wideThinking: The Future
Conventional Thinking (especially in the media) leans towards 'breakdown thinking' - the view that we face a multitude of convergent crises and that our options in the face of these crises are limited.
Maureen O'Hara and Graham Leicester, in Dancing at the Edge, list some of our creative ways of defending against the crisis.
"We humans are even more creative in our defences. We can deny the uncertainty and the challenge, discredit its validity, rationalize, disavow, reinforce the familiar, recruit fellow travellers, shut out and often demonize the unknown – in other words resist.
Examples are not hard to find. The Japanese phenomenon of hikkikomori – young men who refuse to leave their rooms to engage in a world that they find overwhelming; increasing xenophobia in the face of shifting demographics; denying the reality of the HIV virus in South Africa; looking the other way on paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church; attempts to discredit the science of climate change; finding scapegoats in immigrant and minority ethnic groups, and so on. If all else fails to tune out the discomfort there is always the escape to distraction or, as social psychologist Neil Postman puts it, “amusing ourselves to death”.[i]
All these instances carry the hallmarks of defensive denial. They are attempts to hold back our awareness of a world of disruptive change for as long as possible by binding the private and collective anxiety that accompanies it. The strategies are mostly unconscious and appear as a normal default defence against too much unsettling information and rising psychological uncertainty. Because they are unconscious, we usually believe the distortion and are hard to convince otherwise. We see what we want to believe, rather than believe what we actually see.
Though costly in terms of psychological effort, these defensive strategies can be successful in fending off anxiety until conditions return to stability. But if the stance has to be maintained over an extended period the psychic costs mount. It becomes ever more effortful to seal off disturbing reality in order to maintain some semblance of familiarity.
When the defence becomes habitual it can itself become a source of incoherence – and we enter the realm that psychologists consider neurotic. We become less and less in touch with the full implications of our reality, engage in maladaptive, ineffective strategies that fail to bring the desired results and we are less able to bring our capacities to bear on the challenge at hand. Holding on in the face of increasing discomfort makes us eager for distraction, easy prey for despotic leaders, and vulnerable to anyone or anything promising the restoration of certainty, simplicity and continued 'progress' in troubled times. Neuroticism has always driven a bull market in fool’s gold.
Even more problematic are responses that involve losing connection with reality altogether. People fall into a delusional or fantasy world where they make up a reality that is tolerable for them, however distorted it may be from the point of view of most others. In that unreal world they can give up the struggle to make sense of the complexities around them, they can tune out, get lost in their fear and rage, ‘eat drink and be merry’, secure in their delusional belief that they will be fine. Events like the mass homicide-suicides in Jonestown, genocides like those in Rwanda and Darfur, the Nazi Holocaust, suicide bombings and many other forms of religious violence, the tortured logic of paranoid killers 'going postal', self-destructive actions such as anorexia and self-mutilation reveal the destructive power of this psychotic level of defence against unbearable levels of anxiety.
The news items of the day are replete with examples and add to the febrile nature of the times. As noted earlier, mental health statistics point to a global epidemic of serious mental distress across a continuum from mild distress to deep despair or debilitating psychic disorientation. "
In place of this kind of defensive thinking, Leicester and O'Hara propose what they call 'The Growth Response' and Jean Russell proposes what she calls 'Thrivability' and 'Breakthrough Thinking'. One element of 'The Growth Response' is practising social acpuncture as follows:
We assume that big problems need big solutions. But systems thinking tells us that, in today’s complex environment, big actions simply lead to bigger unintended consequences. The ‘Manhattan Project’ approach to large social challenges is not only bound to fail, it also spreads the disheartening message that nothing on a smaller scale will do.
"That is not true. You cannot control complex systems, only disturb them. And even a small disturbance, artfully designed, can have large systemic effects. We call this ‘social acupuncture’. Think of Muhammad Yunus walking into a small village in Bangladesh thirty years ago with a few dollars in his pocket. His offer of microloans, against the advice of banks, governments and economists, was a small, disruptive act. It has generated global systemic impact.
We have a far better understanding today of how these effects are obtained if we see society as a complex organism, a living ecology, a social network, or a ‘holarchy’. Each ‘holon’ in a living system is viable in its own right but it also grows in ways consistent with the patterns of coherence of a larger whole. Understanding the world holonically offers a very different approach to planning large scale projects, enabling them to grow more naturally and providing viability at all stages."
Taken from: Graham Leicester and Maureen O'Hara - Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency
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