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The following set of commonly understood metaphors endeavours to highlight the range of mind-sets through which discourse in meetings might be envisaged. Fundamental problems associated with each are briefly noted. The metaphors provide contrasting windows through which the imagination can explore the ways in which people, groups, factions and governments organize meetings, projects and long-term cooperation to improve the condition of the world.
1. Networking and Teleconferencing
Discourse may be understood as networking -- the sending and receiving of messages amongst a network of people, groups and institutions within the "global village". This bypasses the conventional difficulties of communicating through and between different levels of organizational hierarchies and opens the doors to new opportunities for discourse. Problem: Despite initial enthusiasm, such exchanges tend to evolve either into chatting, soliloquies or ("under strong leadership") narrow technical exchanges. They rely on mutual appreciation -- there is only limited capacity for management of conflict. Tension and negative feedback are designed out -- networks become incestuous and ineffectual. If the non-viability of a network is recognized, it decays into token exchanges or is abandoned -- possibly to give rise to another. There is little provision for collective learning -- insight and wisdom are not accumulated.
Discourse arises when we "bury our differences" in a revolutionary struggle to bury some common enemy, usually a group of people responsible for an iniquitous social structure or for an erroneous belief system. Self-interest, normally the principal obstacle to successful discourse is transmuted into self-righteousness in a "holy war". Problem: In order to mobilize successfully for such a war, systems of restraint have to be abandoned. Once abandoned, there is no check on extreme violence (which may be non-physical) or exploitation by those able to manipulate the situation to their own ends -- in the name of the common cause. There is almost no capacity to distinguish what should be kept from what should be abandoned. Collective learning results only after collective revulsion at the pain and bloodshed and after recognition of the true colours of those who thrive on their necessity.
3. Trade and Development
Discourse, especially for some French-speaking governments, is equivalent to development -- or the policies and procedures through which it is brought about. In practice this means evolving terms of trade -- "let's trade" -- perceived as mutually beneficial, whatever the constraints and recognized inequities under the agreement. Problem: As in the simplest deal, there is considerable scope within the terms of the agreement, for poor quality, unserviceable, obsolescent or hazardous goods. Purchases on credit may be such as to place the purchaser in semi-permanent bondage. The seller may over-sell, ensuring the placement of essentially inappropriate products which create more difficulties than they resolve. The weaker party may be persuaded by a skilled negotiator to part with assets of considerable value, especially when there is pressure to sacrifice long-term benefits to short-term relief. Those dealing on both sides may be more interested in how they benefit personally (kick-backs, career advancement), irrespective of the longer-term consequences to those whose interests they are supposed to represent. Collective learning only results when it is recognized who benefits systematically from such deals and who is systematically impoverished by them.
4. Sexual intercourse
At its best "making love" is one of the principal examples of effective discourse between people -- "make love, not war". It calls for sensitivity, initiative and receptivity, and enhances mutual respect. Ideally it ranges from the reassuring to the transforming, and through such dynamics a new generation is conceived. Problem: As has been well-publicized, there are many far from ideal ways in which people engage in sex, from brutal domination by one partner through various exploitative sexual games -- not to mention the implications of prostitution, pornography or what some choose to perceive as perversion. It is questionable how often partners are mutually satisfied by such discourse. Considerable emphasis is placed on preliminary techniques for arousing interest, on short-term "performance", on the level of personal "pay-off" (such as the quality and quantity of orgasms), and on avoiding any long-term consequences. "Safe-sex" is advocated to avoid mutual infection and contraception is practised to avoid the conception of any product from the union -- except amongst those without the means to care for such issue. In the unfortunate event of effective conception, considerable means are deployed to ensure abortion or disposal of the issue by other means. Every effort is made by the majority to avoid any tangible consequences of such acts of discourse -- whilst a minority goes to great lengths to rectify infertility -- through artificial insemination and the use of surrogates.
5. Environmental ecosystems
The ecosystems interlinking flora and fauna are a valued example of how different species can cooperate -- the ideal of symbiosis is a much favoured model. The Gaia Hypothesis is explored as a model for discourse at the global scale. Such insights are fundamental to the "green" movement. Problem: In the less challenging interpretation, humankind is to be seen as a single species whose members should cooperate as peacefully as those of any other species. This loses sight of the hierarchical "pecking order" obtaining within most such species and the dominance of one or other sex. It loses sight of the competition for territory and exclusion from herds. And, except as the dominant species, it loses sight of the consequences of being part of a food chain. In a more challenging interpretation, humankind forms a multiplicity of species -- not so much by race as by vocation, specialization, ideology or culture. In this case food chains, if only in the form of information, raise many questions -- such as why the factions of the green movement are unsuccessful in functioning symbiotically, and instead draw attention to the other (seven), less symbiotic, forms of interaction between species. In perhaps the most challenging interpretation, each person constitutes an ecosystem of roles and mind-sets, which interweave amongst themselves and with others -- raising questions about who (or what) it is that cooperates.
6. Drama and Opera
A dramatic work can be construed as a design for discourse -- in which the actors cooperate in exploring themes and dramatic moments which play off each other to bring out certain qualities and insights. For the integrity of the work there is necessarily a deep commitment to ensuring the effectiveness of such discourse. Problem: Even within a dramatic work, a distinction is made between those having minor roles and the stars who have a fundamental need to be set above the others. And, despite increasing exploration into ways of reducing the separation between actors and "audience", whether within a theatre, on television or in the street, there remains a basic distinction between the dramatic reality and that no longer governed by a particular work -- from which the audience is drawn. In effect actors play at cooperating -- as do many who pretend to cooperate -- in contrast to the often less than cooperative relationships obtaining between them off the stage. What is to be said of the basic commitment to "seduce" the audience, who are paying in order to be captured, at least temporarily, by the reality presented. There is also the question as to whether effective discourse must necessarily be scripted or directed, or at least to what degree actors can improvise. If "all the world's a stage", are there many scripts, and what does that say about discourse and the need for its direction ?
7. Sharing in spirit
When spiritual values predominate, whether in an established religious tradition, a sect, a charismatic movement, or a religious community, then self-interest as an inhibitor of discourse is bypassed. Discourse becomes a sharing in spirit -- in the name of such as Christ, Allah, Buddha, Gaia, or of their enlightened representatives. People are "born again" into a new mode of interaction. Problem: Difficulties arise when the priorities are not clear and different factions emerge favouring distinct strategies. Everything then depends on the manner in which the spiritual values are interpreted and articulated. Groups become vulnerable to skilled operators who can successfully manipulate peoples' relationship to their evolving understanding of spiritual values. It becomes difficult to distinguish between skilled "supervision" for the good of the whole (as part of a spiritual journey) and skilled manipulation at the expense of those who accept the process -- for the benefit of the "disciples" who lead it. An important device used in this process is the stress on some external threat, its insidious influence on those within the group, and the need to maintain a strong "non-cooperative" relationship with those who can be named as vehicles of it -- especially when they follow other practices.
Discourse may be seen as "building together". Emphasis is placed on the tangible, if not on construction in its most concrete sense, whether houses, barns, schools, clinics or community amenities. It may take the form of major projects (joint ventures) such as dams, aircraft, defence systems or satellites. Or it may take the form of building communication networks or distribution networks. Differences are necessarily resolved in the practicalities of ensuring the viability of whatever is constructed -- the process may even be facilitated by common membership in some group such as the freemasons for whom building and architecture are fundamental symbols. Problem: Difficulties arise from the easy association with the economic, financial and political interests which approve or underwrite such projects and are involved in their subsequent exploitation. Once their interest has been aroused, it becomes difficult to dissociate such vested interests from any larger purpose for which the cooperative project was conceived. Such interests are totally insensitive (except under legislative constraint) to such issues as the inappropriateness of the project, wastage of scarce resources, or any negative social impact -- which are denied or viewed as unfortunate necessities. Each project is viewed in isolation (often ignoring the resources needed for its upkeep), irrespective of its unfortunate impact on other projects -- thus corrupting the purpose of the original concept. This leads to a legacy of silting dams, uninhabitable buildings, inappropriate monoculture, inoperable factories, obsolete weaponry and abandoned community projects.
9. Games and Teamwork
Games necessarily involve significant discourse between the players, whether the games take the form of board games, competitive or team sports, or war games. In team games, discourse operates in one way amongst those of the same team and in another in relationship to the opposing team(s). Successful business and military strategy is developed through a strong awareness of the importance of teamwork in relation to opposing teams. Within a team, explicit recognition is given to the role of each and the manner in which they should be able to support and substitute for each other in the event of crisis. Special attention is given by each to "marking the opposite number" in the opposing team. Each must endeavour to know the games his opponents (and his team mates) endeavour to play. Problem: In their least challenging form it is questionable whether games are a useful model of all but the most sterile form of discourse -- as when two people hit a ball over a net purely for entertainment. Teams are built in order to win a continuing series of games -- not just a single game. As a result both teams and their members shift their focus increasingly to the way in which their status is measured in series or league tables. Increasing those measurements becomes the objective of the game -- whether it be the statistics of ball players or teams, the number of police convictions, bodycounts from military operations, or financial indicators of corporations. Gamesmanship, and questionable devices for increasing convictions and bodycounts, become the rule. The decay of the Olympic spirit, under the influence of politicization, commercialism, medal counting, and the pressure to improve performance with drugs, bears witness to the vulnerability of this approach to discourse.
People cooperate through gathering together in some ceremonial, for a celebration, or for a "happening". This form of discourse may be extended through media events such as Live Aid, Hands Across America, or a World Run. It may take the form of celebrating achievements such as the 40th Anniversary of the United Nations, or the annual celebration of "days", such as One Earth. It may also fulfil a psychologically important ritual or liturgical function within the life of a group -- rekindling enthusiasm and commitment, and reinforcing a sense of community. Problem: The great attention aroused by such events, particularly through the media, easily creates the impression that some lasting discourse has been achieved -- bypassing the obstacles confronted by conventional initiatives. Such events legitimately build hopes and create visions of what might be, but they delude when presented as discourse of other than the most ephemeral kind. In contrast to the sacrifices normally demanded by any significant discourse, participants have little to lose by being seen to attend or contribute briefly to a happening. Such events salve consciences, draining resources away from longer-term projects. Symbols of achievement parade as realities, disguising healthy responses to non-achievement.
11. Rule of law
The elaboration of agreements and networks of regulations binding the relationship between social actors is discourse in one of its most lasting forms. Much effort is devoted to formulating resolutions, declarations of shared principles, and multilateral treaties -- as a means of evolving the framework of law, whether national or international. The stream of regulations from the EEC is a prime example. Problem: Much of the effort devoted to articulating such instruments is in response to the need for visible symbols of achievement at the time they were voted or signed -- whether for public relations purposes or to justify participation in a meeting. Many such instruments remain dead letters -- and indeed many are only produced for valid short-term effect, as reminders of what ought to be done. Treaties either fail to enter into force for lack of ratifications, or only govern the behaviour of a minority of potential parties, or are systematically violated, in the letter or in the spirit. Little provision is made for enforcement of obligations. Little is learnt from the lack of commitment to last year's resolutions in the throes of articulating those for this year.
12. Conspiracy of elites
Real discourse may be seen as associated with the unpublicized, long-term working relationships between elites of whatever kind. This may range from a group of community "elders", through "old boy networks" or "nomenklatura", through academic "invisible colleges", to semi-secret societies such as the freemasons and Opus Dei. It may be cultivated in closed meetings (Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg Group) and by secret diplomacy. It may be articulated in secret agreements, whether between governments, classified research establishments, intelligence agencies, corporations, crime syndicates or revolutionary groups. It may take a seemingly innocent form in conspiracies of the spiritually "initiated" or of like-minded social change agents (the "Aquarian Conspiracy"). Problem: The successes of this form enhance complacency amongst the elites -- the belief that their power and insight provide adequate social guidance -- as well as encouraging non-elites in this same belief, thus disempowering them. The difficulty with such forms is that there are no checks ensuring that the self-selected participants act in the interest of the wider community rather than their own -- as with cartels and organized crime. Consequently groups such as the freemasons and Opus Dei must check each others excesses in continuing battles hidden from the public eye. Invisible colleges must engage in primitive skirmishes to deprive each other of larger shares of scarce resources. Such groups are often poorly equipped to regulate the excesses of their members, as the publicized excesses of the insider traders, the freemasons, and irresponsible researchers make clear.
The challenge for the 1990s may involve not so much abandoning any one of these mind-sets but rather of learning how to avoid being trapped within any such metaphor as providing "the one solution". In each case there is a need to see through the veils of opportunistic reporting and media hype establishing claims of successful discourse. The danger is one of being deluded by semblances of discourse and symbols portrayed as achievements. Their current status constitutes a re-emergence of idolatry -- the perfection and worship of new forms of "golden calf". Such idols of discourse should not disguise the questionable value of efficient rearrangement of the deck-chairs on the Titanic or of effective use of a tea cup in bailing out a life-boat being swamped in heavy seas.
Is the bitter lesson to be learnt from the last 30 years that: Until we understand how we -- "the enlightened cooperators" -- are part of the problem, we cannot understand the nature of the solution required ?
This work is licenced under a creative commons licence.