For five-thousand years human civilization has been about a small privileged elite mostly directing the activity of the rest of us. The bankruptcy of this approach to human society, if not evident previously, became brutally so in the 20th Century when some of the most “advanced” countries on Earth sent millions of their young people to slaughter each other for national pride and systematically exterminated millions of other people simply attempting to live their lives in peace.
Better late than never, there is a more egalitarian approach to human civilization that we have to date only seen small glimpses of. In the vision of great thinkers like Isaiah, Laozi, Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Michael Servetus, Mikhail Bakunin, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Emma Goldman, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi. In the consensus governance practices of the Quakers and the Iroquois. In the egalitarian societies of Scandinavia and the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Some of the key principles of this revised approach to civilization beyond control and conformity include…
1. Acknowledging Many Paths Rather than One True Way
Acknowledging and accepting the dynamic tension between human beings as a social species and the reality that at the deepest layer of each of us is a truly unique soul. Though we generally are at our best when we collaborate and act collectively, still there is no one true way or universal “best practice”. This includes a more evolved understanding that we can treat each other fairly without trying to enforce sameness, instead encouraging, celebrating and leveraging our differences and the many paths of human development and expression of that development.
In the United States, as we embrace this evolutionary change, this will manifest as a much more dynamic and diversified society, including…
* Public schools that are not all essentially the same, allowing for holistic (Montessori, Dewey, Waldorf, Critical Pedagogy, etc) schools, democratic-free schools, homeschool supporting learning centers, alongside more conventional instructional schools.
* The opportunity for more than two entrenched and ossified political parties allowing for more compromise and common ground and a more diverse spectrum of political thought.
* As we have already accepted a cross-pollination of cultures in music and other areas, encourage a diversity of spiritual and religious thought and practice rather than cling to fearful parochialism that there is only one path to God and/or enlightenment.
2. Moving from Ownership & Control to Stewardship & Facilitation
Though many people in the world are still controlled as slaves or chattel (particularly young people), there is a growing consensus against the practice. Consistent with that is a growing realization that controlling the activity of even free adults is ethically challenged and generally not effective in leveraging their skills and wisdom and maximizing their contribution to society.
Among adults at least, the exercise of leadership and the responsibility for other human beings is increasingly done by identifying goals and providing and facilitating an enriched environment for achieving those goals, rather than micro-managing and directing all activity towards those goals. The directing of other human beings without their advice and consent is becoming the exception, only used in generally agreed circumstances requiring remediation or quick action for safety.
The “growing edge” where there is still not an ethical consensus is the transition from the control of young people and their development, to a stewardship based on advising and facilitating their generally self-directed development. We will see this change manifest when we see young people more as partners in family and educational institutions, as well as more integration of young people into aspects of the adult world. A key barometer may well be the transition from the use of the increasingly pejorative term “children” to the more positive connotations of “young people” or “youth”.
3. Focusing on Building the “Commons”
A key focus of collective societal activity that “adds value” to human society is creating, maintaining and enhancing our widely shared infrastructure of education, transportation, recreation and the arts, public health and safety, along with the archiving, cataloging and providing access to the collected wisdom of the human species. This “Commons” is a key measure of the efficacy and ethical underpinning of our society and our commitment to the future of our species. Just as we encourage the engagement of people and “ownership” in their own lives and their immediate communities, the development of our Commons represents our full commitment to the future of our species, beyond merely accepting fate or trusting in deities to secure our course.
This commitment to our shared future will be manifest by a transition from consumerism and commoditized economic activity to a focus on investment, to a “gift economy” and the promotion of an economic ethos of sharing rather than selling. Sharing rather than selling may seem far fetched still to many of us, but certainly at least in the virtual, information world, we have very notable instances of sharing intellectual property rather than selling it. Think Wikipedia, Linux, even Google, with its share but sell advertising model. Don’t know if there will ever be a “shareware” model for giving away physical commodities like food, but human imagination and ingenuity seems pretty boundless.
4. Fully Embracing Egalitarian Governance
In my opinion we are having limited success retooling the institutions in our society not so much because the small group of people in charge are making the wrong decisions, but because we continue to limit decision-making to a small group of people in charge. Though we consider ourselves a democratic society, we leverage this governance model minimally, generally just to help select a small group of decision-makers (many of them rich people who can “pay to play” the electoral politics) who are then given a great deal of centralized control over our lives with little or no further input from us.
From my decades of experience participating in or witnessing various institutions – families, workplaces, schools, religious congregations, community organizations – I find that so much of the continuing ineffectiveness of many of these is a result of the failure of the governance model. Typically an authoritarian parent or parents attempt to direct their kids’ lives retarding those young people’s development as fully actualized adults. A similar authoritarian and coercive approach by bosses in a work environment or principals and teachers in a school minimizes engagement by staff or students. Workers who are empowered and supported by managers, tend to contribute more of themselves to their work and their collective wisdom greater than that of a few overseers. Similarly students who are fully engaged in and directing their own learning process move forward developmentally so much faster.
The beauty of real egalitarian governance using democratic process is that the collective wisdom of the many is generally better than the selective wisdom of a few. Plus decisions that everyone participates in are much more likely to be accepted, embraced and carried through. Egalitarian governance will be truly manifest in our society when the degrees of separation between people making most important decisions and the people impacted by those decisions are as close to zero as possible. And the nature of most decisions, particularly decisions still made by faraway bodies in state or national capitals, should be about facilitating individual and collective activity and governance at the local level rather than trying to direct that activity.
This is all about fully acknowledging and embracing the inherent worth and dignity of every soul on Earth plus acknowledging that our society gets its strength from the engagement of the least privileged among us rather than the most. Privilege is a reality that we have lived with for at least 5000 years and it will not be ended any time soon, but should be acknowledged at every opportunity and mitigated by enhancement of the “Commons”.
5. Embracing Holism
Our society has increasingly embraced science as a methodology for understanding, developing and controlling ourselves, each other and our world. But like the development of any system of knowledge, we begin with a certain rudimentary and unsophisticated practice which becomes more nuanced and sophisticated by trial and error over time.
In the case of science our initial quest for understanding involved reducing complex objects, organisms and systems to their component parts. This has led to a compartmentalization of human knowledge into “separate” disciplines of language arts, mathematics, social studies and science. In the social sciences this has often led to using simple statistical models for human society that can confuse correlation with causality. Like using unsophisticated culturally biased IQ tests in the early 20th century to “prove” the intellectual inferiority of Jews, Southern Europeans and people of color to white Northern Europeans. Or even today trying to show a causal link between young children’s scores on standardized tests and their later success in college and careers.
This sort of reductionism and compartmentalization is gradually giving way in science and other bodies of knowledge to a “holism”, which according to Wikipedia…
Is the idea that natural systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. This often includes the view that systems somehow function as wholes and that their functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of their component parts.
We are beginning to understand that the integrated whole is so much more than the sum of its disassembled parts taken out of context. This applies to every aspect of our individual existence from the food that nourishes our bodies to the experience and wisdom, the learning, that helps us develop and manifest our unique consciousness. This holism operates at many levels. It includes how individuals naturally learn from play and other self-directed exploration of systems rather than routine instruction. It includes how our species weaves itself into the biosphere and geographic and geologic processes of our planet. It is the wisdom behind the activist mantra to “think globally and act locally”.
6. Minimizing Degrees of Separation
Our evolving electronic communication, information storage and retrieval technology are removing the degrees of separation between all of us human beings and our separately achieved but often universally applicable wisdom, artistic and other creative expressions. In doing so it facilitates the expression of the other five principles called out above.
We have more direct access to the knowledge of the world in repositories online and no longer need to rely on information gatekeepers – teachers, broadcasters, publishers and religious authorities – to control and limit our paths of learning and spiritual development.
Though there is certainly a loss of privacy and “big brother” aspect to our electronic mail, captured browsing history, and massive quasi-public online social networks, still we can communicate directly with each other through connected webs of acquaintance and affinity bypassing gatekeepers to an unprecedented degree. We no longer have to be officially “published” to author and disseminate our thoughts and ideas. The “viral” capabilities of social networks allow compelling thoughts and ideas to spread quickly and widely, and then be explored further using the Internet’s increasingly sophisticated information storage and retrieval tools.
In terms of promoting egalitarian governance, social networks allow more communication between elected representatives and their constituents, more quickly and widely organized and coordinated campaigns and other lobbying efforts. A myriad of online “communities” of affinity give many of us participating in them the opportunity to learn skills in collaboration, consensus building and informal anarchic governance, and becoming in some cases those small groups of determined people that, per Margaret Mead, change the world.
As always, I’m all about dialog (even though blogging can be very much a “look at me” monolog) and invite your comments and maybe your own short-list of the transformational levers within our society’s engine.