A Cultural Paradigm Shift – Swift and Enduring

July 13, 2011

Constructive and Obstructive Programs*

by Judith Hand




“The comings and goings of everyday life…take place within a framework of basic assumptions, settled relationships, familiar patterns of behavior and an established division of resources. But it is less immoveable than it looks. The framework itself may be subject to alteration, adaptation, slow erosion or radical upheaval.”       Trevor Noble – Social Theory and Social Change, 2000

A Great Dilemma and a Great Challenge

Adapt or die! This Darwinian imperative is arguably truer for us today than at any time in our brief history on earth.

Many of us look into the years ahead with dread, aware of monumental, self-inflicted problems that seem to be spinning us out of control: poverty that triggers revolution and war, the cruelty of slave and sex trades, the waste of lives due to drug addictions, violence in our homes and communities, the unsustainable consumption of life-sustaining resources. Then there are the potential horrors of newfangled weapons of mass destruction. Global climate change could result in—or trigger—a global pandemic, mass starvation, massive refugee problems, or global economic collapse.

Our political, cultural, and ecological world is shifting with such speed that we can scarcely catch our breath, and the shifting can’t be stopped (e.g., Fukuyama 1999; Hawken 2007; Korten 2006; Toffler 1970, 1980). The scary truth is that we may not have time to adequately respond should any of these onslaughts escalate into catastrophic proportions.

And our dilemma? We have nowhere to flee. There are no unoccupied lands with fresh resources and no other human competitors. Pioneering on a new frontier has always been part of our survival strategy. As long as parts of our world remained empty of humans, we could move to where as yet unexploited resources of food, water, and shelter were available.

No more. The elimination of this option has enormous consequences. Between Malthus’s 1798 predictions that the demands of population growth could exceed Earth’s resources and the warning of the 1968 modern-day Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, who gave us his book The Population Bomb, we had some modest reprieves. For example, the “Green Revolution” gave us added crop productivity, and the spreading “demographic transition” slows our global increase in population size.

But the planet’s basic resources—most notably now, water—are not limitless (Kunzig 2011) and the potential for conflict escalates.  Our populations continue to grow and consume. “Business as usual” may fail to mitigate, let alone prevent, cataclysmic changes, thereby halting the march of civilization and even, conceivably, ending Earth’s experiment with highly intelligent and highly technological life. Homo sapiens may become as extinct as the dinosaurs.

 A new survival strategy is urgently needed. There must be a cultural revolution, an upheaval in the framework of assumptions that currently underlie our behavior. We need an adaptive shift in worldview large enough to deal with the messes we have created. Another word for worldview is paradigm. The great challenge our dominant cultures face to save us from ourselves is to create a major paradigm shift…maybe more than one…in how to live together and resolve our conflicts and how to live in harmony with the planet that sustains us.

Moreover, to avoid the worst possible consequences of our behavior, that upheaval needs to be swift, and it needs to happen now. Elsewhere I explain why, within limits and without being able to control all unknowns and unpredictables, we can in fact purposefully and significantly shape our destiny (Hand 2010). A major commitment to action now is critical. In ten years it may be too late to prevent descent into social chaos or another dark age.

Swiftness of change, however, is not enough. It would be tragically short-sighted if we don’t also do the work necessary to ensure that the positive shift we decide to create endures.

Given that we can choose to shape a better future, how do we move from here to there? What follows is an introduction to two complimentary kinds of efforts, Constructive and Obstructive Program. Pursued simultaneously, these would give us the best chance to foster a rapid transformation of our cultures that can carry humanity into a future of great achievement for generations to come.

How Cultures Change

Change Generated from Two Different Processes

First, how do cultures change? An excellent recent book on the subject is Social Theory and Social Change by Trevor Noble (2000). He reviews influential theories of major thinkers from Adam Smith to postmodernist theories of the late twentieth century, presenting as he says, “an appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses.”

Trevor Noble - Social Theory and Social Change

Relevant to our consideration of paradigm shift, he compares Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Weber argued that “ideas and values are crucial to shaping human action and thereby bring about change.” In contrast, Durkheim argued that “changing ideas and values are themselves the product of social change.” In other words, make a social change happen, and eventually ideas and values will change to match. As with so many areas of human behavior, the truth is that both of these are true, depending on what change is being studied and studied at what point in time.

For us to purposefully hasten the kind of upheaval shift required, we need to work using both approaches. Constructive Programs, which will be described shortly, work primarily by processes of education and making gradual changes in existing institutions. They engage in endeavors that teach, apply, and spread new ideas and values suitable to creating and sustaining the new future these activists are working to create.

Obstructive Programs, which will also be described shortly, work aggressively to directly change behavior, usually through changing laws, and once the behavior is changed, the society at large eventually comes to accept and embrace the values lying behind the laws until, eventually, a worldview that reflects those values becomes the working paradigm, accepted by virtually everyone without thought. I think of the tactics of the former activists as “good works” (Constructive Programs) and the tactics of the latter as “nonviolent persuasion” (Obstructive Programs).

The bigger the evil to be rooted out, the greater will be the difficulty in shifting the underlying paradigm. For example, in the case of segregation by race or class, at some point the paradigm that some people are inferior to others must be replaced by the paradigm that says that all men, and women, are created equal. We can make laws that require equal treatment because at least a few people have decided that the old paradigm is no longer valid or acceptable. It may be, however, a very long time before the majority of people accept as truth the new paradigm, that all are of equal worth. Nevertheless, a great many people who may still be a minority believe, and act on their belief, that working for a change they desire is a worthy and worthwhile goal.

The Speed of Change

Does this mean that all cultural change is inevitably slow? How rapidly can humans bring about a purposeful social change in a deeply embedded paradigm when sufficient resources are applied? Consider some examples. To end the practice of foot-binding in China, a deeply embedded practice of nearly a thousand years, it was necessary to outlaw it, and then work to change the Chinese underlying concept of what makes a woman beautiful. In 1911 the New Republic of China government outlawed foot-binding. Although practiced in secret for a time, it is now defunct. The behavior of a thousand years changed in less than one hundred.

Another example; if women are to be granted equality to men, a deeply embedded evil we are still working on, it is necessary to change the underlying paradigm of belief that women were created as a second thought or to be the helpers of men, not creatures different from but of value equal to men. In many countries we made laws that grant rights to women, and as women achieve education and take places as equals in various spheres of achievement, the underlying paradigm of female inferiority is shifting…slowly, and from a global perspective unevenly, but with increasing speed. For example, it was only roughly one hundred years ago that women began to secure the right to vote in countries here and there, and we now have women as heads of NGO’s, corporations, and governments.

One of the most impressive cultural change projects, because of the massive shift in thinking that was involved, was the Christianization, by the Catholic Church and others, of most of Latin America, in many societies often in less than one generation. Although many elements of traditional beliefs have persisted in some places even to the present day, many long-practiced behaviors changed. More modest clothing was adopted. Taking multiple wives was eliminated. Where it had been practiced before, head hunting ceased as the new value system spread.

I'm Just Too Busy

In short, we are not passive victims of culture and circumstance, unable to plan and guide a social upheaval great enough to shove history toward something grand as opposed to brutal. Likewise, we can not claim that we are too busy or that change would take many centuries, too much time to merit our investment in the effort now when we have so many pressing problems. Under the right conditions, cultural transformation can be stunningly swift.

The process of relatively rapid, purposeful change—as opposed to change by the slow, hidden hand of Adam Smith, or from blind, long-term underlying social trends—purposeful, rapid change typically has two phases:
• first you change the behavior itself, usually through changed or new laws, but sometimes in the past it has been at the tip of a sword,
• and then if conditions (social, economic, ecological) are favorable and all goes well, continued education and experience of the new way of living results, over time, in a shift in paradigm….the desired change in thinking and belief.

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi, arguably the foremost master of social transformation by nonviolent means, engaged in both kinds of efforts already mentioned: what he called “Constructive Program,” and what others have called by way of parallel construction, “Obstructive Program” (Nagler undated). We’ll consider first the nature of Constructive Programs: why they are essential to shaping a paradigm shift, and of strategic importance, why they are key to ensuring that the desired change endures. We’ll also consider why Constructive Programs alone are not likely to produce the swift shift—the transforming upheaval—that we so urgently need.

Why Constructive Programs are Essential

Examples of Gandhi’s Constructive Programs were efforts to teach Indian villagers how to be self-reliant (a man who depends on others for his life essentials is not an entirely free man), and his work to end evils of the “untouchable” class system. Gandhi recognized that unless you prepare at least some people, a sort of critical mass, with skills and values that can make them leaders, participants, and examples after the struggle for change succeeds, a “revolution” is not likely to  endure.

The good news is that legions of people are hard at work on problems that bedevil us. These are efforts undertaken at the level of homes, communities, and nations around the globe.

For example, there are people concerned with the waste of human and physical resources from wars. To prevent wars, there are projects to intervene and facilitate resolution between parties in conflict. War recovery projects work with physically or mentally injured survivors; if their needs are not met, they retain mental wounds that generate another cycle of violence. Educational projects directed at young people teach the skills and values of peaceful living to upcoming generations. Abolishing war has been my principle focus, and this evil has many tentacles. To provide a way for me to manage my thinking, I placed the diverse good works efforts into nine categories (Hand 2005a). To indicate that all are equally critical to a campaign to end war, the project logo arranges them in a circle, not a list (Hand 2005b) in order to convey their equal emphasis.

Other individuals are deeply troubled by well-documented changes in our global climate patterns, particularly the historically very high levels of atmospheric C02 and increasing overall climate heating. So we have educational films such as “Inconvenient Truth” by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. We have educational efforts by projects like 350.Org, which seek to increase awareness of the perils of these effects and to urge citizens to take action and to contact their government’s decision-makers. Scientific groups which collect and analyze data create documents to advise decision-makers and inform citizens and the media.

Rates of poverty are another concern, and many activists trace the problem to too much globalization, and to too much control of people by the decisions of distant, impersonal corporations. So we have projects favoring local control of things affecting people’s lives, such as growing their own staple foods, control of their fresh water supplies, and finding locally generated ways of making a living.

Defense Budgets in Billions - 2009 - World 5 Biggest Spenders

Global political unrest and instability affects everyone in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, like increasing the price of goods like oil, or diverting financial resources from positive, even critical, needs a society may have instead into war budgets. So we have think tanks studying how to shift our economies away from the damaging effects of unregulated capitalism and offering warnings about the ills that result from corporate domination of entire markets.

These kinds of constructive programs and many more spread new ideas and new values that are key to significant change. They are the “good works” upon which we build. They prepare the ground for living in that future we must create. They are essential because unless we shape them in necessary directions, any of these problem areas could pose an insurmountable barrier to the desired revolutionary shift. Furthermore, unless the values behind such projects take hold in a critical mass of global citizens as the paradigm shifts, any progress will be doomed to long term failure.

Why Constructive Programs Alone Are Unlikely to Foster Rapid Change

It is now necessary to explore the painful truth that as wonderful as such good works are, they alone are unlikely to foster the rapid shift our current dilemma requires. Given time, educational and social projects based on new values can transform individuals, change communities, and shape history in powerful ways. Such movements gave us nurses, hospice care, food relief, the principle of rights to health care and education. They promote the values upon which we have established principles of human rights in government constitutions and at the United Nations.

Helena Hill Weed - Jailed for Carrying a Banner

But when an evil is deeply entrenched and supported by a worldview that justifies the evil, good works alone are usually insufficient to produce profound change with any great speed, if ever. For example, if a paradigm underlying a culture is that women are not fully human, and certainly not sufficiently intelligent or of a temperament to govern, it may take a very long time for educational efforts alone to give women their full rights. Achieving any significant change may require the application of Obstructive Program.

Slave Auction Havannah

Likewise, if a paradigm underlying a culture is that owning slaves is a venerable, acceptable behavior if only groups that are not highly developed socially or intellectually are enslaved, it may take a very long time for educational efforts alone to even begin to end an officially accepted trade in human beings. Again, it may take the application of Obstructive Program to change laws, backed up by consistent enforcement of those laws.

The Power of Obstructive Programs

Because Constructive Programs work slowly, to produce the immediate change in behavior that we need it becomes necessary to invoke revolutionary upheaval. Thus, savvy strategy turns to Obstructive Programs. Examples of actions which qualify as Obstructive Programs are sit-ins, marches, boycotts and fasts. Harvard University Professor Gene Sharpe has presented detailed explorations of the use of nonviolent actions in a series of papers and books: the forms these actions take, the conditions under which they succeed or fail, and the conditions under which they persist after the sought for change has been achieved (see e.g. Sharp, 2005). The number of examples he analyzes, successful and unsuccessful, runs into the hundreds.

Over time, such efforts using nonviolent tactics have been given different names: civil disobedience (Thoreau), satyagraha (Gandhi), soul force (Martin Luther King, Jr.), nonviolent direction action, nonviolent struggle, and my term, nonviolent persuasion. The American suffragists and Martin Luther King, Jr. used Obstructive Program (confronting the “system” using nonviolent civil disobedience), as have virtually all of the numerous successful 20th century nonviolent (velvet) revolutions (Sharp 2005; Stephan & Chenoweth 2008). The protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square used nonviolent persuasion.

Alice Paul

To learn how obstructive programs work we could examine movements of, for example, Alice Paul and other American suffragists, or Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., and especially Mohandas Gandhi as already described. These efforts did not take hundreds of years to change behavior. Their results have persisted, and acceptance of the values underlying them continues to spread. The concept that women have the right to vote continues to spread. Indians are still in charge of their own fate. And the concept that a people should not be governed by a foreign power also continues to spread.

Gandhi Leads Salt March

Gandhi, for example, began his life’s work in South Africa, but his greatest effort was to pressure the British to grant India, his homeland, independence. Note that Gandhi isn’t famous for his efforts at Constructive Programs, things like teaching villagers to be self-reliant or ending the worst excesses of the “untouchable” class system. He is famous for his brilliant use of satyagraha as part of a well-planned campaign to persuade the occupiers to leave. Examples are his famous salt march; the boycott against imported British products such as linens; and inviting his own arrest for organizing these protests, resulting in long years spent in prison. We know him for these things because it was his nonviolent confrontation that applied an unyielding pressure to bring about change that no amount of education or pleading was going to achieve.

To produce a swift change in behavior it is essential that we fully grasp this important lesson: Gandhi’s Constructive Programs alone would not have delivered victory. That unless we apply nonviolent persuasion in a strategic manner, we are not likely to get out of the dangerous ditch into which we have dug ourselves in the time we have available.

Summary and Recommendations

John Lennon Memorial

Most humans would like to be positive dreamers. We’d like to have a sense that human destiny is heading for grand things. At the minimum, we’d like to put our feet onto a path that would lead our children and theirs into a safe, fulfilling future.

We can do that, if we decide to make it happen. We humans are a supremely adaptive species, without peers in adaptability, and are at our best in a crisis.  There is consensus that civilization as we know it and planetary ecology as we’ve known it, have reached crisis. This is actually a great moment of opportunity, the time for a revolution that bends the arc of history toward a future of equality, justice, peace, and ecological sustainability. And we will need evolutionary leaders, to lead both the constructive and obstructive projects (e.g., Manga, Undated). Changing direction is a matter of vision, of will, and of heart.

Where would I concentrate the most possible resources at this critical juncture? I  believe that we must first tackle the causes of global climate change. We can’t know for certain how dire the consequences of these changes are going to be. The best scientific estimates are sufficiently grim, however, to require that we act, guided by advice from the most knowledgeable among us. If we do not act, entire countries and entire major coastlines of other countries could be eliminated by flooding. Our refugee problems would likely create political and social chaos…which often leads to war.

And to act effectively will take money—lots of money. The single most immoral, even stupid, behavior into which the majority of governments pour vast sums of financial and human resources is war. I have elsewhere made a case that a concentrated effort to abolish war would provide a unifying cause that could kick off the kind of action, of both Constructive and Obstructive programs, needed to make a great cultural shift (Hand, 2011). It would, in addition, free up enormous financial resources desperately needed for the climate-induced struggles we face…and a host of other challenges besides. Win-win

I end with two recommendations for cultural change activists:

  • Acknowledge that both Constructive and Obstructive Programs are essential to major paradigm shift.
  • Unite EVERYONE seeking to create such a shift. For maximum effect—and we absolutely need to be striving for maximum effect—the growing numbers of diverse organizations, projects, and thinkers focused on creating a paradigm shift need to unite under one umbrella. In unity there will be global power and global visibility.
  • Design a campaign that can achieve global visibility. Now, in 2011, the world at large has little to no awareness that anyone is working seriously to change history in a positive way, let alone that there are many such efforts. What world citizens see, at best, is a great many organizations with good intentions making a bit of progress here and there….with no unified plan and no significant effect. That global perception must change, and only a very high profile campaign can create the needed level of awareness. Based on an already proved mechanism developed by the International Committee to Ban Landmines, I have offered an outline for how to design a campaign with a global orientation and extremely high profile.  It would provide a mechanism to embrace virtually all campaigns, organizations, and individuals at the grass roots that are now, or would like to be, working to produce a great and positive paradigm shift. And its high profile participants and its ability to unite legions of efforts would make the movement impossible to ignore (Hand 2011).

Burj Dubai

    United, the species that built the pyramids and can design the fantastic architectural wonder Burj Dubai, that put men on the Moon and is making plans to set up a base on Mars. That species is fully capable of creating a huge and positive shift in the way we live with each other and with Mother Earth that is both rapid (the result of Obstructive Program) and enduring (the result of Constructive Program).

• Portions of this essay are taken from two articles: To Abolish War (2010, Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research 2:44-56); and Shaping the Future: a Proposal for Creating a Paradigm Shift for the Security and Wellbeing of All Children Everywhere
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