The Challenges For Democracy

Article 5: Paradigms
Do we want a world in which truth ultimately fails?

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

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In memory of Pope John Paul II, 1920 to 2005
A non-Catholic, I respect and admire Pope John Paul II for being a great leader and healer. He reached out to all people, offering a vision of freedom, hope, and human dignity. He dared to challenge authority in Communist Poland by following his faith, but neither did he glorify Capitalism, seeing the dangers in it. He asked others to stand up for what they believe, both in the face of oppression and in the face of moral challenge.

With compassion and deep humility, he brought healing to deep divisions between nations of people. He apologized to the Jews who suffered in Nazi Germany, despite Christian presence, and he visited their Wailing Wall. He sought and apologized to Muslims who in remote history, suffered in many wars with those who represented the Catholic Church, and he visited their mosques. He brought science and religion closer to the same understandings and goals. He was truly a man of God, Christ-like, a great leader who accomplished great things.

I'm not implying by the above dedication that Pope John Paul II would have agreed with anything that I have written below, anymore than I agree with all of his statements.

I love a good battle. When two people of opposing views have an illuminating verbal exchange, it's great. The 18th. and 19th. Centuries were filled with idealists of every persuasion: scientists inventing science as they pursued their research, religionists spinning off in hundreds of directions in their pursuit of representations of ultimate truth, philosophers pursuing every thought to its logical extreme, political hotbeds spawning new idealistic ways of living, and social scientists proving and disproving endless theories about human personality and society. It was engaging.

Dissatisfaction stimulates progress, but when people become content with things, or when their way of life is threatened, they fight to preserve the status quo. Progress stops, and differences of opinion are squelched. So it is with knowledge and with life.

What do we make of the information that flows at us today in an ever deepening stream. Does this avalanche of information instantaneously change our views of the world? The rise of information is exponential, and the TV and Internet systems make information flow nearly instantaneous. But information isn't necessarily knowledge, and knowledge isn't necessarily experience. Experience is the empirical proof of knowledge, and only tested information is the qualified material of which knowledge is composed. So fast is the flow of information that knowledge not built on solid facts will quickly shatter.

Is our knowledge as strong as we think it is? Knowledge doesn't build in the same way that laying one brick on top of another builds a house. Bricks are discreet units that can be assembled to create any type of building. The assembled building stands alone. Knowledge is different. Knowledge is integrated with all other knowledge through the information it contains. Knowledge grows. Knowledge is dynamic. One thing affects another. Change one thing and the entire structure can shift. For example, with the acceptance of divorce and producing children outside of marriage, suddenly the entire structure of society is shifting. Many people feel threatened by such enormous changes.

We understand our world through the paradigms of knowledge that we create, either through our de facto historical experience, or through other beliefs to which we subscribe. We are Catholics, or Hindus, or Protestants, or New Age. We are Democrats or Republicans. We are democratic or dictatorial. We are capitalists or socialists. We subscribe to these beliefs. Usually we probably don't even know why, but if for no other reason than we were born into these beliefs. They seem natural. They seem true.

Do we create paradigms of knowledge, or are they simply arrangements of the natural world? A paradigm is a model. It is something that is created as a model for us to emulate or work within. Paradigms are simply an integration of multiple constructs of beliefs that seem to support each other.

Once the earth was flat, the center of the universe, and the sun and stars revolved around it. People were declared heretics and severely punished for challenging that view. New knowledge threatened that view - looking too closely at the stars could lead to heresy. One could sail off the edge of the world and be lost. Exploration was a bad idea. The paradigm of the earth being the center of the universe could not be challenged, nor could any knowledge within that paradigm. One chink in the information would make the entire thing fall.

Paradigms: in science, the brain can't heal; in religion, witches are everywhere and must be burned at the stake; in psychology, everyone has homosexual tendencies, and every woman who denies sexual abuse has repressed the memory, and child sexual abuse is rampant. All of these paradigms are built on knowledge and beliefs that are organized into a system that supports other knowledge in the system. Remove one block, and the entire system can change. Surprise, the earth isn't flat. Surprise, some marriages recover from cheating. Surprise, we don't have to burn witches. Surprise...

An example of a paradigm is my perspective on visual writing. I use several constructs from others to arrive at what I think is a consistent paradigm that supports my ideas on visual writing. I draw heavily on Umberto Eco's teachings on symbols (semiotics). I draw heavily on Eugene Gendlin's theories on how experience influences our understanding of words. Similarly, I draw on current research on memory influenced by trauma (a type of experience). I draw heavily on my studies of attitude change to add nuances to Gendlin's work.

I was influenced by Paul Tillich's brief mention of symbols interacting with experience. I was influenced by current neurological categorization theory, and by artificial intelligence. Of course, I was influenced by my study of words, stories (narrative), and story critiques. These various constructs of knowledge, each which I feel represents to a high degree of accuracy what is "real" human experience and function, are brought together into one paradigm by myself, with each thing affecting my representation of dynamic symbols that can be used in writing.

If one of these constructs change (as they probably will), or is disproved, then I have a choice. Adjust my paradigm, or even give it up.

In other areas, first consider the paradigm of moral constructs. One part of a moral construct might say that morals should determine our behavior. Divorce is bad, fidelity is good, premarital sex is bad. Since divorce is bad, it follows then that remarriage can't be allowed - remarriage would be offensive.

We look at that moral example, and realize that in the last 100 years, the paradigm has shifted. People get divorced rather than make each other miserable for a lifetime. Probably way too many get divorced, since it is permitted and it seems like an easy answer. One reason for divorce is that people are sometimes unfaithful. On one hand, their spouses may forgive them, and they sometimes gain a stronger marriage after struggling through that difficulty. On the other hand, once trust is broken, the marriage may be permanently ruined. It depends on the person. If people couldn't remarry after divorce, there would likely be a lot more family problems than there are now, not that remarriage itself doesn't cause family problems.

Prior to fifty years ago, the beliefs about fidelity and divorce were incredibly strong. People would live enslaved to horrible mates for all of their life rather than end the marriage. They literally believed that they would be thrown out of the church and would go to Hell if they divorced. People also believed that without a family breadwinner (the man), the women would come to a bad end. Marriage was a question of survival. Yet that strongly held belief system changed as the circumstances in the world have changed.

There are many other examples. The union movement was born out of horrible working conditions that kept people working long hours for low wages in conditions that killed many of them. The power of collective bargaining changed the wages and conditions. It created a paradigm of unionism: us against them; protection of the employee; strikes, picket lines, scabs who crossed them, and violence; and reactive "right to work" laws. People believed wholeheartedly in unionism, and many still do. The paradigm that grew from unionism included hot passions and violence, just as strong as do religious and political beliefs. But today beliefs have changed, and unionism is a much weaker force in our society.

Scientific communities create paradigms of scientific thought. They are models that provide unity of thought in which to work to answer the questions of science. Without these paradigms, instead of integrated knowledge that supports other knowledge and makes sense to us, we would have disparate knowledge that gave us facts but made no sense - chaos in which one moment one thing seemed true and then another. Scientists have paradigms, and as knowledge is proven, the paradigm changes, and other facts are supported.

Paradigms give us frameworks with which to make sense of our lives.

What tends to happen with paradigms is that they go from being constructs that we know are temporary vessels of knowledge, to being absolute truth. If you are not a Republican, then you are a jackass without a brain. If you aren't in a democratic society, well then you must be struggling to live in a better world, and you are sorely deprived. If you aren't a union member, then you are the enemy. If you aren't a capitalist then you are doomed to being economically deprived. If you had sex before marriage, and don't use sex exclusively for procreation, then you are depraved.

Behind many paradigms, which integrate ideas and make sense of our world, there is a great fear of "not knowing." It seems as if the pursuit of knowledge is often reduced to creating a sphere in which everything fits comfortably into its place, where there are no conflicts and uncomfortable facts protruding through the veneer of truth. We like to know the truth... absolutely.

And the absolute truth is that we are experiencing and testing truth, but we don't know it absolutely.

Science, in its incredible power to discover the secrets of the universe, regularly stumbles upon inconsistencies in its numbers and empirical observations. For example, the entire universe appears to be filled with something that science has so far been unable to detect. That something, typically called "dark matter," is plugged into scientific formulas as a constant to make calculations of celestial work. Science may be hard fact, but we don't understand the half of it, except in our conceits.

Part of the truth is in the beauty of diversity - not everything has to be the same.

Belief in a paradigm must be strong for people to buy into it. Societies tend to create closed systems that purport to know absolute truth. When we reach the point that everything is forced to fit a paradigm, our experience and testing of truth will have come to an end. All that we will have left is an imperfect and patently unfixable world. This is exactly the vision, and self-fulfilling prophecy of the prophets of doom: a world that is unfixable and doomed. "Mankind is bad, so the only possible end is destruction."

This is one side of a binary. The other side is, mankind is only "good." Both sides ignore the middle - that is, that people can be made better through guidance, experience, and nurture. "Good and bad" natures are closed systems, easily broken by conflicting evidence. But "able to be improved," is an open system, leaving the way open for either alternative.

Therefore, one challenge for democracy is, instead of closed systems of "truth," to create paradigms that are open to change, and help people understand and be prepared for change.

I believe that paradigms change when credibility strains them to the breaking point, causing a crisis. This occurs when people either become disillusioned with the problems with the old beliefs, or see better ways. When the old model ceases to function as a model, people either abandon it, or adapt it, while a few stubbornly hold on to the old. For a period of time, as foundations are shaken, there is a questioning of all beliefs - a period that I call Postmodern limbo - until a new paradigm of beliefs solidifies.

For leaders, the challenge becomes one of enabling people to change from an old model to a new one, so that the crisis does not became chaotic and radical. This is so in today's economy. Skilled people with many years invested in a company are ushered out the door with not so much as a thank-you. The new economic reality that they face is one of low pay for less skilled work and less security. They are unprepared. Leadership would help people learn new skills before a crisis occurs.

Effective leadership requires understanding what we believe, helping people understand the world in which they live, and preparing people to cope with change.

In religion, many hold on to the belief that morals don't change. For example, they continue to assert that the only protection against having children outside of marriage, is abstinence. There are many good reasons for abstinence, including avoiding premature bonding with the wrong person, avoiding a number of very serious sexually transmitted diseases, not wrecking relationships and educational goals by bringing children into the world prematurely, not bringing children into families that have insufficient income, and avoiding creating single parent families.

In our democracy, the government is currently pushing abstinence as if this philosophy by itself will solve the problem. Judging from near history, abstinence has failed. For as long as I can remember, the teaching of abstinence has accomplished one thing: made people unprepared for what they actually do. The reality is, religious or not, young people have sex. They are unprepared for it, and it creates unwanted pregnancies and spreads social diseases. Even those who know they will have sex, remain unprepared. We are a society that stays in denial about sex.

Studies also show that there is very little correlation between religion and sexual activity. Religion has very little influence. The only thing that can be shown is that for women who attend religious services regularly at the age of 14, the age of first sexual contact is delayed.

Similarly, studies today indicate that those who do pledge abstinence are typically involved in other sexual activities, so their risk of disease is also high.

We lack serious teaching about relationships, about alternative socially accepted sexual behavior, about the meaning of sexual feelings in relationships and how to appropriately address them, so we fail to address the real problems. In colleges across the US today, most men and women are very sexually active and both often don't even know the names of their sexual partners. Sex is a required pastime.

Unwanted pregnancy rates are high in all parts of society. Despite all of the sex education, plentiful knowledge, easy access to birth control, rejection of puritanical teachings, and plentiful moral teachings about sex, we are a society in crisis about sex, and a new paradigm has not yet arisen. There is a dearth of realistic moral leadership to effectively address this problem, and it is a contentious issue that few want to touch. (This topic is being talked about on talk shows now, such as Oprah."

The retirement savings paradigm is also in serious trouble. People in past years looked to Social Security for retirement benefits, and found they were and are insufficient to retire on. Somehow it is overlooked that Social Security is a safeguard, not a retirement panacea. A high percentage (see AARP figures) of people today nearing retirement have no retirement savings set aside. Yet the threat of change, even though it might be financially beneficial, is strongly rejected by those nearing retirement, and by those who see the potential cost to the system, and by the Congress.

The current retirement paradigm is fading. The retirement age keeps increasing. It will be financially difficult for those who are working to support the "baby-boom retirees - even if the channel is through government "savings" (the support source - us - is still the same). Even the idea of "retirement" is undergoing change as a life filled with leisure time is seen as having a lack of purpose and shortening one's life.

Those who invested in company retirement plans are seeing them disappear as companies either under-fund the plans or go bankrupt. Those who gambled their savings on the stock market saw those funds disappear in the economic downturn. Those who hoped to do part time work find that there is little available. The current government policy under consideration is to allow some portion of Social Security savings to be invested. People are living much longer and placing much greater demands on private and government retirement systems that are already struggling.

The notion of retirement is in crisis. There must be a paradigm shift to a more effective system. So far on this issue, there is very little leadership, and much political bickering.

It's a good battle. There are good places to start, if the bickering doesn't disrupt the process. We're talking about retirement, not just Social Security. The government needs to shore up retirement - but not fund it.

    Shoring up retirement:
  1. Pension funds are very at risk funds, even in what seem to be very sound industries. These need to be always fully funded by the corporations, and moved to IRAs that are beyond the companies reach, and portable so that when people change jobs their retirement isn't affected. This is ownership. This requires legislation to fix. People should own their retirement accounts - it is their money and earned matching funds.
  2. Social Security is a government benefit funded through contributions, not an ownership account. This is a societal guarantee that people will have some money coming in during retirement, if all else fails. Safety nets are not ownership.
  3. Social Security collection should offer an option to increase savings into IRAs through the SS system, but not divert actual SS contributions to ownership accounts.
  4. The government should look at other incentives to help individuals invest in their own future through IRAs, even to the point of matching funds under some circumstances.

Religion in the world, when threatened by rapid change, often reacts by retreating to fundamentalist paradigms of understanding, hoping to put beliefs on more solid ground. Sometimes these reactions become violent or even terrorist. This is a sometimes theme on this Web site, and is also well documented in:

Karen Armstrong. The Battle For God - A History of Fundamentalism, (Ballantine, 2001).

From our paradigms, we spin metanarratives (grand stories - typically in one sentence) that encompass our perspective.

The medical care system is the US is also in serious trouble. We have a metanarrative that "The US medical system is the best in the world." Is the way that we measure this telling us the real story? (See the recent article: The Challenges For Democratic Well-being.

Traditions are another aspect of society that is called into question by a changing society. The US is a melting pot of many cultures, religions, and traditions. All are given space in which to live. People bring with them metanarratives that reflect their paradigms, such as "Everyone in the US is rich," and "hard work is the path to wealth," or "sexual promiscuity ruins your life," (which it certainly can... but what is promiscuous, and is that changing?).

We must look at each tradition and determine if each is fit for the modern world. Traditions help establish and preserve identity, which is very important to groups of people. Traditions also sometimes help build character. Sometimes following a religious tradition that doesn't seem to have any relevance, builds character. Other times, tradition stands in the way of entering the modern world, and even in the way of higher values. I think that it is the spirit of the value that is important, not necessarily the specifics.

Democracy, which instead of control, presents us with freedom of action, faces two major challenges. The first challenge for those who live within democracy, instead of presenting closed systems of "truth," is to create paradigms that are open to change, and help people understand and be prepared for change.

People don't change much, but the circumstances that they live in do change. Truth that is built on solid experience and addresses the changing circumstances, can't fail us.

Modern life brings change, and not all issues in life can be binary issues, limited only to "this or that, yes or no, black or white" answers. Life is complex, and each within the myriad solution sets contain tradeoffs. To deal with complex issues, we have to clearly know what the goals are, and the ramifications, and build on sound principles. Not every answer is right for every person. As the Apostle Paul pointed out, everything may be right for you and I, but not for the person struggling with a related issue. You don't sit down with an alcoholic, have a drink, and offer him one (except maybe with those who have conquered the problem).

The second challenge for democracy is to understand what is a systemic problem enabled by democracy, and when a control is necessary. It is nice to be a purist and let democracy, freedom, and capitalism be absolute. Yet there are inherent forces within these that will self-destruct the entire system. We must be careful of the stories (metanarratives) that we tell ourselves. Democracy, freedom, and capitalism don't come pre-defined. It is up to us to define and control them, or they will define and control us.

- Scott

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