“For every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it’s wrong.”
(Henry Luis Menkin)
The Potential for Socio-Cultural Change
We have seen that the struggle and violence in today's world do not depend on human nature, but on certain configurations of the current cultural hegemony of adversarialism, which has moved past its prime and is now losing its grip on humanity. We saw that it is not unalterable genetic codes that determine this behavior, but rather modifiable cultural codes which make up the discursive constructs that guide our daily lives.
We have also seen that all cultures have two dimensions: an internal or psycho-cultural one, and an external or socio-structural one, both of which are transformable. Our attitudes and beliefs translate into normative practices and social structures that tolerate, justify and even encourage certain types of behavior, which in turn shape the world around us. Since our cultural codes and discourses are not static but fluid, it is both possible and necessary to question our old representations of man and society and to test others, thereby providing our world with new meanings and realities. In its “Promise of World Peace” , the Universal House of Justice had the following words of encouragement for all aspiring agents of socio-cultural change:
Dispassionately examined, the evidence reveals that such conduct, far from expressing man's true self, represents a distortion of the human spirit. Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and co-operation instead of war and conflict.”
The history of humankind––whether past or present––neither determines nor predicts its future. Nor does ‘human nature’ oblige us to follow any given path. We are free to choose the way forward. The only thing that limits us along that road is the inertia of the status quo, because it is always easier to continue in the same direction than to change our course, even if we do not like the way things are now. According to a saying, people dislike two things: (1) the way things are; and (2) change. Given this paralyzing contradiction, many prefer to let their lives be governed by the old saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” The purpose for this section, then, is to think about how to overcome this inertia and achieve the change we want.
Cultures can and should change, and actually are doing so all the time, although we may not be aware of it. They are not static pieces in a museum, to be preserved untouched for posterity, but living systems that fluctuate and adapt continually in response to changes in the surrounding environment and in the people’s hopes and dreams. They arise and are transformed due to historical causes, whenever the people’s mental models change, whenever they learn and use new modes of behavior, and whenever the social structures and institutions that govern their collective life are reformed.
This section looks at various intervention options that are available to agents of socio-cultural change who wish to help transform old socio-cultural configurations for a culture of peace. Our world was not always as adversarial as it is now, and will not always be. And it is the purpose of socio-cultural change agents to speed up this transformation.
The Dynamics between Man and Society
The relationships between human nature and culture are dynamic and complex. On the one hand, culture has a deep impact on our behavior, as our natural drives are regulated by cultural norms. For example, the sex drive is part of human nature, but cultural norms dictate which of its potential forms of expression are appropriate and which are not.
In turn, the way we perceive of human nature also has a significant effect on our culture, as it tends to produce outcomes that validate––and social structures that confirm––our view of man. That is why the dynamic interaction between the individual and society cannot be separated in terms of cause and effect. Rather, each one is seen to be continually influencing and reinforcing the other.
Likewise, the culture of adversarialism further strengthens our mental models of human nature, whether as a rational animal, as a victim of social forces beyond our control, or a divisionistic or racist model. Accordingly, current mental models limit society to a competition in which everyone aggressively seeks to further their own interests. These mental models are perpetuated throughout all echelons of society and extended to every corner of the globe.
If we believe that we are no more than specially endowed animals, we are likely to follow our instincts; our culture will tend to reflect the hedonistic search for pleasure and an erroneous interpretation of the law of the jungle. The resultant society, with its emphasis on entertainment and the promotion of competition and confrontation, will further reinforce the model of human nature as a rational animal. If we follow the fatalistic / deterministic creed that man is a victim of forces he cannot control, we will see that belief reflected in a society that prefers not to take responsibility for its actions, but waits passively for someone else to solve its problems. The notion that some races are inherently superior to others will result in oppression and exploitation and, to the degree that their power admits, discriminated groups will foment protests, rebellions or power struggles.
However, if we change these mental models for a conceptual framework based on the potential for human nobility, which recognizes the unique contributions that each one can make to the wellbeing of all, we will see a holistic relationship between the person and society, a reciprocal interaction between the welfare of each individual and his or her impact on the good of the whole.
Two Complementary Approaches
We have seen that it is our mental models which determine our behavior, and that it is our behavior which in turn shapes our ‘world’. Therefore, moving together towards a more principle-centered world requires that we integrate two different processes. On the one hand, we need to change our mental models of human potential and modify our individual behavior accordingly. On the other, we need to change our mental models regarding social possibilities, in order to promote new forms of social, political and economic organization.
In this regard, the strategies for socio-cultural change can be grouped under two overall approaches: individual and communal. Individual approaches concentrate on the role of psycho-cultural factors and seek to change the values, attitudes and ways of thinking of the members of society. Communal proposals, on the other hand, are centered on the role of socio-structural factors and seek to change the practices, norms, institutions, and other aspects of the collective life of society.
These two approaches could be called personal or psycho-cultural transformation and collective or socio-structural transformation. They relate to two strategies: top–down and bottom–up. The top-down approach, which seeks personal transformation by changing social structures, rarely works in the long run because it tends to be perceived as an imposition and is met with resistance. Alternatively, the bottom-up approach, which pursues organizational reform through merely personal transformation, results in frustration, as it generates the will to change but does not establish the institutional arrangements needed to channel that volition towards the desired result.
For example, in the fight against corruption, often activities aim to impose a new organizational culture from above by establishing new regulations, laws and policies regarding transparency, prosecution and penalization. Then these codes of conduct are socialized in an attempt to spread the new culture. The results are usually far from optimal. Although these measures are very necessary, they are not sufficient. There must be a change in the way people think and act, in order support a culture of trust and transparency.
An example of the bottom-up approach is seeking world peace by changing the way individuals think and act without altering the social structures that perpetuate conflict within and among countries. This does not work either, because although the masses of humanity are basically gentle, peace loving people, this changes neither the structures that promote political and economic conflict within and among countries, nor the institutional paradigms on which such struggle is grounded.
The complementarity of these two approaches is seen in the fact that acculturation was necessary to implement the socioeconomic schemes of the West, both Capitalist and Communist. In the case of capitalism, the system failed when attempts were made to introduce it where local cultures were based on cooperation, mutualism, concern for the wellbeing of all, and reducing desires to increase contentment. Years and sometimes decades of propaganda were needed before the people began to think and act on the basis of cultural assumptions such as selfish ambition, greed for material things, consumerism, and competing against others, so that the Capitalist system would finally work in those places.
Likewise, Marxism tried to cultivate ‘class consciousness' and promote a reaction against ‘oppression’ among cultures that were devoid of envy at the success of others, had a profound sense of the dignity of useful labor, no need for the external motivator of good wages in order to feel fulfilled, and a deep-seated respect for authority. In these cases, it was necessary to indoctrinate the people through ‘concientización’, seeking to develop in them a sense of injustice at inequity, discontent at poorly-paid jobs, and an eagerness to fight the ‘other’, in order to get them to rise up and ‘claim their rights.’
In both cases, it was impossible to implement the socio-structural proposals until the psycho-cultural dimension had been modified. Likewise, the change we seek will not come merely from the top down. A profound bottom-up change will also be needed, with initiatives springing from the grass roots of society. It is evident, therefore, that neither of these two approaches is sufficient without the other. All attempts at change require working on these two fronts at the same time: psycho-cultural transformation and socio-structural transformation. Any interventions that are confined only to one or the other will be restricted in their ability to achieve their goals. Due to the interdependence of these two dimensions, for any deep, lasting change must necessarily address them both simultaneously.
Achieving the world we want will require “agents of change” who can work at both levels. Below we will see some suggestions for agents of socio-cultural change, taking into account these two dimensions. We will explore a few ways to work, first for personal or psycho-cultural transformation, and then for socio-structural transformation. We will end with a review of the role of utopia in building a new world.