Understanding what causes memes to reproduce most robustly is an important aspect of moving our social institutional landscape in directions that best serve humanity. Moving “minds and hearts” doesn’t always move them in positive directions: Many minds and hearts have been moved recently in some very self-destructive directions. But they were moved by recourse to a proliferation of a combination of haphazard and sophisticated messages which appealed to people’s frames and narratives, which tapped into the metaphors that comprise our minds and resonated with them. Doing so is an essential part of the challenge.
When we debate what can and can’t be done, what does and doesn’t work, one of the fundamental dimensions to be considered involves the variable malleability of reality. I can easily divert a small trickle of water following a rainfall, not so easily a large river, and probably not at all a planet in orbit around a star, particularly one that is light years away. When I’m attempting to affect the world, or any part of it (including another person), I need to look for those things that are most amenable to modification, and use them as leverage to address those things less amenable to modification. The time frame involved, mass, momentum, accessibility, available materials and technologies, existing social institutional and organizational vehicles and techniques, the rates and processes of change of the system or element that is the object to be altered, are all relevant variables contributing to malleability.
When you pick a goal, you need to identify a means to achieve it via those aspects of reality that are malleable enough to create an in-road to success. One of the biggest mistakes people often make when they talk about public policy, for instance, is to suggest something that a large number of decentralized actors have to spontaneously decide to do. For examples: “the solution to the crime problem is for parents to impose more responsibility on their kids,” or “the solution to war is for soldiers everywhere to refuse to fight.” The list is endless. The problem is that the suggestion not only fails to change the reality, it also fails to identify a meaningful strategy for changing the reality. It is a wish rather than a plan.
It makes as much sense to say, “the solution to the crime problem is for criminals to stop committing crime,” or “the solution to collective action and time horizon problems is for everyone to just automatically act in our collective long-term interests.” It’s meaningless, because it recommends as a solution an equally intractable intermediate challenge (sometimes merely restating the problem itself), rather than considering how to address it. How do you get parents to be better parents, criminals to commit less crimes, and people to act more cooperatively and farsightedly? These are the questions to be addressed.
The difference between identifying decentralized wishes and viable strategies is organizational and social institutional. I alone can divert that small trickle of water I mentioned above, but I would need to organize an effort and mobilize resources to divert a river. The challenge is to identify first the collective action problems involved, then ways in which it might be addressed, followed by how to get more people interested in realizing change and how they can contribute to doing so, and finally to design and implement policies which move us in the right direction.
Many dramatic changes in our social reality can be realized, but only by investing heavily in an analytical understanding of the systems which comprise it, and seeking the “pressure points” in those systems where manageable applications of focused human effort can have a rippling effect through the fabric of those social (and surrounding) systems. More parents can be assisted at being better parents, more criminals rehabilitated or, better yet, prevented from ever going down that path with early interventions and proactive policies, and more people in general channeled into more cooperative and far-sighted endeavors, by understanding what motivates them, what affects their decisions and choices, and creating institutional contexts which produce better rather than worse outcomes.
For those who insist that it can’t be done, all that is required is to point out that it has been done, frequently and on very large scales. Virtually every developed nation on Earth invests more in the challenges I just described than the U.S. does, and virtually every developed nation on Earth does a better job of meeting these challenges than the U.S. does. It’s no coincidence.
By far the most important political arena, the most important “pressure point” for social change, is the human mind, affected by formal and informal instruments of education, propaganda, and socialization, as well as by changes in the legal and economic context in which we live. “Will and Grace” arguably did as much for gay rights (along with all of the proliferating soap opera gay couples, and concomitant cultural shifts) as any law that anyone could have passed, because the change in attitude eases in the change in law, while a change in law grunts mightily against resistant attitudes. It’s a dialectic, to be sure, and laws help to change attitudes as well, become faits accomplis that are eventually accepted as the norm. But it is the cascade of changes in attitudes and understandings that is the real goal, and the real triumph.
One place to look for the dynamics of how such change occurs is to nature itself, and how life evolved: Those genes which were best at replicating themselves are the ones that persisted into the future. Humans are a product of that process as well, and, despite the resistance to the notion from various quarters, much of what we are can be best understood by understanding how that process, that lathe of heaven upon which we were rotated and carved over the millenia, made us what we are.
There are caveats: Just because change, even “progressive” change, can be effected doesn’t mean that it will increase human welfare to do so. The social institutions we sometimes too blithely condemn are more subtle and sophisticated than we are sometimes willing to acknowledge, because they are the product of a secondary lathe of heaven, the one which involves the reproduction and natural selection of memes, and they reflect the ways in which humans imperfectly align the interests of self-interested individuals in order to serve the interests of self-interested individuals. Not just those “in power,” but to a limited extent, and with great injustices of distributions of gains, their constituents as well.
The mistake many people make is in presuming that if they could just erase all that is and replace it with what they think would work better, the world would be a better place for it. In fact, whenever people have had some success in doing that, they have created only suffering and destitution. Arguably the most successful political revolution in World History (The American Revolution) wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a war of secession, which incorporated some very subtle and marginal modifications into the existing scheme of things, to great effect.
We must work with the material on the ground, understand it (by far the most difficult and important step of all), refine it, develop it, cultivate it to better serve the needs of social justice, economic robustness, and sustainability. This involves an appreciation for, and ongoing analysis of, the social institutions and social institutional materials that have been generated over millenia of cultural evolution, as well as a deftness in discerning where to tweak it, where to redirect it, where to channel it in new ways and utilize it in new combinations, in order to better serve the interests of humanity.
There are errors on both sides; the error of doing nothing on the pretext that it can only do harm, and the error of doing anything on the pretext that it can only do good. Trying to change that which can’t be changed, or is more resistant to change than the efforts mobilized have taken into account, leads to results often worse than those from which the change was made. The Russian and French Revolutions were bloody messes, and the Russian Revolution, at least, probably made just about everyone’s life worse, in perpetuity. The problem was that it replaced tyranny with tyranny, as so often happens, informed by the “good-guy/bad-guy” fallacy, and certain that replacing the bad guys with the good guys would solve all problems. But it failed to replace bad ideas with better ideas, and so only perpetuated and augmented the problems already deeply rooted in the social institutional landscape.
What the Tea Partiers call “socialists” are for the most part people who are pretty much right where we should be, preserving most of the institutional framework in which we live, but tweaking it in significant ways to address the unaddressed problems that have been festering for decades. The Tea Partiers themselves are extraordinarily addicted to stagnation and regression, clinging to a fictionalized past in order to create a dangerous new future, and obstructing any and all sensible attempts to make any improvements in our social institutional framework. Those at the other extreme, who would err on the side of sweeping away too much of our established social institutional framework, are such an insignificant minority, and so powerless to advance their agenda, that they are at present hardly relevant to the discussion.
The challenge now is to find the mechanisms, the pressure points, the means of social persuasion and institutional catalyst that will allow us to move the center of gravity to a more functional and useful place, where the debate revolves around questions of what works and what doesn’t work, what can be accomplished and what can’t be accomplished, costs and benefits, means and ends, inspiration and aspiration, hope and progress. We have a long way to go, but it’s not beyond our ability to get there.