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We tend to engage in politics treating the distribution of reason and goodwill in our society as a constant, and fighting over the variables of who is in office and what policies can be passed within the constraints of that constant. That’s necessary on a certain level (in the short-term), because the distribution of reason and goodwill does not tend to vary rapidly nor, thus far, to be highly amenable to intentional attempts to affect it. However, it’s clear that it does vary: It is quite different in Germany today than in Germany of the 1930s, and it is quite different in this country that fetishizes a notion of “liberty” that has come to mean “mutual indifference and social irresponsibility” than it is in most other developed countries, where the knowledge that “no man is an island entire of itself” has long been more fully embraced.

Throughout human history, we have developed techniques to affect parameters that had previously been intractable constants, such as how quickly we can move over the surface of the Earth, what environments we can exist in and for how long (e.g. extreme cold, submarine, outer space), how much energy from non-animal sources we can tap and utilize to perform “work” in our service, how fast we can perform calculations, how quickly we can communicate across large distances, and even how efficiently we can coordinate disparate efforts to mutual benefit (e.g., the evolution of monetary instruments, enforceable contracts, and improved organizational efficiency). I discussed this dimension of our on-going shared history in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology.

Our entire social institutional landscape, in fact, is comprised of similar purposive efforts, pursued both as individuals and in groups or as societies. The era of brainy college kids starting Apple or Microsoft or Google or Facebook in their garage (or dorm room) followed the era of nations putting satellites into space and a man on the moon, and the era of uprisings utilizing their wares, organizing through social media, cascaded across the world, most recently in the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain). Even The United States has seen its political effects, with Barack Obama’s election riding a netroots’ wave, and various other movements utilizing the new social media in various ways. These dynamics are discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.

In this subtle, complex, dynamic social institutional and technological environment, it is more crucial than ever to correctly identify current political (and technological and social institutional) constants and current political (and technological and social institutional) variables, always recognizing that plying the variables deftly enough can convert, over time, constants into variables, bringing into range aspects of our shared existence that we did not previously imagine were within our power to affect.

The current trend is to take as a given the current distribution of cultural attitudes and political ideological convictions, considering the variables to be how social issues are interpreted through those lenses as they arise. The emphasis is therefore on “messaging,” on how well we design and launch pithy slogans and brief emotional appeals, something the left laments that the right has mastered, and that the left should emulate. On one level, this recognition of the importance of such messaging is perfectly legitimate; persuading people from within their current attitudes and ideologies to lean toward one policy or another is a tug-o-war utilizing the pulls of these kinds of messages.

But on another level, there is a deeper project which must not be abandoned, though it has hardly yet even been identified. One aspect of this project is what I call “meta-messaging,” targeting not the frames and narratives which determine particular positions on particular policies within the given of current attitudes and ideologies, but rather target the attitudes and ideologies themselves, plying cognitive dissonance in service to the underlying values that best serve humanity and that most people want to claim they adhere to and are motivated by. I discuss this in  Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives.

In the end, there are really only two virtually absolute political constants: The underlying nature of the human mind, and the fundamental dynamics of physical reality. (Even these are not technically absoluteconstants, because biological evolution over milenia, or genetic engineering in a shorter time span, could conceivably alter the underlying nature of the human mind; and singularities involve breakdowns of what we think of as “the laws of physics” under certain extreme physical conditions, such as are found in a black hole or at the birth of the universe). Within the framework of these constants, we are faced with The Variable Malleability of Reality, a complex continuum of more and less malleable aspects of our environment and ourselves, which we are challenged to ply wisely in order to effect the most realizable and useful forms of contextual change.

One of the most salient and frustrating nodes on this continuum of malleability is human consciousness, not so much in the shallow and ideological sense of “getting others to recognize as a fundamental truth what I recognize as a fundamental truth” (so that libertarians long for the “enlightenment” of their fellow citizens in which the latter recognize the wisdom of libertarianism, while progressives long for the same in regard to progressivism, and so on), but rather on the more fundamental dimension of rigidity-to-flexibility.

On first encounter, so many assumptions, on so many levels, are so fixed and unassailable, from the false certainty that no political effort based on a complex and subtle message can ever be attempted (a certainty belied by our own national birth, and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, which was based on very subtle and complex arguments, sumarized by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in The Federalist Papers), to the related false certainty that reason can not be made to play an increasingly substantial role in politics (a false certainty reinforced by a tandem misunderstanding of recent advances in cognitive science and of what it would functionally mean or require for reason to play a larger role in politics), to the false certainty that politics is only about who we get elected and what policies we get implemented today (involving the related false certainty that politics must always be focused on specific substantive issues to be meaningful and effective), to the false certainty that increasing goodwill in service to increasing compassion in our public policies can not be cultivated. All of these false certainties, which form an interrelated set, turn what could be a set of critically important political variables into a set of ossified political constants.

Many former constants become current and future variables as we liberate our own imaginations and collective genius in service to accomplishing that transformation. For milenia, the speed at which humans could travel was a constant, first determined by how fast we could walk, then by how fast a horse could run a vessel on water could be moved by muscle or wind or current, and increasingly by how fast our rapidly changing technologies can move us.

Today, the Dutch and Danish, for instance, are more committed to their collective welfare through the underlying values of reason and universal goodwill than we are to ours through our increasingly distorted and bastardized semantically drifting concept of “liberty” so dominant in some quarters (see, e.g., Liberty IdolatryLiberty & Interdependence, and Liberty & Society). The difference in the distribution of attitudes among the populace may be very small, but the net effects are very large. It’s time for us to ask ourselves how to effect such a change, and then to set out to do it, whether it is a long project involving working our way up a hierarchy of malleability, tacking the most malleable preliminary aspects first, and thus paving the way to less malleable aspects later; or whether it is something that we can begin to tackle directly right away.

I  believe it is a combination of the two. But, in either case, it is time to get off the treadmill of our self-limiting false certainties, not just those that obstruct progress as progressives currently define it in terms of substantive positions, but, more fundamentally, those that obstruct the progress that comes of believing in our potential on more fundamental and essential levels of our individual and collective being. It is time to think beyond what we assume to be current immutable realities, to work toward massaging them into greater malleability, both within our own individual consciousnesses, and within the collective consciousness that is human society.

This is a transformation we can accomplish one person at a time (starting with ourselves as individuals), and through a well-designed movement that increases both this cognitive agility and a commitment to recognizing our systemicness, our interdependence, and the challenges and opportunities that that poses to us as individuals and as a society. Doing so does not cure all ills or create some instantaneous dramatic change in our world, but rather establishes a continuous force in favor of that which best serves humanity, gradually, marginally, transforming humanity on a more fundamental level than we have yet managed, just as we have managed to move humanity gradually, marginally across similar thresholds in the past.

It is by means of committing to such procedures for change, such disciplines of mind and organization, that we transform humanity, that we cross those thresholds that move aspects of our reality from the constants column into the variables column. Our current efforts are more bogged down in self-limiting assumptions and rituals of thought and action than they need to be. Greater possibilities are available. All we need do is believe in those possibilities, and turn them into realities.

I’ve laid out one sketch of one plan for doing so, which would of course benefit from more minds and more participation. It can be found at A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, and a series of related posts (including simplified and abbreviated versions of the proposal).

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  • Ken Weaver:

    A friend recently returned from the Balkans. The quote from his e-mail was that several of the travelers commented on “the difference in the view of history between America and the Balkans. The American views history as a linear progression upwards. In the Balkans, history is viewed as a circle – what goes around usually comes around! The Balkans are an area of the world where centuries of ethnic, religious and cultural wars have paralyzed and continue to paralyze these poor folks. They try to live their lives as best they can, but their history of perceived injustices continue to dominate their thinking.” Consistent with our American faith in progress, your analysis of constants and variables unfreezes the circle. I hope the science is with you.

  • Hi Ken. Thanks for sharing this. It illustrates the power of how we view history, since the more fatalistic we are, the more we surrender to the force we have created with our imaginations and assumptions. The less fatalistic we are, the more we peal away the layers of the onion of perceived immutability. Always, we need to be smart and realistic about it, not expecting that which is highly improbable while it is highly improbable, but rather deepening our understanding of the systems which comprise and encompass us in our to deepen our ability to articulate our wills with them.

    I think of history more as a spiral than a circle, constantly looping both “backward” and “outward” at the same time. History never repeats itself, but does periodically repeat similar scenarios, expressions of the force of the constants of the larger historical epoch.

    One of the threads of history that has become almost purely “progressive” (which isn’t synonmyous with “changing in ways unambiguously conducive to human welfare”) is technological development. We tend to conceptually separate fundamentally similar things; technology is fundamentally similar to (by one definition found in a recent book which brilliantly explores the nature of technology, actually encompasses and included) social institutional innovation, because it involves the programming of natural phenomena (which includes human behavioral phenomena) in some purposive way.

    The old pejorative “social engineering” refers to historically clumsy and sometimes inhumane attempts to do this, but, in reality, every public policy is an attempt at social engineering, since every public policy is an attempt to purposefully affect how our social institutional framework channels our behaviors in ways which increase our welfare. No one decries the historical inventions of reliable currency and enforceable contracts, for instance, though these are clearly social institutional technologies, and ones which have been enormously powerful tools for increasing human welfare.

    Our challenge is to engage in this endeavor intelligently and effectively, with awareness of unintended consequences, humility, attention to systemic dynamics, and a commitment to humanity and to the natural context within which humanity thrives.

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