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Collective Mea Culpa? You Must be Joking !

Them is to blame, Not us ! (Part #1)


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Published on the occasion of allegedly major mistakes regarding the European bailout of Greece and the agreement concerning the nuclear programme of Iran


Challenging and controversial as it is in practice, confession of error by individuals is well-recognized in a variety of settings. The process has been encouraged in religion (mea culpa), as a feature of political ideology (self-criticism), in psychotherapy, and in education. It is accepted that errors made by individual scientists in the course of experiment (or the interpretation of results) should be formally reported -- perhaps in anticipation of assessment by others. A form of self-criticism is acknowledged to a degree with respect to strategic decisions by leaders of a group, whether military or business -- most notably in the event of failure.

Such acknowledgement of error is far less evident with respect to acknowledgement by a collective. Like individuals, groups are extremely articulate with respect to the errors of others. This is the essence of political debate in which opposing parties systematically identify errors in each other's proposals, policies and initiatives -- vigorously denying the slightest error in their own. This may well be evident even in the event of failure of a party to be re-elected -- possibly by blaming misunderstanding by the electorate or the misleading strategy of the winning party.

The importance attached by Catholicism to regular confession can thus be curiously contrasted with the "confession" in which the Catholic Church seemingly fails to engage as a collective. This is to be contrasted in turn with the Syllabus of Errors (1864) issued by the Holy See. It was made up of citations from earlier papal documents, presented as a list of propositions by others condemned as false. Similarly, despite encouraging self-criticism, Communist regimes did not have any process for collective self-criticism. As with Catholicism, Communism focused the blame for any error on individuals -- even including leaders in the latter case (leading to their elimination). Seemingly the collective cannot be seen to be in error in its own eyes -- irrespective of recognition of such errors by others, then defensively to be condemned in consequence.

The question here is how this pattern plays out globally. Is the United Nations as such capable of confessing to error? How about the World Bank or the IMF? Do regional organizations have that capability: the European Commission, the OECD, the Organization of American States, NATO, etc? Are individual countries (governments?) similarly challenged? And what of that mysterious entity the "international community"? What of bodies that hold their own influence in the highest esteem: the World Economic Forum, the Club of Rome, the Bilderberg Group, or Freemasonry? The issue is whether there is a capacity to formally articulate: we made a mistake or we were at fault. Is there any record of resolutions or declarations taking that form? Where are these collected as an aid to collective memory and societal learning?

Curiously it would appear that collectives frequently employ "we" in declaring their understanding and recommendations (for others), but are much challenged in the case of any misunderstanding on their own part -- whenever it becomes evident. Science offers an interesting case in this respect, as with technological development. What examples are there of science acknowledging error -- in contrast with the error by individual scientists as a feature of the scientific method in advancing human knowledge? The errors of science as a whole only become evident through a paradigm shift -- a scientific revolution -- through which adherence to views of the past are simply deprecated as misguided and naive. This corresponds in some measure to the process of political revolution and systemic change. However it is then apparent that there has been no collective "we" to acknowledge error consciously. There is a transformation to a new modality which, given the absence of an effective "we", may be considered equally unconscious in the light of the arguments of John Ralston Saul (The Unconscious Civilization, 1995). The dynamics are reminiscent of those of bird flocking.

These examples point to the fact that collectives tend to lack a "we" capacity except in the sense of the fuzzy coherence by which they frame their identity to contrast advantageously with others. This form of identity lacks self-referential capacity except in the sense of flag-waving and habitual discourse articulating "our values". Recognition of error is an existential challenge to that sense of identity. How does a swarm of insects recognize "error" -- despite current interest in swarm intelligence? Notably inspired by crowdsourcing, are progressive movements any more self-aware?

It is under these circumstances that efforts are desperately made to elicit coherence, consensus and political will in response to threats such as climate change, fundamentalism, or alternatives promoted in reaction to the failure of mainstream strategies. This is the context which frames the track record of interdisciplinary, interfaith and intercultural discourse -- pathetic in relation to the challenge of the times. The context is primarily characterized by the blame game -- and the inability to apply any methodology to its analysis, given that everyone tends to be part of the problem, and to fail to acknowledge that: If one cannot understand how one is part of the problem, one cannot understand the nature of the solution required.

The challenge is currently highlighted by the reaction to agreements resulting from long and painful international negotiations. The agreements were immediately labelled as fundamentally mistaken by parties considered highly blameworthy by many -- parties not known for any memorable admission of error. If global consensus is required on controversial issues, both the process of collective apology and the blame game merit more fruitful analysis. Understood as an epidemic, blame invites exploration inspired by the emerging pattern insights of mathematical virology.

The following presentation is heavily focused on clustering sets of web resources such that the named clusters provide a context for remarks regarding the possibility and nature of any "collective mea culpa", to whom it might be addressed, and the consideration of subsequent action. In this respect, the argument notably explores the challenge of transcending the contrasting cultural preoccupations with the dynamics of shame/honour, guilt/innocence and fear/safety. These appear fundamental to the process of societal learning in the light of mistake recognition.

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