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15 January 1997 | Draft

Seeking the "Cutting Edge" of Sustainable Community

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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 forwards.

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.

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