The one constant is change, but the speed and utility of change is not constant at all. Organizations emerge for the purpose of fomenting change, yet, as a general rule, they soon ossify in the same kinds of unimaginative patterns as the institutions they are seeking to affect. Significant change through the medium of established organizations and institutions is generally catalyzed by either those who are raised to positions of influence despite their failure to satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications, or those who act in ways not predicted by the fact that they satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications.
Human actions fall within a space one axis of which is defined by courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence at one extreme, and conventional choices striving for mediocrity or maintaining the status quo at the other. That axis alone does not describe the quality or efficacy of individual actions: Courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence that are made in service to an odious ideology, or that are in some other way misinformed, may well do more harm than good, whereas conventional choices striving for mediocrity may make valuable marginal contributions to human welfare. But, while caution, analytical sophistication, foresightedness and respect for uncertainty, and subtlety of insight and strategy are necessary variables to render courageous and creative innovation a positive rather than negative force, the absence of courageous and creative innovation guarantees suboptimal outcomes.
Several recent experiences have raised this to the fore of my mind: A program director position for an educational reform foundation that I applied for, and would have done a truly exceptional job in, that I failed to get because an unimaginative vice president was looking for candidates that satisfied the more superficial and easily acquired criteria for the job rather than the more profound and harder to duplicate criteria of greater importance; other nonprofit positions filled by decision makers similarly focused on superficial and less salient criteria; an alternative school led by a robust and idealistic principal who may prove to be an exception to this “rule;” a widespread insistence, across the ideological spectrum, to cling to conventional modes of thought and conventional strategies and conceptualizations of political activism, rather than to reach down a bit deeper and attempt to foment truly fundamental change instead.
The most profound lesson of human history is the robustness of social change, the degree to which that which is taken for granted as a permanent feature of our consciousness and our social institutional landscape is truly ephemeral, and can and does change far more rapidly and dramatically than those living in their own time and place are wont to realize. It is true, of course (as discussed in The Variable Malleability of Reality) that some things are easier to change than others; that smart strategies identify what aspects of our current reality are more malleable in order to massage our encompassing social (and natural) systems in ways which move us in desired directions. But it is also true (as discussed inThe Algorithms of Complexity) that that layered complexity, in which deeper levels are generally less malleable than more superficial ones, provides frequent opportunities for rapid, dramatic change, when some of the underlying “algorithms” are actually fairly malleable. The art and science of participating in history in socially responsible and “ambitious” ways involves recognizing and reconciling these two aspects of the challenge at hand.
It’s time for a new social movement that confronts this challenge head-on, and does so with a commitment to doing so as rationally and imaginatively and compassionately as possible. I’ve outlined one general proposal for organizing such a movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and in the other essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. (In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts can be found essays exploring the nature of our social institutional and technological landscape, to better inform such efforts; and in some other boxes can be found specific applications and aspects of this analysis.)
The proposal has three components: 1) Non-partisan community organizations whose members agree to commit only to reason and universal goodwill, to listening to competing views, and to seeking the policies which best serve humanity; 2) A data base or internet portal making access to all arguments that are framed as analyses applying reason to evidence in service to human welfare, and that provide documentation for all factual evidence relied on, upon which such community organizations can draw for their discussions and debates; and 3) Something I call “meta-messaging” (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives): The emotionally and cognitively effective dissemination of the narrative that this is a good and worthy project, that it is good for individuals and good for society to view our shared existence as a shared existence with shared challenges and shared opportunities, that, as I like to put it, it’s better to be Ebenezer Scrooge after his adventure with Marley and the Three Spirits than before.
Such a movement depends on suspending substantive debates until they can be contextualized in the framework being advocated, because to do so would be to lose what cross-cutting appeal such a movement might have. While there are many who would never join such a movement, and never join the community organizations that are a part of it, there are many who would, including many who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “independents.”
This is not, and cannot be, a movement to overturn Citizens United, or a movement to increase public spending on social services and education, or a movement to achieve preconceived substantive goals of any kind, because to allow it to become so would be to defeat its purpose: To find and develop the one common ground all people who wish to be reasonable people of goodwill can agree on, and that is that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that we don’t know all of the answers, wise enough to engage in a public discourse devoted to doing the best we can, and disciplined enough to develop new procedures and new institutions that help us to work together as reasonable people of goodwill confronting the challenges of a complex and subtle world.
What we need more fundamentally and more critically than to achieve any of the individual, ideologically saturated substantive goals that divide us is to rediscover and develop our common ground, the underlying values and aspirations that most of us share, and the procedurally and attitudinally focused framework that we can create to pursue them more constructively and cooperatively. There are many people in America who are sick of the divisive, angry, excessively intransigent political rhetoric which dominates our public forums and airwaves, who would flock to a movement that steps back from that and tries, instead, to establish another kind of public discourse, another kind of political participation. This is a movement to bring them in, and move us forward.
That means letting go of the rituals of warring false certainties, and coming together instead around a common acknowledgement of shared uncertainty and fallibility. It’s time for all who are willing to make that leap of daring idealism, of courageous commitment to doing better, of believing in our humanity, to do so. We can continue to reproduce the unimaginative and unproductive ritual of over-confident warring false certainties, or to work together to create something new and vibrant and potentially revolutionary. As always, we each get to choose how daring and imaginative and conscious, and therefore how effective, our commitment to progress really is.