15 January 1997
Seeking the "Cutting Edge" of Sustainable Community
- / -
In a world where most values are subject to challenge, being at the
"cutting edge" is widely considered a highly desirable condition and a
mark of achievement. What might this attitude conceal in a society challenged
by violence at every level?
One source of this metaphor is probably wings. Airplane wings are recognized
as having "leading edges" and "trailing edges". Whilst in society it is
also considered desirable to be at the "leading edge", being at the "trailing
edge" is definitely to be avoided as the mark of a loser. But in the case
of airplane wings, the leading edge is far from having the sharpness associated
with a "cutting edge", in fact that sharpness is associated with the trailing
edge of the wing. A wing in fact is carefully designed according to aerodynamic
principles to ensure maximum lift under various conditions of stability
in flight. To this end, the shapes of each edge are necessary complements.
It would be inappropriate, even dangerous, for the sharper edge to be placed
In the case of a knife the situation is reversed. Here the sharper edge
"leads" in any cutting action of the knife, and necessarily so. The "trailing"
edge is necessarily blunt, to provide structural strength to the knife
and to enable it to be occasionally sharpened -- which involves progressive
loss of material. Again the two edges are complementary.
What influence would such considerations have when "cutting edge" is
used metaphorically in relation to the action of organizations? It is usually
applied in situations of organizational change, both at the community or
the international level. Whether at the "leading" or the "cutting" edge
of social change, what do those employing this phrase have in mind?
What does "edge" mean in this situation? It would seem to imply the
boundary with some change of state. A moving force is encountering a medium
which is in some way displaced by the action of the moving force. This
movement is assumed to be a good thing. The resistance to the action of
that movement, whether in the form of deficiency in knowledge, belief,
sensitivity or organizational skills, must necessarily be moved aside,
transformed or in the most extreme cases eliminated. Those with the momentum
are necessarily assumed to know better than those encountered by that edge.
What then does "cutting" imply? In order to effectively exert their
impact, those imbuing themselves with momentum may find it necessary to
"cut their way through" -- in a manner of hacking a path through jungle
undergrowth. This raises questions about the status accorded to that undergrowth
by those doing the hacking. A security force find it appropriate to "cut
its way through" a force of rioters in seeking to enforce law and order?
Here, although knives would not necessarily be used, force would definitely
be considered an early, and necessary, option.
These considerations raise questions in a violent society where many
have recourse to arms and to knives, whether for protection or to exert
their will. When the "cutting edge" metaphor is used in connection with
social change, is that understanding of social change to be considered
as trapped in the same metaphor as that which it seeks to transform? Related
issues have been raised within segments of the peace movement which found
themselves using military terms to elaborate their strategy: marshalling
resources, selecting targets, and the like. Who exactly gets "cut" by a
"cutting edge" and what is the effect upon them? Do they perceive themselves
as having been wounded -- wounds which those on the "cutting edge" define
to be for the greater good?
In contrast it is helpful to consider growth boundaries in nature. A
growing tip of root or shoot does not "cut". There is therefore an interesting
distinction between the mechanical "cutting" metaphor and "growth" metaphors
characteristic of nature. Any such "growing edge" is characterized above
all by its proprioceptive nature -- it has a heightened sensitivity to
what lies before it and draws it forward. A cutting edge has no such sensitivity,
being driven by the strength of what lies behind it (other than in the
case of self-mutilation). It achieves its sharpness at the price of total
insensitivity. This is in fact its greatest weakness in that it may encounter
unforeseen resistance and be damaged by it -- a phenomenon used in spiking
trees to prevent their being cut down.
Is it therefore appropriate for the proponents of social change, and
notably in sustainable communities inspired by nature, to adopt the "cutting
edge" metaphor? Should communities seek to be at the "cutting edge" with
all that that may inspire in others? Few can be at points of growth, for
many are required to supply the infrastructure to sustain them in their
growth. Growth takes place for society as a whole, not at its expense --
at least one would hope.
In a competitive society, where being "at the top" is the only non-monetary
achievement that is valued, it is convenient to draw attention to the few
(the "winners") and to value them disproportionately in relation to the
many("the losers"). Where financial resources are involved, this reinforces
the income gaps within society -- which community initiatives purportedly
endeavour to reduce. In other cases, such as the academic, sport, cultural
or religious sectors, the contributions of the few are then similarly overvalued
at the expense of the many. The "cutting edge" is then associated with
efforts to occupy the moral or intellectual high ground. How does this
differ from various efforts at one-upmanship?
Returning to the insights from airplane wings, is it possible that the
edge metaphor, whether in the form of "leading" or "cutting", is employed
primarily by those who seek to give themselves lift with respect to others,
in order to rise above them? Is there a form of social "aerodynamics" whereby
the "edge" is uplifted by the nature of the resistance that it meets? Is
this why "flying" is appreciated as a metaphor -- a sense of overcoming
the "drag" associated with others?
But who is kidding whom? Just as a wing needs leading and trailing edges,
communities need leaders and followers --and, over time, these roles may
be taken on and dropped by many. Any effort to produce a society based
only on leaders, or excellence, or some isolated value, is surely an aberration
condemned to unsustainability.
What is the appropriate alternative to the "cutting" metaphor in a learning
society? Do those employing this metaphor have an ability to "cut it" in
a sustainable community? How does the sharpness associated with the belief
that one knows relate to the delicacy of a communal context based on organic
growth into an uncertain future, possibly calling upon many currently unrecognized
community resources? Is being at the "cutting edge" compatible with sensitivity
to context? Or is the art of sustainable community based on "pruning" skills
-- as some believe in seeking to exclude from community those who fail
to toe the current community line defined by those at the "cutting edge"?
Do those at the "cutting edge" have the insight to determine what is "dead
wood" or "inappropriate growth" that merits pruning?
Just as it is not useful to glorify "cutting edges", it is equally unuseful
to demonize them. When holistic healing fails, the art of the surgeon may
be required. Pruning has its place. Determining its place is the real art.
Regrettably much of the daily news may be heard as the clash of self-defined
"cutting edges" which have difficulty in determining their respective roles
in a more holistic society.