Politics on the edge of chaos

As we teeter on the edge of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic weeks in politics for a generation, if not longer, I feel the urge to explore the positive aspects of the approaching storm rather than the negative. Whilst the Sunday papers are carrying stories about the Tories being on the verge of imploding, about how the very roots of our democracy are under attack, or about how parliament is plotting a near revolution by seizing power from the executive, I think it of value to note that, in terms of systems thinking, being ‘on the edge of chaos’ is being at the optimum point of health and creativity.

Any social or political system can be understood as a complex system. Such systems are composed of a large number of social actors (you and me) who interact with a very large number of other social actors such that their totality can be talked about in terms of a whole – a whole like ‘the British political system’. Such systems are always embedded with larger complex systems, like ‘the European political system’ or ‘the world political system; interact with other political systems, like the French or American political systems; and contain many smaller systems, like individual political parties or institutions, that are embedded within it, and likewise interact with each other.

Such systems are held together by an incredibly complex system of norms, rules or laws. Each social actor within every system, at all levels, interacts with other social actors according to what each actor regards to be the norms of behaviour. These norms range from unwritten forms of behaviour that just feel like the correct way to behave in any given situation, through to having these norms written down and agreed as rules within particular parties or institutions, right up to having these norms passed as laws with legal penalties for their infringement. In terms of systems thinking, the degree to which a norm has been agreed as a rule or turned into a law can be termed its degree of codification. The greater the degree of codification, the less room for manoeuvre any individual actor has regarding how to behave in any given situation.

The important thing to grasp is that at any level, any system is always embedded with a larger system upon which it is dependent for its continuation as a system, for its survival. Even ‘the world political system’ is embedded within the global economic system and the global ecological system. However, the one and only constant in all this is that things change.

One of the main features of such systems is that because of the richness of interaction between individual actors, and because of such features as feedback loops, both positive and negative, there is an inherent and inescapable uncertainty to the whole process. The only thing that is certain is that something, somewhere will change. And it’s impossible to predict the effect this change will have on the system or systems as a whole. Some small occurrence can have a massive system changing effect, whilst some potentially devastating occurrence can be absorbed into the system with hardly a ripple.

At any level, if the environment in which a system is embedded changes, then to stay healthy that system needs to respond in some way. It may need to stay unified in the face of war or external political attack, or it may need to adapt to irreversible changes that would otherwise prevent its continuation (climate change for example). But here’s the dilemma. A system’s ability to change is largely controlled by it’s degree of codification. A system that is highly codified is very good at holding together in the face of a storm, but not good at adapting to longer terms changes affecting its environment; whereas a lightly coded system easily responds to environmental changes but can be blown away, dissolved into chaos, by a sudden storm. The optimum place for any system, the point when it is at its healthiest, is often referred to as ‘being on the edge of chaos’.

Being ‘on the edge of chaos’ is the most creative and healthy state any system can be in. It is a state when there is sufficient codification to hold the system together in the face of most storms, but not so much codification that it can not adapt to irreversible changes to its environment. The British political system, and the wider social system in which it’s embedded, needs to change, that is obvious. It needs to adapt to global economic and ecological changes, and it needs to influence change in other political systems. But at the moment the degree to which it’s norms have been codified is preventing these changes. It’s my sincere hope that the current political storm will loosen these codes and allow a more creative political and social system to emerge, one that remains perpetually ‘on the edge of chaos’.

Healing the Brexit scars

Being an atheist and a committed secularist, it’s not often that I support comments made by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But certain comments made in his New Year message were spot on. Referring to the degree of social division and anger that has been stirred up by the EU referendum and subsequent events, he noted that we not only “disagree on many things” but that “we are struggling to disagree well”. If anything, I would put it more strongly. Everyone seems to have an opinion, often a very strongly held opinion, and many are strongly dismissive of contrary opinions. This seems to be fuelling social tensions that are only likely to increase. And this is all deeply worrying. The remedy, I suggest, is that we all need to develop our ability to critically discuss important issues; we need to learn the arts of public debate and critical thinking.

These are abilities that community philosophy helps to develop. At the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we have one golden rule – that we are critical of ideas, not of the person expressing them. This may sound very simple and straightforward, but in practice it is anything but. It means that when listening to an opinion that you don’t agree with you really do need to listen to what the other person is saying, not just hear them; the quick and easy thing to do is to assign the other person to a stereotype and then attack that caricature – often with an insult. It also means that you need to think clearly about why you disagree with their opinion; you need to do this so that you are able to explain your reasons for disagreement in a way that is both logical and respectful of the other person.

This is of vital importance. If group members think that the moment they say something they are verbally attacked they either keep quiet or don’t turn up in the first place. Either way, their views are not heard. And this is of even greater importance on the national stage. A great many people feel that politicians are not listening to them, that their genuine worries and concerns are being either ignored or paid lip service to. Everyone in society needs to feel comfortable expressing an opinion, to not open themselves to a torrent of abuse for doing so, and, at the very least, to having that opinion listened to.

But there’s another side to this coin: that in expressing an opinion everyone needs to accept that their thoughts and ideas may well be challenged; that not everyone is going to agree with them, let alone praise them for a unique insight into the problem at hand. This means that we must all be prepared to be critical of our own position; that we must be able to defend this position with reasoned argument and evidence, not just make a serious of unsupported assertions; that we must learn not to take offence because somebody has the audacity to disagree with us; and most importantly, it means that we must be prepared to change our mind! We need to understand that thoughts and opinions are best formed through critical debate and discussion, not born from our minds fully formed and perfect.

It may seem like a typical reactionary opinion of someone my age, but I really do think that we have lost the skills of public debate and critical thinking – if we had them in the first place. Most of us read or listen to the same news sources that we always have done, take on board the opinions of politician or political parties we have always supported, and automatically defend our opinion if and when challenged. This does not make for a healthy society. Unless we learn the arts of effective public debate and critical thinking I fear that the Brexit scars will take a long time to heal.