Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression: Dynamics of Democracy

Understanding the dynamics underlying political patterns in the USA is essential, if we want to take action in the present to influence the emerging future. In this week's HSD blog, Glenda Eoyang will use her CDE model to explore the deeper dynamics driving the emergence of these patterns.

Everyone has an explanation for what is happening in the political fray in the USA: Greed, corporate interests, the deep state, disintermediated transactions, cycles of history, nationalism, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, too much or too little education, feeling left out or pushed out. The list of “causes” of oppression on left and right goes on. In the HSD community, we believe that all of these are true, but that none of them is sufficient. They help us describe the patterns emerging in public policy, activism, and discourse, but they do not explain anything. They do not tell us why the current patterns emerge in so many different ways and in so many different places all at the same time.

Understanding the dynamics underlying these patterns is essential, if we want to take action in the present to influence the emerging future. From the pragmatic HSD point of view, we must understand what sets the conditions for the patterns if we are to change them.

Nonviolent Resistance: Adaptive Action

In recent blogs, I have tried to name the nonlinear patterns and outline the underlying patterns that generate oppression we experience today, both red and blue. I have incorporated these emerging patterns into the WHAT? phase of Adaptive Action cycles and explored SO WHAT? and NOW WHAT? to inform next wise actions for myself and others.

Based on our research, all of this is true, and we hope it has been useful. The oppressive dynamics of propaganda, fake news, self-interest, and fatalism inform individual and collective behaviors. Those behaviors, in turn, continually regenerate the same system-wide patterns. Anyone can take Adaptive Action in the moment to respond to and to break an oppressive pattern as it emerges from complex interactions. Each of us can act on whatever is happening right now.

An even more powerful option would be to interfere with the mechanisms that generate those patterns before they take shape. This path is possible, but it requires that we become conscious of how potential and actual energy are converted to power in complex, self-organizing processes of human systems dynamics.

Underlying Dynamics

A layer of deeper dynamics drives the emergence of patterns in complex adaptive systems. Within the reality we see, through individual choices and behaviors, lies a causal reality that drives dynamical change. These deeper nonlinear conditions create the self-organizing processes in complex adaptive systems. Simultaneously, these conditions are created by the same self-organizing processes. Three conditions—containers, differences, and exchanges—are both the cause and the effect of the complex dynamics that generate patterns in human systems. We don’t need to talk about these dynamics in the abstract, because they are demonstrated in social, economic, and political news every day.


In a complex system, a container is anything that holds the system together as a single entity. Political parties, shared interests, city limits, religious conviction, family connections, language, culture, identity are all containers that influence the dynamics of our political reality today. Sometimes a container is an outside boundary for a group, but a container can also be a single point of attraction. Nationalism and charismatic leaders are examples of point-attractor containers. Each person participates in many containers at the same time. They choose, consciously or not, which container is most important in a particular place or time. Any healthy system includes many different containers at many different levels. To make things even more complicated, the levels don’t always align nicely. Individuals, families, neighborhoods, political parties, age cohorts are all different containers that may have contentious and complicated relationships with each other. The many containers and their conflicted relationships are what generate tension and dissention on human systems at all scales. I can feel it in my own stress and see it in my community.

We see containers influencing the current political situation in the USA when:

  • Branches of government are redefined through changes in roles, responsibilities, and relationships.
  • Political parties, and the factions within them, frame their identities and platforms.
  • Groups converge to demonstrate for or against a decision or action.
  • We focus on controlling national borders to keep “us” in and “them” out.
  • Individuals and groups lose their authentic identities in the biased perspectives and statements of others.
  • The echo chamber of media coverage separates FOX viewers and CNN viewers into separate communities of thought and action.
  • We gather for social, professional, or political purposes: National Security Council, West Wing, K Street, Mar a Lago. (Containers get stressed when the purposes are confused.)
  • We create agreements and alliances: NATO, UN, EU.

Containers are necessary for human survival. Individuals and communities would be unable to sustain themselves without the mediating structure of containers, but they become oppressive when the containers become rigid and closed. We see this phenomenon when:

  • Single set of containers dominates the consciousness and reality of the whole system.
  • Boundaries are impermeable, so the system cannot take in new resources.
  • Any given container is perceived to be the one and only justified and justifiable, legitimate container.
  • The function of the container is to exclude what is beyond, rather than to simply embrace what is within.

We are able to resist oppression when we stay conscious of our myriad containers; are willing to re-form them to fit changing needs in changing circumstances; and show empathy for what lies outside our own boundaries. We should also seek to optimize patterns across containers on different levels. Oppressors focus on benefits to a single level. These are the dynamics you see in autocracies (individual) or oligarchies (group). One way to avoid oppression is to attend to multiple levels at the same time, so that risks are distributed, and decisions do not benefit one level at the cost of others. 


Difference is both the source of meaning and of energy in a complex system. Differences give meaning because they allow us to create categories, to recognize and remember, and to make choices for ourselves and others. Differences hold energy in human systems, just like they do in physical ones. Batteries have energy because of their positive and negative poles. Springs hold energy because they are stretched beyond simple bounds. A waterfall holds energy because the top is higher than the bottom. In human systems, differences serve the same purpose. We know who we are and understand something about others because we are all different. We are energized (excited or fearful) when we encounter others who are different from us.

A container of a healthy complex adaptive system holds an array of differences. It is easy to see that, without difference, the system would never move—no meaning and no energy. It is also true, though sometimes harder to see, that a system can get stuck when there are too many differences. The meaning gets confused, and the energy dissipates. We see both of these dysfunctions of difference in the current political climate.

  • Popular vote and electoral college outcomes (The Constitution is clear about which of these different methods is more decisive.)
  • Supporters and opponents of transgender choice, guns, capital punishment, abortion, and . . . (Notice here that the difference is focused on opponents and supporters, more than on any specific topic.)
  • Elites and not
  • Americans and immigrants (This difference is quite ambiguous. When is it a difference and when is it not?)
  • Rich and poor, black and white, young and old (These differences hold particular energy because they are often surrogates for power and privilege in our society.)
  • Real news and fake news

Difference, as they say, is the spice of life, but it can be used for oppression when:

  • Differences are imposed from outside without reflecting natural, pre-existing patterns.
  • Dominant culture refuses to acknowledge differences that make a difference to others.
  • One set of differences dominates thought and action long after it is fit for purpose in a changing environment.
  • Individuals are coerced into focusing attention on one, isolated difference at the risk of ignoring others.
  • No method exists to negotiate differences without violence of word or deed.
  • One difference comes to represent a whole collection of others (We call this bias.)

We resist difference-driven oppression when we focus on differences that make a difference in quality of life for all; inquire into others’ significant differences; reflect on and stay willing to shift attention when circumstances change; and call attention when differences are used to dominate or disrupt.


The meaning and power of differences are locked away until an exchange releases them. The function of the exchange is to allow engagement within containers and across differences. During an exchange, two sides of a difference have an opportunity to transform the other and to be transformed by it. Sometimes the exchange is and should be one-sided, but in a healthy system, one-way exchanges are balanced by ones that are opposite in direction or balanced both ways. 

In a social or political system, many different exchanges are important. Financial transactions, voting, traditional and social media, a hug, a punch, and a bomb are all forms of exchange in social systems. Examples of exchanges today include:

  • Many-to-many exchange of social media
  • Signed executive order
  • Rowdy town hall forums
  • Marches and demonstrations
  • News conferences
  • Campaign rallies
  • Travel across borders
  • Accumulation of personal wealth
  • Legislative practices and procedures

Exchanges are not good or bad, they simply connect across differences to release meaning and energy. They can, however, be used for oppression when they are:

  • Constrained to a single method or medium
  • Dominated by a single voice, rather than diverse ones
  • Shut down by threat, policy, regulation or practice
  • Systematically ignored to avoid confrontation or interference
  • Not respectful of ethics or traditions
  • Inconsistently applied to privilege some voices and silence others
  • Inconsistent and inauthentic

We oppose such oppression when we continue to speak and protect others’ voices; reinforce tradition, when it balances power, and challenge it when it does not; speak together, even as we acknowledge our differences; intentionally connect across barriers; and use every possible medium to speak our truths.

Nonviolent Resistance: Conditions for Self-Organizing

We can respond to the superficial patterns of oppression we observe today, including propaganda, self-interest, falsehood, and fatalism. We can also address the fundamental conditions that influence the dynamics that generate these patterns. When we focus on the underlying conditions of self-organizing—containers, differences, and exchanges—we have many choices for Adaptive Action. We can come to a new understanding of the patterns that supported USA democracy for the past 241 years. These conditions and the dynamics of human systems can help us recognize when those conditions are threatened. It can give us options for action to defend them. And, ultimately, it may allow us to re-engineer our complex adaptive social systems to create a different democracy that will serve us and the world as our collective, unpredictable future unfolds.

Glenda H. Eoyang, PhD
Founding Executive Director
Human Systems Dynamics Institute

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