Sunday, April 09, 2006

what can I do?

Dear Reader,

If you spend time going to lectures, reading books, or listening to radio programs about the Lamentable Things we are doing in this world (extinctions, violence etc. etc.), you may notice, as I do, that presenters tend to leave out what they would like people to do differently. That is, they invest their time and energy (and by consequence the time and energy of their audience) focusing on what they do NOT want, including how the undesired things are coming to pass, without saying what they'd like to see.

As a listener or reader, you may, as I have, sit up and pay attention. "Yes! That's terrible. I don't like that either! I don't like that cultures/species/innocent children/beautiful forests/cute-little-frogs are being assimilated/destroyed/harmed/wiped off the face of Earth!"

You sit up, take notice.

You are motivated to do something.

And then... you will probably find that your presenter, now that s/he's got your attention, now that you are ready for the next step, waiting for a suggestion, a strategy, a program for turning this thing around, simply stops right there.

Yes, your presenter has probably devoted very little attention on what they WOULD like to see, and even less on what strategies might accomplish it. Just when they've got us primed and ready, when they could tell us what we could do ... just then, they simply stop. They end the lecture/article/program with vague suggestions such as "get informed" or "become organized" or "push for change" without clarifying what these things would look like - how we can do them and what we'll accomplish if we do.

For example, please listen to the CBC Quirks and Quarks radio interview with Terry Glavin, who travelled the world to research his book Waiting for the Macaws, about the current mass extinction occuring on this planet along with tales of hope, in the form of sustainable interactions between humans and other species. Notice how he responds, at the end of his interview, to Bob McDonald's question about what people can do. (Please note that this is merely a radio interview, and not representative of the wealth of information, stories, and points of view presented in his book).

I have seen, at least 20 times at public lectures, that members of the audience, convinced that something must be done, stand up and ask "what can I do?" At this, the presenters tend to stall and fall back on the above mentionned cliches. I appears that they are unprepared to answer such questions, to offer direction or strategic guidance. As though this is not their role. Even though, time after time, it is clear that members of the audience would like some guidance with regard to the next steps to take based on the information presented.

What is going on here? Why are intelligent, thoughtful, caring, motivated people putting most or all of their energy into convincing people that things are going wrong - at the cost of using valuable air-time/publicity to present strategies that people might actually use to do make things better?

I have a few ideas:

  1. There may be something in the way the problem is framed in the minds of the presenters that channels their thinking along the "I need to prove that there's a problem, people need to really get this, and then things will change". Perhaps the speaker thinks that things are going wrong because of ignorance, or complacency, and that they need to shake things up a little and then hopefully people will rise up and sort it out.
  2. Perhaps the presenter has not done the more detailed analysis of the system dynamics (the elements of whatever situation they are discussing that influence the way it unfolds). Perhaps he felt he had to "go it alone" without asking for help, and only has so much time. Maybe she is good at certain tasks and not others, and is more confident about storytelling and less about functional analysis.

At this point I would like to express what I'd like to see done differently. I'd like to see the people in the special position of being able to address tens or hundreds or thousands of people with their messages choose to include a strategic framework in which people can fit specific actions toward the common goals. I'd like people to walk away from articles and lectures with a clear sense of what they can do to see their goals fulfilled.

In order for this to happen, I'd like some advice, and some support:

  • Advice: I'd like to hear from presenters how they feel about this situation - when they are confronted with these questions. How does it feel to be asked "what should we do" when you've prepared a lecture/article/book about something people care about?
  • I'd also like to know what might help them include some strategic analysis into their presentations. I'd like to know if they would like others to support them, perhaps offering guidance or encouragement. Perhaps something else. What is it that guides your creative energy?
  • Support: I'd like readers to send letters/emails to radio presenters/authors/lecturers asking them to prepare specific suggestions for specific short term goals in their presentations.
Here is a formula for you to use when speaking to or writing to presenters. Ask them to identify:
  1. specifically which people they think occupy positions of influence over the situation they are addressing
  2. what they suggest would influence these people - including names and roles
  3. what type of communications/interaction would be most influential.
  • A specific suggestion from a author/presenter could look like this:
    • Please read the following details about the proposed Incinerator Plant to be built in the migratory bird sanctuary contained in (short, concise list on a webpage/article etc.) about this situation. If you have any questions or confusion about anything presented here, please email me or ask someone for help in making sense of it. Please write four short letters: a) to the federal Minister of the Environment (copied to the Prime Minister), b) to the provincial Environment Minister (copied to the provincial Premier), c) to the national newspaper of your choice, and d) to the local newspaper of your choice. In these letters, please include with your own concerns the specific details listed next to each type of letter mentioned in the (above mentionned webpage/article).

What I'd really like from you, reader of this posting, is to:
  1. tell me what you have noticed about this "what can I do?" situation I'm presenting in this article.
  2. refer me to people who make presentations, so I might ask them the questions I asked above - and hopefully I can learn more about what influences presensters, and this will help me edit things like this post, and help me write more clear and more specific requests.

Thanks for reading this. I'd like to know what you think. I'll be grateful if you take a little time and respond to my requests. Please share any thoughts or suggestions you may have, including anything that might make it clearer and help me focus more on what we can do to encourage presenters and authors to focus some of their creative energy on positive action.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Many of us are grateful for the hard work of men and women in our grandmothers' and grandfathers' generation. They struggled against incredible adversity (very wealthy and very committed adversaries) to force legislative changes in our governments. These changes resulted in the creation of government institutions designed to create opportunities for every child - regardless of gender, race, or class. Despite the many frustrations and obstacles many of us continue to face, we all enjoy an entirely different world than the one they grew up in, not only technologically, but socially. Our few remaining elders often try to remind us how different things were, how hard life was for them and how many people struggled to get by. And many of us have a hard time understanding.

So what did they accomplish?
  • They worked together to become powerful political forces (which is, needless to say, a difficult task for working people).
  • They overcame the prejudice and bigotry of committed and wealthy opponents.
  • They did this without much money. They did it even though many of their bosses and editors and politicians fought them every step of the way.
  • They overcame their differences and found out what they shared - and on this common ground they worked together for the greater good.
They did it for us, and they made huge changes to the society we inherited.

Changes like:
  • workplace safety regulations, and compensation for workplace accidents.
  • equal (legally, at least) rights for women, for racial minorities.
  • social assistance for individuals and families who fall on hard times.
  • freedom of religion, and freedom from religion in public life.
  • public healthcare being made available for everyone.
and so on.

And they were proud of what they had done.
And their children had better lives than they.
And their children's children were born into better circumstances still...

but somehow, along the way, we seem to have forgotten what they accomplished - just how different a society they created for us. We were so lucky, we coudn't even REALIZE how lucky we were, because the great horrors were mostly past us.

And so we became unwittingly, unconsciously complacent. We didn't mean to, we just had a hard time conceptualizing just how lucky we were.

Well, the forces of backwardness have regrouped, and there are now, in our society, an organized and dedicated bunch of people who'd like to roll progress back a century or two, to the good old days when the women stayed home, marriage was for making babies, the coloured people were around for doing the dirtywork, and righteous white men got to make all the laws to suit their own purposes... They wouldn't all say this, of course, especially not in their public statements. But this is the general gist of what they'd like to see, more or less.

It even seems they've managed to hoodwink a frustrated and outraged Canadian public into voting out a party they've come to see as "corrupt". Accidentally, it seems, this has resulted in them voting IN a party steeped, or marinated perhaps, in the above "traditional values". A party populated by frustrated and hurting people who's lack of ability to empathize with others has left them seethin with rage over what they perceive as "assaults" on the values of their families

Assaults on the righteous truths they learned in their churches.
Assaults on the proper place of Christian men as the moral authorities of nations.
And they are determined to fight the good fight, as they see it.

Rick Mercer's blog has some poignant comments made by conservative politicians, words strangely not highlighted by the corporate press in the lead up to the election. These words reveal deeply rooted Fundamentalist beliefs that will make these politicians bring their private beliefs into the public process.

Here's a link to a documentary film takes a look too.

Perhaps it is time for to stop for a minute, take stock of what's been happening in the countries of the west, and see just what direction we've been steered in...

Its definitely not the vision of our grandparents, who worked so hard for the gains they won. And I don't think its really the vision of many of us either.

In fact, it would appear that, despite incredibly pervalent conservative propaganda in the corporate media for the last 20 years, the majority of Canadians still hold basically progressive views.

Whatever things make this possible, you can bet that the forces of backwardness, of fear and hoarding, have them in their sights.

They have been trying to destroy healthcare (they're strategy is to underfund it, so that it will become so unsatisfactory that we'll AGREE to scrapping it, or at least permit the beginning of the end: Privatized healthcare.

They have been trying to destroy public broadcasting.

They have been trying to destroy public education.

and they're making headway in each of these strategic initiatives.

So what's the good news?

Well, the good news is that they are few and we are many. Few are the fearful men and women who want to alienate themselves from the rest of their countrymen, live in gated communities, and never need face the great unwashed (one of the old names for the general public). It is possible that we might be able to help them see that their interests actually lie in the wellbeing of the public. Perhaps some of them won't understand. Luckily, we don't need them all to.

Far more numerous, by millions and millions, are the ordinary people who want their children, and the friends of their children, and the families of the friends of their children to live good, happy lives - to have decent and useful educations, to have access to the care they need, the support they need in times of distress.

And there are many freedoms we enjoy that will make it easier for us to restore and further the gains made by our predecessors. We have communications technologies available that make sharing information cheap and easy. We have access to information that can allow the analytical among us to figure out how things work, and design strategies the rest of us can follow to promote our values. We have new techniques of compassionate communication that may allow us to avoid the uglier confrontations that often faced progressives in the past - instead helping us connect with the real people that are unintentionally creating pain and suffering in our society, and tragically undermining their own core values at the same time.

Perhaps it's time for us to learn from past mistakes, and prevent future ones by stopping the fundamentalists (before they do too much damage) and listen to our wise folk for their guidance as we work to build the kind of society we can all be proud of.

We can:

Support progressive organizations
Learn "Compassionate Communication"
Learn how to present our ideas and values in ways that harmonize with the values of other people (framing).

Friday, December 30, 2005

Progressive Values

In order to work together as progressives, we need to have some sense of what our progressive values are.

This is not as easy as it used to be, and it is certainly not as easy as it is to know what conservative values are. The reasons for this are important:

  1. Progressive organizations are poorly funded and under-staffed
  2. Conservative organizations are comparatively numerous, well funded, and well staffed.
  3. Progressive people, as a function of their values, are less agressive and domineering with their values - preferring to believe that everyone should have the right to their opinion and beliefs.
  4. Conservatives pull no punches, insisting that their way is the right way, and advocating forcefully for it.
  5. Progressive positions evolve as new information becomes available, improving the level of knowledge that gives rise to progressive points of view.
  6. Conservative positions are more rigid, relying on traditional views that are not beholden to evidence or information, and therefore are not compelled to change with the times.
In order to rectify this, we need to do a few things, and do them well.

We need to clarify what our core values are, we need to fund organizations devoted to promoting our values*, and we need to advocate strongly for our policies. This posting is mainly about clarifying progressive values.

*click here for a discussion on ways to create stable funding for progressive organizations.

Clarifying our Values:

Progressive values rely on the following basic assumptions about the nature and purpose of human cooperation:
  1. People are basically good, and are better able to contribute postitively to their families and communities when they are supported and encouraged to do so.
  2. The purpose of governments are to provide the structure and support for people to live good lives.
  3. Fairness and equal opportunity are important elements of society, rewarding people who work hard and contribute to their societies, instead of allowing social classes to determine the fates of children.
While social change has been dominated by progressive values in the last few centuries, with many small and some major social changes in industrial nations, there have been major mistakes made by progressives in the last few decades. We must forgive ourselves and our elders for these mistakes, especially given the nature of progressive thinking, but must act quickly to improve progressive understanding and policies to restore strength to progressive movements.

The mistakes were as follows:
  1. Frowning upon money, being embarassed by money, or feeling that money is somehow dirty or evil.
  2. Alienating potential allies by (1)
  3. Underestimating the power of ignorance and superstition
  4. Underestimating the persistence (and dangers) of the religious fundamentalism that can develop in absence of good, strong, progressive education.
  5. Underestimating the cleverness, cunning, and conviction of conservative organizations willing to manipulate religious fundamentalists to achieve their strategic goals.
  6. Underestimating just how far conservatives will go to make "headway" in their "campaigns" (note the military metaphors).
So, its high time we get together, develop a basic education about how this all works, and start supporting each other to create the kind of society we want to live in...