|Number 560||September 8, 2014|
The little series about Systalectics (I just made up that word) that begins here is one I've been putting off writing for quite a while. Or, to be kind to myself, it's one that I've been working on for quite a while: reading, pondering, testing, drafting... the exact nature of this concept remains a bit elusive so, as usual, I'm using the readers of Nygaard Notes as guinea pigs to try out new ideas!
I've spent months seeking a neat "definition" of systems thinking or, more accurately, a systems orientation. (See, I don't even know what to call it!) But I've decided that, whatever it is that I'm talking about, there really is no "definition" to be had. It's bigger than that, and it encompasses too much. I'm using the word "Systalectics." See if that works for you.
I've actually been hinting around at this idea for a while, mentioning it in presentations I've been doing, and talking to people. I've even written about it a bit (New readers may wish to go to the website and read NN #547 "Mayors, Money, and Systems of Power," NN #548 "Corruption, Language, and Systems Theory", NN #551, "Thought Systems, Climate Change, and Doubt", and NN #556, "Seeing Systems, Asking Questions").
All of those recent articles talked about systems, but until now I have hesitated to lay out the overall theory. Now it's time to try to put it on paper to see if it works. Please let me know what you think, either during the series, or when it's wrapped up. Whenever that is. This is one of those Nygaard Notes things where I publish the first part of something before I've written the other parts. So I don't know how long it needs to be, nor do I know how it will end up. Part of how I decide to go about this will have to do with what I hear from you.
As usual, I'm not limiting myself in this issue only to Systalectics theory. I'm also including in this issue a short reference to a recent ACLU study of the militarization of police. I'm including it because it's so timely and important, but now that I think about it, this phenomenon can only be understood by thinking about the overlapping and intertwining systems that work together to deliver mine-resistant vehicles to counties with no land mines (and other absurdities). So maybe the whole issue really is about Systalectics, after all.
OK, here we go. Remember: Feedback welcome!
"Knowing that everything changes and how things change gives you power. Sometimes people say, 'What difference can one person make?' When you understand that each drop adds up to make a mighty ocean, you know you are important. Every vote counts; every voice matters; that extra bit of effort may be all it takes to reach a turning point. Every step in a long journey brings you closer to your goal."
Those words appear on the remarkable website "Dialectics for Kids" by Jack Lucero Fleck. It's not just for kids, of course, although a kid could understand it. Find it HERE.
The outrage of the people of Ferguson MO has forced many "white" people to begin to think about issues that most NTPs (Non-Targeted Persons) prefer to ignore. Certainly racism in general is one of those issues, and now we are at least talking about one of the fruits of institutional racism, which is the militarization of local police forces. In the wake of the outrageous deployment of the militarized police force (Army) of Ferguson last month, there has been some talk nationwide about what is supposed to be the difference between a local police force and an Army. That's all to the good.
The program through which the military transfers weapons and other supplies to local police forces (the "1033 Program") was begun in 1997. Yet it merited no news coverage until the people of Ferguson stood up and said: STOP!
There are so many things that could have been done to prevent this madness, but one of the things that comes to mind is that the media could have told us about a major report released by the American Civil Liberties Union on June 14th of this year entitled "WAR COMES HOME: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing." It was completely ignored in the media, so here are a couple of excerpts, plus a link so you can go read it yourself. The ACLU makes note of
And, as if predicting what would erupt in Ferguson less than two months later, the report noted that
It's an excellent, nearly 100-page report. Find it HERE.
This issue, and the one or two after it, will be about an idea that I am calling "Systalectics." It's a combination of "systems" and "dialectics." Or at least I think that's what it is.
The reason for my uncertainty is that I've begun to notice that I have long had a certain way of thinking about the world that draws heavily on a variety of interpretations of things that are sometimes referred to as "systems" or "dialectics." But it's not either systems or dialectics, it's a sort-of hybrid, a combination. So I made up the word Systalectics. I don't think it's just my own personal, idiosyncratic way of thinking. I believe it's how a great number of people operate. I just gave it a name so we could talk about it. The problem is, it's very hard to define.
Fortunately, I'm not going to try to "define" Systalectics. Nygaard Notes has a slight allergy to definitions. To "define" something is to lock it into place, to simplify it, to (ironically) strip it of much of its meaning. Instead, what this series is going to try to do is what I always strive to do in these pages, which is to enrich and clarify concepts. I stole that phrase from Joël de Rosnay, who summed up the approach better than I can in his remarkable 1979 book "The Macroscope: A New World Scientific System":
Of course, this is what I do constantly in Nygaard Notes: I return to some simple concepts again and again, looking at them from different angles, in different contexts, in an effort to enrich and clarify them. My goal is always to help lay the intellectual groundwork for a mass-based movement for social change. I've come to believe that there are two big obstacles to building such a movement. One is the inability to understand how systems work, and how important they are. The other one is the ability to imagine and articulate different system than the ones that currently define our lives. A related problem is that most people, and most institutions, resist change.
One of the fundamental ideas of Systalectics is that everything is constantly in the process of changing. So we can either participate in making the change we want, or we can be dragged along, kicking and screaming, by the changes we don't want. Understanding, and using, Systalectics will help us go with Option #1, I think. So let's get to it.
We'll start by talking about Thought Systems, and the role of Propaganda in creating them.
A Propaganda system encourages not only certain ideas, but also certain ways of thinking. This is tricky to talk about because most of the processes that we use in our thinking are picked up unconsciously and, as a result, most of us never think about them, never bring them to consciousness. It's ironic, isn't it, that we don't think about thinking? So, let's think about it for a bit.
Every culture shares certain ways of thinking, what the Polish philosopher Ludwik Fleck called "thought styles." Fleck believed that the world that we take in through our senses only has meaning if there is some pre-existing knowledge already in our minds that we can use to interpret the incoming information. His idea was that the nature of that pre-existing knowledge arises in community, in a social process that is collectively created. In this way the members of a group, or a society, come to share a way of seeing and understanding the world, in the process forming what Fleck calls "thought collectives." And people within a thought collective are generally not aware that their thoughts are constrained, even shaped, by their membership in the group. It's unlikely that most people are even aware that there is such a group, let alone that they are members of it! As Fleck put it in a 1935 work:
The creation and maintenance of a certain "thought style" is the fundamental function of the social phenomenon that I call Propaganda. The term, as I use it, is quite a bit broader and more powerful than the phenomenon that is most people's understanding of "propaganda." What most people call "propaganda" I call Overt Propaganda, and consists of conscious attempts to promote certain ideas, which are easy to see and understand. The more profound and difficult-to-perceive workings of the Propaganda system are what I call Deep Propaganda. Here is where a Propaganda system goes beyond the propagation of ideas, working at a deeper level to normalize the ways of thinking, or "thought styles," that are required to maintain the dominance of certain ideas and ways of perceiving the world.
Over time there develops what I am calling a Thought System, which is composed of a set of ideas—or ideology—that is held in place by certain "thought styles" that, in a circular process, dictate the acceptance of the various ideas that compose the ideology. The Thought System is the sum of: 1. Certain ideas; 2. Certain ways of thinking, and; 3. The interaction between them.
"Friends" and "Enemies" in the Thought System
As an example, consider the Thought System that is invoked when citizens of one country—Country "A"—are asked to consider another country—Country "B"—to be an enemy. That is an example of Overt Propaganda: the target audience is being asked to categorize something in a particular way. But what is the Deep Propaganda here?
The Deep Propaganda includes several ideas. One idea is that there is such a thing as a unified, single entity called a "country"—in this case Country A and Country B. A second idea is that a "country" can have an "enemy." (Or, for that matter, a "friend.") And a third is that there are two choices: Friend and Enemy (and possibly a third: Neutral.)
In order for those ideas to make sense, one has to think in a particular way. One must, first of all, simplify what is a complex situation into a set of dualistic choices, which changes not only how one looks at something, but also what one is looking for. If you accept that a "country" has "enemies," then you have to attribute a sort of psychological process to a "country," which gets you looking for psychological processes, which then get assigned to the fantastically diverse population of the modern nation-state, which reinforces the idea of "country" as a unified whole.
In other words, we are being asked to forsake an institutional, systems approach to understanding international relations in favor of an individualized, psychological approach. Suddenly we are looking for "motivations" and emotions and personalities, and we're not examining power relations and interests and social groupings. Instead of geopolitics, we are left with geopsychology. We shouldn't ignore the psychology of world leaders, but it's far more important to look at the underlying structures that shape the actions—and the thinking—of those leaders.
As illustration, consider the many news stories in recent months about the "polarization" of the United States, with talk of "Blue States" vs "Red States" and "Liberal" vs "Conservatives." Then look at the reports in the last month of the United States forming an alliance with Iran in opposition to the so-called Islamic State. The first story provides evidence that this country we call the "United States" is so wildly diverse that it's almost an abstraction. The second story offers evidence that Iran—long understood to be an implacable "enemy" of the United States—is also a "friend." Taken together, these stories challenge the standard understanding that "countries" have "enemies." What we have is sets of leaders who are responding to various factors built into the systems in which they operate.
"Choices May Be Tweaked"
Back in Nygaard Notes #550 I cited a commentary by the scholar Immanuel Wallerstein on Ukraine, called "The Geopolitics of Ukraine's Schism." In it, he noted that "Geopolitical choices may be tweaked by the individuals in power, but the pressure of long-term national interests remains strong." In other words, the situation in Ukraine is not about Putin, or about Obama. And it's not about ancient blood feuds or religious intolerance. It's about alliances, regional power blocs, and the shape of the system that governs the behavior both of the nations involved and of the individuals within them.
When we back up, as Wallerstein does, and look at the big picture, we begin to see the larger forces—things like "long-term national interests"—which form the stage upon which all the individuals involved are acting, and must act. To use a crude analogy, it's like a snowball fight on a glacier. Seen up close, we're tempted to try to figure out who's got the most snowballs, who's on "our side," how many snowballs there are, who's winning the snowball fight. And, in the short term, these things do matter, especially to the people in the fight. But when we back up and look at the big picture, we see that the glacier itself is melting, which is the issue that really matters. In fact, it may be that it matters so much that, if enough people come to see it, we'll stop these crazy snowball fights and begin to put our energies elsewhere.
Human institutions are like glaciers. They have lives of their own, and they provide the rules and boundaries for all of our actions, and for the thoughts that give rise to those actions. It's not that individuals aren't important. They are. It's just that everything we do—and all of what we think—is heavily influenced by the institutions and structures that form the context of our lives. That is, while individuals make decisions, the context for and logic of those decisions are socially created.
This is the well-kept secret about "freedom" in the United States. Most people consider themselves "free" because they get to go to the store and buy whatever they want. But the prevailing Thought System prevents most people from noticing that they can only buy what is for sale, and that the decisions about what is for sale—or even what kind of stores exist—are made by a very small number of people, in a very undemocratic way.
I've said that a Thought System is the sum of certain ideas, certain ways of thinking, and the interaction between them. The power of a Thought System is that it makes certain ideas seem reasonable—even wise—when those same ideas, outside of the Thought System, would be difficult to justify. In the dominant U.S. Thought System, for example, war seems to make sense to many people. Globalization makes sense. Corporations are people, medicines are sold for profit, ideas are property... The list of commonly-accepted absurdities is long.
For anyone wishing to challenge, or even to overturn, the prevailing Thought System in a given society, it is absolutely essential to at least make an attempt to expose the workings of the existing system. Once exposed and brought to consciousness, the validity and usefulness of the dominant Thought System can be examined and alternatives can be imagined. And once we can imagine alternatives, we can start building them.
I've just said that the combination of Ideology and Thought Styles, when internalized and integrated, work together to form what I call a Thought System. And I've pointed out how a Thought System weaves together Ideas and Thought Styles, since the ideas only make sense if we think in certain ways, and when we think in certain ways we are steered toward certain ideas.
Lately I've been referring to the Thought System in the U.S. as "Individualistic Thinking" (a term I first used back in February 2013 in Nygaard Notes #526). Then, this past April (NN#551) I referred to it as the "prevailing Thought System." But it doesn't just "prevail." It dominates. So here I will refer to it as the DTS, or Dominant Thought System. I label it here because the following exercise will try to compare and contrast the DTS with what I will call a "Systalectic Orientation," which is the alternative Thought System that I am exploring in this series.
A couple of warnings before we begin: 1) There is a danger in using a "compare and contrast" method of analysis. The danger is that it promotes an "either/or" way of thinking, as if there were only two types of Thought Systems. Far from it. 2) A second danger is that I might be seen to be suggesting that these Thought Systems are totally incompatible. I'm not. I do think that a Systalectic Orientation is basically the way to go, but that doesn't mean that we can't use some of the methods and techniques arising from the Dominant Thought System when they are useful. We just have to realize the limitations.
Comparing Thought Systems
OK, having said that, let's cruise into this dangerous territory, and compare and contrast two distinct Thought Systems: The Dominant Thought System, or DTS, and a Systalectic Orientation, or SO.
Example #1: DTS tells us that we understand things by getting up close and examining the details.
Example #1 Illustration: News organizations often "embed" their reporters with U.S. troops to get "up close" to a conflict. Such closeness is obviously one-sided (since they don't embed reporters with troops on both sides) but, more relevant to our point, such close-up reporting also provides a steady supply of visceral images of suffering which serve to inflame emotions (and sell newspapers) while offering nothing of help in understanding the meaning of the suffering. The powerful details shape our assessment of who is the victim and who the aggressor, among other things.
Example #2: DTS leads us to take things apart to see how the pieces work.
Example #2 Illustration: This tendency leads us to speculate about the psychology of criminals, terrorists, corrupt officials, and the like. "What made them do it?" "What is wrong with them?" We try to get "inside" of the perpetrators to see "how they work." Systems would have us look at the general phenomena of terror, crime, and corruption to better understand the context in which their offenses occur. Systems is more interested in sociology than psychology.
Example #3: DTS relies on something that academics call "Methodological Individualism," which is the idea that "social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors." (That's from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) That is, things happen because individuals make them happen, and they make them happen because they want them to happen.
Example #3 Illustration: Much reporting on Ukraine is based on the idea that it's about "strong leaders" or "weak leaders," and what they want. It's about Putin vs Obama, and who will prevail in a battle of wills. Systalectics says that it's not about these (or any) individuals. Rather we see that historical conditions have produced someone like Putin and someone like Obama, and if they were swept out of office tomorrow, the conflict would not change much. Unless, that is, they were swept out of power by a set of factors that also swept out a lot of other things at the same time.
Example #4: DTS holds that things happen because someone or something made them happen. It looks for the "cause" of the things we see.
Example #4 Illustration: Many people thought that the Global War on Terror was a creation of the Bush White House. "If we can only elect a different President, then things will change," they said. As all of us now can see, the militarized response to the phenomenon called "terror" arises from a complex interaction of forces, and then creates a whole new set of conditions. So the new President killed Osama bin Laden, and now we have ISIS. And, in response to ISIS, the Associated Press reported last week that "Obama says the [NATO] members agree that the Islamic State is a 'savage organization' that must ultimately be destroyed." Another prescription for endless war. So we see that any significant change will need to grow from grassroots movements, not from the White House.
Example #5: DTS believes in one-way Causation. That is: A makes B happen. One corollary of this is that, if we take away "A," then "B" won't happen. Another corollary is that "It's as simple as that."
Example #5 Illustration: When we believe that our problems have a single "cause," then it prevents us from seeing the wide range of conditions that must exist in order for a problem to occur and occur again. If terrorism were as simple as "bad guys" running free, then it might make some kind of sense to kill the bad guys. Systems thinkers can see that it is not as simple as that, as we understand not only that these people might not be fundamentally "bad," but also that violence begets violence due to the mutuality of interaction. Seen in this light, all of our killing begins to make less sense. In fact, it may be seen as counterproductive or worse.
Example #6: DTS states what seems to be obvious: Things are what they are; what you see is what you get. The corollary is that there is no sense trying to change things, since things are what they are.
Example #6 Illustration: We are told again and again that Iran an implacable enemy, a member of the "Axis of Evil." Meanwhile, in Iran, the U.S. is portrayed as The Great Satan. Then ISIS appears and, as CNN reported back in June "The United States and Iran, sworn enemies for 35 years, are talking about working together to quell the al Qaeda-inspired insurgency sweeping northern Iraq." Systems thinkers are not surprised at this, because we know that things are what they are only... until they're not.
Example #7: DTS is based largely on description: Where is it? How big is it? What color is it? Et cetera.
Example #7 Illustration: We have millions of statistics on racial disparities in education, health, income, crime, police brutality, access to services, and on and on. That is, we know where the problem is, we know how big it is, and we know what color(s) it is. Yet we have a much less-clear picture of the factors that give rise to the disparities. The reason for this lack of clarity may be innocent enough—it's much easier, after all, to understand statistics than to understand the larger social forces at work. But the effect of taking the easy road is chronic ignorance and misunderstanding, as it leads us to focus on the "what" and de-emphasize the "how" and "why."
Example #8: Another simplification of the DTS is that things are "true" or "false."
Example #8 Illustration: A huge international survey at the end of 2013 found that "The US was the overwhelming choice for the country that represents the greatest threat to peace in the world today." Yet, inside of the United States, the most threatening country in the world is thought to be Iran. So, which is "true"? To a systems thinker, that's not the important question. The important question is the disparity in perception, which affects everything about how we understand the world. Why do so many people—including, no doubt, those we call "terrorists"—consider the U.S. such a threat? And why do people in the U.S. not believe that?
Remember, I'm doing this comparing and contrasting only to illustrate the difference between the two systems. In real life systems overlap and intertwine. The problem comes when we unconsciously allow ourselves to be trapped within a narrow and restrictive Thought System.
Dialectics in Brief
The above list is about my particular version of the "systems" part of Systalectics. I didn't mention it, but there are lots of different understandings of what people call "systems." Now, a word about dialectics.
When I talk about "Dialectics" I really wish I had another term to use. That's because, like "systems," there are lots of things—very distinct and different things—that are associated with the word "dialectics." There are the ancient Greeks, and there are forms of dialectics developed in India. I'm mostly drawing my ideas from several related sources. One is sometimes called the "Hegelian Dialectic." Another is drawn, loosely, from ideas expressed in a book called Dialectics of Nature by Friedrich Engels. And the third source is the general set of ideas articulated in the worlds of ecology and biology, in particular in a 2007 book called Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, by Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins.
Two quotations explain a little bit of where I'm going with this. The first is from Engels:
My second quotation is from Levins (from an article that was later published in the book mentioned above):
Since I like lists, here is a list of five points that I think contain the basics of the dialectical method that I consider fundamental to the concept of Systalectics:
1. Everything is always changing;
If you want to spend an extra 10 minutes understanding what I'm talking about, I totally recommend visiting the remarkable website "Dialectics for Kids". http://home.igc.org/~venceremos/index.htm
More on Systalectics in the next Nygaard Notes.