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Peter King

Some Basic Questions About Change

An attempt to set some of the groundwork for a discussion on what it means to change.

This essay is a follow-up to a recent debate that Peter King had with Martin Locker and John Bruce Leonard on the question of “What is to be done?

We tend to be very good at identifying problems. We can tell anyone what is wrong, and it is quite a list: democratic institutions are failing, and they are no match for the power of global corporations and organizations; these institutions also cannot deal with the mobility of the postmodern world and its attendant technologies; there is too much materialism and we are nothing but consumers with no spiritual integrity; we are individuals and no longer feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We know what the problems are.

But we are less able to state how we can deal with these problems. We are less capable of providing viable solutions. I believe the reason for this is because we underestimate the complexities that are involved in change. So, in this brief paper, I wish to explore some of these complexities. My point is essentially that we do not merely have to state what change we might wish to see and so work towards, but we also have to be aware of the nature of change itself. We do not merely have to be concerned with a particular end-state, but with the means by which we seek to attain it and the possible consequences, intended and unintended, that may be involved.

When we consider change, I would suggest there are three basic questions that we need to address. First, there is the obvious question of where do we want to be? What is our goal or our end-state? What is the sort of society or community we wish to create? Without this we can get nowhere.

The next question is equally obvious: How do we get there? What route do we have to take? What do we have to knock down and what do we have to build? What do we have to take with us and who do we need to help us? In other words, we need a plan.

The third question is perhaps asked less often, or its answer is simply assumed to be a simple positive. We need to ask ourselves: are our ends and plans, in any real sense, achievable and realistic? We need to understand the obstacles that stand in our way and the likely level of opposition we would face. We need to appreciate just how difficult what we are attempting actually is. It is all too easy for us to lose sight of these difficulties in the glow of our righteous indignation at the wrongs of the world, or in the heady moment of the idealistic pledge to do whatever it takes to secure victory. We are not the only ones seeking to change the world, and others who are also trying to change it may have a contrary diagnosis to ours and seek to take us in the opposite direction. Also they may currently be stronger than us, with more support and better-defined aims.

Allied to this question is a further one, namely, why should we assume that there is a solution to our problem at all? There may be some questions and riddles that are so complex or so paradoxical that they are just impossible to answer. Indeed, we have to remember that we are not the first ones to have pointed out the particular problems mentioned above, and nor are we the first ones to have attempted to solve them. If others in the past have not succeeded, then why should we succeed in the future? In what ways are we better equipped than those who went before us? Perhaps they misdiagnosed the problem, and maybe we know better, but are we sure?

Furthermore, even if there is an answer, we should not assume it is straightforward and direct. In all likelihood it will not be just a matter of changing one thing and leaving everything else as it is. Likewise, it may be that there is more than one possible solution to the problem, and we will have to decide which one to take. Do we want a gradual approach that causes only limited disruption, or do we go for the short, sharp shock, the radical approach, that gets us to where we want to be quickly even if the ride is not so comfortable?

This last point takes us to what I believe are two constants at the very centre of any understanding of change. First, we need stability to survive and flourish. If we are to formulate plans and carry them out, we have to be able to take much of our world for granted. We have to assume that all the essential programs are running in the background, allowing us to focus on the task in hand. In other words, we need to have certain levels of confidence in and complacency towards our everyday environment to allow us to focus on our aims.

However, the second constant presents a challenge to this confidence and complacency. This is the necessary awareness that change is inevitable and unavoidable. In consequence, we have to be both prepared and able to respond to change. The problem we have, however, is that change is often unpredictable. It will almost inevitably be outside of our control, and that will be the case even if we are formally to blame for a situation’s changing: we can set certain things in motion, but not necessarily control them from there on. Going along with this lack of control will likely be a lack of understanding: we will not necessarily know what is happening and why.

It ought to be obvious that these two constants clash and they do so continually. We need a level of stability if we are to flourish. But we cannot take this stability for granted. Indeed, it would be much better for us if we were to expect no stability at all!

But there is a further complication. When we are looking to develop a plan, we will only have limited resources. All we have is what is here and now. We can only start from here, from where we currently are, and we can only use what we have now in front of us. We cannot wish away our current situation or assume that certain problems do not exist. We may have developed an elegant and lucid theory about how the world works and how it can be made to change, but this is only useful if it works in the real world and in real time.

This understanding of where we must start from is also significant in a further way, in that it tells us that what are perceived as the problems of our current situation – the institutions, policies and practices that we wish to be rid of – will have to form the basic raw materials for our solutions. We can only use those tools that are readily available to us. The only alternative is to pray for divine intervention.

There is one final issue that we need to consider here too. We should remember that here and now is an accumulation of many things, and a lot of them are worth preserving. In ridding ourselves of the bad, do we really want to throw away the good? Or is it inevitable that we have to lose some healthy tissue to rid ourselves of the cancer that is killing us? So we have to think carefully about the consequences of our actions and whether what we are prepared to sacrifice is worth it for prize at the end.

My aim in this short essay has been to ask questions and not to offer any solutions. This is not because I do not wish for any change, nor because I wish to stop anyone from acting in the way they see fit. Rather what I hope to have done is to set some of the groundwork for a discussion on what it means to change, and to offer, as it were, a checklist for anyone starting out with the aim of dealing with those problems that beset us.

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