Nonviolent Resistance: Fatalism

In this fifth blog of the "Nonviolent Resistance" series, Glenda Eoyang explores how each Adaptive Action cycle brings you into your power to break the bonds of oppression.

Photo credit to Leeroy, Life of Pix

Oppression is a self-fulfilling prophesy. No matter what they do, it is not oppression until we succumb. The moment we succumb, we complete the nonlinear cycle of oppression where helplessness leads to hopelessness, and hopelessness leads to more helplessness. 

The bully denies our power, so we become convinced that we cannot act. We take no action, so we prove the bully’s point. They tell us, and we believe, that their domination is inevitable, even when they may have no real control over us. For them to speak and create the reality they want, we must be silent. For them to achieve their goals, we must refuse to act. For them to dominate, we must submit.

The oppression we feel today—red and blue, urban and rural, elite and not—depends on information. Fake news and innuendo frame an oppressive reality. Today’s most powerful instrument of oppression is words. We see it in social media, mainstream media, CNN, Fox News, Breitbart, and “press” conferences. The sense and the reality of oppression are created, or at least amplified, by what is said and written. The messages we hear disempower us.  They tell us that others are in control, and we are helpless to make a difference. It is very easy, in times of complex change, to hear and believe messages of fatalism. We have many habits of thought and speech that feed into our individual and collective helplessness. Whatever will be, will be. Someone should do something. The future is beyond our control. In spite of the barrage of disempowering messages . . .  

We are only helpless when we are hopeless.

And, there is reason for hope. Local, national, and global movements are taking shape: The Women’s March, Indivisible, Trumpists, Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, and many more. Individuals form collectives to influence the future as it emerges from the complex patterns of the present. While complexity can overwhelm, it can also empower. The good news is that complexity offers a powerful narrative of possibility and opportunity. The same complexity that threatens to overwhelm us presents many pathways for Adaptive Action.

In open, diverse, and highly connected systems, your power to act does not depend on others’ judgments about what is possible. It depends on where you stand and how you are connected. Whatever happens, everyone stands somewhere, and no human being is totally disconnected. No matter your circumstances, you can always ask the three Adaptive Action questions: What is happening? So what is possible? Now what will I do? And when you do, you will find the hope on the other side of helplessness. 

Adaptive Action is a ritual of three questions: What? So what? and Now what? It engages individuals and groups in cycles of perception, theory, and practice. Each Adaptive Action cycle brings you into your power to break the bonds of oppression. You are able to see, understand, and influence patterns in the moment that give you choices. You are free to create opportunity in the complex dynamics of human systems.

No matter how small your Adaptive Action might be, it can have enormous power because of the nature of change—dynamical change—in a complex system. This radical, emergent, unpredictable change can turn your small action into massive system-wide transformation. Dynamical change is the kind of change that explains butterfly effects, self-organized criticality, and tipping points. It is unpredictable, powerful across many scales, and sensitive to the smallest, most local disruption.

Two other kinds of change—static and dynamic—are more familiar and form the traditional theory of action in social and political contexts.

Static change assumes that an object is at rest until it is acted upon by an external force. That force pushes against resistance of inertia to move the object (person or group) to a new place. After the move, inertia takes over again, and the system stays at rest until the next push. Sometimes it is helpful to think of change in human systems as static. Outcomes, objectives, performance goals, and elections can be considered to be static in nature. Each of these assumes an initial state, a moment of action, and a resulting, stable state. At rest before, pressure to shift, at rest after. This kind of change is useful because it is predictable, controllable, and replicable.

When we respond to the oppressor’s action as if it were static change, we make ourselves the “moveable objects.”  We imagine that they, with their supreme power, can manipulate us as if we had no choice but to obey. As long as we see their action from this perspective, we find ourselves without any options for action—hopeless and helpless.

As we study and live in human systems dynamics, we come to realize that no change in human systems is totally static.  People are not passive objects, and no outcome is totally predictable or final. We need some other ways to think about change that capture its reality more completely.  

Dynamic change is the second option for understanding the nature of change in a human system. It assumes a smooth path from present to future. Starting with total understanding of the current state, and perfect understanding of forces in the system, dynamic change moves an object (person, group, project) through a series of pre-determined steps to arrive at an intended conclusion. Many approaches to change in social systems assume dynamic change: Project management, Spiral Dynamics, human development, most educational curricula, and traditional evolutionary processes. This kind of change acknowledges the presence of forces beyond your control. It can still be predictable because it assumes you can anticipate, even if you can’t control, external factors.

When we see a would-be oppressor’s actions through the frame of dynamic change, we imagine that they know all and control all. From beginning of the change, through all the stages, and to their desired outcome, we imagine that the oppressor has made, and can execute, a pre-determined plan. We, then, become helpless, hopeless objects of that plan. As every good project manager knows, however, this assumption of predictive control in human systems seldom holds true. Even the best laid plans of oppressors can go awry because real change is dynamical change.

Dynamical change, which we suggest as the source of hope in chaos, assumes that change comes from accumulation and release of tension of the system itself. Like an avalanche or falling in love, forces within and beyond the current situation put pressure on the parts, whole, and greater whole of the system. At some point, the tension is too great for the current systemic structure to hold, and change erupts. Innovation, conflict, creativity, and moments of insight are all examples of dynamical change in human systems. While we might set conditions to encourage accumulation and/or release of tension, dynamical change is unpredictable. We can never know when or where the breakthrough will happen. We also do not know whether the result will be one to applaud or regret. 

So, what happens when we think of oppressive acts as conditions for dynamical change, rather than as the power-driven conditions for static or dynamic change?  How can dynamical change give hope in the face of oppression? How can it overcome the fatalism that plagues the oppressed? The answer is simple and profound.

No one—not even the oppressor—is in control in the moment of dynamical change. Something always sparks the release of tension to move dynamical change forward. It may be as small as the proverbial butterfly wing, flapping in Argentina and “causing” a hurricane in Florida. The spark may happen in one corner of the system and spread across the whole. It may be a global shift that resonates into the most remote, local spots in the system; or a local change that ripples out to the greater whole. History and literature are full of examples: Rosa Parks, Norma McCorvey, a heart-wrenching photo of a lifeless child on a beach, Norma Rae, and Paul Revere. Each one was a spark that tipped a tension-filled system into a cascade of change.    

In a moment of possible oppression, the spark could be you. It could be me. We never know for sure which Adaptive Actions will push a dynamical shift. What we do know, is that any Adaptive Action can cause an avalanche. Knowledge of this fundamental nature of dynamical change, can dispel our helplessness and give us hope. What is your hope? What is your next Adaptive Action?

Glenda Eoyang, PhD
Founding Executive Director
Human Systems Dynamics Institute
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