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Sustaining Higher Orders of Policy Consensus through Metaphor

Towards a new language of governance

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Program proposal to World Future Society (WFS)


Could the challenge of an assembly session not be reformulated in terms of collective discovery of a set of complementary metaphors or images which best embody a more fruitful understanding of governance at this time?

Can the contemporary challenge of governance not be reformulated in terms of the development of appropriate images, metaphors or parables to embody the harmonies and discords between apparently competing policy insights?

In these strange times, can it not be argued that what is required is some kind of 'strategic keystone' to provide a comprehensible interface between the many competing strategic responses basic to the dilemmas of governance for the future?

How might the proposed session be structured?

My suggestion would be for a panel plus a facilitator. Panellists are each invited to briefly indicate their most favoured metaphor to frame the future style of governance for a complex society -- with a few comments on the value of using metaphor (but not a lengthy commentary!).

After the first round, the structure can be loosened to include interventions from the floor, possibly with richer metaphors or criticism of particular metaphors.

The basic rule would be that discussion must focus on the adequacy of a metaphor, not on substantive issues (except to illustrate the weakness of the metaphor). The purpose is to identify richer metaphors, capable of handling greater complexity, and with policy implications. In other words superficial metaphors without policy consequences would be filtered out through the session process. Modellers talk about 'confronting' competing models -- here the purpose is to confront metaphors.

The facilitator's role (possibly aided by someone with visualization skills) would be to hold the contrast between complementary metaphors and to move onto a back burner those metaphors which were considered less adequate.

Insights into higher orders of consensus

Focus on such metaphors to carry subtle insight avoids the trap of lengthy verbal presentations using the specialized jargon of a particular discipline or political ideology. The need is to dialogue about insight and an 'image is worth a thousand words'.

The concern is with the subtlest insights into higher orders of consensus in the face of a turbulent strategic environment. There is merit in using metaphors which circumscribe or frame such insights. Imagination can be called upon to offer alternative images of governance in future times (partly to counter the sterility of the board room imagery of even the most futuristic science fiction).

If participants are called upon to offer suitable metaphors to capture the collective dilemma of governance at this time, a new way forward may be explored. This is not an imposition on those with an involvement in politics and media, since they regularly use such devices to communicate understandings within their own constituencies.

The challenge is to extend this skill to articulation of the relationship between the seemingly incommensurable strategic priorities which may be expected to be assembled in the session. The challenge is to discover 'healing insights', namely to clarify in metaphoric form the wholeness which articulates the relationship between different, and seemingly antagonistic, strategic insights. The concern is not to pursue tokenistic positive consensus for fear of being unable to contain and use a rich pattern of differences.

Note how this approach avoids confrontation on points of difference. It calls for setting the differences between others within an integrative framework which can be understood as a whole -- preferably with a 'centre' that is empty and open. Filling or occupying the centre precludes others from comprehending the subtlest insights through other possible frameworks, whether now or in the future.

This metaphoric approach recognizes that the challenge:

Traps to be avoided

Metaphors and images that are helpful to some are experienced as constraining and simplistic to others. More challenging is that, as with cultural artefacts, people may appreciate or regret the quality of harmony or discord emphasized in a particular metaphor. There are some whose need for harmony is considered unrealistic and unmeaningful by others.

However, since the subtlety of the concord that is sought must necessarily transcend any articulation in a single metaphor, the challenge is to discover a set of complementary metaphors which together better embody that overarching insight. Perhaps the spiritual art to be discovered is that of dancing between the insights offered by such metaphors.

A metaphoric example: an ecology of strategic insights

Using the ecological metaphor, for example, one may ask how each political tradition fits into the political ecosystem. What vital role does each perform within that ecosystem?

Note that this is not an exercise in political syncretism. Rather it is a recognition that there are people who, for whatever cultural or psycho-social reason, derive benefit from one pattern of strategic insights rather than from another. The complementarity of each approach may be vital to the sustainability of development and governance.

Supporting papers

Panellists could be invited to articulate or justify their positions on short papers available as handouts. For the well-equipped, this could also be done with imagery or video clips.


Anthony Judge:

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