers), and if the frame is around long enough will deplete the government of resources and capabilities in specific and different patterns. Losers will organize themselves and expend more energy, money, and time to gain control of what they lost. Thus, a cycle of political control.What this means is that US politics is like professional football (or professional wrestling for that matter). There is a superficial appearance of total victory, but only until the next game or season or election cycle. The actual outcome of the competition is stable, if shifting, change in control, that mimics more or less well the current perceived needs of the social system. The point of the system is rough stability, not any particular pattern of resources and decision-making. The death of the cycle would embed the particular flaws of the winner in concrete.Elites invest in the stability of the long-run, not the particulars of the short run. They care only about the rough stability. As a whole, elites could care less about marginal or devalued communities and the hard realities they might face, other than the use they might be put to in supporting or undermining the larger stability.
The core assumption that supports the willingness of people to compete for a long time in such a complex system that is “big-picture” stable is the idea that the resources and decision-making power are easy to convert to the winner’s goals. Like the cash in your pocket or purse, taxes and decision-making seem to be simple resources that can be used for any purpose. But they aren’t.Taxes and decision-making are deeply embedded in the system that uses them, and they can’t be drawn out the way cash can be pulled out of your pocket or purse. Instead, like any complex system, all of the particulars of funding and decision-making are tied to each other in ways that aren’t clear and which take a long time to discover. As you make the changes that drove your victorious political effort, you find that the changes cause changes cause changes, etc. and that the very people that supported your victory get hurt, as well as the ones you were deliberately trying to turn into losers. This networked complexity supports the longer sort of stable cycle.
What I’ve just described is another way to look at the aging of complex systems. The cycle is maintained by the aging of the current winner’s reformulation of the funding and decision-making pattern. The winners’ plan becomes gradually encrusted with the control they have gained, just as a ship becomes encrusted with barnacles in its purposeful journeys.
Well, if competition does not produce a deep change in complex systems, what does?
Disruption does. It changes the processes that reproduce the system and drive the particular cycle of that system. Disruption focuses on altering the process of maintaining the system, not the superficial appearance of, in our metaphor, governmental policy and resource allocation. And disruption often does this from outside that cycling complex system.
Because mechanical models of system change have been our go-to for decades, we have developed wrong notions about how complex adaptive systems change and how we might guide that change. Our efforts to tap change through simple assumptions are doomed, but we keep doing them.
Because complex systems change unpredictably when disturbed (that’s how they are different from complicated mechanical systems like a 787 airplane, which simply breaks if it is disturbed too much), changing them is more like a game with a large set of possible moves from our target. While we might be able to make a good guess about what the target will do, we are almost never exactly right, and we can never know if this particular attempt at change will be the one where we are right.
This post is about the habits that we have substituted for the creation of a real change strategy:
Myth of Mechanical Change: We can use the same plan to make any specific change we want in a complex target system, in the same way that we can change a dirty oil filter in an engine.
Myth of the Simple Target: Our target is not as smart, committed, complex, nuanced, or capable as we are.
Myth of Resistence: The only way we can counter our target is by resisting their initiatives.
All techniques of change (step by step procedures) become less and less useful over time when they are used against complex systems. This is a direct result of the target becoming familiar with the technique (habituation) and developing mitigation approaches to minimize the impact of the plan (better control in the streets, more efficent arrest processing, better armor, a better social media plan, etc.).
When public protest first hit the national television airways in the 1960’s, it had an enormous impact on the thinking of audiences throughout the United States. Today, a public protest has to have a twist of some kind to be truly noticed. For example, the recent Women’s March had a spectacular turnout, and occurred in a hugely wide range of locations. The March was indeed noticed. The airport protests as DHS turned back Muslim passengers has also been noticed. But think about how effective the airport protests would be if the passengers had never been allowed on the flight to the US in the first place.
Follow-up me-too marches will have less and less impact, and if the best we can do is public protest, we are in for a long and unpleasant 4 years.
Our Target is Dumber Than We Are
We often use arrogance and contempt to substitute for strategic focus. I suppose we do this because it is scary to take on a complex system that has real power. If we see genuine risk in our efforts, it is consoling to think that our target just isn’t in the same league as we are. A simple way to assess the effect of this myth is the amount of grief and surprise you have when the target wins.
One of the hardest (and hopefully earliest) lessons a soldier new to combat must learn is that assuming the other side to be less capable, and thus not really deserving of careful consideration, is a quick way into a body bag.
American social, political, and military history is full of examples of this. You would think we would have gotten it by now. B. H. Liddell Hart reviewed roughly 3,000 years of military failure, in which arrogance and contempt for the enemy was a primary source of poor combat decisions. There is a famous aphorism that says those who start wars lose them more often than they would if chance were the determinant of victory, and arrogance and contempt are the primary reasons why nations start wars that they are doomed to lose.
Resistance is Futile
Well, not futile. Resistance is necessary, but not sufficient. Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss. Resistance basically says that we want the target to stop doing this specific thing, or some list of things, and if the target stops, we will go back to our daily routine.
If all we do is resist, we may improve our prospects for a time. But complex systems adapt without altering their underlying dimensions of control. There can be real improvements by changing bosses (especially if you are part of a devalued, marginalized community). But don’t relax too much, because the cycle of life will come back around in a decade or two or three and kick you or your children in the ass once again.
If you really want to change a complex system, you will need more than operational planning, contempt for your target, and reactive resistance. You will need to challenge the control dimensions of the target through disruption.
Corruption (as a system characteristic, not a moral failing) is inevitable in the life history of complex systems. I am using corruption as a pointer to the use of resources for purposes other than the apparent or first use by the system.
The increased diversity in the use of system generated and stored resources can start anytime in the life cycle of a complex system, but will begin during the conservation phase because of the trade-offs that arise from putting aside resources for some purpose other than the core mission.
It’s easier to think about the phases if we pull them out of the cycle and examine each in turn:
Reorganization: Imagine an open field, soon after a large fire has burnt over it and seems to have rendered it empty of life. Although it might seem that you could create any system in this emptiness, that isn’t true. The system that begins to form will be one populated by the fast and the furious species. These “pioneers” (start-ups, leaders, initiators, etc.) will be able to quickly grab the remaining scattered resources and use them for rapid growth and turnover.
Growth: While pioneers burn out quickly, they are also preparing the field for longer term residents by mobilizing resources into a form that can more easily be used by others, and, with their individual death, returning their own personal resources to the common evolution of the field. The replacements for the pioneers can last longer, can use the residue of the pioneers, and can create novel relationships that expand their reach not only into the area outside the field but more deeply within the field.
Conservation: At some point, a complex system has enough resources to prevent simple disintegration because of random events. Also, the system is producing resources that last longer, and that don’t disappear after use (say, financial skills).It is at this point that corruption becomes a critical part of the complex system’s dynamic. A simple example is the creation of cash reserves in a small advocacy nonprofit. These reserves serve the obvious purpose of buffering the organization against the unpredictability of outside events, i.e., short-term funding problems, unanticipated opportunities, loss of grants, and so on. But, the reality is that these reserves could just as easily be used for the core mission of the organization. Of course, once the reserves are gone, the organization is once again subject to the political and financial weather.
This decision point or the tradeoff of short-term mission use and long-term stability produces an easily exploited ground for the expansion of system and personal corruption. A general model for both is the use by staff, managers, and stockholders (or stakeholders) of the organization’s resources for the gratification of their individual desires. This is so common that most of us tend to think of it as a normal expected part of a corporate or organizational function. It is the reality that this small corruption won’t destroy the system. Think of it as opportunity corruption.
System corruption tends to expand over time, and while it may stall when someone important is punished for it, the underlying causes of it continue to drive it forward.
In addition, the resources required for repair and maintenance of the complex system increases over time. Think about your own experience as you have aged. This too is driven and the dynamic can’t be eliminated, though, of course, it can be reduced through careful planning and actions that, nonetheless, suck up resources that might be used for other purposes.
Release: As long as the complex system is growing, it can tolerate a large amount of system corruption. But no complex system grows forever. Because the corrupt dynamics in the system are relatively separated from the larger dynamic of the whole, they are able to ignore the contraction in growth drivers better than the core dynamics. The effect of this (protecting the corruption instead of the system as a whole), is to make the corruption more stable than the core, and an increasing part of the dynamic of the whole. Much like cancer.When the combination of lost growth drivers and expanding corruption reaches a certain point, the complex system disintegrates in whole or in part, and its resources are released into the larger environment for use by unknown pioneers. And the cycle begins again.
Note that this dynamic is inevitable in the long run. You can modify its impact, but you can’t stop it. You can, of course, still think about changing this dynamic by embracing the possibility of beginning again when the cycle has “prepared” that possibility.
But we all deceive ourselves about how easy or possible it is to change an existing complex system that is late in its conservation phase. Say, our current society.