You are here

Beyond Method

Engaging opposition in psycho-social organization (Part #1)

Prepared for the meeting on methodology of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development Project (GPID) of the United Nations University. Organized by the Division of System Studies of the University of Bucuresti, Bucharest, 1-4 December 1981 [searchable PDF version]

Abstract: Various manifestations of "disagreement-phobia" are reviewed to show the current importance of disagreement in a society narrowly focused on superficial agreement-promoting processes. Arguments of Paul Feyerabend relating to the suppression of disagreement in science are examined, together with his views on the significance of incommensurability for development. The absence of adequate approaches to the art of disagreement is noted and it is argued that the present level of disagreement in society is not yet great enough to sustain more than an undifferentiated, mass-conscious version of the desired level of agreement. An ordered series of 210 mutually-incompatible, transformation-oriented statements is generated on the basis of a variety of existing multi-set integrated concept schemes. This is intended as an initial stop towards a guide to more realistic psycho-social organization.

Scientific suppression of disagreement
Significance of incommensurability
Approaches to the art of disagreement
Constraints on method

[Presentation | Disagreement |
Underlying relationship
| Completeness |
Number uniqueness
| Number pattern | Transformation operator | Self-constraint | Containment of unpredictable | Inter-set consistency | Operational relevance | Inter-set harmony |
Annex 1: Review of concept schemes included
Annex 2: Results of experiment

Cutting Up an Ox

Prince Wen Hui's cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee.
The ox fell apart
With a whisper.
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance.
Like "The Mulberry Grove,"
Like ancient harmonies!

"Good work ! " the Prince exclaimed,
"Your method is "faultless ! "
"Method ? " said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver.
"What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods ! "

The Way of Chuang Tzu.
Translated by Thomas Merton. 1970

1. The basic point of this paper is that our society has proved itself unable to design any frameworks, whether conceptual or organizational, in which disagreement is an accepted, permanent integral feature. The frameworks now used era all based on the assumption that agreement and consensus is the essential element an which any viable organization depends. As a consequence disagreement can never be tolerated except through processes designed to eliminate it (e.g. conflict resolution, mediation, arbitration). These of course include competition and violent conflict, in which victory, through the downfall of the opponent, is sought.

2. It would seem that all intellectual and political effort is directed either toward achieving some measure of agreement or toward manipulating any disagreement to the advantage of one party so that the disagreement is suppressed and a particular "agreement" prevails. Even arguments for a "moral equivalent of war" are based on the necessity of believing that a victor can emerge and eliminate the disagreement.

3. Perhaps the most tragic consequence is the amount of effort devoted to the illusion of "peace" in which disagreement is somehow absent, inactive or without functional significance. This is the simplistic ideal that "all men will be brothers", which ignores the basic issue of how to structure a society in which brothers disagree - as they do with great frequency and for extended periods of time. The significance of the "peace movement" lies not in the essentially fragile ad hoc agreement to demonstrate on particular occasions, but rather in the disagreement with other power groups.

4. At this point in time much hope is placed on reaching agreement on a set of values or ethical standards an the key to any action strategy. There is no evidence whatsoever that thin hope is well-founded for the foreseeable future.. Every item of evidence indicates the contrary - unless strategies based or the imposition of a set of values are considered acceptable, whether or not they are viable as a result of the imposition process.

5. The immediate relevance of this argument can be seem from the following quotations concerning the recent Cancun conference.

Before: "The obvious needs saying, because the biggest threat to next week's summit of rich and poor countries in Cancun, Mexico, comes not from apathy but from too-high hopes., So start with two things that Cancun will not achieve. First, it will shun the sort of Rubik-cube completeness in which industrial countries agree, eg. to reduce tariffs on third-world imports in return for, eg., oil producers' promises to maintain a steady supply of oil. That was the painstaking approach of the Brandt Commission, which originally proposed this summit. Its members took more than two years to agree upon a package that bound none of them and changed net a line of legislation nor a decimal point on tariffs. The Cancun summiteers are in power and short of time. .They will rightly go for something less ambitious. That means, second, that Cancun will produce few, if any, commitments that presidents and Prime ministers can wave in the air". (Economist, 17 Oct 1961)

After: "Leaders of 22 industrialized and developing nations have ended two clays of talks with a detailed analysis of problems of world poverty but without an agreement on a global strategy to alleviate them". (International Herald Tribune, 26 Oct 1981)

Great hopes are once again placed on the slender possibility that something of major significance could emerge from the new round of "global negotiations" which it was tentatively' "agreed should be held in the future. This possibility diverts attention from the essential problems of disagreement which have undermined the significance of all previous initiatives of this kind.

6. The fear of situations in which disagreement prevails is such that they are shunned, whether unconsciously of, by well-ration alized processes. Where they cannot be avoided, much effort is devoted to amplifying the significance of whatever minor items can be discovered on which agreement in achieved. A Veneer of agreement is thus generated to disguise fundamental disagreement. Agreement then becomes an essentially superficial pretence of little operational significance. A tragic example is the vast body of resolutions generated by United Nations bodies and almost immediately forgotten. According to the International Herald Tribune (24 Nov 1981):

'Many envoys here, however, complain that this year's UN General Assembly is notable chiefly for its overly familiar debates. Virtually all 126 items on the agenda have produced almost identical resolutions and votes for three or more years. Some of the deepest concerns here are discussed only in corridors, not on the assembly floor.' (International Herald Tribune)

In the case of UNESCO, these are now being generated by "consensus voting" to avoid the problems of disagreement.

7. A strange feature of the preoccupation with seldom-achieved agreement is that little attention is given to the processes which are able to occur once that condition has been achieved. To the extent that it is not superficial, agreement involves a degree of homogeneity in approach which is rapidly repudiate as constricting and alienating. Dynamism of any sort is associated with disagreement.

8. In a very meaningful sense, the present is in basic disagreement with the past and with the seeds of the future as they emerge. Again it is not the continuity from past-to-present-to-future which provides significant information, but rather the dynamics arising from the disagreement of past and present positions (as epitomized by generation "gaps") The nostalgia occasionally encountered for a "golden age" in the past, and the hopes projected onto some utopian ideal in the future have a common weakness. In both cases their significance lies in their contrast with the tensions and disagreements of the present. Such ideal settings are seen as disagreement free and, consequently, there in great difficulty in describing their processes in an attractive manner.

9. An obvious feature of academic or even political life is the relative lack of significance attached to agreement with a particular thesis - except in terms of the essentially "mechanical" process of marshalling support to ensure that a particular position triumphs and maintains its position. Of much greater interest to those involved is the process of responding to the challenge of those who manifest disagreement. It is this which is the stimulus which energizes many psycho-social processes. Associating for any length of time with a group of people in basic agreement is of very little interest - unless a new level disagreement can be discovered.

10. It is useful, in the light of the previous points, to view the development process as one based on disagreement rather then agreement. Little "happens' if everyone agrees. With the introduction of disagreement comes the possibility of development. To stress consensus as a key to development, is to come dangerously close to destroying the basis for its dynamism. Development can only occur if there is disagreement with the current state of affairs.

11. The previous point suggests that there is a fundamental weakness in the "liberal goodwill" viewpoint which has encouraged the favourable attitude towards solving all the "nasty" world problems. This has effectively generated a kind of conspiracy of consensus, based an mutual tolerance, and a horror of disagreement which has progressively under- the original thrust. Indeed, once every issue becomes a "motherhood" type issue, namely one which calls for unthinking, universal agreement, then no further progress is possible. The "mutual tolerance" mentioned is counter-productive to the extent that it de-activates disagreement and the dynamics associated with diversity.

12. Because a sense of dynamism would seem to be a fundamental nee,!, the reality of groups making up the "peace movement", for example, is one of extensive fragmentation. Sadly to some, the constituent groups are usually extremely hostile to one another. Since disagreement is an anathema, each group turns in upon itself or towards its special. constituency and avoids any reflection on the significance of that disagreement for the future of "peace". But the identity of each group is clarified by dynamics which reinforce for it the understanding of why it cannot possibly associate or agree (other than te m- under special circumstances) with any of the other groups. A similar point could be made with regard to the "ecology movement".

13. The previous point comes even more into focus in the case of the various movements for "equality". The goal of such movements is to eliminate "inequality". However it is no exaggeration to remark that the amount of "inequality" in the world is now greater than ever before. "Equality" is well-implanted as an ideal, hut indicators of its universal non-achievement are all too evident. Society is at present primarily characterized by non-equality, except for a variety of token legal rights whose significance in practice is negligible or cosmetic. It is no longer sufficient to play out the pretence of operating in an egalitarian society - this only permits the unrecognized dynamics to reinforce the fundamental disagreement between ideal and reality. It also prevents exploration of the significance of the disagreement and the inequality.

14. There are presumably many traditional psycho-cultural reasons which reinforce the treatment of disagreement as an anathema, and in many cases as "bad" and inherently "evil". It is disagreement which banishes man from the Garden of Eden, introduces dissonance into the mythical Golden Age, and destroys the "golden age" of childhood experience. It is a denial of the spiritual union which is fundamental to many religions. As such it is necessarily the "work of the devil" or his equivalent. Even Pythagoras is supposed to have rejected the irrational disagreement associated with the square root of 2.

15. Such views strongly influence the manner in which an "enemy" is defined as a result of disagreement. "If you are not with me, you are against me" and, as such, to be contained (or eliminated, if possible). No religion, Hinduism possibly excepted, has developed a viable framework for dealing with disagreement - with well-known consequences. Equivalent problems occur with ideologies. In both cases considerable difficulty is experienced with disagreement giving rise to schisms which in the religion case may be labelled "heresies". These give rise to violent exercises in suppression.

16. Disagreement is also a major problem in mass movements such as trade unions for which the key word is "solidarity". Disagreement undermines the solidarity which is vital to successful bargaining and must therefore be violently suppressed. In societies based on the dictatorship of the proletariat, as an extension of such mass movements, the problem of handling "dissidence" remains unresolved.

17. Discontinuity is a special form of disagreement. It is only very recently that the study of discontinuity has proved -1 possible or admissible in mathematics as catastrophe theory [3], despite the general nature of the problem and the practical value of the results to natural and social sciences. Discontinuity, as a form of disagreement, has presumably been a victim of its subconscious association with death an(' accidents although birth also constitutes a discontinuity.

18. From a theoretical standpoint, disagreement generally implies invalidity or error. There is an extremely well-developed tendency to disguise error, because of the way it is related to job performance and. career evaluation. This is true of professionals, of bureaucrats, of businessmen, and of scientists. It is also true in organizational reporting procedures, whether military, business or government. Glossy "public relation," reports prevail.. It is unfortunate that it should even be necessary to make the following point:

"Changing towards long-range social planning requires that, instead of avoiding, exposure to and acknowledgement of error, it is necessary to expect it, to seek out its manifestation, and to use information derived from the failure as the basis for learning through future societal experiment. More bluntly, future-responsibility societal learning makes it necessary for individuals and organization to embrace error. It is the only way to ensure a shared self-consciousness about limited theory as to the nature of social dynamics, about limited data for testing theory, and hence about our limited ability to control our situation well enough to expect to be successful more often than not". Donald Michael ("On the requirement for embracing error". In: On Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn. Jossey-Bass, 1973, p. 131).

19. The response to disagreement between achievements as planned and as implemented introduces a special kind of blindness. Planning reinforces awareness of social reality as perceived through the system under implementation. As lived however, individuals are obliged to cross the boundaries between systems which do not "recognize" each others existence, and between new systems (possibly incomplete or already breaking down) and whatever remains of older (or even very old) systems. The lived reality is characterized by widespread incompatibility that is experienced as a kind of hubris between the various systems. A material indicator is the standardization problem of getting parts to fit or match. A bureaucratic indicator is the traditional problem of "red tape". Others are more subtle. It is very difficult to grasp these forms of disagreement.

20. The problem of handling disagreement is also evident in the design of legislative assemblies for complex societies. The traditional 2-party Westminster assembly has only proved successful in a few countries and it can be argued that its success is largely one of creating the impression that it is a success. Complex issues (e.g. defence budgets) can no longer be given more time then simpler ones and there is little time for most issues, especially new ones. Many developing countries have abandoned multi-party assemblies as being "unsuitable". This may be considered an indication that exposure to disagreement is actively avoided there: opposition is forbidden or suppressed.

hat exposure to disagreement is actively avoided there: opposition is forbidden or suppressed.

[Parts: Next | Last | All ] [Links: To-K | From-K | From-Kx | Refs ]