Five Departures in Search of a Destination

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The label philosopher-activist, routinely used to help classify what I and others like me actually do for a living, connotes a bias for transforming pure thought – explicitly matters related to existence, reason and knowledge – into informed and, one hopes beneficial, action. Every so often it is just as necessary, perhaps more so, to think about such issues unimpeded by practical considerations.

Thus it is that I take great pleasure from speculating on alternative beliefs, systems, models, methods and practises. In all likelihood these reflections will be disregarded by those who would have most to gain from insights that consciously differ from the familiar and the predictable. That is life.

There are numerous ways to ignore, deny or reject new information. Although we think of ourselves as innovative beings, by and large we tend to be virtuosos of conservatism – preferring to stick with what we know in order to avoid change whenever possible. Indeed eluding anything that smacks of being reformist or contentious might even be regarded as a requirement for achieving high office.

Authorities and experts alike will regularly deem original ideas to be impractical, wacky, or totally outside the bounds of reason. Often, though, it might simply be that they run contrary to ingrained beliefs.

This is not a revelation. An avoidance of the unfamiliar runs like a silver thread throughout much of history. It is at least as common as the adoption of novelty. We consistently reject knowledge that does not accord with our own beliefs – turning our backs on novel or fresh information if by doing so we can strengthen our own position and self-esteem.

Galileo was persecuted for “offending the scriptures” when he suggested the Earth moved around the Sun. Einstein was so derided by scientific colleagues for his theory of the cosmological constant that he began to think of himself as a failure. Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, was famously chemically-castrated.

Nor is it scientific advances alone that cause such violent reactions. Jesus Christ was tormented and killed for deeds that challenged the conventions and wisdom of his era. And to this day the papal decree that excommunicated Martin Luther for heresy has not been rescinded. Anyone, it seems, that seriously challenges the status quo can become a heretic.

Departure 1 – In Search of a Methodology

A central and long-established part of my own work, as well as the core proposition for reinventing failing systems that the Centre for the Future will be undertaking as part of its century-long Mindful Uprising, is the importance of reinvention.

This entails a forensic interrogation of collapsing systems – by going back to first principles in order to understand why they are in a state of decline – and redesigning their autopoietic viability from within more applicable, all-embracing, contextual frames. These two factors are vital in the creation of methodologies [meta-models] from which uncommon or unlikely ideas can surface and take flight.

And so Ken Wilber’s perspectives on integral theory are important not because they give rise to an original discipline and knowledge base but because they do not. Instead, his transdisciplinary insights offer us the possibility of accessing a more inclusive platform from which to contemplate the human condition.

Though not nearly as contentious as the fractious communities-of-interest arising from interpretations of Wilber and his work, Transformational Narrative – the dialogical inquiry methodology conceived by Marvin Oka and myself in the 1990’s – has all the attributes of this type of meta-model.

Transformational Narrative had its origins in the discrete yet interlaced work of several scholars who I admire – most notably Professors Richard Bawden, David Cooperrider, Stafford Beer, David Kolb, Clare Graves, Otto Scharmer, Peter Checkland, Richard Slaughter, and Sohail Inayatullah. Although our starting point was a weaving together of nine vaguely-related models, the result was a higher-level platform that successfully transcended any slight inconsistencies we identified in each of them.[1]

Departure 2 – Osama & George

The story of how Transformational Narrative was conceived is noteworthy as it points to the kinds of highly complex situations in which the use of methodologies like this are optimal – even though they are still used far too rarely.

One of The Hames Group’s clients requested that we help her improve the “strategic inquiry and analysis capabilities” of her executive team. She perceived the capacity of her team to think and converse strategically as woefully inadequate – parochial, embedded within a silo mentality, and tending to slip into narrow, one-sided debate. In executive meetings those with the loudest voice would usually prevail. Strategic it was not.

Our first reaction was to conduct some desk research. We scoured the literature for an existing tool or process that we could use to upgrade thinking in real-time conversations to make them more strategic. There were a few available. Actually this is when we stumbled across many of the aforesaid methods. But none of them were completely satisfactory. Some introduced the notion of futures search while neglecting the significance of the past. Others focused on observable information but ignored the critical nature of interior assumptions and beliefs. Still others were fixated on either soft or hard systems but never both. And so on…

Given that none of the methods we discovered adequately met our needs we decided to invent our own. We set ourselves a suitable challenge: If we could sit Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush down at the same table, having frisked them for weapons, and allowing for practical impediments such as mutual hostility and the lack of a common language, how would we even begin to find common ground between two protagonists whose ideological life-systems were so diametrically opposed?

Starting from scratch, incorporating a few elements from the models we had already discovered, and integrating ideas from psychotherapy, counselling and design science, we crafted a new methodology. Transformational Narrative was born.

Departure 3 – Prisons of our Own Invention

We quickly realised that this new approach to integral strategic design worked best in dynamically complex environments where any number of ingrained antagonisms and opposing attitudes impeded any possibility of cooperation. Our initial testing of the Transformational Narrative methodology in multifaceted, often incredibly messy, geopolitical conditions – where precedence, pious cant, binary reasoning, fixed boundaries, political ideology and outraged self-righteousness were routinely held up to justify the current predicament – was instructive.

Often we unearthed issues that aggravated tensions while not necessarily being all that problematic, especially when approached from a different perspective, or using a different aperture. We failed to find a situation that could not be improved through the use of Transformational Narrative.

One of the more obvious benefits of the methodology was the way in which polyocularity could be effortlessly incorporated into the discourse. We usually forget that even in the most uncomplicated of situations there will be at least six correlated viewpoints to consider. Protagonists – most commonly two groups with some degree of misaligned views and needs; influential advisers to the lead actors on both sides; third party facilitators and negotiators; witnesses directly affected by outcomes but not privy to the negotiations; and others who might be indirectly touched by changed circumstances in the longer term.

These viewpoints exist at a surface level. Additional, oftentimes highly revealing, information can be harvested by taking into consideration the interrelational dynamics across all parties, from a stack of progressively higher altitudes. In practice it is often only one or two of the protagonists, in addition to any third party negotiators, who have genuine clout. They also usually control the process. This begs the question how any solution can endure in circumstances where the needs of all those who have a stake in the situation have not been taken into account and, at least to some extent, accommodated.

Almost invariably the protagonists – their emotions, hard-wired assumptions, values, current loyalties and beliefs – are more of a problem than the issue per se. The need to win, or at least to save face by avoiding the impression of defeat. The need not to back down on principles that could betray a frailty to be exploited at a later date. The need to create the illusion of progress. These are all shadow factors that can easily turn into the main motivators without due care and attention.

Additionally there is the bureaucratic paraphernalia surrounding the situation itself. This can include the engineering of a “win-win” situation; the predetermined forfeiture of assets, or the use of pre-existing laws, such as the notion of sovereignty, as the primary framework for prosecuting a case, for example.

What is agreed or extracted prior to the process beginning is often a cause of further difficulties. For example, one common convention is where facilitators assume their role is to help take the emotions out of the process. This is actually the opposite of what needs to be done. Integrating and moderating an exploration of passions and psychological reactions to specific scenarios is key to finding an enduring solution.

All of the above are artificial constructs that can so easily impede real breakthroughs. Yet they are all attributes to be found in international negotiations, mediation and conflict resolution that we continue to tolerate for no good reason.

Departure 4 – The Horns of a Dilemma

Curiously we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of binary thought far too often. Once snared on the horns of a dilemma, resolution of the two premises, rather than a recalibration of them or a refutation of such limited choices, can become not only desired, but an essential outcome of any negotiations. We remain blind to alternatives. Resolution is also often considered the cheapest and most efficient way to solve geopolitical problems. It also avoids having to take into account all that fluffy, soft, emotional stuff…

For these reasons geopolitical troubles are usually reduced to a simple formula: an impasse between two equally powerful sides where a clean result is expected to be achieved. Any attempt to reconceive individual parameters in order to perceive the issue differently, or to achieve a more satisfactory and enduring outcome, is considered off-limits. It is assumed that the degree of divergence in sensitive situations, where so many variants, across so many dimensions, tug in different directions, and there is so much at stake, can only be contained. We see this course of action pursued throughout history. Because of such convictions any endeavour to transcend the two extremes is exceedingly rare.

To make matters worse, the language of male-inflected competitive behaviour is often employed in situations where a resolution of this kind is anticipated. But, once again, it is never as simple as that. An overtly aggressive vocabulary is hardly a smart framing if the extremes of a situation are to be transcended rather than traded-off against each other. If a resolution is sought from complexity it will, of necessity, be incomplete. And in situations where overly-simplistic, linear thinking is advanced, any proposed resolution will automatically favour one adversary over the other. Naturally we must keep in mind that the gambit for a clear cut resolution of a problem can be a clandestine strategy on the part of one party.

If we expect different results from international negotiations there are many rudimentary lessons we should be teaching those involved in navigating fundamental geopolitical change. I am sure you will have your own ideas. But starting from first principles my top six would be:

  1. Establish the boundaries of any problem-situation in the widest possible arena to ensure all relevant stakeholders have a voice. In the instance of two villages arguing over the rights to fish in a lake bordering both villages, for example, we might engage residents, those who have an interest in the broader catchment area of the lake, workers from factories that extract water or discharge waste into the lake, representatives from local energy utilities, farmers, the food industry, etc.
  2. Express the profound complexity within any problem-situation accurately and to its fullest extent. Usually that means instituting (i) ways to visualise the nature and dynamic of the complexity in order to see patterns that might otherwise remain invisible, together with (ii) methods for pinpointing constraints that are causing the system to behave in ways that are unsatisfactory or harmful.
  3. Utilise processes of collaborative inquiry and design rather than formal argument and debate. There are very effective methods available that use an appreciative vocabulary and process, that pose open rather than closed questions, that unite rather than divide, and that create rather than critique.
  4. Turn the discussion over to stakeholders. When groups of citizens are able to use mechanisms like futures search, alternative scenarios, open space, and appreciative inquiry, for example, practical solutions, and the responsibility for making those solutions work, rests with those who participate in the conversation, rather than their “leaders” per se. This is the surest way to sustain change.
  5. Use information to clarify possibilities, rather than to defend a position. Introducing arbitrary layers of information – such as religious beliefs, traditional boundaries, issues of mobility or access to public services, for example – one on top of each other, can add to a more comprehensive appreciation of the dynamics we are dealing with. But it can also be unhelpful if visual representations of these layers are unavailable, behavioural motives are unclear, or a binary resolution of the situation is assumed to be adequate. In fact it can make things far more complicated.
  6. Proceed within a spirit of cooperation in abundance. Most contemporary geopolitical plays assume that the problems, complicated by deeply ingrained tensions and unreasonable expectations, are only resolved through an outright win – or an intolerable compromise. This attitude is marked by a mindset of competition within scarcity. But life is not scarce. Nor is it a competition. Instead, participants should be emboldened to set aside their instinct to dispute and contest facts, figures, territory, borders, beliefs, values and truths, in order to explore and accommodate the multitude of divergent factors inherent within any situation. For the most part resolutions are entirely arbitrary. They exploit a preference for reducing complexity to the most prosaic rules, that then become fixed and rapidly outmoded. Accommodation is qualitatively different. It requires the suspension of competition, for only then can we liberate cooperation and nurture the ability to live comfortably within complexity. Unlike resolutions, accommodations endure because they evolve and adapt to new circumstances.

Departure 5 – Israel + Palestine

The current stand-off between the Israeli and Palestinian people, or rather those that have the gall to speak and act on their behalf, has recently descended into puerile chest-beating and a nasty war of words using the jargon of rivalry and aggression. Once again the patriarchal nature of the power on both sides illustrates nothing more than hubris and egotistical self-interest. Hapless citizens stand by the side-lines and watch others, far more formidable and uncompromising, shape their future. They are caught on the horns of a classic dilemma. Or are they?

As in many other parts of the world nowadays, what we are witnessing is a failure of governance; a system administrated by a powerful and wealthy elite that no longer serves the majority. As always, the suffering resulting from callous foolishness and incompetence is experienced by ordinary people, Arabs and Israelis alike, who go about their daily lives the best they can, in spite of the recklessness engaged in by their so-called leaders.

In fact there is no better example of the catastrophic failure of present-day leaders and their dated understanding of leadership than this case, which has been allowed to persist since the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

For two decades or more, evidence from local communities on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem suggests that, when left to their own devices, men and women co-exist, and children play amicably, as neighbours tend to do, with barely a squabble between them. The deeper conflict contrived between Israeli and Palestinian agencies is a pretence – visited upon ordinary people by a few privileged, but ultimately petty Caesars, more concerned to preserve the themes of victimisation and persecution that weave their way through both Palestinian and Israeli national identity narratives.

Those culpable do not possess an ability to frame this issue in any way other than the ownership and control of territory – lands they claim belongs to them to the exclusion of all others. Both sides persist in framing their current problems around the legality of Israeli settlers on the West Bank. Though this might have been deemed illegal originally, and condemned as such, it was not nipped in the bud by the UN or any other concerned third party. Regardless of the circumstances at the time, the reality has shifted.

There are currently around 600,000 Israeli settlers on Palestinian territory, in communities ranging in size from small outposts of just a few dozen people to Ariel, home to some 20,000 people. Two of the more controversial settlements lie inside and adjacent to Hebron, a large Palestinian city that houses the burial place of Abraham, making it one of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam.

Existing policies are predicated on the evolution of a two-state solution. Yet the reality decrees this concept to be untenable. It is too complicated to enforce partition now. Indeed this course of action would be similar to that imposed upon India and Pakistan in 1947 – an impulsive legal excuse that disregarded reality and inevitably led to bloodshed on a massive scale. Yet this is still the official policy being pursued by Israel and Palestine. It is futile –no longer even desired by either of the two countries. To push for this solution is to guarantee more bloodshed and foster more hatred.

The so-called peace process had been derailed by obsolete language and laws. Both need to change if progress is to be made. In spite of the strong international consensus on the illegality of Israeli settlements – based on the fourth Geneva Convention which bans nations from moving populations and establishing settlements in the territory of another nation won in war – a revitalised and shared vision of what is possible is needed if we are to avoid history repeating itself.

The region of greater Mesopotamia is one of the acknowledged cradles of civilisation. The territories encompassing Israel and Palestine are held to be sacred by all three monotheistic religions. To many contemporary commentators the power of the state is in decline – an emblem of old empires, and false notions of sovereignty, borders, and a desire to control territory. In such a context the idea that such a crucial decision as the future of two peoples should rest totally with the state must be open to doubt. What innovative possibilities might open up if the power to decide such questions was to be vested in the people? Who knows what might eventuate.

Imagine what a powerful message would be sent to the rest of the world if those living in the ancient region of Canaan was the first society in the 21st century to open both their hearts and minds to people of all faiths. To offer an oath of peace, health and wellbeing to all those residing within their borders. To declare themselves not Jew, nor Arab, nor Christian, but the first truly global multifaith nation.

Framing the opportunities rather than the problem space is wise. Nothing is then impossible. And a gesture of this magnitude could be a living, breathing, symbol of how cooperation and empathy are the future for a human family united in peaceful coexistence.



[1] Incidentally it is my understanding that only two of these nine, exceedingly open-minded and creative scholars, accept Transformational Narrative as an advancement to their own contributions. This betrays the supreme difficulty even the most intelligent of us have in setting aside our most deeply-held beliefs – especially when these are bolstered by emotional, psychological and professional investments of one kind or another.

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