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Reframing Personal Relationships between Innovators or Leaders

The unmentionable challenge to sustainable paradigm shifting and social transformation

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The vast majority of studies and concerns with regard to social change and conceptual innovation focuses on "abstractions". Such abstractions include philosophies, theories, conceptual frameworks, belief systems, values, models of human and social development, and the like. Many concrete issues with which these are concerned may also be subject to definitional game-playing that converts them into abstractions. "Sustainable development" has become one such abstraction; "sustainable community" another.

Most organizations designed to deal with issues in some way may also be seen as abstractions that mainly derive their "existence" in reality from legal documents. There is a significant gap between the pattern of relations between people in a building and the coherence and substantiality implied by a statement such as "that is the UN Secretariat". In this sense the UN as such cannot be "seen" and must necessarily be understood as an abstract pattern through which some people choose to manage their affairs.

There is however an immediate reality to the interaction between representatives of any two distinct social change initiatives or factions -- whether in establishment bodies at the highest level, or in local communities, or in any community of peers. They may choose to behave formally and to conduct their communications with each other from positions corresponding to their titles and responsibilities. Such communications may be consistent with their concerns and otherwise quite unremarkable in content. They may be extremely cordial, or at least appear to be so. They may indicate possibilities of cooperation between the respective initiatives, which may indeed be explored to some degree.

This paper is however concerned with the extent to which such people may find each other unacceptable or intolerable in some way -- such as to directly undermine action contributing to effective social change. Transactions between such people are then inhibited in some way. This phenomenon is widely recognized in practice and may even be a matter of common knowledge vital to the organization of any event in which both parties must be seen to participate. However, it is seldom formally acknowledged in unclassified documents. It may only become formally known long after the time when any antipathy was critical to ensuring effective collaboration. In an increasingly media-sensitive society, where upbeat reporting is perceived as vital to creating a positive impression, it may be in the interest of all parties to disguise such differences with all the art of public relations and image management.

Symptoms of antipathy between change agents

Note that in many cases such behaviour may only be consciously recognized by the parties concerned, or by one of them only -- or by neither of them. For others, or even for the parties concerned, the avoidance behaviour may be integrated into a natural pattern of formal behaviour that tends anyway to inhibit collaborative relationships of more than a token nature.

Basis for antipathy between change agents

Perhaps more fundamental than any of the above is the issue of whether people like each other or find each other "sympathique". This can override challenges posed by many, if not all, of the above. But equally, if such is not the case, even though none of the above is a factor, collaboration may still not be fruitful.

Consequences of antipathy between change agents

Pleas for tolerance in dealing with those of different style and perspective may be heard, but tend to fail to address the nature of the antipathy. Ironically the dyanmic is as evident amongst those who endeavour to promote tolerance, reconciliation and peace -- as is evidenced by the fragmentation amongst groups of this persuasion.

Illustrative examples

Examples may be found in arenas such as the following:

Recognition of "reluctance" in a social change context

Antipathy may be usefully understood as the "heavy" form of what otherwise manifests as a form of "reluctance" to collaborate -- "antipathy-lite". Note that the focus here is not on tolerance, but on collaborative action of a non-tokenistic form.

In the case of interpersonal relationships, such distinctions are perhaps most clearly understood, in the contrast between the seven stages of: friendship, flirtation, courtship, foreplay, love-making, consummation and parenthood. Transposed to collaborative social relationships, it is obvious that "reluctance" can operate successfully through the five first stages without any intention of longer-term, sustainable consequence as a result of collective "conception". Some form of "contraceptive" may even be used to ensure that the dynamics of the relationship are "safe" -- as with ship-board relationships. Even the sixth stage, "conception", can be undertaken -- as in an enthusiastic joint brainstorming or collective envisioning -- without any firm joint commitment to "parenthood" of a sustainable form.

At each stage, one or other partner can demonstrate "reluctance" to "go further". This may be regretted by the other party who may feel that the relationship could be more fruitful. In the physical case, the processes of "withdrawing" from further involvement and the handling of "rejection" are constantly the subject of soap operas and songs. In the social case, the processes are less clear, although many are naturally familiar to lobbyists and activists.

The situation that probably calls for the most attention is when one or more individuals are considering closer collaborative relationships -- typically when there is the possibility of together constituting a new working group of some kind. This is most dramatic in the case of processes leading to the creation of a sustainable intentional community. For an individual, it may be most dramatic when this involves commitment to a new working context -- where an existing collectivity reciprocates through a process of openness and engagement.

In the case of collective group formation, it is clear that the potential participants can "flirt" with each other and with the idea. The possibilities of collaborative action can be explored in detail -- the group can dream together. They can even indulge in "foreplay", experimenting together with group initiatives in meetings and in ad hoc projects requiring minimal commitment. As in the physical case, "foreplay" performs the useful role of determining compatibility. Of course it can be engaged in, or assessed, as a pleasant indulgence -- of which many weekend group experiences are examples. Some of these may amount to "love-making" in which a higher level of engagement is effectively simulated without necessarily being transformed into reality. All these phases are essential free of longer term consequences. Parties are free to withdraw from further commitment -- although significant bonding may have taken place and can continue to influence their subsequent interactions. People can commit themselves to communities and yet feel free to withdraw when the going gets tough.

It can be argued that much valuable social interaction takes places without any further degree of commitment. In fact, in the physical case, communities can survive successfully over long periods without need for "consummation". It can even be argued that monastic communities, having survived many centuries, demonstrate that such "consummation" is not necessary -- although in that particular case theologians would argue that it takes place in another form. Many other kinds of community, including corporations, may be understood as not being dependent on a "consummation" phase. Renewal is achieved through "importation" rather than "consummation". Nevertheless it is through that phase that continuity is ensured in other kinds of community involving a broader diversity of participants. Community without "consummation" might then be understood as distinctly limited in scope and therefore unsatisfactory -- a curtailment of quality-of-life.

Does the preceding paragraph suggest a new way of looking at reluctance to higher degrees of project commitment? There is clearly a difference between the kind of arms-length commitment associated with support for many worthy projects and the kind of commitment associated with life-or-death situations where people place themselves at risk. It is this commitment that distinguishes participation in terrorist groups or in humanitarian action in high risk areas. Under fire, risk in the military is widely acknowledged as occasionally evoking such levels of mutual commitment. Natural disasters, such as the ice storms in Canada in 1997-98, evoke such commitment to some degree. Whether it is, or needs to be, "sustainable" is another matter.

What then distinguishes the "parenthood" phase of mutual commitment in social initiatives? Of course, here again the physical case offers examples of dysfunctional parenthood -- although the criteria of dysfunctionality may well be highly controversial. Does it matter if the "parents" of a project do not all remain committed to each other or to the initiative? The messiness of many social change initiatives makes it clear that they may well succeed independently of any idealized pattern of continuing partnership.

At the present time, are we collectively to be characterized as reluctant parents of the future?

The above text has benefitted considerably from comments by Ruth Anderson (Rural Forum, Scotland). 


Epistemological Challenge of Cognitive Body Odour: exploring the underside of dialogue, 2006 [text]

The 'Dark Riders' of Social Change: a challenge for any Fellowship of the Ring, 2002 [text]

Coherent Patterns of Schism Formation, Bifurcation and Disagreement -- and the associated bonding, encounters and agreements they evoke, 2001 [text]

Living Differences as a basis for Sustainable Community: ecosystemics of designing, configuring and driving a difference engine to avoid quenching enthusiasm, magic and the life of the spirit, 1998 [text]

Using Disagreements for Superordinate Frame Configuration, 1992 [text]

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