A Couple of Change-related Conversations

A couple of change-related conversations—the topics community and government—drawn from a draft of Creative Systems Theory:

David: (A social worker):  I chose community as my topic. I don’t have much community in my life these days, and I don’t think many people do. This feels like a big loss.

CJ: Great topic.

David:  Its funny how I got to the question of community. I started out looking at the problem of gangs. But I realized that part of what attracted me to the topic of gangs was that I’m a bit envious of them. At some level, I wish I had a gang (laughter in the room). I know the gang problem has to do with much more than just community, but I went with community because the topic caught me by surprise. I feel real concern about the very small role community plays in most people’s lives these days. I see considerable danger when I project what we have today into the future. People need a sense of community.

CJ:  I think you’ve hit on an important concern—more important than we might at first realize. I often ask people in groups I’m working with where in their lives they feel most rich and where they feel most impoverished. A felt lack of community consistently tops the impoverished list, and I think for good reason. Social evolution has realized no greater achievement than the liberation of the individual, but we’ve paid a price. The limited sense of belonging many people feel today not only isolates, it can leave us without any sense of collective purpose. Or personal purpose—meaning has little meaning separate from shared experience.

David:   I think we need to do a lot more to support community. Community used to be a part of everyone’s life. Most of us grew up in neighborhoods. Before that people lived in villages and before that tribes. I don’t think we can have healthy lives without it.

CJ:       I very much agree. But we need to be careful in how we approach the question of community—particularly when we make comparisons with what we’ve known before. We can look to the past to appreciate community’s value. But we really can’t use past images to guide us. When we do, we become vulnerable to advocating outcomes that we not only can’t achieve, but that we would not want to achieve.

David:  Can you be more specific?

CJ:       It is important to recognize how community’s definition has changed over time—and the unique challenges it presents in today’s world.  We easily assume that community is just community. But what gives relationship the experience we call community has evolved through history—and continues to evolve. We can learn from the past, but we don’t really have the option of returning to it.

For example, if our ideal for community is the close-knit neighborhoods of our great-grandparents’ days, we’ve got real problems. Such community was a product not just of place and proximity, but also of close blood bonds and narrowly restrictive codes of appropriate behavior. Even if we could return to such times, it is very unlikely we would be happy there. We would feel our freedom and individuality intolerably stifled.

The bind would be even more pronounced if we tried to recreate tribal reality.  The felt sense of community in tribal societies is even stronger—at least if we define community as connectedness. But the flip side of this is also the case. Even less room exists for difference. To a profound degree, people in tribal societies have identity, indeed existence, only as part of the tribe. (People banned from their tribe often just go off and die.)

David:  Do you think we have less need for community today?

CJ:       We do if we define community only in terms of connectedness. But it is not that simple. Better, the feeling we call community derives from a timely balance between connectedness and separateness. If the amount of closeness is too great, we don’t feel community at all, we feel suffocation. We see the same thing in relationships of all kinds. Relationship feels most vital not when difference disappears, but when the balance between closeness and separateness is just right.

History describes an evolving dialogue between connection and distinction. Early on, with tribal societies, social bonds were paramount and individual differences secondary. Over time, this relationship has gradually reversed, reaching an opposite in today’s world where distinct identity receives much the greater emphasis. What has made community community has evolved in parallel with these changes.

So in one sense we do have less need for community. But in another, the need is no less great. And given the degree of isolation so many people today feel, addressing that need assumes special importance. What we need to be doing is looking for the particular kinds of relationships that, in the context of today’s realities, are capable of fulfilling that need. That might seem like splitting hairs, but it is an essential distinction if our concern is the future of community.

David:   I’m still confused. That progression toward ever-greater individuality would seem to point toward community—of any kind—becoming a thing of the past. It really doesn’t give much hope. If that is where things are going, my longing for community would just be immaturity, some futile desire to return to mother (chuckles in the room).

CJ:       We are likely seeing the last vestiges of traditional community. Community is not entirely gone. It survives in many locales. And it thrives in mass culture—the TV our modern equivalent of the communal campfire (a meager remnant of belonging but belonging nonetheless).

But what lies ahead is likely more interesting than just the disappearance of community. The concept of Cultural Maturity very much affirms your call to support healthy communities. It simply reminds us that we have to find this by looking ahead rather than to what has been. Something is being lost, but it is our past relationship to community, not community itself. Certainly the pendulum with regard to community seems to be swinging back. At least in the industrialized world, people today are more likely to express a hunger for community than a desire for greater individuality. As it turns out we don’t have to choose.

David:  Because?

CJ:       Cultural Maturity proposes that successful community in the future will involve both the continued evolution of individuality and a renewed connectedness. This may seem a paradox, but it is an apparent contradiction we encounter in other places. The greater differentiation required by love today—that move beyond two-haves-makes-a-whole relating—makes us more distinct but also capable of deeper intimacy. In a similar way, if the notion of Cultural Maturity is accurate, we should observe both greater individuality and greater community in the future—each essential to the realization of the other.

A good way to understand this is to appreciate how past bonds of community, like those of love and national allegiance, have tended to be polar—mythologized, idealized.  (We see faint remnants in sports rivalries and heated debates at neighborhood meetings.)  At least a bit, we’ve seen our own people as special—and often more than just special, as in some sense chosen. In the same sense that other kinds of personal and social engagement today require more Whole-Person ways of relating, increasingly it is so for community—at least community that adds significantly to our lives.

David:  What exactly does community in the new sense you are suggesting look like?

CJ:   It will be different for different people and different for the same people at different times. A key characteristic of future community should be the diverse and evolving ways we fulfill community needs. But we can identify common themes. For example, community in times ahead will necessarily require greater awareness and intentionality, a new willingness to take responsibility for both the fact of community and its forms. In times past, community was a given, something handed to us. We were born into it.  In the future, we will have community only to the degree we choose to make it a priority and work to create it.

David: I get that.

CJ:  It will also require greater comfort with diversity and difference. Community bonds of times past were most always with people very similar to us. In the future this will change. Some of our most treasured bonds will be with people who before may have lived in very different worlds. Indeed such differences may often provide the impetus for connection.

David:  I like that.

CJ:   For many people, the most challenging new ingredient will be the need for greater acceptance of change. The ways people fill their needs for community over the course of their lives will commonly be more fluid than in times past. This is not to say that long-term commitment to place and particular people won’t be important. Indeed, many people will choose to have that role increase—part of the motivation for rethinking community is recognizing the price we have paid for modern mobility and the frenetic pace of modern life. But the option of change will certainly be more a part of the equation.

David:  That fits.

CJ:  Change also comes into the equation another way. Successful community will require appreciation for what we’ve just been talking about—how, over time, community’s definition has changed and some of the changes likely still ahead. At multiple levels, change and community must less and less seem opposites.

David:  I think I’ve already been working some on community in this new sense. I just hadn’t called it that.

CJ:       Say more.

David:  It is a mix of things. For example, I’ve lately been putting more energy into relationships at work. I’ve always thought of the work world and community as distinct—even opposite. In fact work is where I fulfill a lot of my community needs. I think we have to find work meaningful if it is to address community needs at all deeply. But, fortunately I work for a good company.

Also, I’ve made greater effort to keep in touch with old friends. I meet several friends for lunch every couple of months—we have our regular place we go. That might not seem like much to most people. But it works for me. I really value these connections.            There is also what has become possible with the Internet. Before, I always promised friends I’d write letters—but rarely did.  E-mail is easier. And sometimes just surfing on the web helps me feel more connected. Social networking sites don’t do that much for me, but they obviously work for some people.

CJ:       The great attraction of social networking today supports the importance of your community question. What we see also reflects how distanced we can be from community in any deep sense.  I find that people can find human connection in hearing what someone they don’t actually know is having for lunch a bit boggling. But I trust that future manifestations of socially networking will, over time, come to effectively address deeper needs.

David: That makes sense.

CJ:       If you set aside romanticized images of community and look at what today actually gives you a feeling of community, how are you doing?

David: Things still feel impoverished. But I think I better understand what I need to do.  Recognizing that a lot is new in how we need to think about community is helpful. In a funny way it helps me feel less alone. We may not be very good at making community in the new ways required today, but at least we are all not very good at it together (laughter).


Amy (A political science major):  Enough with this touchy-feely community stuff. I want to talk politics.

CJ:       Fire away.

Amy:  I am very concerned about government today. Mostly at a national level, I guess.  But I think my question has to do with government at every level.

CJ:       And the question?

Amy:  Can we fix it? I see so much trivialness in government today—and so little real leadership. Government seems about little more than selfish interests and petty squabbles. I’m close to finishing a degree in political science and I’m not sure what to do with it. I question whether the world of government is where I want to spend my life.

CJ:       You are certainly not alone in your concern. A survey done by The New York Times at the height of anti-establishment rhetoric forty years ago reported that two-thirds of people said they trusted the government in Washington to “do the right thing.” That survey was recently repeated, and the figure today is less than one-third.

Amy:  Those are scary numbers.

CJ:  Provocative at least. But I’m not sure depicting government as broken provides the most useful perspective. Certainly a lot of people would disagree with you that there is anything fundamentally wrong. But even if we accept your degree of concern—which I do—I think we need more dynamic perspective if critique is to usefully serve us. We need to better appreciate both the necessary role of change in government and something about the changes current times may be asking for. As with the question of community, we need to put our ideas about government and governance in motion.

Amy:  Okay.

CJ:       We humans tend to view our existing forms of social organization, whatever forms they may be, as static endpoints. Certainly this is so with political structures. In fact no governmental form has proven to be the end of the road. Ours may prove the exception, but there is really no reason to assume that it should.

This tendency to deny the role of change in social organization creates a couple of problems. Most obviously, it limits vision. But it also interferes with our ability to accurately perceive the forms we have. Static endpoints are most always tied to mythologized images. One result is that both our advocacies and our criticisms tend to end up missing the point.

Amy:  Our notions about government can be more symbol than substance.

CJ:       Certainly they have been historically. And most often they still are. Such mythologizing is most obvious with the reigns of pharaohs or kings. But authority relationships in modern representative democracy have for the most part remained parental (less overtly, but parental nonetheless). We elect people and then make them elevated symbols—Kennedy in Camelot, Reagan as the kindly father figure.

Amy:  Which distorts how societal forms actually work.

CJ:   Exactly. Such mythologizing—past and present—reassures us and affirms our connectedness, but we pay a price when it comes to accurate description. An example: Poeple in the United States talk with pride of having “government by the people.” But the phrase is really an idealization. So far as a species, we’ve never really had government by the people—at least in the egalitarian sense the words imply. The democratic processes of ancient Athens governed a city-state in which the much greater portion of the inhabitants were not citizens, but slaves. And all of the “founding fathers” who gathered at the Constitutional Convention were white, male landowners.

Our language reflects less what has been than one half of a romanticized polarity—“the people,” equated with, freedom versus constraint or tyranny. What do we have more accurately? We lack good language, but an awkward phrase like “government by competing constituencies with delineated limits on authority.” would be a more precise description. And while competing constituencies may have equal rights, differences in the wealth and power they represent mean that they do not at all have equal influence.

I make this observation not to diminish the significance of modern representative government. It took us a critical—indeed profound—steps beyond government by royal decree. But if we want to think usefully about government’s future, we need to be accurate in how we think about the past and present.

Amy:  Isn’t the fact that we don’t have real government by the people exactly the problem?

CJ:       Yes and no. Again, we need to place our observations within its temporal context. Using full and equal representation as our measure for good government, when such is in fact developmentally neither timely nor possible, can lead only to unfair criticism. And idealized interpretations of just what full and equal representation means leads to the proposing of alternatives that not only couldn’t work, but that we wouldn’t want even if they could. Socialist experiments have not provided promising results. Anarchistic views take us even further astray. And more extensive use of “direct democracy”—whether through greater use of popular initiative or the introduction of issue-specific electronic voting—tend to fall just as short in real-world application.

Amy:  But you seem to think change is needed.

CJ:   I see few more important tasks for the future than rethinking government. And framing the task in terms of seeking something closer to government by the people makes a good starting place. It is consistent with what Cultural Maturity proposes will be both increasingly essential and increasingly possible to realize.

Amy:  Cultural Maturity predicts major changes in government?

CJ:  Certainly it suggests thinking in some new ways about governance and government.  Tell me about characteristics you think will be important to a next chapter in governance and let’s look to see if the concept of Cultural Maturity offers any assistance.

Amy:  Okay, we need to feel that we are really a part of government, that leaders actually represent us.

CJ:       That could well be in the cards. If the growing up in relation to authority Cultural Maturity predicts proves real, we should come increasingly to view political leaders, as with leaders of all sorts, less as symbols. The complement to this shift is greater felt citizen involvement and responsibility.

Amy:  How about this one? We need more economic fairness in government. Politics today seems much more about one-dollar-one-vote than one-person-one-vote.

CJ:       I think the current situation is closer to one-dollar-one-vote. And it is getting more that way as candidates face the daunting task of raising funds for ever more expensive media-driven campaigns. But Cultural Maturity predicts we will see changes here also.

We need to start with a notion that might feel initially distasteful. I wouldn’t choose the inequities we see, but I think in fact they have served a creative purpose. For good or ill, monetary disparities come with the benefits of a market economy. And government by competing constituencies means that people with greatest monetary resources will tend to prevail—unless the moral weight, or sheer numbers, lies dramatically with the other side. However imperfect this situation, historically it represents a step forward. Equating power with money is more “democratic” than equating it with royal lineage or military might.

But, again, Cultural Maturity proposes that this need not be the end of the road.  At the least, it predicts changes in the amount of inequity societies find acceptable.  Bridge polarities such as self and society or leader and follower and we are quickly brought face-to-face with the polarity with the greatest potential to rip asunder the social fabric—that which separates the world’s haves and have nots, the wealthy and the poor. Cultural Maturity argues that the need for greater economic fairness ultimately cannot be escaped. Even if a more consciously equitable picture is not developmentally inevitable, it is a practical imperative.

Amy:  Major economic discrepancies will make our cities—and the world as a whole—less and less safe.

CJ:       That—and there is a more particular consequence for government if this is the final chapter. Equating money with power will in time bring the democratic experiment to an end. The inevitable result, if the world’s wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, is global governance by a small group of individuals and large corporations—not a pretty picture. Again, this is not at all to call for some socialist equal distribution of resources—competition is critical to society’s creative functioning. But rethinking social inequities will be essential if our future world is to be a healthy place in which to live.

Amy:  One more?

CJ: Sure.

Amy: We need to get beyond the endless partisan squabbling. Government today often looks more like little kids fighting on a playfield than governance. It is hard to take government seriously. Maybe things have always been like this. But people are getting fed up—and, with growing frequency, just tuning out.

CJ:       Cultural Maturity affirms the creative importance of difference—so it doesn’t promise any end to conflict and debate. But what it does suggest could certainly change conflict’s tenor.  One part of its argument is particularly important in this regard.

Both experience and culturally mature perspective support that neither liberal nor conservative positions, in isolation or even in compromise, can adequately address the essential questions ahead. The important challenges require systemic solutions. Do the hawks or the doves have the right answer for a safer world? I’d claim both and neither. Does offering a helping hand or encouraging people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps provide the answer to poverty? Again, both and neither.

I think people are getting fed up not just because of the rancor of debate. As much it is because of the outmodedness of how questions are presented and proposed debate’s lack of maturity and real courage. If the conclusion that more systemic perspective has become essential is accurate—and this consclusion becomes more broadly understood—we should find debate becoming, if not more amicable, at least more significant and creative.

Cultural Maturity predicts that we will see two contrasting trends with regard to political debate. We should witness inspiring moments of new sophistication as both politicians and populace begin to see beyond the limitations of past polar advocacies (and also simple middle-of-the-road compromise). Attempts to articulate “post-partisan” and “third way” positions—each phrases heard in recent years from both the liberal and conservative sides of the aisle—suggest that this trend may be at least beginning. At the same time, we should witness the opposite, an escalation of pettiness and rancor, something we also see. In struggling to stretch sufficiently, people defend against feelings of confusion by amplifying outmoded polar differences.1 Sometimes one trend will be most visible, sometimes the other.

Amy:  Do you think in time we will replace representative democracy with whole new forms of government?  I can’t tell from what you have said.

CJ:       A great question—though its one that the concept of Cultural Maturity doesn’t explicitly answer.  We will likely see both kinds of change processes, attitudinal and structural. Much of what we’ve touched on could manifest through changes only in how we approach governance, this without significant changes in the actual mechanisms of government.

But certainly at a global level we will need to get beyond current structural models. Representative government as we know it becomes unwieldy at best at a global scale—the number of conflicting voices is just too great. The only other option we know well is totalitarianism, and I can’t imagine even the most benevolent of dictatorial forms working at large scales in today’s world.

The way national boundaries are becoming increasingly permeable will make the nation-state determination task at least messier. Without clear national bounds, it will become ever more difficult to determine just who “the people” in government by the people might be.

As far as governmental structures more generally, all the pieces of the puzzle we touched on in our conversation will stretch the traditional functioning of government. Governmental structures must work, increasingly, in the absence of parental notions of authority. If governmental forms are to be in any way democratic, they will need to more explicitly separate economic advantage and political influence. And just as mythologized, us-versus-them relations between nations cannot work for times ahead, so must political processes based on adolescent squabbles between polarized ideological factions give way to more creative and sophisticated processes of engagement. Each of these pieces, both its necessity and it possibility, follows from Cultural Maturity’s changes. How great a role structural alternations will need to play in the realization of such changes, time will have to tell.

Amy:  But a lot would change.

CJ:       Without question. One necessary new ingredient cuts across all that we have talked about: a deeper acceptance and understanding of change’s role in governance. Certainly, government needs to better function as a vehicle for ongoing change. In addition, ideas about governance adequate to the tasks ahead must themselves include change. We need to view government not as a static, isolated edifice, but an ever-changing, integral part of culture’s evolving story.

Doing so will be essential to good global relations, certainly to avoiding dangerous misunderstandings between people’s at different cultural stages. Effectively combating terrorism, for example, becomes impossible without it. If we can’t recognize that that terrorism is an expected result of the collision of cultures at different developmental stages, we will respond with actions that are as irrational as those of the terrorists. It is also necessary so that the modern industrialized world does not assume that the governmental and economic forms they know best are right for everyone—irrespective of a culture’s history or its time in cultural development. Attempted helpfulness, even if well intended, when not timely becomes something quite opposite.

And, without question, better including change in our thinking about government is essential to future changes. Ultimately, we need to be open to the possibility of whole new chapters in governance—in its assumptions, certainly, and at least in limited ways in government’s formal structures.

Amy: That’s good.

CJ:  Its a start.  A lot is not yet ours to know.