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Creative Identification of Appropriate Social Structures through Metaphor

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A. Background / Context

The beginning of the 1990s is clearly a time of momentous changes. Of special interest is the problem faced by countries shifting from a socialist, centrally-planned society, to one based on other insights and values -- Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, USSR. Intertwined with this is the situation of Germany and the EEC, and the search for an appropriate form of federation or confederation for a European house. Similar challenges are faced by South Africa in moving beyond apartheid, in Zimbabwe in finessing the move towards Marxism-Leninism, and in China in transcending the events of Tianamen Square which heralded many of the above changes.

In each case much advice will be sought and given by experts in developing economic and financial systems, democratic structures, public administration, commerce, and industry. There is already a rush of representatives from financially powerful groups in the West seeking to "provide assistance". It would be naive to assume that this assistance will be disinterested or that it will not lead to unsatisfactory forms of exploitation in many cases. Similarly the liberalization of many of these countries will also encourage the rise of exploitative initiatives natural to those countries -- the dark face of private enterprise and market economies. In the midst of all these opportunities, individuals will be tempted and seduced by the obvious symbols of Western affluence: Coke, MacDonalds, Levis, VCRs, PCs, mass media, cosmetics, and fashion. And why not ?

At this early stage it is impossible to distinguish between fruitful change and forms of change which will entrap such societies in the same difficulties faced in the West: drug abuse, crime.... And even if it was, who is to say that the price is not worth paying ?

Is there any way of enabling such societies to enhance their ability to make choices in the light of their own cultural values and insights -- at a time when those values seem to be in a turbulent state of transformation and it is unclear who should interpret them or how ?

Whilst the West might like to assume that the East will be "converted" to the Western lifestyle and aspirations -- to the "American way of life", for example -- it is not clear that those in Eastern cultures will ultimately be satisfied by them -- or that factions will not quickly emerge to undermine "westernism", destabilizing the society in a delicate period.

How might such societies find a form through which to discuss the spirit which imbues their culture -- the spirit which makes being Hungarian, for example, something to be valued above more obvious things. And how might this impact on the choices with which they are confronted at this time ? This concern is not something that is meaningful to specialists, experts or technicians -- or to those wanting to "provide assistance" or explore commercial possibilities. It is extremely relevant to the leadership concerned more generally with choosing among competing policies advocated by such experts as appropriate to the future of that country.

B. Approach

Whatever changes are approved, they have to be encapsulated in comprehensible form for presentation to interest groups and the general public. Complex policies articulated by experts do not normally lend themselves to such encapsulation. The result is that major policy options are presented in what amounts to caricatural form. And indeed one of the main tools of opponents of any given policy is the political cartoon. This triggers interpretation through what at best is "folk wisdom" -- that level of the cultural life of society carried by proverbs and imagery rich in metaphor. It is this body of knowledge which has guided that society through generations of change, often involving major disasters, forced political or religious conversions, annexation to some empire, occupation by foreign powers, and the like.

The question is whether it is possible to draw on this body of knowledge, as a kind of "guardian" of the spirit of the culture, to guide the formulation of policy options and the choice amongst them. Ironically it is the Chinese who have made the most deliberate use of metaphor in political life in order to maintain communication with a vast peasant population. Most policy options are formulated there in metaphoric form ("walking on two feet", "great leap forward", "the six evils", "let 100 flowers bloom"). But these metaphors are chosen in the light of the socialist policy they are designed to reinforce. They do not tap into the full depth of Chinese traditional culture which is at present channelled schizophrenically into cultural presentations to a limited extent only ("the dragon dance"). Above all, they are not used to inform discussion about policy options -- although the "dragon dance" provides a magnificent metaphor of the dynamics of the possible relationship between such incompatible policies as centrally-planned and market economies.

Consider the possibility of engaging a national debate through the media on relevant metaphors, possibly carried in proverbs from that culture. The aim would be to reverse the process whereby cartoonists, comedians and commentators react to policy options formulated by technicians and specialists -- highlighting their farcical absurdities and self-seeking qualties. People with such skills, and other culturally creative people, could be encouraged to use their creativity and insight to elaborate policy options in metaphoric form -- preferably aided by articulate members of the public (in a television studio audience, for example). Their concern would be far less with the technicalities and far more with the guiding insight which makes any particular policy appear appropriate and challenging (rather than an essentially boring, artificial imposition on the culture).

An interesting example is provided by former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in criticizing Margaret Thatcher's privatization policy. He claimed that she was "selling the family silver". She subsequently responded that she was indeed "selling the family silver", but that she was "selling it back to the family". This metaphor captures reams of technical debate and appears to provided a complete justification of that policy. For the debate to continue at that level, some other metaphor would have to be chosen to present Macmillan's critical insight in a more powerful way.

This example serves to highlight some inadequacies of metaphors as they are currently used -- given the complexities of the policy options under discussion. Just as a technical argument can always be made for and against a given policy, so metaphors can be found for and against a given policy (as the cartoonists of different political persuasions demonstrate so effectively). The challenge of the times is to move beyond simplistic conceptual frameworks, such as "all central planning bad -- all free-market economies good". But comprehending the nature of a desirable hybrid is a challenge with which technicians are ill-equipped to deal -- given the straitjacked training they tend to receive. The problem is that a successful hybrid between essentially incompatible policies can only exist in stable form if it is based on a new dynamic between the incommensurable extremes (rather than on a weak compromise incapable of dealing satisfactorily with the issues to which each policy seeks to respond).

What is desperately needed at this time are creative metaphors capable of giving comprehensible form to desirable policy hybrids. These metaphors can then be used to provide a context acceptable to the public for the conceptual scaffolding out of which the dynamic relationship between competing policies can be articulated. It is possible, however, that the most appropriate and sustainable policy cannot be adequately articulated conceptually -- precisely because of the complexity of the required dynamic. Metaphor then provides the "glue" or "bridge" which maintains the credibility of what might otherwise appear to be contradictory policies or policy inconsistencies. But such metaphors are necessarily several orders richer than the "family silver" type above. The complexity may even require a set of complementary metaphors, with a more general metaphor to bind them, in order to capture the requiste variety necessary to manage modern societies.

C. Illustrations

Brief illustrations of more complex metaphors could include:

(a) Parenting: The dilemma between central planning and free market approaches is beautifully illustrated by parental "policies" in controlling children. The extreme examples of overdisciplined and underdisciplined children are known to all, with their advantages and disadvantages. There are proverbs to illustrate such extremes ("All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" versus "Spare the rod and spoil the child"). Less clear, but familiar to many parents opposed to such extremes, is the essentially dynamic hybrid under which all rules can be broken some of the time, some rules can be broken all the time, but all rules cannot be broken all the time. It is the parental management of "yes" and "no". The weakness of this metaphor is precisely that there is little collective collective agreement as to the nature of this art, although it is so widely practiced.

(b) Crop rotation: Well known to peasant farmers, this is the process of alternating the growth of different crops in the same field in some (more or less) regular sequence. The inability of a field to sustain the growth of the same crop in the same field without rotation is well understood. The same cannot be said for conventional efforts to ensure that the same policy is pursued year in year out in a given society or social domain, when the metaphor implies that more sustainable development would be achieved by alternating with one or more other policies to remedy the defects of each in turn. Ironically this is the principle underlying the multi-party system. But none of the parties would find any justification, at present, in relinquishing power in such a "policy cycle". A merit of this metaphor is tat, although complex, the discipline has been articulated in detail by agriculturalists and used for generations by farmers.

(c) Urban traffic: At this material level, humanity has successfully developed a whole spectrum of techniques for handling streams of traffic heading in different directions, cutting across each other, with extensive freedom for vehicles in one stream to leave it for some other, according to the objectives of the driver. Such techniques include: traffic lights (including "green wave" phasing), overpasses, traffic circles, priority systems (stop streets, "give way to the right"), clover-leaf junctions, expressways, etc. How would the management of society appear if it was considered in this light, with different policies being equated with different streams of traffic heading in different directions ? And most people have a gut understanding of the dynamic complexities of traffic and of act in response to traffic with other priorities -- as well as which rules can be bent or broken under what conditions. Few find it useful to treat the oncoming traffic, headed in the "opposite direction", as "enemies of society" necessitating corrective action.

Such complex metaphors could be used to elicit others emerging directly from the cultural traditions of a society -- and perhaps more appropriate. The challenge is to provide a process through which more powerful and appropriate "guiding metaphors" can emerge to sustain an ecology of development policies for that society.

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