More on the Structured Interaction Group

The various problems that our society has, and can anticipate, are not incidental to our societal system. Rather, they are an integral part of that system. Unless we recognize this basic fact, we will never solve those problems. This is not to say that all of our problems can be solved; e.g., “runaway” may have already set in, so that our species will be decimated before the century is out, perhaps even extinguished. But while there is still reason for hope, we must have hope.

Having hope is not, of course, sufficient. Action is also necessary, and the question that arises is: Action of what sort? The abstract answer to this question, of course, is societal system change (of the right sort). But that answer—because of its abstractness—is not a very helpful answer. What’s needed is an answer—or answers—that is (are) more specific.

In “Our Primary Problem,” I suggested—as “practical” ideas—moving our society in a homesteading and/or intentional community direction. I added, however, that the likelihood of our society moving in such a direction was minuscule. In part because no leadership for such a movement existed, in part because few were likely to find either of those options attractive. Those currently involved in homesteading and intentional community living seem more interested in their own particular needs than the society’s.

In “A ‘Meaningful’ Solution,” I suggested an institution—the Structured Interaction Group (SIG)—as a vehicle for generating ideas regarding societal system change,1 and added that various consequences likely would be associated with SIG participation in addition to “actionable” ideas. I would now add to that discussion that I anticipate two important changes in particular—changes in perceptions and changes in motivations. I believe that many, if not most, of our societal problems are rooted directly in the perceptions and motivations that are common in our society, so that if these could be changed, and in the process good (and “actionable”) ideas are generated, a process of societal system change could occur.

What would be the “shape” of that change? I have no idea! My expectation is that creative ideas regarding change would be generated, so that it is impossible to predict the nature of those ideas—and, indeed, foolish to try!

As to perceptions and motivations changing, I have been reading Rupert Ross’s Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice (1996), and that book has helped me realize that all of us see “reality” through a certain lens, without “seeing through” that fact—i.e., without realizing that that lens is affecting what we see. To survive within a given society, one must acquire a certain lens, and virtually all of us do—for we acquire that lens simply as a result of growing up in the society.

If one implication of so doing is that it contributes to one’s survival in the society (under normal circumstances; an unemployed person might challenge this statement!), another implication is that it virtually forces one to take one’s societal system as a “given.” That is, because the societal system one is living in is the only one that one knows, one finds it difficult to conceive of a different sort of societal system—so that the thought of societal system change never enters one’s mind.

Not only is it extremely difficult to grasp the fact that one is seeing “reality” through a certain lens—and that, e.g., an Indigenous person (unless contaminated by white exposure) sees a different “reality” (one that is closer to reality, some physicists might add). It is also difficult to grasp the fact one’s motivations are not rooted in “human nature” but, rather, are an integral part of the societal system of which one is a part. So that the continued existence of that societal system is dependent in part on its “inmates” having certain perceptions, and also certain motivations.

Some would claim that their motivations come from their religion, and that their motivations, therefore, are in opposition to “worldly” ones. And although their motivations might deviate from conventional ones in some respects (e.g., they may eschew the use of tobacco, alcoholic beverages, the use of “vulgar” language, etc.), likely they are as “possessed” by the dominant “success” mentality of our society as are “worldly” people. In fact, many of them may be even more “possessed” by that mentality than is the typical “worldly” individual!

The question that arises regarding perceptions and motivations is: Is it possible for individuals to (a) change their perceptions and motivations while (b) remaining in the societal system, but then (c) acting on their new perceptions-motivations in a way that can contribute to societal system change? It would seem that the answer to this question is “No,” but I would like to think otherwise. I would like to think that any societal system is “loose” enough that it can accommodate some variety in its “inmates.” That, in fact, it is this “looseness” which enables the society to change.

Our society has, of course, changed over time (enabled to do so because of this “looseness”); the problem, however, has been that this change has been “progressive” in the wrong sense: increasingly discrepant with reference to our “design specifications.” It almost seems, in fact, that there has been a certain inevitability about that direction of change: one thing has led to another in a seemingly natural way, so that changing that direction seems to be an impossibility.

Perhaps there is an inevitability regarding our direction of change—so that our situation is hopeless. But we must not allow a belief that our situation is hopeless result in acquiescence to the “inevitable.” Rather, we must recognize that the “looseness” inherent in societal systems—including ours—provides us with a possible window for escape.

That “escape” may take several forms, but I would recommend the Structured Interaction Group in particular. For among the possible consequences of SIG participation are positive changes in perceptions and motivations, which changes can result in actionable ideas regarding societal system change.

In “A ‘Meaningful’ Solution,” I identified the three influences on my thinking in developing the SIG. I should add that the “circling” involved with a SIG, although perhaps unique in its particulars, is currently being practiced in some form by many in North America. As noted on the Living Justice Press web site, “During the 1990s, members of First Nations in Canada began teaching the Circle practice to non-Native people. They chose to do this because First Nation communities were seeking alternatives to the mass incarceration of their people, which was—and remains—another form of genocide.” Thus, it appears that circling was introduced to whites in an effort to change white ways of treating Native “offenders.” And that circling has been used by whites primarily to solve a limited range of “social” problems.

A review (by Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat) of Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community, by Kay Pranis, Barry Stuart, and Mark Wedge (2003) quotes Pranis et al. thusly: “Circles aren’t about performance or saying the right thing or making a good show. They’re not about coming up with ‘the answer’ and certainly not about getting others to think as we do. They’re not about forcing anyone to change. These are all techniques of conquering a situation—taking charge and fixing it. Instead, Circles are about getting to the roots of our being, searching our hearts, souls, and truths, and rediscovering the values that help us express how we most want to be.”

I agree with much in this statement, but would add that circles can be used not only to address interpersonal problems, but problems on a larger scale. Indeed, unless circling does so expand its scope, I fear for the human future.

  1. In “But What Should We Discuss?,” I made some suggestions regarding what might be discussed during SIG sessions. []

Al Thompson is retired from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: ivor5367@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.