Remembering a Dismembering World

 

Politicians and commentators, particularly those in the center, persist in making the mistake that what is happening in the US, Britain and now spreading across Europe and parts of Asia is a matter of political debate, of differences of opinion.

It is not.

The dominance of Trumpism and Brexiters in the US and Britain respectively, the two thirds majority of the ultra-nationalist Fidesz party in Hungary and the election of right wing populist governments in Austria, Italy and Poland do not represent a difference of opinion but of values, of morals, of a world view. They cannot be reconciled by debate in the parliamentary chambers or media.

Views will not be changed by facts, precisely because they are not opinions but values.

It is not a matter of opinion whether the lives of so-called white Americans and, let’s face it, Britons and Europeans, are worth more than those of their compatriots. It is not a matter of fact that creates the divide between those who see Britain as part of a European community and those who see it as a power on its own. It is not a matter of debate whether some see refugees as human beings in desperate need and others as a destruction of “our culture”. Reasoned argument will not change the minds of those people who believe women are not only second class citizens but actually are to blame for the assaults on mind, body and spirit that are inflicted on them.

Neither argument, nor appeals to compassion will bridge those chasms. And it seems the right wing has understood that very clearly. Facts do not matter because facts do not change relationships – and particularly one very special relationship: that which we hold with the world.

What we are seeing are fundamental differences in how we view the world and our place in it.

Essentially, these are differences in how we relate to the world. Is the world a partner we help nurture or is it a rival to be tamed? Can I reasonably manage what it throws at me or do I need to be constantly on the lookout for its trickery? Do I do business with it – or against it? If my experience has taught me that my world is pretty manageable then why would I waste time and effort trying to beat it into submission, when I can parley with it? On the other hand, if I have learned that the world will, mostly, smack me in the chops, then I may try and smack it first.

The trouble is that we started building these assumptions about our relationship with our world from a very early age. We are, literally, experts at them. And no law, no fact, no reasoned argument or yah boo sucks in parliament and twitter will change them. That assumption lurking behind my eyes is the refracting lens with which I see the world.

When it comes to a fight between assumption and reality, assumption will always win hands down.

And people, as both history and today’s world keeps showing us, will defend those assumptions even when it is clear they are working against their own interests. Hitler held significant popularity – and probably majority support – in Germany in mid 1944 when the war was clearly going horribly wrong. Donald Trump’s popularity and trust amongst his supporters has held firm in 2018, despite the fact that not only does he merrily lie on a daily, if not an hourly, basis, but his policies – on trade, environment, health, banking and even the quality of water– are hurting the very people who assume he’s their man. Facts on crime rates amongst migrants in Sweden or Germany will not make a blind bit of difference to your assumptions about whether refugees have a right of safe haven or not.

We can continue to yell at each other from the barricades. We can even take over governments, change laws or appoint judges to our liking. Or, if we find that all too distasteful, we can switch off the news and seek out only those who agree with us.  We can, in other words, continue to go to war against each other. And the first victim of war is loss of humanity: loss of the ability to see the other as human; to see the other as a complex, vulnerable fellow being.

“So what?” you may ask. “That being can be as complex, vulnerable and ‘fellow’ as he likes. If he is threatening my security, way of life or principles, he’s still the enemy and needs to be stopped”.

True. But how do you propose to do that? Facts and persuasion, as history shows us, will not work. Civil war? Now, there’s an irony. We employ the ultimate of threats to remove a threat. And has it ever worked? The American civil war may have removed slavery in name but it did nothing to prevent nearly 5,000 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. What did the civil wars in Spain, Nigeria or Sudan solve? Tom Lowman (“African Argument”, July 2014) cites a direct line between the Biafra/Nigerian Civil war and Boko Haram through the continued underdevelopment of the Muslim north. Open conflict may scare the losers into silence for a while but the grievances and the assumptions remain.

So, what is to be done?

Facts and logical arguments don’t work. Appeals to compassion don’t do much better. Political debate ends up in finger-pointing, unashamed chicanery and spitting rage.

Let’s review what we’ve discovered so far:

  1. Our view of the world is founded on the way we have learned to relate to the world.
  2. Those foundational assumptions are so long-held and so deeply embedded that we may not be fully aware of them
  3. They are so important to us that we will distort facts, forgive lies, ignore logic, numb human compassion and even wage wars as long as our core assumptions are supported.

Therefore, any project to change our current dismemberment of our worlds, would need to include the following propositions:

  1. If the foundational assumption we have learned about our relationship with our world –as enemy or partner, equal or inferior – directly influences the way we behave towards our fellow beings, then changing that foundational assumption should change way we act. If we have learnedthat relationship, we can unlearn or relearn it.
  2. If those powerful assumptions are so deeply embedded that we are not fully aware of them, then the first step could be to uncover them; to know what is controlling us.
  3. If the defence of our assumptions, leads to the numbing of our humanity, then re-awakening it may hopefully help release those defences.

It is a hugely demanding task, in which neither persuasion nor hectoring can be used. In which the urge to punish, to shut down must be entirely resisted. In which the task is not to change minds but to awaken a shared humanity.

And dear God, that is difficult. It is difficult enough for victims to face their assailants in a court of law – the very purpose of which is justice and punishment.

How do we voluntarily enter into a dialogue with those who do not even share our view of the world?

I implied earlier, the answer may be by trying to understand how our views of the world came to be formed. How those foundational assumptions came to refract our lenses onto the world. But how do we even start? How do we honestly tell “our enemies” about both our deepest held views and the assumptions that helped build them? And how do we not react with disgust or rage when the enemy insists that separating infants from their parents at the Mexican border is absolutely right?

By turning the world upside down.

Instead of viewing the world as a fragmented, dismembered, chaos of differences, view it as the great physicists, biologists and philosophers have done: as an integrated, interrelated whole, in which we, as beings, participate and of which we partake(to paraphrase physicist David Bohm). In that way, we start from the perspective that we share; we are part of a whole.

So, our priority is not to try and change minds, persuade or ‘educate’. It is to uncover and understand what we share. It is not the language, definitions or even opinions that we share that are important, but the meanings we attach to them. If my assumption is that “government is bad” then, however you try and discuss with me how to define or rebuild government, I am inevitably going to think the debate is ultimately useless. What’s worse, you’ll be trying to change my mind, when it’s my foundation that’s at stake.

As Bohm put it

“If we don’t share coherent meaning, we do not make much of a society. And at present, the society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings. In fact, this set of ‘shared’ meanings is so incoherent that it is hard to say they have any real meaning at all”.(“On Dialogue” P.32)

So how do we start?

Fortunately, a number of practitioners have drawn on Bohm’s ideas to develop a model for ‘supportive dialogue’, to try and stop our ongoing dismemberment. Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge et al put together a very detailed model called   Theory U, which they have used in corporate and socio-political contexts. William Isaacs too, echoing Bohm, has worked to steer group dialogue participants away from debate and argument, to building a new conversation based on fresh, commonly created thinking.

Elements of Bohm’s Group Dialogue are recognizable in a number of political, social and corporate situations. Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and, as far as I can assess, the early informal talks between the ANC and Afrikaner leaders were (deliberately or not) held very much in the spirit of sharing meaning. It was not – I suspect – negotiations that cut the Gordian knot of the Macedonian name dispute. Negotiations, compromises, deals had been tried, signed and failed for decades before Greek and Northern Macedonian prime ministers Tsipras and Zaev sealed an agreement in June 2018 that was put into effect within days. A quick look at the terms of that agreement reflects a deep understanding by both sides of the meaning of historical figures and symbols, as well as current mutual needs and values.

I  have used the uncovering of meaning, assumptions and values in fractured corporate teams and boards. It’s astonishing the impact that an admission of a deeply held value or assumption can have on the others in the room – particularly when they recognise something of themselves in that statement.

If it is so effective why has it, apparently, not worked?

Why are we faced with the divisions we have? The answer is, that it has worked where groups have decided they will no longer sub-contract their relationships with their fellow beings to “those who know better”. It has worked where both the status quo and the current solutions are intolerable. Apart from dramatic examples, such as South Africa, Macedonia and, I suspect in many ways, Northern Ireland, it has worked with groups that have bridged huge divides but are either disapproved of or ignored by the authorities. And, of course, it has worked in corporate boardrooms and teams that do not publicly herald their change work. This form of ‘shared-meaning’ (or remembering dialogue, as I call it)  may not be heralded precisely because it does not need combative leaders. In fact, it does not need any leaders at all. What it requires are people, in small groups or large, who are prepared to explore; to explore, not to change but to remember one another.

It is time to remember ourselves

Whether we like it or not, we share with our fellow beings a vast pool of consciousness that we have built together since the beginning of our existence. It is time to remember that. By remembering I do not mean merely reminding ourselves of it. I mean putting ourselves back together again. The opposite of remembering is not forgetting. It is dismembering. We do not obliterate our experiences; we simply cut off those pieces that are too painful, too conflicted to occupy our consciousness. When we do that to our fellow beings, we cut off our own limbs. A very stupid, and ultimately fatal, practice.

I am not advocating group hugs with your enemies.

This is neither forgiveness nor negotiation. This is an unfiltered dialogue between you and your fellow beings, some of whom may have said and done things that make you tremble with anger. Others may simply be fellow board or team members whom you’ve learned to mistrust. And yet others may be people of ethnic, religious or national differences in your neighbourhood who have never spoken to one another – let alone shared their world views.

 

In the spirit of this article,  I would like to suggest a practical way forward – with some thoughts of how to set up these dialogue groups. In doing so, please note I have shamelessly stolen ideas from all those I have quoted here as well as from leaders, military and civilian, with whom I have been fortunate enough to engage in my work.

The Groups

In setting up a group, try to make it is as diverse as possible although I don’t recommend you immediately go and search for your natural ‘enemies’. Start, if you can, with those who have an interest in getting together and are diverse. Even “friendly” clusters can be extremely challenging. You may, for example, assume you know your fellow members so well that you don’t have to probe for meaning. On the other hand, if you are alert, you could discover how little you know of “kindred spirits” at a very deep level.

Try and meet regularly. Particularly at the beginning, once a week for a couple of hours, is ideal. This applies if you’re trying to develop organizational, team, social or political dialogue. Groups can change in membership, break into several clusters or break up entirely. It doesn’t matter as long as they keep trying.

The Rules

These are very few and should be made explicit.

Here are some that may be useful:

  • This is a dialogue of equals. Nobody has moral, hierarchical or even ‘spatial’ superiority. By ‘spatial’ I mean the less articulate, expressive or confident need to be given the time, space and support to contribute.
  • Do not try to persuade or win over by argument. When we persuade we are not necessarily uncovering the others’ meaning system, foundational assumptions or view of the world. They may simply be deciding to agree. Similarly, be careful that the group does not exert unspoken, moral, or other pressure to conform. That too tells us nothing about individual meanings.
  • Do not smother. Anger will happen. As will frustration and sadness. It is an opportunity to listen and – most important – to share. While you may not sympathise with someone expressing rage about how those ”damned Barden’s taking away my job and swimming in my pool”, it is crucial that you hear that emotion; pay attention to it.
  • There is only one goal (at this stage). We are all here to share with one another. To share what makes us what we are. That is all.

The Dialogue

I suggest the following flow  in your dialogue.

Context.  Establish the context by telling your story and encouraging the others to do the same. It’s the story of how you each relate to the world – and how you believe the world relates to you. But don’t focus on trying to extract anything. As people unwrap the story of their lives, their view of the world –and their relationship to it – will inevitably be revealed.

Meaning. Now the group can ask questions of each other. What, how and why? What did this episode that you’ve just told us about, mean to you? What does it mean to you now? How did you react at the time? How did you deal with it? How do you deal with it now? Why do you think you dealt with it in that particular way rather than this? Do we as individuals share your interpretation of meanings let alone the meanings themselves? When I say ‘police’ I may think of a largely benign organization whereas you may think it as a corrupt, racist institution. Remember, this is not an interrogation in order to gather evidence. You’re asking because you want the group (including the individual being engaged)  to understand the meaning systems you each have. How you have learned “to do business” in and with the world.

Impact.The key question here is ”And then?” Follow through the logic of your/ their beliefs and values. What happens when they’re put in place. And then?

Reflect and let go.Reflect, quietly and with no pressure on what has happened over the last few sessions . What do we – first as individuals and then, if ready, as a group – want to let go . It’s uncovering what no longer has a place in our meaning.

Reflect and let come.This too needs quiet, gentle reflection. What are some of the values we as individuals now hold? What meanings do we still need to uncover and make explicit? What do the worlds we inhabit (the planet, the country, the town, the neighbourhood, the family) mean to us? Which of them mean anything to us?

Create anew.What is the new dialogue and meaning system we now wish to create? What new individual, group, institution, society, do we want to build? What do we actually want to shape, to re-member, with our fellow beings with the values and meanings that we have actively shared, as against the fossilised meanings we previously swallowed without chewing?

 

The dialogue itself can continue for as long as it is useful. It may be that that the group with which you “create anew” is entirely different from the one you started out with. It may be that you think your group has failed, because it drifted apart or even splintered in a shouting match. It won’t have failed as long as it unwraps and shares a single meaning.

Start where you can. If you’re a neighbour, start with your neighbourhood. If you’re a policeman, start with your fellow officers. If you’re a CEO, start with your Exco. But start. It’s not the big initiative that changes the world. It’s the one that slips under the net and keeps going.

 

If you’d like some help in setting up or facilitating a group, please feel free to contact me. 

 

Sources and recommended reading:

Barden, S. (2017) Tell me

Barden, S. (2015) Leaders: just do the damn job

(available on www.stephenbarden.org/reflections)

Bohm, D. (1996) On Dialogue.Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Brookfield, S. (2012) teaching for Critical Thinking.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue. New York: Doubleday

Lowman, T.(July 18, 2014) Biafra and Boko Haram – different conflict, common themes. African Arguments.http://africanarguments.org/2014/07/18/biafra-and-boko-haram-different-conflicts-common-themes-by-tom-lowman/ accessed July 9, 2018

Senge, P. et al (2007) Presence. London: Nicholas Brealey

Scharmer, C.O. (2007) Theory U.Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning

 

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