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

The Nuts and Bolts of Engagement

Various Copper Nuts And Bolts
Copper Nuts and Bolts

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:

  • Immediate agreements between enemies (as in my previous post)
  • 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.

In Michigan, arbitration has been replaced by dispute resolution using client-centered mediation, a much better system for a lot of reasons than arbitration. But the lessons I learned about negotiation have stuck with me through the decades.

Next Post: Invisible Purpose and the Uses of Misdirection



During my second tour in Vietnam, I spent most of my time at the 1st Cav Division base camp in Phuoc Vinh.

Street in the Village of Phouc Vinh with family shops
Street in Phuoc Vinh in the 60’s

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.

Next Post: The Nuts and Bolts of Engagement

Contempt and Engagement

bullying word cloud

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.

Next Post: Engagement

Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption

4 persons in wheelchairs occupying a congressional office presentinga statement of demands
ADAPT action in a DC Congressional Office

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.

Next Post: Contempt and Engagement