|August 27, 2004
Im glad to be back. Seems like I was gone for a long time. I didnt look at the news while I was gone, so this week I submit for your consideration a more theoretical piece, stimulated by a reader who recently sent in a pledge of financial support for Nygaard Notes.
As is often the case, she included some words of encouragement for the project. On the subject line of her check she wrote, Thanks for the great journalism and the good, if depressing, news. Shes not the only person to have told me that they consider the Notes to be, in part, depressing. This always takes me by surprise.
Dont get me wrong. It doesnt surprise me that when some people see the subject matter of the Notes they conclude that it is kind of depressing. After all, I have talked in the past few weeks about HIV/AIDS, child poverty, our crumbling infrastructure, the sorry state of the news media, and on and on. These are not happy subjects. But still, I, myself, dont find these subjects depressing. Why not? A good question, and this week I decided to try to answer it. I believe Ive got it: it has to do with how I think. Not what I think. How I think. Thats what Im going to talk about for the next few weeks. This weeks first installment is called Thinking Systems. I hope it helps un-depress people.
Thanks to all who sent in their pledges of support while I was out of town. Much obliged! Money continues to be tight at the Nygaard Notes project, so all of your support is noted and appreciated immediately!
See you in September,
Quote of the Week
This weeks quote is from a soldier in Iraq (a lieutenant, I think). I heard him on National Public Radios All Things Considered on August 23, 2004:
This week I want to recommend a website that is quite unique, although it is a part of a phenomenon that is growing and coming to assume greater importance as the computer-inspired information age becomes a part of more and more homes and offices around the world.
Some of you may have heard of the phenomenon known as Wiki, which is a sort of online database thing that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. For an example of how Wiki works, try visiting the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia). Its an open content site where you can look up just about anything its an encyclopedia, after all by accessing any one of almost a million articles. Its an interesting site, but its not the Website of the Week.
The Website of the Week for this week is called Disinfopedia. Disinfopedia was started in February 2003 and is far smaller than Wikipedia, because it has a focus. What the Disinfopedia aims to do is to be a directory of public relations firms, think tanks, industry-funded organizations and industry-friendly experts that work to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of corporations, governments and special interests. This is not surprising, because Disinfopedia was started by the Center for Media and Democracy, which is dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry. Ive recommended this group before in these pages, specifically their PR Watch project (see NN #172, Anti-Propaganda Resources)
Things like Wikipedia and Disinfopedia are examples of participatory journalism in its purest form. Since anyone can write and anyone can edit any page, one might think that the result would be total chaos. But, oddly, as Andrew Lih, professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong concluded in his recent study of the phenomenon, Paradoxically, this seemingly chaotic process has created a highly regarded reference on the Internet.
Media consumers should love Disinfopedia because it provides information on the providers of information that barrage us daily with the analysis and background that we hear on our news shows and call-in programs. Have you ever heard a commentator on, say, National Public Radio be identified only as working with The CATO Institute, or The Heritage Foundation? The next time you hear someone identified with an organization that sounds official, go to Disinfopedia and learn about what they really are.
When you search for Heritage Foundation, for instance, you will get clear and concise summaries of its history and funding, contact information, and prominent past and present Heritage Foundation personnel (including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese and current Labor Secretary Elaine Chao). Youll also see numerous links to related organizations and pertinent books and articles on Heritage. Its great stuff.
Disinfopedia is by far the best source that I have found for information on the various public relations agencies that work so hard (largely behind the scenes) to shape public opinion on all sorts of matters, including war, national elections, and who-knows-what. I have reported in these pages, for example, on some of the activities of The Rendon Group and Hill and Knowlton. Some of my information came from Disinfopedia.
Everyone is talking these days about Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. You can not only look up this specific 527 Committee, but can look up 527 Committee to see what these things are. You can use Disinfopedia to look up concepts and ideas, too, like disinformation, or propaganda.
I cant swear as to the complete accuracy of every word in Disinfopedia. But, then, I cant swear as to the accuracy of every word in the Encyclopedia Britannica, either. I can say that when Ive gone there and looked up things about which I know quite a bit, Disinfopedia has been right on the money. Plus, the track record of the Center for Media and Democracy is a good one. Check out Disinfopedia at http://www.disinfopedia.org/.
For centuries many people in the West sought to explain events including human behavior in terms of cause and effect. In their 1988 book, Family Systems and Beyond, Jason Montgomery and Willard Fewer put it like this:
However, people came to see that this cause-based thinking doesnt explain things very well. For example, social scientists can show that crime increases when unemployment increases. But everyone who is unemployed does not commit crimes. See the problem? So people came up with ideas like multicausation, and mutual causation, both of which basically said that human behavior might have more than one cause. These theories were somewhat better, as they acknowledged that the reasons people do what they do might be rather complex. But they still werent good enough; too much behavior remained inexplicable, even weird. Eventually people came up with the idea of Systems Theory.
A Different Way of Thinking
I came into contact with Systems Theory many years ago in my training as a family therapist, where we focused on the work of people like Murray Bowen, Gregory Bateson, Salvador Minuchin, and others. While the focus was on family therapy, it seemed clear to me that there was a way of thinking involved in this worldview that seemed to explain behavior far better than the way I had assumed. Up to that point I like most everyone I knew thought in terms of causation: What is it that makes people do what they do? Ive stopped looking for that answer. Ive adopted a different way of thinking.
And its really different. Once you learn to think this way, in other words, you cant switch back. As family therapist Michael Kerr says in his 1981 essay Family Systems Theory and Therapy: Individual and systems thinking are two distinctly different ways of conceptualizing human behavior, and attempts to mix them reflect a failure to appreciate their difference. And this doesnt just apply to human behavior, I might add. It also applies to social structures and institutions, since they are, of course, created by humans.
So, why is thinking systems so different from thinking individually? First and foremost, as Montgomery and Fewer put it, Consider the cause of behavior. In systems theory, there is no cause, since behavior is interactional and processual and has no discernible beginning. They add that The importance of context, the mutuality of interaction, the interpenetration of one system with another are elements of individual and group behavior that cannot be addressed in a cause-based analysis. Forgive the big words; these guys are academics, I guess.
Heres what they mean: They mean that a systems approach rejects simple answers, since it accepts that people live in the world and thus have all sorts of influences on them, including their families, their schools, their societies, their biology, their social class, their neighborhood, and on and on. And not only do all of these things help to determine what we do, but everything we do has an effect on these systems. So, the context affects our behavior, and our behavior affects the context. Everybodys context. All the time.
My mother used to say to me, Jeff, why do you make things so complicated? She would be saying that right now, if she were reading this. If you are saying that right now, my response is that I dont make things complicated. Rather, I am willing to accept that they are complicated. Is it so complicated that there is no point to even trying to change anything? No, its not that complicated, as I will show in coming weeks.
This is not just a theoretical point Im making here. Things will change for you in your actual day-to-day life when you stop thinking in terms of cause, and start to see human behavior as stemming from a complex mix of whats inside of us and what is outside of us.
First and foremost, you will stop struggling with the debate about whether peoples behaviors are dictated by the environment in which they live or by their innate biological nature, sometimes called the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Its both, and well never know how much of each one makes you who you are. In fact, if you want to look at it in an even deeper way, you may begin to see that the inside and the outside are the same thing. Now Im getting into what some might call the spiritual realm, so Ill leave it at that. Lets just say that you can dispense of the Nature vs. Nurture debate when you start thinking systems.
Some Other Changes You Can Expect
1. You will stop blaming other people for your problems. Youll also stop taking the blame for the problems of others. Since someone elses behavior cant cause you to feel or act a certain way, it doesnt make any sense to blame them, and vice versa. A little slogan from my counseling days says it well: When youre praising or blaming, youre not thinking systems. This doesnt mean you will become an insensitive, self-centered jerk. You will of course remember that your behavior contributes to the context in which we all live including YOU.
2. It will be much harder for you to judge other people. Once you understand that everyones behavior grows out of a complex web of experience, genetics, opportunity, and who-knows-what, it becomes nearly impossible to think of people in terms of good and evil. (Including yourself!) Actions, policies, and behaviors can be judged in relation to personal or social values, to be sure. So I can condemn, for example, domestic violence, since it goes against my values. And I can condemn the behavior of certain institutions, for the same reason. Judge behavior, yes. Judge individual people, no. It doesnt make sense if youre thinking systems.
3. You will take increased responsibility for your actions. Once you stop believing that someone else can make you do something, you also have to let go of the idea that you need someone else to change in order for you to be the type of person you want to be. At the same time, a systems approach says that context and interactions have a large influence on behavior. Systems thinking is not some pull yourself up by your bootstraps type of thinking.
4. The slogan Dont believe everything you think will become meaningful. That is, once you understand that everyones view of the world including your own is influenced by all sorts of things out of the individuals control, it is a very humbling experience. My own youthful view of what determines success or failure in life, for example, was heavily influenced by the circumstances of my upbringing. And by my race. And by my gender. And by my status as an able-bodied person. And by my genetic endowment. And so forth.
If you really start thinking systems, it can have a positive impact on your mental health, on your relationships, and on your stress levels. In the coming weeks, Ill talk about some other approaches to these ideas and their implications for how and why we act in the larger world, and how we make change happen. Youll probably figure it out on your own, but at the end Ill tell you in my own words how I think this can help you live in the world and not get depressed (no matter who wins the next election).