There’s No Such Thing As “Doing Good” (part II)By
In part I, I tried to convince you there’s no such thing as “doing good.” In part II I’ll continue looking at my argument that all doing good is framed by a particular cultural cognitive model or theory of social change. And there are more cultural cognitive models out there than just the conservative Strict Model versus the liberal Nurturant Model (models which I mentioned in part I). There are variations on a theme. We are increasingly moving away from modernism and toward postmodernism (more on this trend below). We now have postmodern liberalism—the Occupy Movement—and postmodern conservatism—the Tea Party Movement. Writing in his 2012 book The Moral Molecule (a book about the connection between oxytocin—the bonding hormone—and empathy within cultures), neuroeconomist (that’s what he calls himself) Paul Zak reminds us that “each contending theory competes for influence in our laws, our cultural norms, and our social policies.” In essence, what Dr. Zak is alluding to is the “Midgley Continuum” (named for the British systems thinker Gerald Midgley). Here’s the Midgley Continuum (which I have blogged about previously):
worldview <==> ideology <==> methodology <==> intervention
So, if you are a foundation that funds an intervention, or a non-profit that administers an intervention, then you are on the Midgley Continuum. What does this mean? It means that, whether you realize it or not, you have a worldview. Here in New Mexico, all Medicaid dollars go through a for-profit gatekeeper company known as OptumHealth. OptumHealth works closely with the New Mexico Behavioral Health Collaborative, which is an umbrella group for over 16 state purchasing agencies (i.e., CYFD or Child, Youth, and Families Department). If a non-profit service provider receives Medicaid dollars, not only do they come via OptumHealth (with all of its rules, regulations, and restrictions), they also come via the New Mexico Behavioral Health Collaborative, which, as the name implies, imposes a behavioral worldview. That behavioral worldview then imposes a specific ideology, specific methodologies, and specific interventions, all of which fall on the Midgley Continuum. I may not agree with the behavioral worldview, but I agree with making the Midgley Continuum explicit. As Lakoff points out in his work, conservatives always play to their worldview, that is to say, they always have the conservative Strict model in mind. That is why in large part conservatives are very adept at framing. For most conservatives, it is model or worldview first and all else second, including people. To conservatives, the Strict Model is a Person (which explains in part why conservatives are advocates for corporate personhood). As Lakoff points out, conservatives oppose abortion because abortion represents an affront to the Strict Father model, the Strict Father mind if you will. If you wish to know why conservatives oppose abortion, read Lakoff’s 1996 book entitled Moral Politics (mentioned in part I). It really opened my eyes.
Before I end this two-part series, allow me to mention a trend that I have encountered lately. Back in 2011, Kristi Kimball and Mali Kopell wrote an article that appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled simply Letting Go. The authors effectively argue that we should let go of all theory. I find this ironic because this is a theory of “no theories.” The theory of no theories has a name: it’s called postmodernism. It would take way too long for me to describe postmodernism (often abbreviated PoMo). (I may write a blog post describing PoMo down the road.) Suffice it to say that postmodernism is about allowing people to engage in scalar activities—activities that have no direction. PoMoers (for lack of a better term) feel that such things as velocity, theories, models, cultural stories, etc., are simply too restrictive, too imprisoning. Postmodernism is a theory of liberation. It’s the theory of liberation from the tyranny of theories. Kimbal and Kopel argue that we should engage in a form of cybernetics or “Wiki” philanthropy. Others have suggested that foundations support efforts designed to develop what they call “liberation apps”—apps written for our smartphones and tablets, which are then posted to Facebook and talked about on Twitter. Pulling from Lakoff’s work, this is similar to conservatives arguing that there’s no need for any public space, that we should liberate ourselves from all public spaces. But as Lakoff (and others, such as Dean Baker) correctly points out, we could not have business contracts or even corporate entities without laws and the legal system, both forms of a commons or public space. Should we do away with these publics? Conservatives would say “no.” So, how do we determine which publics should stay and which should go? Got to have theory or model for that. The digital age and the Internet are models, they are theories. The Internet increasingly “encourages” us to live within and to be governed by a rather large cybernetic feedback loop. Cybernetics is a form of systems theory developed principally during WII that focused in on mechanical feedback loops and robotics—guided missile systems would be an example. Norbert Wiener, arguably the father of cybernetics, imagined world wide cybernetic networks that would bring about higher levels of efficient social engineering and organizational development. Wiener very much embraced the “man as machine” worldview. (For more on these themes, see Katherine Hayles 1999 book How We Became Posthuman wherein she argues that cybernetics holds out the promise of liberation from the constraints of being an embodied being.) Should we do away with the cybernetics worldview along with its associated models and theories? And if we do then how can we engage in Wiki-philanthropy or write liberation apps and then post them to Facebook or write about them on Twitter? So, how do we determine which theories to “let go” of and which to keep? Ironically, you’ll need theory for that, and, in specific, political theory.
Before I go on I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the Internet is the grand Blank Slate (or Blank Wall if you are a Facebook user). Writing in his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker reminds us that Blank Slate Theory has popped up at various times throughout history. It’s in the Bible; it’s in the philosophy of Rousseau; and now it’s back in the form of the Internet. Pinker argues that most philosophical and social thinkers frame any new incarnation of the Blank Slate as being virtuous, pure, unsullied. However, Pinker also challenges us to view the Blank Slate as what it is: nothingness. But it is a special form of nothingness: it is a nothingness that denies the existence of anything that smacks of innateness. In other words, Blank Slate Theory takes a stand firmly against such things as innate behavioral systems (Bowlby’s attachment behavioral system would be an example here). In essence Blank Slate Theory tells us that we can be anything because we are not innately anything. Suffice it to say that self esteem (which began to ascend in the 1970s) is an application of Blank Slate Theory. And, I would argue, Bowlby took a dim view of self esteem because of its close ties to Blank Slate Theory, which Bowlby openly criticized in his writings. Bowlby also took a dim view of Watson’s behaviorism. He called it that “simple little theory.” As Pinker makes clear in Blank Slate, Watson was one of the chief modern architects of Blank Slate Theory. Again, Blank Slate Theory denies that there is anything innate about human nature. Blank Slaters, if you will, are human nature deniers. Bowlby, being an innatist, in essence tried to deny the human nature deniers. Sadly it was an uphill battle that he ultimately lost.
So, what does all of this mean pragmatically? On a simple level, if an LOI or Full Proposal talks about an intervention, we try to get the organization to consider the Midgley Continuum and to think about what methodologies, ideologies, and even worldviews they might be using. In this way we encourage organizations to move from scalar philanthropy to velocity philanthropy: philanthropy in a particular direction, for a specific purpose, using a model or theory of social change. It’s a tough sell because many organizations are used to using scalar philanthropy (which actually fits with a PoMo worldview) but we’re trying. Interestingly, when groups recognize where they are on the Midgley Continuum, they’re often surprised at their position and ask, “How the heck did we get there?” As an example, many groups who advocate that we embrace Internet technologies are unaware that the Internet in general and web services in specific, like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix, are large cybernetic feedback loops that, in turn, promulgate a cybernetics or “man as machine” worldview. The next time you run a Google search, remember to tip your hat to good old Norbert. (Keep in mind that the man as machine worldview of the Internet is bathed in the purity of the Blank Slate or Blank Wall.) Whether you work at a foundation or at a nonprofit, take a look at the Midgley Continuum and see if you can explicitly identify each of the four primary positions. You may be surprised.
Exercise: To help you with determining your Midgley Continuum, here’s an example from my November 10th, 2010, blog post on a workshop by Dr. Ippen-Ghosh:
Lets start with a militaristic worldview. This worldview holds the idea that there are friends and then there are foes or enemies. In addition, friends need to be protected and foes vanquished. This idea gives rise to any number of methodologies designed to first determine friend from foe, next, protect friends, and then finally vanquish foes. One such methodology has been set up in the area of oncology or diagnosing cancer in an organism. Suffice it to say that on this continuum a cancer is viewed as an enemy that needs to be vanquished. This leads to interventions, like chemotherapy or radiation therapy, designed to vanquish the enemy (e.g., cancer) while at the same time protecting friends (e.g., normal tissue). The idea that an intervention like chemotherapy is held by a militaristic worldview comes from Candace Pert’s 1997 book Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine.
Note: In what can only be framed as a shameless plug, my 2011 book Bowlby’s Battle contains an executive summary of Midgley’s 2000 book Systemic Intervention (which is where I encountered the Midgley Continuum). See the right sidebar for a description of Bowlby’s Battle. For those of you who receive this post by email, you’ll have to visit the BLT blog site.
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