January 2013
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On the Importance of Context

by Peter Bearse


We are all of us born into and come to join or inhabit various contexts -- groups and organizational settings that are more or less constraining, or more or less liberating. These include types of families, ethnic or racial groups, religious traditions and their settings, sizes and/or types of communities, socio-economic strata or status groups, and other social structures or traditions. The extent to which we identify with or become part of any of these may or may not become subject to choice as we mature. Some, such as family, are more deeply rooted than others. Others we may modify, move away from or rise out of with age, luck, determination and other influential factors.

The influence of contexts is evident all around us, not just through personal experience but on the news. The radical change in the context of the American economy has left many Americans “dead in the water”, financially or career-wise. The consequences of this situation, now threatening to extend into either a “double-dip” recession and/or a “lost decade” like that of Japan’s, will be felt for many years to come. The American Dream is threatened as never before. The economic-mobility part of this dream is already open to serious question, not to mention diminished expectations. For most who lack the means and access of opportunities to get on the high-tech, high-speed, world-market escalator, more localized and limited features of “context” may prove to be crucial.1

And yet, the scope and potential of any human being is much larger than the measure of any context, including the intersect of that individual’s group memberships or associations. According to Unger, the potential is infinitely so, reaching to “divinization of the human.”2 Any person’s identity is something of a paradox of polar opposites. At one pole is one’s identity as a member of a group or groups. Is someone a “groupie”? At the other pole is one’s identity as an individual. But “No man is an island”. The paradox qualifies “individualism” and leads to another paradox.

For most of us, our individualism can only be realized and fulfilled to the extent that we are part of a group that honors the fundamental significance, integrity and dignity of the individual.3 Ideally, “We the People” are that group -- the entire population of these United States of America. This recognition provides the fundamental basis our country‘s founding documents, the processes of a high energy democratic republic, and a new political economy.4 The other side of the coin is equally compelling: The integrity of a group in our Republic depends on the degree to which it honors our Constitution and empowers the individual.

The main problem with an overriding focus on the individual, however, is that such a focus is reasonable only if sets of individuals are not discriminated against or are not systematically suffering the disadvantages of poverty. Among the latter, individualism must give way to a group organized to fight vs. the barriers and constraints faced by people in the group. Priority political goals, therefore, are group-wise rather than fostering individual objectives. A key concern that arises here is whether “poverty” implies class-based rather than racial or ethnic-based movements for change as a basis for full participation in a politics emphasizing individualism.

The group paradox indicates that where any of us end up between the poles -- between groupie and individualist -- is a critical point of a group-as-context. It is critical because most of us are tempted to go-along/get-along -- to play by the group’s rules if we like the group and want to be considered “one of the boys”(or girls). If we didn’t like the group, we would seek to leave (exit), or just let our membership lapse if the group was indeed a membership group. The point in-between is not a fixed point; it is changeable. Where we fall between the poles depends on our choices and actions as individuals,5 and yet these are strongly influenced by the groups of which we are members.

The inevitable tensions between individuals and groups, and their consequences, were highlighted over 30 years ago. R.M. Unger wrote that individuals’:

“…aspirations tend to cluster around the parties…associations…and unions that can define then in the least divisive…terms. On the other hand…the…plasticity of people’s ambitions…enable the representative organizations to get a fix on (them)…to freeze them into a mold that offers stability to the organizations…and that allows (their) leadership…to deal with constituents…and government in a way that leaves the rules of the game unchanged…Together, these tensions produce…blockage on the transformative uses of power…”6

Implications here? We need to be very sensitive to how the contexts of the organizations of which we are “members” (formally or informally) may be limiting our ability to take part in movements that seek to change “the rules of the game.” This includes the tendency of any group or its “leadership” to co-op members’ “aspirations” for their own benefit. Bearse (2012) shows how these implications worked out in the case of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, for example.7

Thus, those of us who truly seek to “take back our government” should start by seeing:

(i) Any group niche in which we find ourselves as potentially “revisable;” and

(ii) Other groups as “potential allies.”8

The scope of individual choice and action for change is much greater than the notion of group “membership” may suggest. To the extent that group governance is undemocratic or inconsistent with democratic norms, members should seek to change that governance. Why? -- Because such change would increase the scope and quality of group participation for all members, current and potential, not just the few who may be pressing for change. Ask: What is the role of an un-democratic group in a democratic Republic? It could be a cancer and a contradiction. Any group in a democratic system can serve as a training ground for how “We the People” can maintain (or undermine) the vitality of what, Constitutionally, is their Republic.9 Those who lack the gumption to challenge even the bylaws of their clubs, groups or local organizations are in a poor position to challenge bad laws or poor lawmaking arising from higher levels.

Change,” like “self” and many other key terms in this book, should be understood for what it is: a fractal concept -- self-similar and scalable from low to high and level to level.10 If you can’t observe and act to change what’s wrong at the “micro” levels of self, family and community, how do you expect to be able to face the challenge of change at higher “macro” levels -- of state, nation and international?


The New Hampshire State Constitution of 1784, is more explicit than the U.S. Constitution of 1787 in its recognition of people’s individual sovereignty and power as the basis of government. Note, especially, Article(s) 1, 7 and 10:

“Article 1...All men are born equally free and independent; therefore, all government of right originates from the people..”

“Article 7...The people of this state have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign and independent state…”

“Article 10.[Right of Revolution] Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government.” [My emphasis]

Ironically, for all the promotion of America as a “Beacon of Freedom and Liberty” or a “Shining City on a Hill,“ both state and federal constitutions are both enablers and dis-ablers of people’s empowerment. In part, this is by design. Madison and other Founders, as fearful of mobocracy as of autocracy, crafted a system of checks and balances. In other parts, the Constitution created by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was also a product of compromises and bargains struck by contending parties. Thus, the Federal Constitution provides, both by omission and commission, features that inhibit the ability of people to “take back their government.” This represents a significant limitation that Constitution-waving friends of liberty, American patriots and Tea Partiers, among others, fail to recognize or appreciate.

At the federal level, most candidates for President have somehow or other claimed that they are for the people, as long as “the people” vote to hand over the power of the presidency to one of them. Such claims, however, have served to centralize power in Washington and amplify the power of the Executive and Commander in Chief, rather than to enhance the power of “We the People” to govern ourselves. Consider President Obama as a prime case in point. By contrast to the snake oil salesman intoning “Change you can believe in,” the only Presidential candidate in several decades to directly take on the people-empowerment issue was Mike Gravel, former U.S. Senator for Alaska, in 2008. He defined “empowerment” as people’s power to be lawmakers along with their elected representatives. In other words, he recognized the need to introduce a component of direct democracy along with representative government if we are to fulfill the goals of a democratic Republic as set forth by the Declaration of Independence and The Gettysburg Address.

The component?: Twofold -- A Constitutional “Democracy Amendment” and “Democracy Act” to enable laws to be made via national initiative and referendum (I&R). Based on his two terms of experience in the U.S. Senate, Gravel had concluded that “People must be brought into the governing process in the only possible role, that of lawmaker.” Details are set forth in Gravel’s 2008 book CITIZEN POWER, especially Appendix A and B.11 The Democracy Amendment would “enable our empowerment as lawmakers”. The Democracy Act would establish “A Legislature of the People.”

The lack of national I&R was one factor leading 21 states, from 1898 to the 1st World War, to amend their constitutions to enable their citizens to initiate and enact state laws to help fight the corruption of government during the “robber baron” era.12 Since then, three more states have added I&R to their citizens’ initiative kit bags of tools. There’s a lot of variation among states’ I&R provisions, however, and continuing pressures from state legislatures to restrict citizens’ I&R powers. In addition, as with the rest of electoral politics, we have seen steady increases in the influence of big money interests in referendum campaigns.13 These tendencies have led Paul Jacobs to establish the Citizens in Charge Foundation to help citizen activists nationwide to maintain and/or expand the powers of I&R. It is an ongoing battle.14 The Foundation describes itself as “the only national organization dedicated to the belief that citizens should be in charge of their government.”15

Political Party-as-Context

One of the factors feared by some of the Founders, even though it is not explicitly recognized in the U.S. Constitution, is the power of “faction”; that is, of political parties.

Tea Partiers who have joined the GOP may have noticed how state and local Republican Committees are used by their more politically ambitious members to advance their political careers. In New Hampshire, only a few county and local GOP Committee leaders have been devoted to building their Committees aggressively. These tendencies have been aggravated by other, state party headquarters’ leanings -- to:

Thus, from the standpoint of a crying need to build a “high energy democracy,” GOP leadership is found wanting -- playing the same old/same old (SO/SO) game in SO/SO ways. The essential features of this game have remained unchanged for years. They include:

These brush strokes paint a picture of a party context that is hidebound, insufficiently in touch with the electorate; ingrown, and insufficiently innovative. Thus, the key to the GOP’s future may lie with the party’s ability to welcome into its ranks the new blood represented by the Tea Partiers and/or by the latter’s ability to take over and rebuild party committees from the grassroots. Contrariwise, the key to the Tea Party’s future may lie in its ability to take over the GOP or, failing that, to become a strong, durable national movement or even a 3rd Party.

The Context of State and local governments

State and local (S/L) governments also provide contexts presenting both constraints and opportunities. The constraints are similar to those observed at the federal level. The opportunities are greater to the extent that people are more involved, government is more decentralized and sub-national leadership is more energetic.

The Tea Party’s post-2010 election focus on government spending and debt is not inconsistent with an increasing need; indeed, responsibility for us to also pay attention to other, increasingly pressing complex, issues affecting the future of our country over the long run -- across generations. These can be treated as an opportunity rather than seen as thorny arenas of irresolvable disputes. Why? -- Because Tea Party folks can show:

(1) That, together with other Americans, they have real concern over issues other than federal budgets and spending (or they’re at least not ignoring them); and

(2) That they can identify and demonstrate decentralized, smaller-government, state and/or local solutions that both honor the Constitution and avoid increasing the bloated powers of the federal government.

Decentralization then becomes an increasingly important, even overarching issue, Notice that it correlates only partially with small and/or “limited” government. Those fighting for the latter will need to distinguish decentralization from devolution.17 In all of this, the key is an old/new people-based politics enabled by a new model of what it means to represent “We the People” in the U.S. Congress.18

The shift to a local focus by both Tea Party and Occupy groups after the 2010 elections bodes well for our country’s future. Local government is a great training ground for higher office. Likewise, state government, especially in a state like NH where there is a citizen’s legislature. The problems that the mainstream media highlight at the national level are found up and down the levels of government, from local to state to national. This is especially true among the largest states (e.g., New York; California) and local governments (e.g., New York City; Riverside County, CA). These are no closer to most voters than is Washington, D.C. “Washington” is not the only problem.

The lower levels of government serve as “laboratories of democracy.”19 Often, solutions to national problems are first developed and tested at the lower levels, then adopted by Presidents, the Congress or other national agencies. Local and state governments, for example, have instituted effective solutions to problems of immigration, energy and global warming -- often making up for federal laggardness or other failings. The many examples of such decentralized initiatives provide ample support for the “experimental” approaches to political/ governmental problem solving advocated by both Odegard and Unger.

Past Trends in Political Participation as Context for the Present and Future

The roots of political apathy and non-participation in politics run deep. For decades prior to 2010, indicators of peoples’ participation in the political process had declined. Decline in voter turnout was just the tip of an iceberg. Percentages of the electorate declined for more direct sorts of involvement, including helping candidates’ campaigns, writing letters to editors, joining demonstrations, and running for office themselves. We saw upturns in political participation [PP] in 2010, most notably apparent in the build-up of Obama’s grass-roots network and in the rise of the Tea Party. Are these the start of positive trends that erase negatives from the past, or will they turn out to be transient up-blips on the PP indicator charts?

For even if past trends of decline may have been braked, their impact is still apparent in political apathy, non-involvement and/or cynicism among at least a large minority, if not a majority, of Americans. This raises the hurdle for Tea Party and Occupy activists and others who may seek to broaden and deepen the extent of their “awakening” to generate a high energy democracy (HED). Whether or not past trends resume or might be reversed depends on whether even more pervasive features of American popular culture -- like TV couch-potato-ism -- can be reversed. Reversals are key to generation of HED.

Cultural Contexts: Short-Term-ism and Consumerism

Arguably, the roots of these contexts run deeper than the roots of low political participation. They have influenced the latter, and probably would continue to do so. On the private side of life, Americans are notorious for their low rates of savings. On the public side, Members of Congress and other elected officials are notorious for focusing their attention on the short-term, with an eye to the next election, and paying little attention to long-term issues or the consequences of ignoring the long-term consequences of short-term choices.

Earlier, we noted how the culture of consumerism has led us down a primrose path adverse to PP. This is a culture that values short-term perspectives over long, instant gratification over building for the future, pleasure over sacrifice, spending over saving, and using up over building up. The shocks of financial crisis, long-term unemployment, deep economic recession and rising gas prices has burst the bubble of consumerism. There are signs that a “new normal” may be emerging, as indicated by higher savings rates, greater frugality, more “do-it-yourself” (DIY) and “reuse and recycle” than buy new, and increased tendencies to stay at home rather than “go out.” Yet, the consumerist culture is still fostered by advertising, including political ads that reinforce peoples’ negative view of politics and politicians and treat voters as consumers of political pablum. It remains to be seen whether the new attitudes will turn non-voters into voters and voters into activists. The future of the Tea Party, Occupy movement, and other broad-based political activism depends on it.

Size and Community as Context

In both private and public-sector spheres, there have long been concerns for the effects of the context of organization’s size on people’s behavior. Business writers, for example, have opined on “span of control,” while political commentary has paid attention to the sensitivity of people’s political participation to city size and other aspects of community. Both strands come to a focus on a question still unanswered in either sphere: What is the ideal size of an organization or community? -- from the standpoint of productivity growth (private) or from that of development of a “high energy democracy” (public).

The general answer is “smaller”. The smaller the group, community or business, the less likely that members, voters or employees will feel alienated by having little influence and less power. The counterpoint answer, “larger,” however, too often holds sway or wins the day. Why? -- Because if people can feel that they’re part of a larger, more powerful group, then small is not beautiful. Most folks will go with Mr. Big or Big.org.

The problem is that “feel” and reality are poles apart when it comes down to participation in a people-based politics. It’s easy to “feel” in response to a speech or an ad. It’s harder to be really engaged -- working for a candidate, a cause, an organization or a group, and earning solid satisfaction and recognition for one‘s efforts. As the old saw says: “Nothing worth doing comes easy.“ It’s also less satisfying the larger the group to the extent that your efforts are less likely to be recognized and/or your voice unheard except as one chant drowned out among many. People like smaller groups in which their efforts are recognized and their voices count.

Smaller, more intimate groups are often also an antidote to the isolation, loneliness or alienation that affects too many in our society. Facebook and other “social media” are also antidotes but they are no substitute for face-to-face interactions. There is a danger that the Internet, like the TV, turns people into political couch potatoes. Consider the remarks of one of the many social psychologists who have considered IT-enabled vs. face-to-face interactions:

“Has Facebook become a quick fix…Or, a false sense of community?…Turn off the television, shut down the computer, shut off the cell phone and make the effort to fully communicate, share and engage with another.”20

The latter, by the way, characterizes political participation at its best.

And so perhaps it comes as no surprise that writers on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum point to smaller, self-organizing units as most desirable from the standpoint of peoples’ actual engagement in the process of trying to change the conditions that affect their lives. Note, for instance, that the “associations” featured in Dahl’s highly regarded guidebook ON DEMOCRACY bear a remarkable resemblance to the “collectives” that were the basic units of political organization highlighted by the “anti-mass” booklet to instruct 1960’s leftist movement activists. Note the similarities, below:

Dahl’s associations… “we’re all equally qualified to participate in discussing the issues and then deciding on the policies that our association should follow… if the association follows five “standards” --

  1. Effective participation…all…must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known…”

  2. Voting Equality…every member must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote…”

  3. Enlightened understanding…each member must have equal and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant policies…”

  4. Control of the agenda…members must have the exclusive opportunity to decide… what matters are to be placed on the agenda…”

  5. Inclusion of adults…All…adult permanent residents should have the full rights of citizens…”

Note that none of these five fundamental underpinnings of “democracy” are wholly honored; i.e., each is only partially honored to a greater or lesser degree; that is, each is partially breached.

Anti-Mass collectives…Per McLuhan: “high in participation, low in definition.” There should be “a limit to size (in) “recognition of the practical limits of conversation (for) Beyond a certain point…you have to raise your hand to speak.” Dahl’s five conditions apply here, too.

Size, in fact, is the only significant difference here. Dahl anticipates associations of up to “several hundred” members. “Anti-mass” openly discusses the issue of size and comes down clearly in favor of much smaller groups, as in: “The collective should be no bigger than a (musical) band…”, and denounces what it sees as “the repressive nature of large organizations (stating that)…the basic idea is to reproduce the collective, not expand it.”21 This latter advisory should be posted on the wall of any political group. Don’t think that growing your group is such a great accomplishment! -- Once it is well established, reach out to others in other areas and help them to establish their own groups!

Big businesses have tried many ways to overcome the alienating effects of their bigness on employees. These include corporate decentralization [trying to run sub-units entrepreneurially, as if they are small businesses], divestitures, employee dress codes, employee stock ownership plans [ESOPs], suggestion/innovation awards programs and community/good cause involvement programs. These have shown varying degrees of success without solving the basic problem. For the fundamental issue is whether any group or organization, no matter what its size, recognizes that empowering the individual is one of its basic goals. This goal implicates leadership as a fundamental factor. Entrepreneurship and leadership are twin brothers. So, the message to business is akin to that for politics and government: Empower everyman to be an entrepreneur.

Ironically, politicians can and should look to business leadership to provide role models [rather than vice-versa]. For the understanding of leadership found in business publications is heads and shoulders over its political brand.22 One major reason is that the “heads” (leaders) not only know how to inspire, mentor, direct, train and earn the trust of the “shoulders” (followers); they also know how to construct contexts of purpose and meaning to which the latter can aspire.

This latter, primary quality -- “leadership-as meaning-making” -- sees the leader as both visionary and architect, responsible for “the development of a worldview for participants.”23 None of these qualities of leadership are a function of size, but they do influence the degree to which followers feel that they are part of a community with shared goals and values. And so servant-leadership, flattening hierarchies, decentralization, team-building, and devolving responsibility upon small teams have also become essential features of advanced business management.

Where would leaders be without followers? What qualities of follower-ship help to cultivate an effective, working community? Here, too, the guiding lessons are to be found in business rather than politics.24 Most of the essential qualities are like mirror images of those noted for leadership. To be a good leader, one must have been a good follower, and vice-versa. The key virtues can be highlighted by a mnemonic: LOCTaT -- Love, Openness, Communication, Truthfulness and Trust.

Business writer Barbara Kellerman distinguishes “five types of followers:

  1. Isolates (completely detached);

  2. Bystanders (observers only);

  3. Participants (engaged);

  4. Activists (who feel strongly and act accordingly, both with and against leaders); and

  5. Diehards (deeply devoted).”

From the standpoint of PP, the first two can be dismissed. Of the final three, “participants…offer the most potential for long-term, productive relationships …Participants work hard…they care enough…to try to have an impact.”25 Kellerman also recognized in 2008 what the Tea Party and Occupy movements made real in 2010: “Cultural constraints against taking on people in positions of power…have been weakened.”

Where do Tea Party and Occupy members fall along this typology? They are usually described as “activists.” Some might be characterized as “diehards.” What are the leaders doing to recruit and train participants? Are there sufficient, deeply rooted LOCTaT qualities to enable either group to continue to be a growing, widely respected, durable and influential organization for the good of our democratic Republic over the long-run? Here, too, the qualities that would enable growth have nothing to do with size per se. If and as growth of their group(s) continues, however, Tea Party and Occupy leaders will need to take care that the group’s organization(s) continue to be decentralized, as well as grounded in family and community values.

Growth histories of the nation‘s largest cities show two contrary tendencies with regard to “size.” One is that of great jumps in growth and city-size by way of annexation and immigration. The other is that of reduction in the size of places where people make their homes, via suburbanization out of large cities and creation of small villages and distinct neighborhoods within cities. The latter led to calls for neighborhood self-government.26 People feel that they have or can achieve greater control over the circumstances of their lives within smaller places or congenial community settings.

Indeed; for this discussion of “Size and Community as Context”, we have found that the essential qualities to be developed and honored have more to do with the creation and nurture of “community” than with “size” alone. They are key to “The Fractal Revolution” that has underlined the importance of individuals and small groups over large-scale organizations. The search for an optimal “human scale” may go on. We can look forward to finding no precise answer to the question. What we have found is that smaller is a better basis for self-governing communities. Two individuals (a man and a woman) found a family. Family is the foundation of community. Community is the basis of decentralized, democratic political jurisdictions. The latter are the basis of a democratic Republic. “LOCTaT” virtues are the basis of all.27


Vietorisz and others claim that “hierarchy” is the single most important feature of the context of communities and people’s lives. How could this be so? Well, because hierarchical structures of power, authority, money, networks and influence affect the life chances of us all. They especially influence the chances to make changes that any of us may want to make if we are ever to be able to “take back” our politics and government.

What is “hierarchy”? It connotes levels of power, wealth, knowledge, authority and other qualities that society values. Those with more of any of these qualities individually, or leading groups or networks with more of these, are more likely to win positions from which they can direct or influence others. From a political standpoint, the most important is power. The other qualities are often used to reinforce power, as in the old saying “knowledge is power.”

The key questions affecting the chances of change in a hierarchical structure are: How…

Rigid or fluid? The chance of winning a committee chairmanship in Congress, for example, has only loosened up in recent years. Not long ago, one could occupy a committee’s chairmanship for a lifetime. The power structure of Congress was highly hierarchical until 1994 and passage of most of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” It’s still too much so.

Open or closed? If it’s dominated by an “old boy” network, for example, it’s relatively closed to network outsiders. Many local governments are dominated by such sets, so Tea Partiers may be finding that the “problem” is not just “Washington.”

Fluid are the flows? -- of information, people, resources, et al.? If directives and information proceed only from the top down through a hierarchy, chances of change are lessened. If there are “tin-pot dictators” throughout an organization guarding their “turf,” the chances of resources flowing to centers of change are lessened.

Diversified are resources and linkages? If leaders at centers of power suck up the best talent and the talent sucks up to them, or such leaders “suck up” to powers above them, then the chances of change effected from the “bottom up” or the grassroots are diminished.

Democratic are the procedures by which positions in an organization’s hierarchy filled? If members are limited to voting for a slate pre-selected by a nominating committee that is not itself re-elected periodically by the membership, then the organization cannot be considered “democratic.” This is the case with Congressional committee chairs, for example. Non-democratic organizational bylaws are a familiar, related problem.

Answers to these questions do not exhaust all the problems with “hierarchy,” but asking and facing them helps to diagnose the problems to be faced. It also helps to be aware of the consequences of not facing them. Most important are the limited or lagging ability of hierarchies to face and to deal with the challenges of change we all must face at all levels -- especially those of institutional innovation -- of modifying institutions so that they can help us adapt to new times while honoring old values. Other consequences include:

Labeling as Context

Labels are substitutes for thought. Why? -- because labels spell a constraining context, one that limits consideration of almost anything; especially, alternative possibilities or people’s potential. Labeling is a form of closure -- a boundary that marks the context of a restricted area of discourse. Labels thereby also limit exchanges of knowledge and achievements of understanding across political divides, lines or aisles.

It should be no surprise, therefore, to find writers who equate labels with “bins.”28This writer prefers boxes.29 The bins-guys, a Captain in the U.S. Navy and a Colonel in the U.S. Marines, point to the labeling of terrorists as “Islamic Jihadists” as their prime example, writing:

“This has resulted in the alienation of vast elements of the global Muslim community and has only frustrated efforts to accurately depict and marginalize extremism.”

This pretty well reveals the problems of “labeling as context.“ We can see this better if we picture the above statements in terms of a Venn diagram, below.


Muslims Jihadists

If “Islamic Jihadist” is equated with “Muslim”, the overlap between the circles is small. This context prevents us from seeing either the population of Muslims or the group of terrorists correctly. Some terrorists are neither Muslim nor foreign (e.g., Timothy McVeigh and the Uni-bomber). Most Muslims are not terrorists (as I learned from my experience doing projects in Indonesia and Pakistan, among other countries with majority Muslim populations).

Where labeling most leads us astray is when labels are pejorative; that is, when labels serve to demonize rather than convey knowledge or understanding. Such is the origin of the word “pariah” denoting “social outcast.” This arose from upper class Anglophiles in India who long looked down upon the Paraiyar, an untouchable caste, as undesirable or morally offensive persons. Examples of this sort in the U.S.of A. today are legion. One is the tendency of so-called “conservatives” to tar all illegal immigrants with the same brush. Another is their tendency to label President Obama and other liberal Democrats as “socialist.” Democrat liberals also fall into the labeling trap when they call Republicans “right wing.” The latter are examples of what Mitroff and Silvers saw as the kind of “self righteousness” that is one of the roots of they called “Type Four” problems.30

Such tendencies not only put those labeled into a box; they also put the labelers in a box. They artificially restrict their (and our) ability to solve a problem they (and we) see as serious. Why? -- because they limit our ability to see the scope and reality of the problem at hand, as well as the unanticipated consequences of half-baked recommendations of what’s to be done about it. One consequence could be more serious than the problem itself (depending, of course, on how “the problem“ is defined), as in a “Contract of Mutual Indifference” whereby a majority of citizens ignore the negative impacts of “solutions” for which they have voted.31

Problem Definition

You recall the old saying: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” But what if you’re not involved in defining what “the problem” is in the first place? This question poses a huge problem when it comes to public issues. Most of the time, the public problems we face are being defined by us by others – by political parties, the media, “experts,” academics, commentators, pundits or others among elite groups. This means that, unless we find ways to become part of the process of problem definition, it becomes part of the “context” that we have to either live with or resist.32

More than any other authors, Mitroff and Silvers, mentioned earlier, identified the dire consequences of this situation. They question “boundaries of…context and environment…used to frame (any) problem, asking: Whom does the problem effect? How serious (is it) for whom? What’s riding on the solution? They insist that “common admonitions that (a) we must the problem precisely and that (b) the definition of the problem should not vary are…complete and utter nonsense.” (!, emphasis mine)

When does a problem really exist? – “when we want to find…a set of (a) ethical means to achieve (b) a set desired set of ethical ends;” that is: “whenever the difference between our ideals…and our current abilities …is greater than zero.” There is, moreover, “a big difference between ‘means problems’ and ‘ends problems’, (where) one is charged with discovering…a set of ends around which people can coalesce.”

They strongly advise us to avoid three badly mistaken assumptions, that:

  1. Real, complex problems can be decomposed,

  2. All problems have a single formulation and single solution, and

  3. Something is not a problem unless it can be defined clearly, precisely, and unambiguously.

Most significant, complex problems are dynamic. Mitroff and Silvers stress that:

More often than not, the solutions not only contribute to the problems…they actually make them worse….the definition…only emerges at the end of an inquiry, not at the beginning…Problems…are huge entangled webs that are interconnected in complex…ways…a mess as a system of problems such that no single problem exists apart from the mess of which it is a part.”33

In other words, if we do not become part of the problem definition process -- as, for example, we were not with regard to the Iraq war -- then a bad context falls upon us all and there is hell to pay. There is perhaps no better to reason to turn now to media-as-context since media cheer-leading for the war was part of the problem.

Contexts of Media

American media are a fundamental aspect of context affecting peoples’ empowerment because of:34

This latter has become most obvious from the so-called “liberal” media. Unfortunately, “conservative” media also provide constraining contexts. They do so, in part, because they limit themselves by their preoccupation-in-opposition with their liberal counterparts and, thereby, a tendency to define themselves by what they are not. It helps to remember that truth is a two-sided coin: One side says what we are not; the other states who we are.

In a media-driven culture that deifies pop celebrities and demonizes politicians, the media must be recognized as the #1 contextual influence on people’s dis-empowerment; especially, citizens’un-willingness and in-ability to participate in the political process. That is why this author’s earlier book concluded with a call to candidates for public office at every level to make an issue of media failures, including ways that an incestuous mix of big money and broadcast media skews our politics and undermines our democratic Republic. This call is even more urgent now than earlier. It should be trumpeted far and wide at every opportunity.

Conclusion: What to watch out for in dealing with “Context”(s)

Unger writes: “There is always more in us than there is in our contexts” Nevertheless:

We can never move from something that is merely (!) contextural…to another thing that is beyond contexts.”36 Why? -- Because to the extent we try to escape the contexts that surround us without working to reform them from within, the hope of change is likely to become an idealistic or romantic revolutionary dream leading to violence rather than a real, activist rhythm to a Les McCann beat that can help us dance together in peace.37

Obviously, we have to deal with a variety of contexts in our lives. What common denominators among them might command our attention? Our reconnaissance in this section reveals that we should attend to the following checklist:

These and other features will influence the degree to which we might be banging our heads against the wall or have a realistic chance to change a context from within.

Consider, for example, Rotary International, of which the author is a member. As an organization, Rotary is exemplary in its devotion to good causes -- helping people around the globe to deal with such urgent problems as hunger, lack of potable water, illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities. Rotary is decentralized by nation and locality. Its governance is democratic, although the degrees to which memberships participate in its governance and actively engage in Club activities vary greatly.

One could characterize the variety or diversity of Rotary Club membership as relatively low, since memberships are typically dominated by a mix of business or professional people and community leaders -- executives, owners or managers; well-educated professionals and leaders of other, not-for-profit, religious or philanthropic, community-based organizations. Members can speak out on any topic of concern, but discussions on two of the major issues of our time, politics and religion, tend to be discouraged.

It’s not just that Rotary is a non-political organization; it’s official policies and club by-laws fail to recognize that, like corporate and other citizens, it has a responsibility to help maintain the viability and integrity of democratic values and systems. Fortunately, although unofficially, Rotary members tend to be the most active citizens in their communities, including some who stand for and serve in, elective offices, and those who serve in voluntary or appointive positions in a variety of local committees, boards and commissions.39 Also fortunate is the fact that Rotary Clubs vary considerably to the degree that they try to help their members be better informed on political matters, as by providing speaking opportunities for officeholders or candidates for political office, or for forums on public issues. Yet, none of these qualities is sufficient to offset Rotary’s official stance, which denies the organization’s political responsibilities as a member of a democratic republic.

Such observations could even be made on a number and variety of other organizations whose stated purposes are not political. These include those who collect dues and/or contributions from their members, then deploy part of them, through PAC’s or other venues, to hire lobbyists, make campaign contributions, take other actions to advance political candidates, or lobby for political actions. It’s time to recognize this “non-political” hypocrisy for what it is -- a context that constrains our empowerment as concerned citizens in many settings, and so pretty nearly overall.

1 There’s no better introduction to this subject (and this book) than the GRAPES of WRATH. The severe impacts of the Great Depression and Dustbowl, aggravated by severe inequalities in ownership and power left over from the splurge of the ‘20’s, lead a young son of a sharecropper to bulldoze the homes of his neighbors for “$3 an hour.”

2 Unger, op.cit., p.193.

3 See: Smith, Kenwyn K. & David N. Berg (1997), PARADOXES OF GROUP LIFE: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis and Movement in Group Dynamics. New Lexington Press: Organization Science Series; Schwartz, Barry (2005), THE PARADOX OF CHOICE: Why More is Less, and Woodhead, H. Evan (2006), THE POWER OF PARADOX [3 categories]

4 The more technologically hip among us might claim that the new economy should be built on the WIKINOMICS model, but for a more serious approach, see Gorga and Bearse (2012).

5 See Hirshman, Albert (1970), EXIT, VOICE and LOYALTY: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. The tricky situation is one in which the individual cannot or does not want to “exit” and so faces a struggle of whether to be loyal to the group as-is or voice opposition to aspects of the group that he dislikes (leadership, bylaws, practices, policies, et al.)

6 Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1978), “Illusions of Necessity in the Economic Order,”AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW (May, p. 370).

7 Bearse, Peter (2012), A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION: How “We the People” can truly “take back” our government. Amazon e-book (January).

8 As noted by Unger 30 years later, op.cit., 2008, p.194.

9 See Verba, Sidney (1995), VOICE and EQUALITY. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

10 See Mandlebrot, Benoit (1987), THE FRACTAL STRUCTURE OF NATURE;Bearse, Peter (1999), “The Fractal Revolution,”THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE (Sept., www.spectacle.org); and Lauwereir, Hans (1990), FRACTALS. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

11 Gravel, Senator Mike (2008), CITIZEN POWER: A Mandate for Change. Bloomington, IN: Author House. See pp. 142-163.

12 This situation seems similar to the one Arizona and others states now face with regard to the federal government’s unwillingness or inability to enforce laws against illegal immigration.

13 See Gerber, Elisabeth R. (1999), THE POPULIST PARADOX.

14 See daily editions of COMMON SENSE with Paul Jacob, and weekly notices of the Foundation‘s WEEKLY NEWS UPDATE and Jacob‘s TOWNHALL COLUMN [www.citizensincharge.org, commonsense@citizensincharge.org and citizens@citizensincharge.org.

15 Quoted from www.citizensincharge.org/About Citizens in Charge Foundation

16 The degree of “breach” to be tolerated has been subject of running debate within the GOP for many years. It was brought to a head in 2010 by the rise of Tea Party groups and their Republican allies, who realized that they would have to field their own candidates in party primaries to fight to defeat those that conservative Republicans labeled “RINO”s -- Republicans In Name Only.

17 As in Bearse (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism. Lafayette, LA: Alpha Publishing. pp. 359 – 361, “Devolution” means sub national governing authorities are given the role of implementing ‘made in Washington’ policies. If insufficient resources are provided to do the job, then devolution hardly differs from “unfunded mandates.” The Feds pull the strings.

18 See, for example, Bearse, Peter (2012), “Strategy for Building a People’s Congress,”THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE (November).

19 See Osborne, David (2000), LABORATORIES OF DEMOCRACY.

20 Johannessen, Constance (2011), “Facebook versus face-to-face: The question of loneliness.” Portsmouth, NH: PORTSMOUTH HERALD (Monday, May 16). This was also the conclusion of the author’s Chapter 8: “Digital Democracy: The Media, ‘Net and Web of Politics” in Bearse(2004), op.cit.

21 “anti-mass”, op.cit., p.12.

22 This was the main theme of Bearse (2004), op.cit., Chapter 7: “Seeds of Change: Agents and Concepts” .

23 Quotes from Lagace, Martha (2005), “How to Put Meaning Back into Leading: Q&A with Rakesh Khurana and Joel Polodny.” Cambridge, MA: HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW.

24 One should, however, at least acknowledge an important, though lesser contribution in this regard that has emerged from the religious commmunity -- the concept and application of “servant leadership”. See Palmer, Parker (1990), “Leading From Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership,” Washington. D.C., The Servant Leadership School.

25 Heskett, Jim (2008), “Are Followers About to Get Their Due?: A Forum” [based on Heskett‘s review of Barbara Kellerman’s book FOLLOWERSHIP: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW (July 3).

26 See Kotler, Milton (1969), NEIGHBORHOOD GOVERNMENT. New York: Bobbs Merrill. Similar reactions -- devolution to smaller places -- can be seen as reactions to the “Flat World” forces of globalization.

27 As I can attest from personal experience. After failing at two marriages, I found late in life that LOCTaT forms the foundation of a lasting, loving relationship.

28 Mr. Y (a pseudonym)(2011), “A National Strategic Initiative,” VETERANS TODAY (April 24). John Huntsman, Republican presidential candidate, former Gov. of Arizona & Ambassador to China, also seems to recognize this problem of labeling, calling it “tagging.”

29 Bearse, Peter (2006), “Redefining the Political Agenda: From Boxes to Loops,”THE EAGLE-TRIBUNE (May 18). This piece first appeared in the GLOUCESTER (MA) DAILY TIMES in 1989.

30 Mitroff, Ian, and A. Silvers (2008), DIRTY ROTTEN STRATEGIES: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely.” Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

31 Geras, Norman (1998), THE CONTRACT OF MUTUAL INDIFFERENCE: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust. New York and London: Verso. The most horrific example was the indifference of the majority of the German people to genocide -- the annihilation of European Jewry. NEVER AGAIN!

32 This is why Chapter 8 of Bearse (2012) devotes some space to introducing an effective approach to problem definition.

33 Mitroff & Silvers, op.cit., pp. 44-51.

34 This section draws upon Chapter 8 of Bearse (2004): “Digital Democracy: The Media, ‘Net and Web of Politics”, op.cit., pp.251-308. The fact that this chapter is the longest in the book is itself an indicator of the fundamental importance of the media-as-context.

35 See pp.252-253 of the above chapter re the seven: “Political lemons cycle…Fear and lack of confidence cycle…Voting cycle…Political Inequality cycle…Public/Private cycle…Party cycle (&) Independence cycle.”

36 Unger (1998), op.cit., pp.9 & 18.

37 As sung at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, 1978, the theme of the Les McCann tune is: “Let’s make it real!…Compared to what”! Hear this on the “Montreaux 30th Anniversary Edition, Les McCann & Eddie Harris: Swiss Movement,” Atlantic Recording Corp.(1996). Los Angeles: Rhino Records.

38 In his forthcoming book, Thomas Vietorisz highlights “hierarchy” as the #1 constraint on our ability to achieve “sustainability.” Look for TRAVERSE: THE CULTURAL TRANSITION TO SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: A Coyote Perspective [Oxford University Press, 2012]

39 The Dedication to my earlier book (Bearse, 2004) recognized these as “the heroes of everyday life.”