Engaging Social Change Consciously: Standing on the Shores of the Dynamism of Individual and Collective

Engaging Social Change Consciously

On January 13th, 2011, in an afternoon workshop at Pacific Integral’s Generating Transformative Change leadership program in Seattle, USA, Gail Hochachka and Michael Simpson, both directors of Integral Without Borders, gave a workshop on the dynamic interplay between the individual and the collective in our work. (The ppt presentation has been saved as a PDF file and attached to this article below, if this topic interests you and you want more details of the material.)

The discussion was based on the concept of social holons, which may require a brief definition for those unfamiliar with these terms. A social holon is any group of individuals that possess a definable "we-ness", as it is a collective made up of individuals. Unlike individuals, a social holon does not possess a dominant monad (with a quality of agency, or self-directed behavior); rather a social holon possesses nexus agency (such as is seen in a flock of geese, a school of fish, an organization, a sub-culture, a national culture). So, for example, each goose is an individual holon, the flock makes up a social holon. Although the flock moves as one unit when flying, and it is "directed" by the choices of the lead goose, the flock itself is not mandated to follow that lead goose. This collective activity has the potential for independent internal activity at any given moment.

In human communities, examples abound as to how the social group influences its’ individual members, although those individual still have the potential for independent internal activity at any point.

Given the focus of our workshop was on international development, we began with the concepts of basic moral intuition and holarchy.

Basic Moral Intuition in the social space

Ken Wilber explains:

“The Basic Moral Intuition [is] namely: protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span. This …does not say, act to protect and promote ONLY depth, or only the highest memes--not only would that represent less than 2% of the world's population, it overlooks the fact that the junior memes are components of the senior, and thus to ignore the junior is to kill the senior. Nor does it say to protect and promote ONLY span, or only the lowest common denominator, because without the senior memes, the juniors loose much significance.”

This is relevant in international development because often our work entails supporting and sustaining a new social discourse at a later, more mature meme amongst an existing social center of gravity that hovers at an earlier, less mature meme. For example, we are supporting the emergence of good governance in countries where corruption is the norm. For another example, we are supporting the emergence of gender equality in places where the social discourse undervalues and actively disempowers women. And so forth. Considering how can we do this ethically and skillfully requires us to contemplate how these memes relate: How does the earlier, more foundational level of consciousness create a ballast for the society, which may exert a downward draw on individuals that rise above it? How does the later, more inclusive level of consciousness set a new high bar to which earlier levels of consciousness align (because it has increased in perspectivism)?

These questions become paramount when doing leadership projects whereby individuals gain new insights, perspectives and indeed a new level of consciousness, and yet have to navigate their social worlds that are underpinned and held at earlier levels of consciousness. That is, social change agents seeking to promote sustainable solutions to global issues will come up against tribalism, religious dogma, tradition, or customs that may not align easily with these new ideas. And so, an individual has to work hard and consciously to hold their independent activity in the midst of social pressure to conform to the we-ness of the groups they are part of.

The Holarchy of Rights and Responsibilities

To delve into this further, let’s look at the concept of holarchy. Holarchy is a term coined by Arthur Koestler wherein each component of a system is simultaneously whole in and of itself, while also part of a larger whole or group of other wholes. Wilber built on this idea suggesting that these whole/parts (or holons) nest developmentally. He explains that while,

“Every holon has intrinsic value, or the value of its own particular wholeness, its own particular depth… every holon is not only a whole, it is also a part. And as a part, it has value for others… So, as a part, each holon has extrinsic value, instrumental value… because it is an instrumental part of so many other wholes.”

So, one’s wholeness is a birthright:

“As a whole, a holon has rights which express its relative autonomy. Rights express the conditions for the intrinsic value of a holon to exist, the conditions necessary to sustain its wholeness, sustain its agency, sustain its depth.”

Yet, one’s responsibility to others is essential:

“Each holon is also a part of some other whole(s), and as a part, it has responsibilities to the maintenance of that whole. Responsibilities are simply a description of the conditions that any holon must meet in order to be part of the whole. If it doesn’t, it won’t sustain its communions, cultural and functional fit.”

Relating this to the work of IWB partners One Sky and Drishti, who's projects engage leaders and change agents in sustainable development, we explained how these individuals have a birthright to their level of consciousness. These leaders are often at the leading edge of their countries’ social discourse, and their depth and way of being in the world has intrinsic value. To not be who they truly are, would be unfair and unethical. However, they are daily having to touch bases with social groups (like in the church, family, or market) which are coming from a less mature level of consciousness. They have responsibility to those other groups, and must find ways to sustain these communions and remain in a cultural fit with their surroundings.

In designing development projects, as well as living our own lives as practitioners, some obvious questions arise as to how to most skillfully move through this complex terrain of individual and collective.

Standing on the shores of the dynamism of individual and collective

Throughout the afternoon workshop, with examples from the global south, small group work, a role play, and large group discussions, we touched on the questions:

  1. How can we afford all individuals the right to their own wholeness (unobstructed, un-tethered),…
  1. …while also attending to their responsibility to the groups of which they are a part?
  1. How does the social holon weigh on individuals and influence them…
  1. …and can (and how can) individuals at later stages act as strange attractors for the whole?

To explore this, we looked at what integral theory has to say about social holons and how development occurs through a changing social discourse. In particular, we explored how the social discourse that one is immersed in exerts energy upon that individual in at least three ways:

  1. Earlier stages (although they pulled an individual up at one point), at later stages they then pull an individual down as he or she begins to grow beyond.
  2. Later stages are felt to be more ‘significant’ (since they include more perspectives) and hold a later discourse to which all previous stages tend to (must?) find ways to align.
  3. Even later stages we can’t yet see are, on the one hand, alluring for reasons that are often unknown to us, but on the other hand, they can also be confusing, since we can’t ‘see’ them and can thus easily dismiss them.

We first explored these through two examples of One Sky’s leadership development program in Nigeria with examples of how the social holon pulls down on later-stage leaders who are leading and setting a higher bar for what sustainable development means for the country. (The leaders involved with One Sky's project come from the civil society sector of the country, and all work with non-profit organizations.) The stage of these leaders is later and thus more significant (i.e. inclusive of more perspectives) than the mainstream Nigerian social discourse. As a result, these leaders are simultaneously setting new social norms to which the society as a whole is gradually finding ways to align, yet on the other hand, the leaders are ‘responsible’ to the social groups they are part of, such as to one’s family, village, church organizations, and must find ways to relate as well. It is a tricky path to walk. These other social groups exert a downward pull and require these individuals to find ways to seamlessly relate to their communions, to their family and cultural units. At the same time, they also have a ‘right’ to be who they truly are at this developmental unfolding; they are in fact contributing to the leading edge of the society, and their discourse is one to which others do listen to and heed. More and more, for example, corruption is not excusable in government agencies iin Nigeria. At a traditional worldview (diplomat action-logic or amber altitude), it’s just how you do what you do—governance simply includes ‘corruption’ which is not seen or termed to be corruption until a later stage. But when that worldview is embedded in a worldcentric discourse, suddenly one becomes ashamed to be acting in corrupt ways, and has to work harder to hide it or find ways to excuse it. Usually, gradually, it will work its way out of a social system. A corollary in North America would be racism; gradually it has become politically incorrect to make public racist statements, and although some individuals may still harbor those sentiments, it has worked it way out of the social system as an acceptable way to engage in the social space. In other words, one is welcome to their worldview, but only in so far as it isn’t exported in socially detrimental ways. 

This is keenly an issue in Nigeria as inter-religious violence continues in the northern part of the country, with another 162 dead in suicide bombings by the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram over the weekend. How can these leaders in One Sky’s program set a different, more inclusive social discourse in this context? This is both their greatest gift and greatest challenge.

The final example we explored was in regards to Drishti’s climate change adaptation work in El Salvador. Climate change is an extremely complex phenomena in agrarian societies—it is a complex scientific process that even university educated people don’t fully understand. Information about climate change often ends up being disempowering and fear-provoking, and largely goes misunderstood. This begs the question, do local people in communities really ‘get’ it? From what we can see in El Salvador, the answer is both. They do in the sense that they hear the word “climate change” spoken about in the media, their churches, and in their daily lives; they are immersed in a larger social space that includes climate change as a signifier in the discourse. And, they are dealing with a series of impacts on their ecosystems and weather patterns to which they are already having to respond; impacts that are de-coupling the precise balance of their subsistence agriculture with predictable cycles of weather and seasons. Yet, they are ‘subject to’ those impacts. When more awareness is brought to those impacts in a coordinated way, suddenly what they were ‘subject to’ becomes an ‘object’ they can examine, reflect on and plan for. In this sense, they don’t fully ‘get’ what climate change is even though they are racing to keep up with the changes. Most had not yet had a chance to settle back and ask the question, what are all these changes due to or arising from?

In the project, we sought to evoke a first-person perspective of the issue of climate change, to cultivate this reflective space to ‘see’ climate change not from the scientists or technicians explanations, but from their own perspectives and worldviews. To translate what they understand of the issue in ways that are most meaningful to them. To do this, we used photo voice as part of a series of community conversations on climate change. Up until that point, the term “climate change” remained something that they would hear in passing or see written about in the newspapers, and they had not have grouped together the evident impacts they are already having to deal with as “climate change.” By peering through their own cameras to explore the issue of climate change as it arises in their daily lives and local realities, participants began to ‘see’ the issue in a new light, as an object of reflection and action, not as an unknown onslaught of changes to which they were racing to stay ahead of. Our hope is that as a result local people will get creative with new adaptive practices, become more organized with how to respond to climate-related disasters, and to more fully own and take charge of the process of adaptation.

These are but three examples from the field of development. The intricate interplay of individual and collective is at the heart of what we do, since we are deeply invested in social change and systems change. In international development, we can’t afford to wrestle with change one individual at a time. Not only since that is largely impossible (with populations of 160 million in Nigeria, for example), but also since that still wouldn’t guarantee large-scale change across a society. Instead, we play the integrative, dynamic edges of the individual and collective dynamism as best we can.

Later Stages: Tender responsibility; great truthfulness

For any thought-leader or consciousness-leader, be they in Nigeria or El Salvador, or somewhere in Europe or North America, how we as individuals navigate the social domains we are part of is both delicate and radical. Delicate in the sense that we need to honor and relate to the many perspectives that live in the social space. And radical in the sense that it is an evolutionary imperative that we share who we truly are with a world that is desperately in need of greater inclusivity of perspectives, greater depth.

I close this short news piece with three inspiring reminders by Ken Wilber, speaking of these newer stages in consciousness moving into the world today:

"New structures in consciousness are being laid down right now - they are just faint footprints on the face of the cosmos. So your behavior to the extent that you live up to your highest, is actually creating structures that future humanity will inhabit. Therefore choose your acts very, very carefully. Make sure that the next thing that you say comes from your highest self. Then there’s hope for the future. Those structures are already being laid down… Spirit is laying them down—through us. So we have to become appropriate vehicles for Spirit to lay down the very structures that humanity is going to inhabit. And if we don’t, that is a guilt we will carry with us for eternity.” (Wilber and Cohen, Creating the Future http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j32/guru-pandit.asp?page=2)

"Because, you see, the alarming fact is that any realization of depth carries a terrible burden: Those who are allowed to see are simultaneously saddled with the obligation to communicate that vision in no uncertain terms: that is the bargain." (Collected Works of Ken Wilber , Vol. VIII, One Taste, p. 311)

"And therefore, all of those for whom authentic transformation has deeply unseated their souls must, I believe, wrestle with the profound moral obligation to shout from the heart—perhaps quietly and gently, with tears of reluctance; perhaps with fierce fire and angry wisdom; perhaps with slow and careful analysis; perhaps by unshakable public example—but authenticity always and absolutely carries a demand and duty: you must speak out, to the best of your ability, and shake the spiritual tree, and shine your headlights into the eyes of the complacent. You must let that radical realization rumble through your veins and rattle those around you. ... And this is truly a terrible burden, a horrible burden, because in any case there is no room for timidity. The fact that you might be wrong is simply no excuse: You might be right in your communication, and you might be wrong, but that does not matter. What does matter, as Kierkegaard so rudely reminded us, is that only by investing and speaking your vision with passion, can the truth, one way or another, fully penetrate the reluctance of the world. If you are right, or if you are wrong, it is only your passion that will force either to be discovered. It is your duty to promote that discovery—either way—and therefore it is your duty to speak your truth with whatever passion and courage you can find in your heart. You must shout, in whatever way you can." (Wilber, One Taste, p. 35f)

Thanks to Pacific Integral for inviting us to deliver this workshop with a group of such amazing participants, who truly took the material further and contributed to developing ideas and tools for engagement.

Thanks also to One Sky and Drishti, partners of Integral Without Borders, for sharing these field-based examples of integral practice for the IWB community to learn from, hone further, and contribute to as our collective praxis evolves.

Photo by Hector Guillermo Núñez of Drishti's partner Centro Bartolome de las Casas, in El Salvador.

Please see the presentation below (saved as PDF) for more details on the above material: