In the gardens of Athens in the fourth century BC (planting the seeds of Western Civilization), in the plazas of Florence in the 16th century AD (ushering in the modern era), in the salons of Paris in the 18th century AD (informing and inspiring others in a small meeting room in Philadelphia), to a lesser extent in mid-19th century Concord, MA (informing and inspiring Gandhi and King and Mandela), the genius of a few unleashed new currents of the genius of the many, currents thick with reason and a stronger commitment to our shared humanity, changing the course of human history. It has been done before and it will be done again, whenever and wherever people choose to do it.
They did not gather in those times and places to discuss only how to win this or that election or to shift power from one party to another or to address the human endeavor one issue at a time. Rather, they gathered, with wonder and hope and passion, to explore and discover, to create and innovate, to raise reason and our shared humanity onto a pedestal and dedicate themselves to the enterprise of perfecting our consciousness and improving our existence.
In every time and place, including these ones of particular florescence, most of the people went about their business, engaged in the mundane challenges of life, fought the battles we all fight, both personal and collective. But the great paradigm shifts of history have happened when a coalescence of inspired minds reached deeper and broader than others around them, beyond the individual issues of the day, beyond the immediate urgencies and power struggles, and sought out the essence of our existence, to understand it, to celebrate it, and to change it for the better.
Imagine a gathering of great minds today that were not lost to the minutia of academe or the mud-pit of politics or the selfish pursuit of wealth and fame and power, but were free to devote themselves to the challenge of orchestrating a social transformation, a peaceful revolution occurring beneath the surface of events, a new threshold reached in the advance of creative reason in service to humanity.
Imagine gatherings of engaged citizens that, guided only by the broadly attractive narrative of reason in service to our shared humanity, of emulating our Founding Fathers and fulfilling the vision that they had for this nation, dedicated themselves to learning how to listen to one another and weigh competing arguments rather than regress ever deeper into blind ideological trench warfare. Imagine forming the nucleus of a movement that would extend the logic of methodical reason in service to our shared humanity ever more broadly, not just through direct participation, but through the promotion of the narrative that we are capable of doing so and that it is incumbent on us to do so.
What is stopping us from establishing such gatherings, and such a movement? What is stopping us from bringing together a small cadre of brilliant minds to implement ideas designed to cascade through the social fabric in transformative ways, and large populations of engaged citizens to stir and be stirred by the sea giving rise to those cresting waves of brilliance, together advancing the tide of imaginative reason in service to our shared humanity? Only the precise combination of vision, drive, sophistication and resources that would make it happen, not just in some stumbling and unsustainable or unproductive way, but as a living, breathing, current reality.
I’ve designed the nucleus of an idea, a social movement that is realistic as well as idealistic, a secular religion to promote the narrative and practice of disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity. As a person who learned how to dream as a child; who drifted and worked and lived around the world for several years as a young adult; who became a social scientist, author, teacher, lawyer, public policy consultant, candidate for office, and member of several nonprofit boards and advisory councils; who has done urban outreach work and community organizing; who has synthesized ideas from many disciplines, many great minds, and much experience, this is not a Quixotic quest that boasts much but can deliver little; it is a carefully considered strategic plan for moving the center of gravity of our zeitgeist in the direction of an ever-increasing reliance on imaginative reason in ever-increasing service to our shared humanity.
For a comprehensive (though somewhat dense) presentation of my proposal, please see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
For a briefer and simpler presentation of the underlying philosophy of this proposed social movement, please see: The Ideology of Reason in Service to Humanity.
For an extremely bare-bones summary of the social movement idea itself, please see: A VERY Simplified Synopsis of “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill”.
For more elaboration of various aspects of this proposal and various musings about it, please see the essays hyperlinked to in the second box at: Catalogue of Selected Posts
(This is a long one, but please bear with me: It gets to the heart of my project here on Colorado Confluence, that I need others’ help to incubate and realize. This is one of those cases in which someone gets a glimpse of some possibility, a real possibility within the reach of motivated human beings, and passionately wants others to get a glimpse of it as well, so that it can become a part of what defines our future rather than just a forgotten thought that never takes hold.)
I recently posted the following Nelson Mandela quote on several of my Facebook pages: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” One woman commented that it reminds her of the thesis she is trying to finish, which made me think about the different levels to which this quote applies. Certainly, her comment is a fair one, and familiar to most of us: Personal thresholds, challenges, major tasks we are undertaking can feel daunting, even impossible, until they are done.
Many things feel that way, but there is a hierarchy of magnitudes involved that is worth exploring. There are things that require great effort and time and endurance by an individual, that many have done before, such as graduating, or writing a thesis, or passing the Bar Exam. There are things that have never been done before, such as inventing a new device or creating a new organization (that particular device and that particular organization never having existed until created). Even more so, there are things that have never been done before, and affect a whole society. And most of all, there are things that have never been done before, and change the world, dramatically.
To capture some of the nuances and complexities to this formulation, I’d like to conceptualize it along three axes. The first axis is how novel the thing being done is, whether it is just one instance of a familiar form (e.g., writing a thesis), or a relatively new form (e.g., composing a multi-media thesis affecting all of the senses in a coordinated way to achieve a combined aesthetic and intellectual effect). Obviously, there is a range of degrees of possible deviation from the archetype, from minor changes in formatting to major changes in structure and form and function. As the deviation from the archetype grows, the nature of the innovation moves from being quantitative (a change in degree) to being qualitative (a change in kind).
The second axis is the scale of change, in terms of how many humans are (or how big a swath of the natural universe is) affected by it. Finishing a thesis is, generally, a personal milestone, with only a very marginal impact on the world at large. Forming a new government, organizing a successful political or cultural movement, changing long-standing social institutions (hopefully for the better), are all milestones that affect larger populations in more dramatic ways.
The third axis is the depth and breadth of the change thus achieved, not so much in terms of the number of humans affected, but more in terms in the degree to which they are affected. A promotion in a job, for instance, affects one person to one degree, while emancipation from slavery affects one person to a much greater degree. The passage of a new federal law that makes a marginal change in an existing social institution affects a society to one degree, while the drafting of a federal constitution affects the society to a more extensive degree. Again, there is a range on which such impact can occur, from the very marginal to the extremely revolutionary.
One of the ways in which an innovation or movement can have a deeper and broader impact in this last sense is the degree to which it reaches into the algorithms of change, and affects not only the current status quo, but the manner in which status quos themselves are determined. A law, for instance, affects the current status quo, while a Constitution affects how laws are passed and implemented. A scientific discovery affects our current state of knowledge, while the development of scientific methodology affected the manner in which our knowledge is acquired and accumulates. Impact is generally maximized by reaching down into the algorithms of change, and modifying procedures or methodologies by which particular instances of change occur. (See, e.g.,The Algorithms of Complexity, Second-Order Social Change, The Variable Malleability of Reality, and The Wizards’ Eye for more exploration of this concept.)
I’m going to focus for the remainder of this essay on society-wide changes of relatively large magnitude, looking initially at the degree of variation in how innovative the changes are (i.e., the first axis). I will end with a reminder of one such proposal I have long been making, that is a social movement aspiring to a rather profound informal change in how we go about governing ourselves (in other words, focused on innovation in the algorithms of change rather than in the particular instances of it), that is rather highly innovative. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, though it may seem impossible, it can be done.
Oversimplifying a bit, there are two kinds of things that have never been done before and change the world: Those that are of a familiar type (those that are of a type that has been done before), and those that are of an unfamiliar type (those of a type that has never been done before). For instance, inventing the car, or airplane, or space ships, or personal and hand held computers, are all things that had never been done before, and changed the world, but were of a familiar type (technological innovation). Similarly, Abolitionism, the Suffragettes, The Civil Rights Movement, past national independence movements, were all things that had not been done before (each nation seeking independence had never sought independence before), but were all of a type that had been done before (movements to extend rights to those who had been denied them, and to secede from superordinate political entities).
There are things that had never been done before, and were of a type that had never been done before. For instance, the Constitution of Medina, drafted in the 7th century by the Prophet Mohamed, is often considered the first written constitution to form a new government in world history. (The first in American history was drafted in Hartford, Connecticut in 1638, forming a government comprised of three towns.) Such innovations are all the more portentous for not only having transformed a society or the world in their own time and place, but also for having established a new form by which future transformation can occur (they change the template, paralleling in terms of degree of innovation the dimension involving the depth of the transformative algorithm). It is a beautiful irony of history that America’s crowning and defining formative achievement, the drafting of our own remarkable Constitution, draws on a form invented by the founder of Islam, a religion and culture currently (and tragically) reviled by a large faction of very counterproductive Americans.
The invention not just of new instances of a previously existing form, but of new forms entirely, requires more imagination, more willingness to try the seemingly impossible, for not only does it involve confronting a status quo that appears too overwhelming to transform, it also involves doing so in a way that no one before had ever contemplated.
Of course, nothing is ever completely new: There are always predecessors of some kind or another, similar innovations to draw upon. Prior to the Constitution of Medina, there had been written laws, from the Ten Commandments to the legal codes of Hammurabi in Babylonia and Draco in Greece. And prior to these, there had been unwritten laws, reflecting varying degrees of formality and clarity of definition. New forms, new memes, draw on the wealth of material produced previously, amalgamating, synthesizing, innovating on the margins. (See the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for an in-depth exploration of how this process occurs and what it looks like.)
In other words, the degree of inventiveness lies on a continuum, from very marginal modifications of existing forms, to dramatic new departures that explore avenues not yet explored. Revolutions of great magnitude involve a confluence of highly innovative, highly impactful (i.e., algorithmic rather than superficial), and society-or-world-wide changes rooted in a sense of history and the opportunities existing, thresholds arrived at, in a given time and place.
I believe that America today is ripe for a social movement that draws on these understandings, and that promotes a new paradigm for change that can have profound effects over time. We are clearly at a threshold in American history, with two opposing forces reaching a pinnacle of definition and passion. A combination of technological advances (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?), our historical trajectory, and recent historical shocks have placed us in that kind of hyper-activated state that generally precedes major paradigm shifts. There is a clear and real danger that the paradigm shift we might experience will be an odious one, destructive to ourselves and to humanity. But there is also a very real potential, one which must be vigorously embraced, that the paradigm shift we experience will be a laudable one, beneficial to ourselves and to humanity.
But accomplishing the latter requires an authentic act of courage, not just a repetition of our familiar patterns of action and reaction. We need to divert some small fraction of our resources, some of our time and effort and passion, away from the endless urgency of now, away from the particular issues over which we are wrangling, away from the familiar game of electoral politics, and into a truly transformative movement. Politics as usual will continue apace, and it may even be the case that no actual resources, no actual time or effort or passion is diverted from it, since the new movement may well generate new resources, new time and effort and passion, that more than compensates for any that was drawn from existing efforts.
But it’s time for an act of courage and imagination, an act of reaching for what seems to be the impossible but in reality is not (and, in many ways, is more attainable than some of the more superficial goals to which we devote ourselves, because it faces less resistance). It’s time to move along the continuum of inventiveness, and along the continuum of impact (into the depths of our algorithms of change), and transform our society, and our world, in a fundamental way. That may sound dauntingly bold, but it’s been done many times throughout world history, and it’s been done by those who seize the opportunity to do it. Now is such a time. The opportunity is upon us.
To summarize my proposed social movement very briefly: I call it, alternatively, “the politics of reason and goodwill,” or “transcendental politics,” or “holistic politics” (see the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for a more complete explanation and exploration of this idea). I’ll refer to it here as “PRG” (the acronym for “politics of reason and goodwill”). It is as cultural as it is political, recognizing that politics is at root a competition of narratives (see, e.g., The Battle of Narratives, Changing The Narrative, The Dance of Consciousness, and The Politics of Consciousness), and that the most profound political changes are fundamentally cultural in nature. PRG thus bears as much resemblance to cultural (and religious) movements as to political ones, a characteristic common to some of the most successful social movements in our history. (For instance, the Civil Rights Movement had a major religious component, with its leaders and infrastructure being rooted in the southern black church network, and invoking religious symbolism and cadences.)
PRG is comprised of three interrelated components: 1) Meta-messaging, which is the composition, accumulation, and dissemination of messages promoting a commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and pragmatism in service to humanity (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, and Politics Isn’t Everything…, for more in-depth discussion). 2) Specifically tailored community organizations and networks of community organizations, drawing on all of the community organizational material already in place, which are dedicated to promoting civil and open-minded dialogue and a sense of mutual identification and mutual interdependence (See, e.g., Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). And 3) the creation and on-going development and refinement of a system for accessing easily understood competing arguments on all matters of public concern or public policy, filtering them only for the degree to which they are well-reasoned (i.e., peer-review quality) arguments which apply reason to evidence, and ensuring that the goals and interests they purport to serve are made as explicit as possible (see. e.g., The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified and A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How”).
These three components interact in the following ways: The community organizations are a forum designed to draw on the competing reasonable arguments on matters of public interest and concern, while the meta-messaging can be disseminated, in part, through those community organizations as well. The explicit purpose of the community organizations is to celebrate and realize our civic responsibility as citizens of a nation and members of a community (and of humanity), so it makes sense to, for instance, not only designate a time and place to discuss this issue or that, but also to designate a time and place to watch or read, say, A Christmas Carol (or more modern works that explore similar themes), and discuss what lessons it holds for us as citizens and members of communities. This would be a national (or international) movement whose purpose is to increase our commitment to and realization of the application of reason and imagination to the challenges facing humanity, given precise definition and form.
People (such as cognitive scientist George Lakoff in The Political Mind) often argue that people do not generally arrive at their opinions and conclusions through rational contemplation and rational debate, but rather by emotional appeals to their pre-existing frames and narratives. My third component (as I’ve listed them here) seems to fail to recognize this. But PRG is a bit subtler than it seems, and follows a pattern already established by which reason has gained a greater purchase on society than it previously had.
I do not expect that any time in the foreseeable future there will be any large number of people actually belonging to the community organizations envisioned by this movement, or accessing the competing arguments made more accessible by this movement, but I do expect that a small minority doing so will create a nucleus of credibility that will generate an attractive and transformative force beyond that small minority of people. Thus is the nature of successful social movements; they do not start with a society in agreement with their goals, but rather draw a society into agreement with their goals, by appealing to existing frames and narratives in effective ways.
Reason and imagination applied to evidence (and other objects for contemplation) in service to humanity is not just a methodology that a minority might adhere to, but is also a narrative that many already acknowledge the value of. Few in America today would explicitly admit, to themselves or others, that they are irrational and inhumane people. That is not how modern Americans in general would identify themselves. But many are irrational and, to some extent, inhumane people, and I’ve noticed in public discourse that many of them implicitly, just below the threshold of conscious recognition, are vaguely aware of it. That creates a huge opportunity for social change.
By addressing the individual issues or instances of this competition of narratives, we are sucked into the frames that opponents adhere to, and stuck on a treadmill of shouting past each other ineffectually. But by addressing the underlying, agreed-upon values of reason and imagination in service to humanity, we make the ground more fertile for those positions that actually do emanate from these values and this commitment, and less fertile for those that don’t.
We have a compelling historical precedent for how successful this can be: The Scientific Revolution. People may not, in general, be most persuaded by the most rational arguments, but disciplined reason certainly has gained a very powerful and pervasive foothold on global humanity through the evolution of scientific methodology (and the various forms of scholarship that emanate from it) over the past few centuries.
Science has transformed our lives in numerous ways, on numerous levels, including not only the technological advances facilitated by it, but also the social institutional ones. Our own somewhat sanctified Constitution, claimed as the secular holy document guiding those in our nation most obstructive of the influence of reason in service to humanity, is, in fact, a product of Enlightenment thinking, which itself was an extension of the Scientific Revolution into the sphere of rational self-governance.
PRG also builds on historical precedents that are various instances of applying that rationality (and passion and compassion along with it) to the purpose of humanity. Movements which extended rights and protections to those who were denied them, which confronted the use of power to oppress and exploit, which addressed our inhumanity to one another and sought to improve the condition of those born into the least advantageous opportunity structures, are almost universally admired and revered movements in our national and world history. There will inevitably come a time in human history when people will reunite those isolated instances of a commitment to humanity into a comprehensive commitment to humanity, transcending and improving on past attempts to do so, incorporating more modern knowledge and insight into the effort.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time it was ever attempted. The dominant world religions today are rooted, at least formally, in such a commitment, though, again, those who are most obstructive to the movement I am outlining are those who claim to be the most devoted adherents to those religions. But this, while a lesson in the power of hypocrisy, is also a positive portent, for the underlying frames and narratives of compassion and humanity don’t need to be implanted anew; they merely need to be activated for the purposes of recruiting those within reach of persuasion, and marginalizing those beyond that reach. Again, that is the familiar pattern of historical social movements.
So PRG draws on two sets of frames and narratives, two underlying values, already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and already formally almost universally accepted in our nation: Reason and Compassion. The degree to which they are in practice rejected is the challenge we face, but it is a challenge in which we are invited to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, for in the overwhelming majority of cases, irrationality and inhumanity are exercised by people who identify themselves as rational and humane people. A remarkable core of them will remain completely insulated against any intrusion of actual reason, or the demands of actual compassion; but they will play into a growing narrative, that PRG will be consciously cultivating and disseminating, that they are the Philistines of our day, the Scrooges before the transformation, that which we strive to transcend rather than that which we strive to be.
This narrative is not a hard one to cultivate and disseminate. It is favored by reason, and it is favored by humanity. In the long run, as both Martin Luther King Jr. (adapting an earlier quote) and John Maynard Keynes have noted, reason and humanity prevail. It falls upon us to expedite their journey, and avoid the potentially catastrophic eruptions of irrationality and inhumanity that occur during the incessant short-term detours from that path.
PRG is what I see as part of a more general probable trend: The generalization of movements that were incubated in more particular forms and enclaves. Science has grown as something that scientists do, and that we indirectly accept (or resist) as having some authoritative power by virtue of its proven quality for reducing bias and increasing insight. A commitment to humanity is something that has resided semi-dormant and frequently betrayed in our dominant world religions. But its sublimated influence can be seen in the historical (even if constantly embattled and betrayed) commitment to social justice and equality that have helped forge the dominant developed nations of the world. Few would explicitly reject the suggestion that we should all be more rational, or that we should all be more humane. Cultivating that nucleus in intentional ways is the fundamental challenge facing humanity, now and always.
And it is the nature of history that such nuclei expand into general populations in various ways. In ancient civilizations, mathematics was something that a few elites used for elite purposes; now it is something that many use for many purposes. Science began as an esoteric endeavor discussed by philosophers and ignored by others; now it is something that virtually all of us defer to in various ways, even those trying to reject its specific findings are limited to doing so within the logic or language of science itself.
One of the most insidious of inhumanities, racism, which has existed throughout world history, is a discredited form of thought in modern nations, largely now relegated to the most sublimated forms, only able to thrive at all by claiming not to be what it is. Whereas a few short generations ago many would have applauded the lynching of a black man for glancing at a white woman, far fewer would today (perhaps marking progress against sexism as well). More humane memes have indeed gained greater purchase, despite the degree to which malicious ones persist alongside of them.
(I envision something similar for public education, and legal services, and a variety of other social institutional forms: What was once more diffuse, done by individuals and families to the best of their ability, became professionalized, and developed within that context. But there is a next threshold of development that takes that developed form and engages a larger population in the endeavor once again, getting families and communities more involved in the education of our children, and making legal services more accessible to lay people through resources designed to provide them with tools. This alternation of centralization and decentralization, facilitating a coherent progression, is, I think, one of history’s underlying themes.)
The coherent paradigm of social thought and action presented here, and throughout my essays on Colorado Confluence, which lays out the nature of our shared cognitive and social institutional and technological landscape, and considers how to maximize our own ability to affect it in profoundly beneficial ways, is one that can and should guide us far more so, and more intentionally, and with more discipline and focus, than it has.
Human history is the story of human consciousness, of its growth, of its implementations, of its unintended consequences, of its abuses, of its spread and of the forces it puts into play. In the spirit of reaching into underlying algorithms, we need to be conscious about the development and implementation of our consciousness, we need to be intentional about it, we need to use it as a vehicle for its continued growth and continued implementation, not in the haphazard and frequently self-destructive ways to which we are accustomed, but in increasingly focused and intentional ways. We need to realize that just because this particular, quixotically ambitious transformation of reality hasn’t yet occurred does not mean that it can never occur, or that we can’t be the agents for its occurrence.
Forming a social movement similar to PRG is a marginal innovation with potentially world revolutionary implications. It will not change what human beings are, or the underlying nature of our shared existence. But it can, over time, create a force that propels our shared story down dramatically more beneficial channels. And that is what being a human being is all about.
It will continue to seem impossible…, until it has been done.
I have posted before on The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, discussing the amount of noise in the blogosphere. But what I’ve increasingly become aware of is that the problem goes beyond this. There is, from many quarters and by many dynamics, a very virulent reaction to signal, in which noise is aggressively generated to interfere with signal as it emerges.
I encounter this with particular force on right-wing facebook pages, and, among them, libertarian/tea party facebook pages most of all. Most recently, on Colorado Republican State Senator Shawn Mitchell’s page, he and his friends very transparently demonstrated a commitment to burying posts that were inconveniently factual and rational under pure noise.
Within a day, as I was simultaneously responding to a global warming denier on one of Mitchell’s threads by listing the actual empirical evidence, and to someone oblivious to the history and nature of property rights on another thread, who insisted that taxation to mitigate anyone else’s poverty is theft, by linking to and expanding on The Paradox of Property, and as the signal-disrupting noise machine was revving up again, Mitchell blocked me from his page.
It’s always telling when a group of people implicitly admit that the only way they can win a debate is by locking out the opposition and holding the debate in their absence. It’s telling when they respond to invitations to all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, aware that none of us has all the answers, by hurling pejoratives. It’s telling when they respond to “you may be right about everything and I may be wrong about everything” with no similar or reciprocal admission that there is any chance that they might not be completely correct on every single belief that they hold.
And this is exactly what defines that ideological faction. It’s not the substance of their beliefs, which I strongly believe are laden with irrational and counterfactual conclusions, but rather the simultaneous insulation of those beliefs from any intrusion of reason or evidence and promotion of them to the status of absolute truth, that is truly culturally and politically pathological.
As I explain in Scholarship v. Ideology, there is a continuum of modalities of thought ranging from ever-more irrational and blindly ideological in (often self-defeating) service to compassionless selfishness, to an ever-increasing commitment to the application of reason to reliable evidence in service to humanity (as well as enlightened self-interest). Approaching the pole of pure irrationality and dysfunctional belligerence, there is a two-step process employed by which completely unsupported beliefs are first insulated from reason and evidence and then assumed to be unassailable truth on no rational basis whatsoever (also described in Scholarship v. Ideology).
The first step is an appeal to a relativistic argument that all opinions are equal, and that therefore any counterargument to the ideological position that mobilizes reason and evidence can in no way claim to be privileged over the arbitrary opinion itself, even simply by being a more compelling argument. In this relativistic step, “reason” is always defined as completely subjective, formal logic dismissed as “your reason, but not mine,” and evidence whose reliability is better ensured by the methodologies designed to do so replaced with a combination of selective and manufactured factoids assembled solely to “prove” the desired conclusion.
The second step, ironically enough, is a dismissal of any other claim to the same relativism of the first step, insisting that to harbor any uncertainty regarding the arbitrary opinion that was insulated from reason and evidence in the first step would be to make the error of relativism, and that therefore the arbitrary opinion is indisputably the absolute truth. The most obvious example of the product of this two-step process is religious fanaticism, in which Faith, by definition, is insulated from reason and evidence, and then promoted to the status of absolute truth.
(I have posited, by the way, that there may be such a thing as “pure faith,” that has no reductionist object of belief but rather a deep sensation of belonging to a sublime reality, that might be conducive rather than an obstacle to the ever-fuller realization of human consciousness. See, for instance, “Is Religion A Force For Good?” and A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization.)
But there are many quasi-religious, fanatically cult-like, ideologies that make no explicit reference to the divine. They utilize the same modality of thought, the same tactic of insulation from reason and evidence followed by promotion to indisputable absolute truth, and they are toxic to civil society and civil discourse. They not only are sources of adamantly-propagated noise drowning out the signal of disciplined thought that serves us far better, but they are actually targeted waves of such noise, determined not merely to compete with the signal by the rules of reason and evidence (which, on some level, adherents recognize is a losing strategy), but to jam the signal by any and all means available.
The currently most virulent and troubling secularized cult of irrational dogma is the libertarian/tea party movement, which is comprised of a combination of smaller “pure” factions (those who are not social conservatives or theocrats), and larger “hybrid” factions (those who combine libertarianism, social conservatism, theocratic tendencies, and a commitment to the preservation of inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity into a “worst of all worlds,” internally inconsistent, ideological blend)
It is, as I have often said, a movement of organized ignorance, not merely insisting on its arbitrary false certainties, but zealously committed to imposing them on the world, regardless of the real costs to real people. The iconic moment was the choice to blackmail the nation with a threatened self-inflicted default of our financial obligations as a nation by refusing to raise the debt ceiling –a formality that has always been automatic, and in most nations IS literally automatic– because of the complete dysfunctionality of failing to do so, in service to an economic policy that even conservative economists opposed (the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, in the midst of a recession). Predictably, it resulted in a downgrading of our national credit rating, which only served to further deteriorate our fiscal and economic health.
I am adamantly committed to the marketplace of ideas, to the belief that all views should be aired, should compete, and, hopefully, the most reasonable and well-evidenced and humane will be the ones to survive that process. But when some factions, some cults, try to drown out other voices, even if only within their own echo-chambers, those factions are stifling rather than facilitating that process of the competition of ideas, ensuring that, for themselves at least, their ideas never have to compete against any others.
To be sure, this goes on to some extent in other kinds of echo chambers, including echo chambers on the left, and it is just as wrong and dysfunctional when it does. But this cultish, dogged irrationality is not what defines any other ideology currently in vogue anywhere to the same extent as it defines contemporary conservatives. Indeed, it is their anti-intellectualism which sometimes leaps out most vividly, their rejection of scholarship as a liberal conspiracy, their rejection of journalism as a liberal conspiracy, their rejection of reason applied to evidence in any context or any manner as a liberal conspiracy.
If that’s a liberal conspiracy, then it’s one to which we all should belong.
I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence
Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.
In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.
One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.
It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.
II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…
The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.
In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.
But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation. The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.
This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.
That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).
III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.
Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.
The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.
This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)
The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.
If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?
The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.
Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.
The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.
IV. The Proposal
I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.
The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.
This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.
It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).
This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.
The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.
PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1″ of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).
The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.
Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.
History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.
I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.
In a modification of my last post, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, in which I described how memes and paradigms form and spread and combine into social institutions, I added on a few paragraphs describing the fractal geometry of that social institutional landscape, which form the first few paragraphs (following this one) of this post.
The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, aficionados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized professional knowledge through games and entertainments to particular opinions or judgments. Rumors, observations, shared jokes, novel insights, technical innovations all swirl and sweep through humanity like gusting breezes through endless grasslands.
Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, or proliferating due to their economic or military utility, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.
Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.
If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have innumerable distinct colors and shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, the hues shifting as the memes evolve, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with its unique set of genes (and subsequent physical affects of variable environmental factors), by its unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity for a static but in-depth version of the imagery described above.)
But distinct memes themselves are changing as they flow, being modified in individual minds or synthesized with other memes to produce new ones, displacing or disproving others, in a constant dance of creation and destruction interspersed with the flowing patterns of modification, dispersion, expansion, and contraction. Memes are catalysts, interacting with human predispositions, existing cognitive architectures, and the natural environment to produce new forms, new technologies, new social institutions, and to render old ones obsolete or out of favor.
As discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, some of those memes are intentionally cobbled into purposive systems, or “technologies,” programming or channeling some set of natural or behavioral phenomena in service to desired ends. Those that program natural phenomena are the ones conventionally thought of as “technologies,” enabling us to do things we were once unable to do, and to produce wealth and comfort and opportunity (as well both intentional and unintentional damage to human beings, their physical infrastructure, and the natural environment) far in excess of what we once were able to produce. These technologies and technological domains (e.g., electrical, digital, etc., as well as, as explained below, market, contractual, etc.) interact with the more haphazardly accumulating and evolving meme-clusters of the social institutional landscape. Technologies can be thought of as the engineered architectures carved out of the social institutional “natural environment,” the latter comprised of the wilderness of foundational linguistic and cultural forms as well as the economic, political, and ideological accretions diffusely growing in conjunction with our various purposive systems.
(The distinction between “engineered architectures” and the rest of the social institutional landscape can be a bit hazy, since the rest of the landscape is a function of human purposive action as well. The difference is that the architectures are consciously invented components, such as the airplane or the US Constitution, while the rest is everything that organically grows around and in conjunction with them, such as social norms, cultural motifs, and folk beliefs. In a sense, it might be correct to say that the entire social institutional landscape is composed of microcosmic “architectures,” if examined closely enough, since it is the accretion of individual purposive actions. Indeed, technologies are to the social institutional landscape what the social institutional landscape is to Nature itself, an increased focusing and intentionality -in a sense, a distillation- of diffusely accreting ”purposiveness.” This is one more aspect of the fractal recursiveness of The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)
While technologies programming physical phenomena are what we most commonly think of when we think of “technologies,” there are undeniable social institutional technologies as well, such as currency instruments (facilitating multilateral, global, on-going exchange, and the enormous economy based on it), enforceable contracts (allowing people to bind one another to mutually beneficial collective action that would have been difficult or impossible in the absence of such instruments), scientific methodology (allowing a more robust and reliable growth in knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the natural world than had been previously possible, and, in fact, underwriting an explosion in the proliferation and sophistication of new technologies), and legal procedure (allowing a more reliable and vigilant system of determining truth in disputes between individuals or between individuals and the state). The United States Constitution, in fact, is the codification of an intentionally invented social institutional purposive system.
New social institutional technologies are constantly being explored, experimented with, implemented, and either proliferate or languish according to their relative reproductive success. In fact, governments are factories of such technologies, passing laws and regulations, creating administrative agencies, establishing new systems and markets, signing treaties with verification and enforcement provisions, forging new social institutions to deal with emergent or suddenly more salient issues and challenges (such as the creation of the United Nations in the wake of World War II, or of tradable carbon market instruments in the context of the Kyoto Protocol. See, e.g., Political Market Instruments).
But just as new technologies in the conventional sense can be created in people’s garages or in small start-ups formed by highly educated young people, so too can new social institutional technologies emerge in contexts more humble than those of the halls of government or international treaty conferences. Many diffuse technological innovations, of both the conventional and social institutional varieties, have occurred in conjunction with information technologies, which have come to form such a vital framework within our social institutional landscape. The Netroots movement is an excellent example of diffuse social institutional innovation in conjunction with emerging physical technologies, contributing substantially to the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.
A particularly good example of a set of robust social institutional innovations contrived by a very small cadre of political entrepreneurs is described in the book The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado, by (pre-eminent Colorado political broadcast journalist) Adam Schrager and (former Republican Colorado state house representative) Rob Witwer. The book describes a confluence of new state laws (both campaign finance and term-limit limitations), a very small group of highly motivated and capable extremely wealthy individuals (“the gang of four”), and the targeted channeling of huge amounts of money by them into non-campaign organizations such as political 527s, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, each with its own advantages and limitations, to affect state legislature races, transforming the Colorado political landscape in the process.
The Tea Party movement, as well, clearly has both some grass roots political entrepreneurial characteristics to it, as well as more centrally orchestrated aspects, both involving some social institutional purposive systems, channeling the deep well of jingoistic “Political Fundamentalism” in the United States, and the reactionary anger to the combination of the Obama victory in 2008 and the perception of Big Government (“socialist”) actions and policies, tapping into inchoate bigotries and xenophobia, all in service, ultimately, to corporate interests (“small government” meaning non-regulation of corporate behavior, which in turn means foisting costs of production in the forms of externalities onto the public).
The question facing those who want to affect the dynamical fractal geometry of our ever-changing social institutional landscape in purposive and guided ways is how best to do so, where and how to flap the butterfly’s wings in such a way so as to cascade through the system in reverberating, self-amplifying winds of social change. As I put it near the end of The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology:
Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness form the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.
I invite and implore all readers to continue to contemplate this question, to consider how best to dance with these complex systems in ways which yield greater human welfare and liberation, greater realization of our humanity and our consciousness. In the meantime, please consider my own evolving “A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill” (or the short version: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified) as one possible starting point. This social institutional world of ours is both a product and source of our genius, in an articulation of coherence and individuation, of interdependence and liberty, of collective and individual consciousness. It is the collective mind upon which we draw, and which draws upon us. It is a narrative we write and act out together in a sprawling improvisation, more subtle and complex than any that has ever been bound into volumes or performed on a stage. Let’s write it well.
Social institutions, technologies, and ideologies and conceptual frameworks are comprised of memes (cognitions) linked together into coherent bundles according to organizing principles called “paradigms.” For instance, a government or economy is comprised of the memes which define the roles of all actors in the system, the rules and processes involved, and the underlying principles which inform and guide it (the paradigm). This is true of informal as well as formal institutions, across levels of organization, including everything from religions and industries to popular beliefs and customs of all kinds.
Memes and paradigms are in constant flux, evolving by several interrelated mechanisms. At core, as in biological evolution, is the variable reproductive success of the underlying memes. Memes, like genes, are packets of information which reproduce (are communicated), mutate (change in the various minds of those to whom they are communicated), differentially thrive (sometimes in direct competition, and sometimes due merely to contextual circumstances), and thus evolve (those mutations that are more reproductively successful proliferate while those that are less so fade away). Memes and sets of memes can also be combined in novel ways through intentional human effort to innovate, producing new memes and sets of memes from the consciously mediated synthesis of existing ones.
The relative reproductive success of memes is driven by a combination of reflexive and reflective individual human responses. Motivating these responses are psychological and emotional predispositions, general utility, and localized utility, blended into both rote and strategic interactions. The localized utility of certain memes and sets of memes can coalesce into social institutional power (often originated by, and implicitly underwritten by, access to physical force), allowing the imposition of paradigms that yield differentiated costs and benefits to those organized under them.
The evolution of technological memes and sets of memes, for instance, is driven at one level by general utility (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology), from which individuals involved in their creation, production and utilization draw localized utility, and, when combined with facilitating organizational memes, can give differentiated power to those groups of people with differentiated access to them or ability to utilize them for maximum benefit. The evolution of popular beliefs, on the other hand, is driven more by identifiable and inherent psychological and emotional predispositions, in a process of adaptation to and articulation with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of utility (which in turn adapt to and articulate with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of psychological and emotional predispositions).
Social institutions (including social institutional purposive systems that program human behavioral phenomena, or social institutional “technologies,” but excluding other technologies that program natural phenomena) coalesce around organizational adaptations to technologies of all kinds, as well as in both haphazard (decentralized, organic, and cumulative) and intentional (centralized, purposive, and punctuated) response to collective action and (to a lesser extent) time horizon problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems; in brief, collective action problems are situations in which individual rational self-interested behavior leads to worse outcomes for everyone involved than could be achieved through mutual commitment to cooperative action, and time horizon problems occur when the discounting of future costs and benefits leads to a sub-optimal short-sightedness in rational self-interested individual and collective behavior).
Separating out social institutions from non-social-institutional technologies (i.e., what we normally think of when we think of “technologies”), we can discern four social institutional modalities: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are authority structures comprised of formal rules centrally enforced by means of explicit rewards and punishments. Markets are mutually beneficial systems of exchange, in which one’s share of the benefits of collective action is determined by the market value of their contribution to it. Norms are unwritten rules diffusely and informally enforced through the social approval and disapproval of others. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame).
Actual social institutions and social institutional paradigms are comprised of blends and hybrids of these modalities, articulated with technologies, responding to a combination of the organizational demands and opportunities presented by technologies, related and independent collective action and time horizon problems, and the demands and opportunities posed by the diffuse organic psychological and emotional reflexive reactions to all of these other changes.
The various social sciences, with differing focal points but considerable overlap, examine the dynamics of the various aspects and various overlapping and cross-cutting organizing principles (“paradigms”) of this social institutional landscape. Though differing disciplines and schools within disciplines often utilize superficially conflicting or incompatible theoretical lenses, much of the perceived mutual exclusivity of perspectives evaporates when these perspectives are combined under the umbrella of a comprehensive social systems paradigm such as the one I am describing here (much as string theory in physics reconciles quantum mechanics and relativity).
Paradigms shift when a new guiding principle is used, or an old guiding principle is used in a new way, in the social institutional as well as social theoretical context. Changing physical power sources, for instance (such as the advent of the steam engine or electrification), creates rippling new challenges and opportunities, a need to adapt architecturally, organizationally, and economically to the new principle. The change from monarchy to popular sovereignty that occurred during the 17th-19th centuries in several Western European and Western European derived nations reversed the principal-agent relationship between government and populace (transforming the government from principal to agent, and the populace from agent to principal), accompanied by continuing cascades of social institutional and ideological accommodations and adaptations. (Interestingly, the political ideology in the United States today that is rooted in 18th century American Revolutionary ideology is based largely on the anachronistic rejection of government as principal and populace as agent that motivated the American Revolution).
Revolutions (whether political, technological, economic, or cultural) are essentially just such paradigm shifts, in science catalyzed by an accumulation of anomalies within an existing paradigm; in technology by limits imposed by existing technologies combined with “opportunity niches” provided by the current technological and economic landscape (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology); in politics by the limits imposed by the current regime on certain empowered or ready-to-be-self-empowered interest groups and the opportunities they perceive (e.g., American Independence, African American Civil Rights, various post-colonial national independence movements); and in culture by the diffuse organic adaptations and adjustments that ripple through the institutional landscape as a result of these other changes, involving a combination of aesthetics (fine arts, music, cuisine, etc.), entertainments and public celebrations, and psychologically and emotionally motivated cognitive adaptations and reactions.
There are two types of processes that memes can undergo during their residence in a human mind: 1) They can be implicitly accepted intact and modified only unconsciously and unintentionally (if at all), or 2) they can be worked on, in conjunction with and through utilization of other memes, critiqued, evaluated, intentionally modified, synthesized, and/or woven into a larger cognitive framework. Technological memes as discussed by Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology, for instance, undergo the second process.
Sometimes and to some extent these clash with sets of memes associated primarily with the first process, memes that are reproduced as elements of authoritative traditions, taken as “gospel.” Sometimes and to some extent the two types of meme processes articulate with one another in mutually reinforcing and synergistic ways. And these two interactions can occur simultaneously between the same two sets of memes. It can be argued, for instance, that though the memes of the Medieval Catholic Church and the early products of modern science were often and most obviously in conflict with one another, they were also in some ways mutually reinforcing, the monotheism at the heart of Catholicism providing a coherent “creation” for science to explore.
The conflicts themselves can generate or invigorate particular social institutional innovations. The rise in popularity of home schooling in the United States, for instance, emerges to a large extent from the aversion of some religious fundamentalists to the secularized secondary socialization provided by public schools.
The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, afficianados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized shared knowledge to particular opinions or judgments, rumors or observations or shared jokes rustling through them like a breeze through tall grass.
Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.
Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.
If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have billions of distinct colors and trillions of distinct shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with their unique set of genes, by their unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).
Precise analyses of various kinds -political, economic, and cultural- can be organized under this paradigmatic umbrella, articulating with one another in new and more robust ways. In future posts, I will frequently explore specific historical developments, current events, and political, economic, and social issues in the light of the framework outlined above (as I have in fact done in many previous posts). Much is gained by creating an accommodating and encompassing analytical language through which to explore and examine the complex and subtle dynamics of the world in which we live.
Discipline, both individual and organizational, is an essential component of all successful endeavors. Monks and swamis seeking enlightenment, teams and armies seeking victories, entrepreneurs and corporations seeking profits, scholars and universities seeking empirical and theoretical knowledge, courts and litigants seeking justice, effective activists and successful social movements seeking social change, all adhere to disciplines in service to their goals.
The most robust disciplines channel and activate the genius of those involved, rather than suppress it, but they do so in a disciplined, purposeful manner. The notion that everyone pursuing their own individual whims is the best way for an organized effort to pursue its goal is as detached from reality as the notion that health is best served by being a junk-food gorging couch potato, or that love is best served by selfish disregard of others, or that a broth is best served by having as many chefs as possible each seasoning it to their own taste.
Certainly, everyone is free to say and do as they please, within the limits of the law and their own conscience. Discussing public issues in ineffective ways is as legitimate a pastime, as legitimate a diversion, as bowling or doing crossword puzzles. But for those who claim to be acting with a purpose, who claim to be trying to contribute to positive social change through their actions, the question of whether their actions are actually serving that purpose should always be foremost in their minds. And for those who share the same purpose, the mutual insistence that that question remain foremost in all participants’ minds is the essence of the organizational discipline required for success.
People organized into social movements can change the world, for better or for worse. I believe that Progressives today are unusually well positioned to launch the United States down a sustainable path of accelerating political-economic and cultural progressive development (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). The more those who want this to happen work in disciplined and coordinated ways to make it happen, the more likely it is to happen. I have offered on this blog an outline of one possible framework through which to exercise such disciplined coordination, one which is comprehensive and focused (see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). It is right and good that those ideas should be subjected to the crucible of debate, and challenged by competing views, hopefully working toward a synthesis of the best ideas.
But the primary focus should be: What actions, by each speaker (not by remote others), working individually and together, best promote a sustainable progressive path for this nation and this world? The best answers are likely to be, in my opinion, the ones that are least reductionist, most systemic, least dogmatic and intransigent, least bombastic, most analytical, and, in general, most committed to a procedural discipline which ensures both the long-term success of the political agenda, and the wisdom of the ideas it is promoting.
I know many people who devote a lot of time energy to political activism, many of whom are then bitterly disappointed when the candidates they supported either lose, or win and almost invariably fail to satisfy their expectations. They conflate political outcomes with the realization of the ultimate goal they expect those outcomes to serve, rather than distinguish them as partial and insufficient means to the realization of those goals.
Social change is both more than and distinct from politics. It both facilitates and is facilitated by electoral outcomes, but is not determined by them. It both facilitates and is facilitated by governmental action, but is not determined by it. Those who, reasonably enough, identify social change, or public policy changes that depend on it, as the ultimate goal, would be well-advised to diversify their investments of time and effort (individually or collectively), investing more in the (narrowly) non-political dimensions of contributing to social change. Otherwise, they should expect their current investments to continue regularly to yield highly disappointing returns.
The widely (implicitly) held notion among many political activists that the distribution of political ideological orientations is by-and-large a given, and that political outcomes determine public policy independently of any changes (or lack of changes) in that popular ideological distribution, relegates a great deal of political activism to the status of a semi-ritualistic activity, noisy conflicting group-therapy sessions and social events that have far less enduring impact on the evolution of our social institutional landscape than its participants would like to believe.
Activists mistakenly expect, with slightly exaggerated optimism, that their efforts determine desired electoral outcomes better than alternative “sub-political” activities, and, with vastly exaggerated faith, that desired electoral outcomes will result in desired public policies, without addressing the underlying issue of where the center-of-gravity of public opinion and popular support lies.
Focusing on social change, including but not limited to political activism, informs a more rational and functional distribution of resources (e.g., time, effort, and money) across the spectrum of interrelated challenges involved in accomplishing social change. Our most memorable social movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmentalism Movement, the Gay Rights Movement) were not as successful as they were primarily via electoral victories, but rather via facilitated shifts in public opinion, which then increasingly translated into electoral and public policy victories. Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King, Jr. ever held public office, though they both had larger effects on the world than most who have, because they affected the context in which political decision-making takes place, and it is the context which is ultimately determinative.
Not each individual activist necessarily has to reallocate their personal political investments (time, energy, and money) for a more optimal distribution to be achieved; most efforts currently in place are vital ingredients to a larger effort, and there is much to be said for a division of labor, in which some focus on some aspects and others on other aspects of the overarching challenge. But, due to the seduction of quick-fixes, and the more accessible emotional gratification of being noisily in the fray rather than more subtly effective, the overall investment of progressive (and other) activists is skewed heavily in favor of political theater (something that activists engage in as much as elected officials). Until we, as a movement, address that imbalance, we will be yielding the field to those who do, and giving those ideologies we oppose more opportunity to proliferate.
(See the following related posts: A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness, Changing The Narrative, Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN), A Blueprint for a Progressive Future, The Power of “Walking the Walk”, The Ultimate Political Challenge, Second-Order Social Change, The Foundational Progressive Agenda , The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?)
As part of A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness, I discussed the importance of organizing and acting in our communities, in non-partisan ways for non-political immediate purposes, in service to the ultimate social and political goal of deepening and broadening the shared commitment to reason and goodwill, in our private lives, in our communities, and in our public policies. I believe that doing so should become a social movement, akin to the Civil Rights Movement, but rather than dedicated to a single issue or set of issues, dedicated instead to a comprehensive attitude that implicates all social issues.
Clearly, the time is ripe for such a movement. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was blessed with a ready-made organizational infrastructure (the southern black church network), so too are all reasonable people of goodwill today blessed with an even more powerful and extensive organizational infrastructure: The Internet and Social Media. I’ve already written about the implications of this technological and social paradigm shift, the possibilities and potentials of which we have just barely begun to explore (se, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?, Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization).
A Tea Partier told me on a Facebook thread recently, “just remember who’s better armed.” When it comes to the more powerful weapons of Social Media, it may be the progressives who are better armed. In any case, the implication of these particular arms is that they accelerate the sifting out of rational from irrational arguments, the lathe of public discourse and debate, which favors reason and goodwill in the long run. Certainly, when it comes to Reason and Goodwill, progressives are better armed, and will inevitably prevail. It is our job to expedite that eventuality, reducing the short-term detours into irrationality and belligerence constantly elongating that path.
The best way to do so is to change the game, the frame and the narrative. Right now, America is stuck in a tug-o-war between progressives and conservatives, both broadly perceived by the vast silent middle to be two opposing extreme camps (with perhaps slightly greater affinity for the conservative than progressive pole). But those same occupants of the vast silent majority would not perceive a movement of community volunteerism and community solidarity building to be either extreme or unattractive. And they would not find it offensive if such a movement included in its “mission” improving the civility and reasonableness of public discourse. But what is the progressive movement if not the commitment to mobilize reason and goodwill, and apply them to our public policies?
The most effective thing progressives could now do is to mobilize a network of Community Action Groups (CAGs) into a nationwide Community Action Network (CAN), dedicated to this component of the proposal linked to above. The only challenge is to create an emerging awareness of the power of such an effort, of the degree to which it can become a game changer if enough progressives were to commit themselves to it. Every local progressive group now in existence, every state house and senate district democratic party organization, every OFA chapter, every MoveOn chapter, every other local group with even moderately liberal leanings, can and should organize into a Community Action Group that seeks to do good works in their own communities, and to foster civil discourse based on no ideology other than a commitment to reason and mutual goodwill.
I ask everyone who reads this to please help me to promote this idea, because the way to become a nation of reasonable people of goodwill is for all who are committed to that end to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill in their own lives, and in their own communities, and to allow that to be a model to others, and to coalesce into a national level commitment. The reason why progressive advocacy is so much less effective than one might think it would be is because progressive advocates are so much less effective, permitting the frames and narratives of the far-right to take root and define the debate. Removing that power from them, and owning it ourselves, is not a function of better sloganeering, but rather of more compelling demonstration; we can and should, we must, demonstrate what it is we are advocating for, if we want our advocacy to become a truly powerful and transformative force in our national history.