Nonviolent Resistance: Self-Interest

In this week's HSD blog, Glenda Eoyang will explore what patterns in complex adaptive systems can teach us about the dangers of uncontrolled self-interest. She will also share some nonviolent ways to protect ourselves and each other from those dangers.

What about Self-Interest?

Oppression is a pattern that emerges today as both an effect and a cause of the social, economic, and political upheaval in the US. In previous blogs, I have named four component patterns that, I believe, establish oppression as a powerful force in our times. I have also proposed nonviolent reactions to each of these patterns of twenty-first century oppression.

Today, I will explore what patterns in complex adaptive systems can teach us about the dangers of uncontrolled self-interest. I will also share some nonviolent ways to protect ourselves and each other from those dangers.

One person’s unconstrained self-interest is another person’s oppression. Whenever someone becomes unaware of (or uninterested in) the needs of others, the result is dominance by the one and oppression of the other. So, one nonviolent way to counter oppression is to address  the destructive self-interest of individuals and groups.

Why Not Self-Interest?

Religious and humanitarian arguments against self-interest abound. In the first century CE, Hillel the Elder asked “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). Christian children learn the Golden Rule: Do not do to others what you would not want done to you. Kant frames the Categorical Imperative: Treat others as you want to be treated. Some contemporary practices shift the message to: Treat others as they want to be treated. 

The list of ethical arguments for selflessness is a long one. Almost every modern culture or community has some way to encourage the opposite of self-interest. These appeals to conscience or cultural commitment are useful, but not always effective. For those who reject these righteous paths, self-interest can seem like a great way to gain advantage. Indeed, many see it as a winning strategy. They are either not aware of, or not caring about, ancient wisdom to the contrary.

I propose a different argument against unrestrained self-interest. It has its roots in the dynamics of complex systems. While this argument may not be compelling enough to reform people who use self-interest to oppress others, it can give the rest of us some innovative options for Adaptive Action for nonviolent resistance.

Complex Human Systems Dynamics of Self-Interest

Imagine a society as a complex adaptive system (CAS). Diverse, semi-autonomous agents interact, and system-wide patterns emerge over time. Imagine that one of those agents considers only itself whenever it makes a decision or takes an action. What systemic distortions would emerge? What would be the implications for the system and for that individual agent? Three common patterns in CASs demonstrate why self-interest is such a destructive force in self-organizing social systems.

Point Attractor Pattern

Sometimes, conditions of a CAS result in a convergence toward a single point. The motion of a pendulum over time, the drain in a sink, and the path of a marble in a round-bottomed bowl are typical, physical examples of point attractor patterns. Metaphorical examples in human systems include a crowd leaving a theater, children in a school progressing toward graduation, and the actual speed of cars on a highway. In each of these cases, the conditions of the system cause everything in the system to shift toward a single point in time, space, or speed. That is why they are called “point” attractor patterns. All points in the system tend toward a single point.

A self-interested person, especially one with power, creates the same conditions in a human system.  Everything—resources, attention, emotions—from all over the system are sucked in that one direction. These dynamics are what give power to a bully. It is not just the point of meanness and contact, but the systemic patterns that are formed around the bully that prove most destructive. Her behavior generates a point attractor pattern across the system as a whole.

When you understand a self-interested person as the condition for a point attractor pattern, new options for nonviolent action open up. You can disrupt their distorting power when you create an alternative point attractor. Opposition, ironically, increases the point attractor’s influence because it draws even more resources toward the point. On the other hand, creating a different focal point can draw energy away from the one and create competing patterns that re-form the systemic flows.

Over the past months, when the Women’s March became a focus of solidarity more than just a reaction, it generated new patterns of possibility for individuals and groups of all kinds. One might also see Trump, himself, as an alternative point attractor to the self-interested patterns of urban elites.

Your options for nonviolent response to the oppression of self-interest include:

  • Be aware of the larger, extended patterns that are generated in the system by self-interest
  • Focus on your own self-interest, rather than being distracted by others’
  • Select an interest that is shared by you and many, and align all your “self-interests” toward a collective goal

Unintended Consequences

In a CAS, causes and effects are massively entangled. A change by one agent in one place may ripple through the system to create outcomes that are totally unexpected and unintended. This is really bad news for a totally self-involved agent because she is not in control. No matter how intentional she is in calculating her interest and manipulating other agents toward it, she cannot control what will happen. What might appear to be informed self-interest can backfire. Self-interest can turn into self-destruction when the patterns in the system generate unintended consequences.

Promoting a product on national news turns into an ethical firestorm. Promising to provide insurance coverage for all disrupts the party’s strategy. Telling stories of a lifetime of public commitment brings a flood of distrust. An alternative political narrative draws focus and energy away from one’s almost-allies and clears the way for one’s enemies. These strange patterns can be understood as unintended consequences of over blown self-interest.

Patterns of unintended consequences are not predictable, but they can be exploited when they emerge. To leverage the power of unintended consequences to foil others’ self-interest, consider:

  • Recognizing and calling attention to consequences that are a surprise to the self-interested player
  • Turning small surprises into large ones by exaggerating their effects
  • Using humor to amplify unintended consequences of decisions and actions so people see them more clearly.
  • Hold people responsible for the consequences of their decisions and actions, even when those consequences may be unintended.

Fractal Coherence

A fractal pattern emerges in complex adaptive systems when similar shapes appear at different levels at the same time. Technically, a fractal is a computer-generated geometrical object that looks the same, no matter how much it is magnified. You can zoom into a fractal and see an infinite sequence of self-similar patterns unfold.   

Because of the self-organizing complex dynamics that create fractals, you can imagine that a self-interested person could generate similar patterns in the system beyond and within the one where she works. For example, a bully boss would generate patterns of bully behavior in the organization beyond and in the teams within her control. This is a major challenge, of course, because the disruption from one person or group can infect the wider system. The fractal-generating process, however, can also be used to counteract a destructive behavior.

When the same patterns shows up in many places, it may be possible to disrupt the pattern without addressing the self-interested person directly. For example, while it may be impossible to address a national pattern at the national scale, opportunities may arise to approach it when it manifests in the regional, international, state, local, or individual contexts. Given the example of the bullying boss, one way to address that fractal is to 1) check your own behavior and eliminate any tendencies toward bullying; and 2) call out and challenge bullying whenever and wherever you see it.

If you want to leverage the power of fractal patterns to counteract the oppression of self-interest, consider:

  • Looking for reflections of the pattern that are within your ability to disrupt
  • Recognizing, exploring, and transforming the similar patterns when they appear in yourself
  • Initiating a process that engages others in spotting patterns across the system that reflect those generated by destructive self-interest

Our Own Self-Interests

Not all self-interest is destructive. In fact, a CAS can only exist when agents are attending to their own shared interests. Problems erupt when the self-interest of a single agent or group of agents overwhelms the interest of the rest. When it does, the whole system experiences oppression. You can work with your community to oppose oppression with Adaptive Action that is quick, focused, and collective. Nonviolent resistance to the tyranny of self-interest depends on a deep irony:  Collective self-interest.
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