A Basis of Unity

Demystifying Social Change: Part 3

A choir is practicing. After a pause, the conductor signals but the sound is like fingernails on a chalkboard. The conductor taps the music stand and says “A little alertness please. We’re on page four, measure three.” This time when the baton rises and descends, everyone sings not the same note, but one that fits with the others.

Effective teams do this in business, sports, or any enterprise. An overall concept unites individual responses with someone actively corralling attention, and people accomplish together what none could alone. One singer can’t produce a Verdi opera nor one engineer a trip to the moon.

Many who count themselves as extreme individualists fail to note that their actions accrue meaning from a concept larger than themselves. The reclusive artist’s work becomes significant from the throngs that appreciate it. “The Army of One,” the military’s assertion of a soldier’s self-reliance, makes sense from its place in the nation’s military might.

Outcomes are proportioned to the number of people involved and the unity of thinking among them. High unity among even a few (think suicide bombers) may have great effect, but big constructive tasks demand both large numbers and intense unity. Common slogans united generations of mass movements–the Abolitionists, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the struggle of the farm workers. Religions have impact as numbers unite around a purpose, and as they lose either numbers or focus, their influence wanes.

What does it take to bring numbers and unity of mind together?

The glue is a concept important enough to warrant people devoting their lives to it. Armed forces of every country prepare to be shot at, missionaries leave the comfort of placid homes, and many, while sustaining themselves in commonplace work, devote the substance of their time to advancing a value. Such people constitute the backbone of political parties and associations promoting the well-being of humans and other living things. You could label us “a nation of believers” who believe it’s a good thing to unite voluntarily around a common purpose.

But why does the unifying factor need to be a concept?

The concept in humans serves in place of instinct in elephants or wolves for coping with problems. Humans instead invent the idea they think sustains their well-being and helps them sort among tradeoffs. It’s the last bar of appeal as they prioritize: this effort leads more directly to our goal than that. Without it, disputants are afloat in a sea of opinions and power, drawn this way and that by voices–the loudest, most fear-inducing, most recent, and with the strongest coercive power. Without a guiding concept, people unwittingly play out a British lawmaker’s description of another: “Lord X is like the cushion of a chair which retains the impression of the last person that sat upon it.”

In insecure times, people not committed to a constructive, unifying concept are easily manipulated to act against their own interests (Hitler, Joe McCarthy, the Red Scare). The Terrorist Scare of recent years induced some Americans to promote torture along with other foolish decisions. Even representative government itself can undermine people’s reflection on the direction of their country through its implication that some know better than others, and that the latter should cede control of the nation to the former. This has proven to be a flawed assumption. There may be no cognoscenti who know what others don‘t. Confident as we are of our civilized postures, we might recall that Germans were highly educated yet elected Hitler–even while his inner circle were saying privately, “If they elect us, we will never relinquish power.” A destructive idea united enough Germans to subvert government’s duty to insure the well-being of its citizens.

Re-examining our unifying ideas matters especially today as we face factors that can alter human life. Later generations may view as fatal our current contest between aggressive pursuit of short-term economic gain on the one hand, and the long-term life of the planet on the other (showing up later as desertification, species’ die-off, depletion of fresh water and other resources, climate change, and ocean pollution). Ideological militancy–mediocre thinking bound to intense emotion–may resort to dirty atomic weapons, and biological and chemical warfare. An international economic system that steadily transfers more wealth to the wealthy could induce worldwide disasters. While some five hundred billionaires rule the world economy, five of the world’s six billion people live in poor countries. Such invented disparities may already have so paralyzed our collective ability to respond that even governments together may be unable to avert the disastrous effects of climate change, and unable to prevent catastrophes such as errant meteors striking our planet.

What unites society’s varied influences now is their separateness. They individually go their own way, pursuing gain or advantage narrowly conceived. But even a cursory observation of cause and effect warrants the conclusion that they gradually destroy the planet and that effects will worsen until corralled within a better unifying idea.

If we could cleanly separate ideas and label this one good and that one bad, our task would be easier, but the conflict is between good things. Our personal choice of good may appear to another as a barrier to his. We emphasize the value of our own perceived good and run it as far as we can, preferring not to look at values we cancel out and ignoring even the conflict between two things we want. In Arizona last year, citizens were asked whether they wanted more or less spending by state government. A large majority predictably wanted less. They were asked then, for each of seven budget categories, whether they wanted more or less spending on it, and wanted more on six of the seven, with prisons the only exception. We want the good thing in fuzzy dimension, but not the details that accomplish it.

This pattern extends beyond Arizona. People, in general, are seldom guided by a comprehensive concept but instead go first to their personal needs and interests. Guiding oneself by an overarching value isn’t automatic nor instinctive, but depends on conscious training in the value of self-discipline. Left to ourselves, we cluster in groups that vie against each other, arguing whether to save banks, whales, houses, birds, jobs, trees, children, elders, or the unemployed.

We defer our own short-term interest easiest upon recognizing that long-term well-being matters more and that our self-restraint now will benefit others we regard as our own. We seldom reach this conclusion on our own because it stretches our natural, tribal-level concept of group. Usually others must remind us of the distant effects on others we don’t see and enduring effects on people yet to be born. Social change involves much explaining, imagining, and sense-making.

However we come to it, the nation (and world) can really use a vision of the whole right now that people in every corner of society can buy into. It’s especially timely because we‘re going to ask them to limit their short-term gain for the sake of better long-term results for everyone. Our point isn’t to pit the rich against the poor as the Communists did, or risk takers against the secure, or educated against the uneducated. The issue is more subtle. Addressing those who now benefit most from the prevailing system or who seek benefits that will destroy other values, we ask them if a value exists that’s larger than their current advantage. We project a future for them and their kind that might interest them more than does greater benefit for themselves just now. A parallel shift has appeared in business literature in recent years with the question, “Can business save the world?“ Entrepreneurs who look for it can often find a way to solve a problem while profiting themselves and employing others. If instead we only change the terms of conflict, we gain little and perpetuate manipulation of interests.

The phrase I propose to describe the emergent unifying concept is a direction to pursue, a criterion to apply, and not an end-state to fulfill. The concept of the good of the whole pictures constructive action simultaneously on all fronts possible; taking into account all the effects of our decisions so they’re as helpful as they can be, and bidding us defer action while we investigate outcomes that even could be destructive. Our blindered assertion of a narrow value we replace with a willingness to look around and to the side for effects we hadn’t noticed. Even those who promote capitalism as an unmitigated good have discovered recently that its good has limits; that unless guided by broader values, it can run society into the ground. Too many ways to pursue a good leave the field of action deep in detritus.

My previous articles suggested that constructive social change comes with a price, and that better quality thinking is crucial to fulfilling it. Here I add the notion that people need a common unifying idea, which I refer to as the good of the whole.

Next I’ll discuss how people take up a common idea.

  • Read Part 1 & 2.
  • John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2006). He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net and will email an ebook version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. Read other articles by John.

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    1. bozh said on February 2nd, 2010 at 10:30am #

      it helps me to think apodicticly; i.e., what shld be among us humans according to the necessary truth.
      The first such truth wld be that we [?all of US] were ok; we are ok now; we will always be ok.
      The second truth wld be that we have been divided by hellish people into a less- and more-vaued class of people. Recall, that there is no such categories in nature or ordained by gods! That it is god’s will we behave as we do is the greatest lie ever told.

      The third much needed truth is that we came to believe that we are indeed less valued than nobility-priests.

      Sartre was not correct, imo, when he said: Hell is people. I say:hell is some people; while the rest of us can become hellish also, but solely as a result of massive lying by priests and ‘nobility’ [read, please, devils]

      All inquities that arose on interpersonal, intrapersonal, and int’l levels have been caused by this initial devilry. U ain’t gonna hear this from priests, because they are hell on earth. Pols, collumnists, ‘eduactors’ are not better! tnx

    2. Josie Michel-Bruening said on February 3rd, 2010 at 5:13am #

      Thank you for this article, John Jensen!
      Additionally, I am grateful that one of your profession is caring for “dirty policy”. As a German woman I am educated among others in systemic family therapy, and I am regretting that people of my profession normally don’t try reaching public opinion on political issues.
      The ancient Romans had the device: Divide et impera!
      This works until now.
      However, if our species wants to survive we have to unite avoiding to peg each other as certain ideological affected people not worthy for exchanging ideas and finding mutualities.

    3. dan e said on February 7th, 2010 at 12:38pm #

      hey jensen! you sed that to say what?

      Deadbeat nailed it: there’s nothing in your screed that couldn’t be found in course materials of any MBA program.


      now if you could come up with something that could help people laboring under the misapprehensions being spread via the MSM by the Tea Party scammers & Ms Palin, even if it was ultimately wrong I could see a point to it. But this stuff of yours is nothing but vague generalities. Nothing in it for people mad because they see correctly that Obama is giving away the store to the big banksters.

    4. Deadbeat said on February 7th, 2010 at 7:24pm #

      I agree with DanE. In the email exchange that I’ve had with Mr. Jensen there is nothing radical in his analysis. It is full of vague generalities and written in an extremely oblique manner to make its meaning incomprehensible.

      What is needed is a radical analysis of Capitalism and a restoration of Marxism in order to help people understand their plight and oppression. This has been missing from the Left for nearly 40 years — which was the major impetus of Liberalism and the purging of radicals from the labor movement supported by Robert F. Kennedy in the 1950’s.

      If you want an excellent account of the withering of the Left read Alexander Cockburn’s headline article in this weekend’s CounterPunch.

    5. siamdave said on February 8th, 2010 at 10:24pm #

      Deadbeat – for as radical an analysis as is needed, based on a Cdn perspective, try here – What Happened? http://www.rudemacedon.ca/what-happened.html .

    6. dan e said on February 9th, 2010 at 2:14pm #

      turns out “Cdn” means “Canadian”, the format of the site is unreadable, and there is way too much on it to read in one sitting. A lot of the analyis is pretty sound but ends in a deadend, proposing “Social Democracy” as the solution. So for me a waste of time but maybe some who think there may be some promise in Tea Partying could benefit?

    7. Deadbeat said on February 9th, 2010 at 3:48pm #

      Thanks siamdave for the link. I read the article but I have to agree with dan’s assessment. “Social democracy” is typically associated with what we in the States call “Liberalism”. The author also seem to adhere to markets the commodity fetish of money which as we have experience creates inequality. With all of the technology that exist today there really is no need for money in society. Money will only maintain a “price” on labor. How then do we set these prices? Who should get paid more? Who should get paid less? Why waste time and effort trying to assign a numeric price on things? Isn’t that the basis of commodification of the human experience?

      While I do appreciate the author’s anti-capitalist stance and don’t get me wrong such a narrative is an excellent antidote to the Liberal/Libertarian screed of rally around capitalism, I think this crisis presents an excellent opportunity to go much further than the critiques of capitalism presented in the 1930’s and 1960’s especially in light of where we are today technologically. We can and should do better and go even further.