[This article was originally published by the World Future Society online following
the September 2011 attacks and the Enron scandal.]
Nature shows us that dissonance is a means of restoring stability to natural systems. The caterpillar’s residue gives rise to the butterfly. Natural forest fires clear the way for life of many varieties to regenerate. The founder of the martial art of aikido believed that the goal of all conflict is to restore harmony. Systems seek stability and they may create what we humans call conflict or chaos in order to do so.
General Systems Theory tell us that systems are always trying to “correct” themselves – using their own innate form of immune system to ward off any “infections” that threaten their stability. We see this in natural systems, like plants, animals and the human body, as well as in human-made systems such as the complex web of institutions we’ve created – like multinational corporations, governments and telecommunications networks.
One of the most complex systems human beings have ever created has been the global economic system – clearly the most dominant and powerful human-made system in the world!
The System Trying to Correct
If you look at recent world events like 9-11 and the Enron scandal through the senses of a “systems thinker” you might see beyond the politics, religious fanaticism, greed, and perverse nationalism; you might see these events from a wider perspective.
Terrorism is certainly dissonance – whether the acts of suicidal religious extremists, legally constructed armies or police squads, or Wall Street financial manipulators. The violence of terrorism is not only tragic for the victims and their loved ones but it really disrupts the system. I’m addressing all the forms of terrorism – the activities carried out by the 9-11 hijackers, the “War Against Terrorism,” the deception by Enron executives and their confederates at Andersen, and all the other unreported acts of a similar nature that aren’t making the headlines.
Looking at the system of market capitalism from an eagle’s point of view – detached and with “big eyes” – one might see a system attempting to make adjustments that it sees as necessary for its own survival. Any system will try to make “corrections” when it perceives that it is under threat – when its stability is being undermined. These adjustments will tend to get more and more severe, until stability or harmony begins to return. As the old saying goes, “And then it hit me ‘up side’ the head, like a whack with a two by four! Then I really got it!”
What clearer signal might have been given that global capitalism needs to change than to have the very “heart” of the world’s economic system – the World Trade Center – totally destroyed. The twin towers were not merely damaged; they were eliminated, eradicated, gone forever! They disappeared from our physical reality totally!
Was this not one sign that, maybe, just maybe, things weren’t quite right?
If a person has a heart attack, it is a pretty clear sign that they should change their lifestyle – that things are not going well. Usually, people get lots of warnings before they suffer a coronary arrest but many are oblivious to the early-warning signs and sometimes die as a result of their first heart attack – the most severe signal the body can muster to say “slow down” and “change your ways.”
Well, the “heart attack” on global capitalism was quite severe. For years the system has been giving signs that something needs to change but those seemingly “in charge” – particularly we Americans and others who think like we do – have continued to ignore these signals and remain oblivious to these systemic attempts to self-correct. With total arrogance, these signals have been dismissed as aberrations or mere hiccups in an otherwise okay system. And most of us who don’t “seem” to be in charge go along with this dismissive attitude, condoning it by our silence!
Most Americans look at the events of 9-11 from the personal or national levels, rationalizing that the terrorists were motivated by perverse religious beliefs and fanaticism, coupled with economic suppression that is so rampant in the third world that people take it for granted. On the level of all humanity, however, it was a wake up call for us to change our ways.
A few months later, the second terrorists’ attack took place on investors and employees of Enron, at the time the fifth largest corporation in the U.S. While this attack wasn’t carried out by Islamic extremists, it was nonetheless a form of terrorism where innocent “civilians” were the victims. Commentators had a field day with the Enron/Andersen scandal, some referring to it as “capitalism gone amuck” and other characterizations that were chillingly accurate assessments. To be sure, the conflicts in the Middle East, Enron’s collapse and the “War on Terrorism” are all intertwined. But the pundits won’t allow themselves to see the accuracy of their comments, for that would be traitorous or disloyal to “the system” that we all empower. So they think of their words as mere sarcasm and wordplay rather than seeing the truth of what they are saying.
The Enron “scandal” isn’t generally seen as related to the “other” terrorist strikes. But from a systems perspective it really is. It is an even louder wake up call about the global capitalistic system and the darker sides of people that the system draws out. What I once heard some Latin American colleagues of mine refer to as “brutal capitalism” has now come back to our own shores – back to the homeland of the creators of the “American Way” – and unleashed its fury on our own people right here in the United States.
Raging American Chauvinism
It is easy for us Americans to ignore the impact our way of life has in other parts of the world. After all, we rarely hear much about it from our corporate-owned media and very few of us take the time to see ourselves as other countries perceive us. So, we may have been shocked to learn that we are resented by so many other cultures who’ve been victimized and exploited by the American Way. But that naïveté was popped on September 11 as millions of Americans started to realize that we weren’t as well-liked as we may have thought.
But, as a nation, we simply responded in kind. We battened down the hatches at home and carried out our own form of terrorism away from home. There was no introspection about our way of life. Instead, we rushed to wreak vengeance on anyone who resembled the terrorists, filled with self-righteousness. We encouraged one another to continue consuming, with the rationale that if we stop consuming the terrorists would win. This was our consumer chauvinism at its darkest!
There is little awareness here at home that the American Way has become a curse for much of the world which is seeing cultures ruined, traditions abandoned, people exploited, environments scavenged and local values ignored. As my colleague at Stanford Business School, Professor Emeritus Michael Ray calls it, “The American Dream has become the world’s worst nightmare.”
As a middle-aged man, I can still recall when the women’s movement pointed out male chauvinism. At first, I refused to give the idea any credibility. Why? Because it was “just the way things were,” I reasoned. Gradually, however, I started to see my complicity in the suppression of women and realized how it felt to be a chauvinist, despite my not wanting to be labeled as such.
Now, I have similar feelings. But it isn’t about my maleness. It is about my “American-ness.” American chauvinism is being confronted right now. Our swagger and arrogance is out of control.People in other parts of the world, even Americans living abroad, have seen this coming for years. But we (and I include myself in this “we”) didn’t want to hear anything that could possibly suggest that the American Way was flawed – that “our way” wasn’t the best and we weren’t better than any other people. National egoism breeds arrogance for “us” and hatred in “them.” Like the male chauvinism that was so rampant before the women’s movement, the “noise” will not be stilled as the rest of the world cries out for equality, respect and justice. It will simply get louder and louder.
The system has tried to correct from both the outside and the inside, from foreign shores and from the boardrooms of Corporate America. The system doesn’t care what changes things so long as the corrections take place and the next generation is allowed to give birth. The system is smarter than we are right now. It will continue to “whack us ‘up side’ the head” until we either get it and start changing or we destroy everything and everyone, including ourselves, in the process.
I have enough trust in God and Nature that I know our planet will be okay, regardless of how much we “terrify” it. My faith in whether we humans will still be here to enjoy it is not as strong.
Changing How We Think
The most positive change we Americans can make is to stop thinking so chauvinistically – as chief exporters of the American Way and as the best damn consumers in the world. As U.S. Senator John McCain wrote recently, “We are an unfinished nation.” We still have lots to learn, despite our great strengths and achievements. We are a very young country, barely pubescent compared to most other cultures. But like the talented teenager who has yet to taste defeat, our adolescent arrogance can be our biggest blind spot and our ultimate undoing – our Achilles Heel.
As a species, we have much farther to go in our evolution. We are hardly a “fully-evolved” humanity. But will we be around to enjoy our transcendence or end up a mere notation on God’s log for “Spaceship Earth” as an experiment that failed to live up to its potential?
We Americans share a planet with billions of other people. Acting as if we are invincible and singing “God Bless America” aren’t the actions of a nation with any real appreciation for other people’s cultures. Making the loss of American lives a huge issue while simultaneously denying the value of the lives of others is incredibly chauvinistic. How would we feel if our World Trade Center civilian casualties were classified as “collateral damage” as we do when we kill tens of thousands of non-combatants in other countries? Nationalism is great until it gets perverse and hierarchical. Consumption of needed goods and services is essential for survival but not as a replacement for self-esteem, gratuitous self-indulgence or feeding our addiction to exponential growth. Capitalism in a truly free market is fine but not when it denies basic human rights and dignities, and mutates into the darker stuff that breeds greed, disrespect, and human suffering – even if they occur out of earshot or someplace far away from us.
We need to think not only as Americans who are proud of our country and the incredible strides we have made in creating one of the first and most powerful democracies in history but as responsible global citizens. Responsibility goes with power and responsibility for the whole goes with responsible leadership.
Whether or not we are aware of it, we all give legitimacy to this system that is “running amuck.” If we do nothing to withdraw our endorsement, we defacto continue to empower it. Complaining about the system that we have had a hand in creating is like crying over the pain caused by keeping your fingers pinched in the door jam. We are the cause; we are the ones giving power to this system that appears to have control over us. Instead of pretending that someone else is in charge of things, lets own up to the fact that it is we who are in control of this system. The only ones who can change it are the ones feeding it power. And that’s you and me.
If there isn’t a major change in this system we capitalists all live in there will definitely be another “wake up call.” I have faith that the system will continue its attempts to correct matters until it happens. What these changes will look like and where they will come from I cannot say, but I am positive they will come and they will be even bigger “whacks” than 9-11 and Enron. And, they will come soon if we don’t start making changes so this perverse form of capitalism does not continue mutating.
As I stated earlier, the most important thing we all can do is to change our minds, which doesn’t happen by “doing” things or rushing into automatic reactions. It happens by shifting our consciousness, and acting from that new awareness. But people – particularly in the West – want to see a list of things to DO. It is easier to simply start doing something different (pass new laws, punish a few identified bad guys, build better security systems, etc.) than to do the deeper work of waking up and taking greater responsibility for the whole of humanity. Like race and gender issues, the problems won’t go away by simply ‘doing’ some things. American chauvinism has been ingrained in our thinking and that is where the change needs to take place, just like Einstein told us over half a century ago.
The Value of Dialogue
One way for us to initiate our own course corrections is to start talking with one another. Americans would learn much by engaging other peoples in the world in dialogue. They would learn what it is like to live outside of the U.S., and see some of the more shadowy sides of the economic system of which we are so proud. Subscribe to non-American news services so that you receive a wider perspective about events in the world. Did you know that the International edition of CNN was dropped because there weren’t enough Americans watching it? So we get the “American edition” even though most U.S. viewers think they’re getting a balanced view of world events.
We can engage in dialogue with other cultures – people who value different things than we do, people who do not subscribe to consumerism, eroticized music videos, Christianity, violent movies and television. We can listen to them as if their point-of-view matters. We can pick people to engage in dialogue who are different – VERY different from us – and really listen to them.
The ridiculously protracted conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a microcosmic projection of how we Americans are dealing with people who don’t like us. The system is giving us a great mirror for how NOT to reconcile differences, and we can learn from it – sitting safely in our living rooms half way around the world without enduring any of the suffering. Those of us who see the need to change the way we are thinking about all this need to take stands when and where we know we are right, despite the seeming hopelessness of getting anything to change. Taking these stands may require great courage, like the several hundred Israeli soldiers and officers who have taken a stand against participating in the occupation of the Palestinian regions.
Why can’t we learn from South Africa, which invoked their truth and reconciliation project so the previously warring factions could get on with living together in harmony through forgiveness and honoring their shared humanity? Are Americans too arrogant to learn lessons from other nations? Is our chauvinism so strong that we cannot acknowledge that another country might have something of value, perhaps even an answer that we didn’t invent ourselves?
A Time for Taking Stands
All of us who see the need for major changes need to stick our necks out and be responsible for what we know and what we see as possible. Indifference, cynicism, resignation and apathy are the real villains here. They are the enemy of achieving a sane and sustainable world that our grandkids can enjoy. Most Americans are simply standing by and watching the insanity grow like they are watching TV – emotionally detached and seemingly unaffected by this craziness – watching a “Rambo” movie or one of the “Terminator” films. This reminds me of the “parable of the boiled frog” – where people slowly and gradually become accustomed to the ever-growing insanity, adapting to it by raising their thresholds of tolerance. This is how many people cope with things they don’t like or don’t want to know about. They numb themselves out through various means so they can endure what’s going on. These passive responses to the craziness are what allows it to continue escalating. Having chosen to anesthetize themselves, huge numbers of people have taken themselves out of the equation (the new “silent majority”).
As any student of systems thinking knows, systems will eventually spin out of control and implode without outside feedback. Unless stands are taken and new possibilities are envisioned, the downward spirals will continue to go unchecked. Silence is seen as agreement. Unless there is LOUD objection by people with the spiritual chutzpah to take a stand, things look pretty dismal.
This is a time for true soul-searching. As we look into our souls, we get to see what resides in the depths of our humanity – our interconnectedness. We get to see who we are at our cores – beyond the stuff we buy and the work we do, beyond the state we live in or the circle of friends we love. The collective human soul is incredibly fragmented right now and those of us who see this huge disconnect are the ones who can bring about integration, reconciliation and reunion. If we don’t make some really big changes……well, you get the idea.