Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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5.3 Polarity entrapment

Many good people and groups have sacrificed much over the past centuries to gain recognition for certain fundamental values and principles. These are now basic to the ways in which society is organized and governed. All new initiatives are presented and debated in terms of these values.

But the unquestioning manner in which these values are treated has made of them an ideal pattern of camouflage to disguise initiatives which, deliberately or inadvertently, serve only to reinforce the individual and collective paralysis by which society is presently bedeviled. Many who sincerely believe in the profound significance of such values tend to be unskilled in their ability to see how they are duped by those who only pay lip service to them. Key values are systematically perverted in practice. They are widely and skilfully used to promote initiatives that are totally incompatible with their purported significance. Advocating such values is now in the interest of those who can most effectively disguise their real concerns by them. In the desperate search for evidence of support for particular values, much is permitted in their name by those who support them unthinkingly, believing that they should be supported at any cost.

Despite vociferous claims to the contrary, there is more evidence that things are getting worse than that they are getting better. The light at the end of the tunnel seems to many to be growing dimmer and more distant rather than brighter and nearer.

There are many calls, at every level of society, for "new thinking" appropriate to this challenge. There is however little evidence of new thinking, applicable to the policy challenges of the times, that is not already compromised by its failure to address issues that significant sectors of the population find relevant, if not vital. It is not clear how "new thinking" is to be recognized or implemented by those who owe their authority to their mastery of "old thinking" and the institutional and financial advantages it provides them.

There is therefore a case for re-examining these core values to discover what they conveniently conceal if approached simplistically, as it is usually necessary to do if they are to be effectively used through the media. Their limitations as absolute criteria need to be openly recognized. Many acknowledge the cynicism with which they are used, especially by the self-serving, and the realities to which they are completely insensitive. The purpose here is to challenge existing thinking on the basis that maybe the way forward lies, paradoxically, through recognition of the shadow cast by such modern icons. That shadow may well be associated with a fundamentally unhealthy repression of valuable features of the polar opposite of the favoured value. As it is said in fundamental physics, it is not a question of whether radical new thinking is required, it is a question of whether it is radical enough.

1. Peace and non-violence

It is difficult to deny that the level of violence is increasing in society. Individual and collective insecurity is a major issue, even in those countries that most vigorously advocate the need for peace. The situation is not expected to improve. Those who have laboured honourably in the cause of peace need to acknowledge that many are now being ill-served by the manner in which it has been possible to give form to their understanding of "peace" in practice. Bosnia has dramatized the dilemma. Consistent with this belief in non-violence, the international community acted "peacefully" over many months in failing to constrain the aggressors. It withheld arms from people, deliberately handicapping them in their ability to defend themselves. Aggressors, for example, were systematically appeased in the pursuit of "peace" at any cost, because nothing could be worse than the loss of a single life. But as many died there as in the Gulf War, where the much-criticized "unpeaceful" approach was taken. This dilemma is also apparent at the individual level in many countries, where self-defence has been effectively criminalized without provision for the adequate protection of people. Increasingly, under the aegis of "non-violence", the cost of personal security guarantees that it is only available for the few. Perhaps the most comprehensible expression of this is the inability of modern parents, abhorring any form of violence, to prevent their children jumping on the sofa with muddy feet when all reasoned persuasion and inducement has failed. Those holding to "non-violence" as the most fundamental value have beenunable to demonstrate in practice how it can be used in societies characterized by fundamental differences, or (more symbolically) amongst policy-making factions torn by infighting. Pleas for peace are now skilfully used by those who wish to do some form of violence to each other. It is dangerous to deny the positive features of vigilance and courage in honourable combat with which so many continue to identify and which have been a key dimension of human culture. The understanding of peace that is required by the future may incorporate far more of those dynamics between discord and concord that are so richly explored in the theories of musical harmony.

2. Consensus

Most collective action is now made conditional upon consensus: no consensus, no action. This requirement has been very effectively used as an honourable excuse by those who seek to avoid action. Under social and political conditions characterized by intractable differences and the pursuit of collective identity, the only consensus that can be realistically expected to emerge is either tokenistic or of the most temporary duration. Consensus must necessarily be unstable in a turbulent society. This is well exploited by those who know that as the consensus decays, or before it is achieved, they can pursue their own ends, whilst benefitting from their perceived willingness to be an enthusiastic participant in the consensual process. Effort is only devoted to the management of consensual situations and programmes and these are necessarily of a short-term nature. This prevents development of the skills required with the non-consensual situations most evident in society, especially from a longer term perspective. Creative responses to difference concentrate on "resolving" any differences. There is a dangerously naive belief amongst professional mediators that differences, vital to people's sense of identity and culture, can be respected within a simplistic consensus. And yet this is seemingly all that their skills are able to bring about. The striking rise in the level of divorce is an indicator that the skills of relationship counsellors are inadequate to the tasks of managing differences, even at the family level. The blind pursuit of consensus is inhibiting the ability to manage differences experienced at every level of society. Again the understanding in music of the relationship between concord and discord suggests a richer and more fruitful approach to higher orders of consensus.

3. Equality

This value has been fundamental to the long struggle against the tragic abuses that have characterized human societies. It remains fundamental to present understanding of representative democracy: one man, one vote. It is vital to the feminist struggle. And yet most individual and collective effort is designed to increase inequality and even to value most that which is especially unequal. Nations strive for greater power and influence and disparage "second class" nations. Their enterprises strive for greater market share and are contemptuous of "small outfits". Most societies are organized around systems that recognize and reward inequality, whether it be based on wealth, intelligence, power, beauty, saintliness, courage, age, sex, or special gifts and achievements. Groups manoeuvre to position themselves on the moral "high ground". Religions continue their tragic disparagement of each other's truths which is at the root of so many conflicts. Fruitful relationships are based as much on inequality as on equality. People are also profoundly frustrated by how unequal they feel when measured against the standard of equality. And yet, due to the obsession with equality, there is little understanding of the nature of the complementarity that makes inequality fruitful. Beneath the banner of equality the skills in managing the inequality to which all are exposed remain as crude as in the past. Although recognizing that it takes millions of species to sustain the ecosystems of the biosphere, it is naively assumed that a desirable global society can be sustained by a single kind of "human" being. This understanding is rigidly embedded in simplistic legal, political and institutional systems through which it is hoped to govern the planet. Beyond the traps and superficialities of racism, sexism and speciesism, there may be a case for identifying the communication webs linking millions of species of person or role through which the global society actually functions. The so-called human species may effectively have long been "speciating" at a great rate, and beyond any useful meaning of equality, in response to the variety of niches offered by a complex social ecosystem. It is in such terms that the real dangers of globalmonoculture can be identified. Policies based on equality may effectively be legitimating the destruction of cultural rainforests vital to the survival of civilization. "Individuals" too might benefit from recognition of themselves as ecosystems, namely as the many quite unequal facets of the personalities through which they interact with each other.

4. Freedom

It is under this value that independence has been sought at every level of society. It has been of profound significance for the oppressed, for those under colonial domination, and even for adolescents in the process of becoming adults. But it turns out to be a nebulous quality once it seems to have been acquired. Some continue to seek more of it, to remove all constraints on their behaviour, often at any cost. But even for those who have complete freedom, it has not proved to be any guarantee of contentment. Many of them are even perceived as a menace to others because of the selfish nature of their behaviour, if only in their exploitation of resources. There is a need for constraints whether in a community of nations or of individuals. Ultimately interdependence may offer a richer future. There is profound truth in the perception that the ultimate freedom lies in the ability to choose not to be free. But the simplistic obsession with freedom has prevented attention from being focused on the possible forms of interdependence and the nature of a healthy pattern of necessary constraints of some subtler kind. Obsession with freedom leaves people vulnerable to the crudest forms of constraint as the legalistic system of "checks and balances" in a society increasingly turns to cruder mechanisms to guarantee its stability.

5. Justice

This value has been basic to so many initiatives for social and political transformation. Legislation has been passed in many areas to ensure fairness. The Rule of Law, and the necessity for Law and Order, have been acclaimed at every opportunity. And yet, as always, the criticism that the resulting justice is only for the few continues to have more than a grain of truth to it. Miscarriages of justice are now so probable that they are a cited as a principal reason for not reintroducing the death penalty. A simple court case now costs a prohibitive amount and is subject to months or years of delay. To ensure justice, surprising importance is attached to the need for "good" lawyers, who are beyond the means of most. Justice has now priced itself out of the market. Greater attention is devoted to the interests of offenders than to those of their victims, who can be ruined by a court case if they seek justice by that route. Political or nefarious influence on legal proceedings is recognized as common, as is intimidation of potential witnesses and the fabrication of evidence by officialdom. In such a context it needs to be recognized that the law is being used most effectively to protect, extend and camouflage activities of a most unjust nature -- and even to institutionalize them. Appeals for justice serve the unjust too well. Furthermore, the most significant social change continues to come about by creative approaches to breaking the law, notably through demonstrations that force changes in the law, rather than through creative legislation and the administration of justice.

6. Development

It is under the banner of development that a multitude of initiatives have been undertaken to alleviate the condition of the underprivileged of past decades. Much has been achieved. But it has also become increasingly apparent that "development" is the term used with greatest enthusiasm by those whose projects have systematically exploited the underprivileged and the natural environment. Ironically it is they with their short-term financial interest, who are known as "developers", not those who strive for long-term improvement to social conditions. Dubious development programmes have exploited this ambiguity with the connivance of intergovernmental institutions. It is the activities of developers in the name of progress which have resulted in a blight of insensitive construction (whether in the form of dams, highways, housing estates, or golf courses), whose disastrous social and environmental consequences are becoming increasingly apparent. Increasingly it is apparent that the most developed countries are engendering new forms of undevelopment, notably in their major cities where supposedly the development logic has been most assiduously applied. As a partial response, concern has recently shifted to "human development". This is now being used as a convenient disguise for initiatives to adapt individuals to the economic needs of certain sectors of society. Again, and despite claims to the contrary, there is little sensitivity to whether this actually improves the quality of life of the individual through thedevelopment of human potential. "Development" inhibits development.

7. Education

This has been advocated as the key to appropriate progress and development. Literacy is promoted as the prime means of offering access to more valuable and meaningful employment and to a wider culture. But the increase in literacy in developing countries has been matched by increasing functional illiteracy in industrialized countries. The number of illiterates worldwide has increased. Violence and alienation in schools is now a major issue. There is increasing preference for a graphic mode, rather than a written one, with all the superficiality and seductive richness that implies. The richer meanings of education have been perverted into job training in its most limited sense, or into certificate acquisition of dubious long-term value. The widespread availability of "education" disguises the fact that the cost of a quality education makes it increasingly inaccessible. Education is only incidentally improving quality of life, if at all. It is argued that the most fundamental challenges of society can only be met by appropriate education for a new generation. More frequently than not, this argument merely serves those who use it, either in their search for funds, in promoting elitist educational technologies, or in their opportunities during the years of delay before education can have any real social impact. It is completely unclear that the new kinds of education envisaged would alleviate present trends or that there is any means of making them available on a significant scale at the level of quality that is required.

8. Information

This continues to be viewed as a prime means of ensuring the appropriate governance of a democratic society, as well as the control of those which are less democratic. It has become vital to business and has become an asset in its own right. The production of information has become overwhelming. The quantity can only be handled by focusing information needs more and more precisely, accepting the risk of being uninformed on other potentially vital matters. Hence the blip culture of information bites. In consequence there is an ever increasing inability to interpret larger patterns of information and to derive overviews relevant to the guidance of global society, nations, groups and communities, or even an individual life. Where such ability exists, the resulting insights are often impossible to communicate effectively through the available media without exaggerated distortion. Confusion reigns amidst a wealth of information. The very quantity of information disguises the fact that the cost of strategically significant information for enterprises or nations is far beyond the reach of most. The quality of questions asked of present information systems does not match the quality of answers and insight required at this time.

9. Democracy

It is democracy that is held up as the ultimate goal and criteria of political development, most recently in Eastern Europe and South Africa. And yet, in those countries with a long tradition of democratic government, there is increasing concern at the degree of political apathy on the part of citizens and especially the young. Voters have been educated by a multitude of political scandals to view the democratic process with an extremely critical eye. Many have been exposed to the abuse of political power in democratic societies. Much information has become available about distortions of the democratic processes through dubious campaign financing, influence peddling and lobbying by vested interests. The impoverishment of political debate and the mediocrity of politicians, typified by the childish behaviour of opponents in parliamentary assemblies, and obsession with photo-opportunities, sound-bites and media ratings, has left few illusions. Disillusionment with democracy has been extremely rapid in Eastern Europe. Despite these indicators, no efforts are made to explore more appropriate approaches. Democracy is seen as the desirable end process of political evolution.

10. Knowledge

Science has been vital to the many advances which make modern civilization possible. It broke the thrall imposed by the many negative features of institutionalized religion of past centuries. Knowledge has taken on a wealth of new meanings. And yet institutionalized science is repeating the historical errors of institutionalized religion. Expert views are adapted to the policy requirements of the highest commercial bidder. Directly or indirectly, the majority of scientists have used their skills and insights in the service of the defence industries and questionable industrial ventures. Scientific factions and priesthoods are totally unskilled in negotiating their differences orconcealing their contempt for each others methodologies or preoccupations. In the academic world concerns of tenure and prestige far outweigh any concerns for the advancement of knowledge. Whether in the social or the natural sciences, there is relatively little concern for the messy problems of society other than as data to further progress along a personal career path. The degree of self-interest in pleas for funds for the "advancement of knowledge" is increasingly evident, especially with regard to the largest projects. And yet scientists, like their religious predecessors, are methodologically incapable of any evaluation of their own limitations and abuses within a social system in crisis. Scientific arrogance, as with religion, has reinforced the insensitive technocratic approach that is increasingly questioned at all levels of society. Knowledge, as pursued by science, is increasingly recognized as contributing as much to the problems of society as to alleviating them.

11. Health

Immense progress has been made in the knowledge and improvement of health. In contrast with the past, public health has become a fundamental concern. Media coverage of suffering in distant lands has become a major influence on foreign policy. The concern of individuals to maintain and improve their health has major economic, social and political implications. And yet the blind pursuit of "health at all cost" is undermining much that was achieved. National medical health programmes are collapsing, if only through the manner in which any medical safety nets are decreasingly capable of caring for those in need of the more costly treatments. The most highly recommended medical treatment is increasingly available only to the few, whilst the less expensive alternatives are skilfully disparaged. The objectivity of the medical profession has become compromised by its involvement with the pharmaceutical industry and the pursuit of professional prestige and wealth. Physicians have become skilled in disguising their own personal advantage by reference to the risk to health if their advice is not followed unquestioningly. This has resulted in people being kept on life support far beyond the time when they could have died with dignity. Public health officials have been irresponsible in never facing up to the consequences of the population explosion that followed predictably from their very success -- even when this leads to a further risk to health. The cult of youth, the fear of dying, and efforts to preserve life at all costs, have created an unhealthy attitude towards life as a whole.

12. Togetherness

Whether through the emphasis on loving relationships, an extended family, a circle of friends, a neighbourhood, a team, a gang, an ethnic group, or a nation, the bonds that bind people together have been vital to the emergence of society as it is now known. The sense of "we", as opposed to "they", is central to the present understanding of group identity. Development of such bonds is promoted as vital to family, community and organizational development. But it is precisely such bonding that continues to be a major factor in discrimination between groups and against others perceived as different. The obsession with togetherness and bonding as a good, in contrast with the regrettable condition of those not similarly bonded, has resulted in a complete inability to handle adequately those many situations where such bonding is absent. In an increasingly fragmented society where circumstances force many to live alone, their sense of isolation and alienation is reinforced. At the simplest level, couples are threatened (even to the point of divorce) when one partner seeks privacy from the other. Groups are threatened when a member seeks to act independently of other members. Coalitions of nations are threatened when one wants to act in a manner different from the others. Togetherness at all costs directly inhibits the ability to deal with difference at a time when the diversity of views and needs in society is threatening its coherence. The trends towards self-segregation on campuses suggest that there are lessons to be learnt from "apartnership" which obsession with partnership and apartheid has served to conceal.

13. Employment

In a global society which has been progressively monetarized over the past centuries, acquisition of skills and contacts, permitting gainful employment, has become of increasing significance to survival, quality of life, status and self-esteem. The development of a skilled labour force has been a key to the development of flourishing national economies and competitive advantage. But recent decades have demonstrated that available economic models are totally incapable of offering ways of managing society without a significant level of unemployment. Having drawn people into amonetarized economy, and especially with the increasing vulnerability of social security systems, the survival of individuals and their dependents is now at risk because of the apparent need to "get a job at any cost" at a time when the availability of jobs is expected to decrease dramatically. Because of the manner in which jobs have been institutionalized and protected by unions, little attention is given to how people can thrive without a job, in the sense in which economic models have defined them, in a system which either exploits them as a "labour pool" or rejects them as unemployable. Because of the status attached to conventional employment, people have been disempowered in their ability to seek fulfilment in "uneconomic" roles in society. Many are specifically prohibited from fulfilling employment by the attitude of unions. Employment has been narrowly defined to serve the economic interests of society rather than the social survival of those who compose it. At the family level, household work or growing vegetables are not accorded the respectability of significant employment. No attempt is made to provide a positive image for "uneconomic" roles, or for the nature of the community in which they could be mutually supporting, despite the many clues in traditional societies. The few alternative self-supporting communities are deliberately marginalized, or even criminalized, rather than carefully studied as social learning experiments.

14. Positiveness

Cultivation of a positive attitude has empowered people and groups to act in situations where they might otherwise have been inhibited by doubt or overwhelmed by the obstacles that confronted them. In an information- and media-oriented society, the progress of any project or career is increasingly dependent on the positive image through which any action is portrayed. Few skills have been developed to debate, let alone respond to, conditions viewed as positive by one group but as negative by another. Groups are becoming dependent for the identity on their ability to demonize what they perceive as opposing their positive perspective. Obsession with positive information, and rejection of negative feedback of any kind, is however undermining the ability of people and groups to adapt creatively to constantly changing conditions. Vital information on new environmental threats, for example, is concealed for as long as possible because of the fear of panic if people are faced with such negative information. Bearers of such negative information fear for their careers in many institutional environments where positive information is associated with career advancement. People lose the ability to transcend challenges and reach new and more appropriate levels of integration, where only positive interpretations are sought.

15. Transparency

Openness and truth have become accepted requirements of public and private life. It is assumed that a complex society cannot be successfully governed without reasonably unbiased information. Emphasis has been placed on the importance of freedom of information and restraint on censorship for the effective functioning of a democratic society. And yet it becomes increasingly clear that, even in those societies viewed as models of democracy, there is a reflexive tendency to cover-up and secrecy in response to potentially embarrassing incidents. This is now professionalized as news and information management in government and as public relations in the corporate world. The practice of "being economic with the truth" is paralleled in private life, whether in relation to fidelity in relationships, tax avoidance or the employment of undeclared domestic help. Efforts to require transparency of corporations or individuals in sophisticated non-western cultures are viewed there as quaint, if not insulting. The pretensions to honesty have obliged many to learn hard lessons in detecting ulterior motives and intentions in a complex information-oriented society. Under such conditions honesty can only be challenged by risking unpleasant, conflictual situations, thus allowing those skilled in dissimulation to exploit the disadvantage of those who have been persuaded to rely on transparency. The skills of other cultures, where as much attention is paid to what is not said as to what is said, have not yet been integrated into the necessary skills in information handling required for the future.

The statements above are not a denial of these values but a recognition of the constraints through which their deeper significance needs to be understood

16. Wealth

The benefits of seeking and acquiring wealth have been skilfully woven into the economic system that is basic to modern society. In the form of capitalism they have become the prime driving force of society. Despite long and costly experiments with alternative approaches these have not proved adequate to the present challenge. Wealth as presently defined is primarily characterized by the inequality of the distribution of the values that it represents. It is this inequality which is essential to the dynamism of modern economies. Little importance is given to the many indications that acquisition of economic wealth is no guarantee of any sense of fulfilment. And yet it continues to be portrayed as vital to it, thus doubly frustrating those who have neither wealth nor fulfilment. The increasing numbers of economically poor are deliberately seduced by an economic system, unable to meet needs it articulates for them, when they could be better served by exploring non-economic forms of wealth and the kinds of fulfilment that do not depend on wealth acquisition.