In the the previous part of this article, I suggested - as have others on Newsvine - that the Swine Flu discussion has diverted attention away from the torture issue. I further suggested that this was unfortunate, because it's a debate that must continue, since it helps us to examine our convictions about our relationship with other human beings - and serve as a marker for literally hundreds of subordinate measures of our collective success as a species.
I mentioned that the semantic argument about the definition of torture is of little value to anyone but those practicing international law. So what should the debate focus on? I submit that the real question with which we must grapple goes to the core of what we believe it means to be a homo sapiens in the 21st century: under what circumstances is it acceptable to abuse our fellow beings?
Looked at from a neutral perspective, the various degrees of abuse suffered by our fellow man are less distinguishable than we might think. In an overarching sense, it can be argued that it's immaterial whether abuse comes in the form of videotaped beheadings or the delivery of cluster bombs on innocent villages. Abuse is abuse, whether it's the burning of bodies of security contractors or the coerced stripping of economic resources from emerging economies via lopsided international mechanisms such as the International Monetary Fund. The distinctions between forced redistribution of wealth through taxation by big government or the bombing of women's reproductive health clinics, or between the enforced wearing of burkas and the murder of unborn persons for stem cells depend entirely on perspective - on culture, on personal history and on individual or national values. Their differences are relative, not absolute, and in reality, they all represent profound abuses of our fellow members of the human family.
They all represent levels of human degradation about which we should be deeply ashamed.
The point is not to indulge in abuse-measuring competitions, or to point fingers. The point is not to indulge in childish accusations about who started the abuse first. Rather, we should be shouting from the rooftops: "we could be beyond this! We should be beyond this!"
While acknowledging that we as a species have our demons; while recognizing that we are capable of devising unbelievably arcane methods of doing harm to our fellow humans - we need to recognize that we are also capable of achieving our highest and most noble aspirations. The Apollo moon landing, Shakespeare's sonnets, the dedication of Mother Theresa, the genius of Mozart and the development of the computer - all are testament to the heights to which the human spirit can soar. And we may be approaching another opportunity to do so.
On so many fronts, we appear to be experiencing a watershed in the evolution of our civilization. It seems likely, for example, that the financial meltdown is simply a harbinger of the next great cultural revolution; the birth pains of emergence into a post-industrial society. Maybe - if we choose wisely - a transition to a more sustainable, more humane and more fulfilling way of life for us all. Naturally, there are barriers - competition for resources in an increasingly overpopulated world being among the biggest. - but as history has so often shown, the shattering of barriers is something with which our species has had remarkable success.
At the risk of infringing on President Obama's trademarked mantra, it would seem that we have an unparalleled opportunity for change in front of us. Firstly, it seems it is happening whether we are ready or not. But secondly, it seems we are all - even the most conservative among us - ready to be forge a new path. Why?
Off and on over the years, I've worked in change management, and have found the following formula to be useful:
Ds + VF + NS = RC
This can be translated as: Dissatisfaction With the Current State + A Vision for the Future + Next Steps = Readiness for Change. It's both an assessment tool and a reminder of the conditions that must be put in place if the goal is to create change.
As for the formula's first part, it's hard to argue that there's not a high level of dissatisfaction, on all sides of the political spectrum. The divergence of American values, as illustrated by the polarization evident in Obama's early approval ratings, suggests that change is both necessary and coming, whether we're ready for it or not.
But moving on to the next part of the formula - VF - what is the Vision for the Future? This takes us back to the question of perspective again, since we have become – in North America and around the world – a truly pluralistic species, with as many viewpoints as we have national holidays. So diverse are we, in fact, that it might be literally impossible to develop a common vision that works for everyone, regardless of how generic we make it. Even something as seemingly universal as a distaste for racism can become a major wedge, as we saw earlier this month: first, when the U.S. and other Western nations boycotted the UN second conference on racism (Durban Review Conference), and later, when remarks by Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad triggered an angry walkout by dozens of European diplomats.
But, if I'm right in thinking that a global vision for change is impossible, what's the alternative? A failure to develop one could allow a darker vision to take hold by default. The law of entropy suggests that allowing ourselves to 'drift' into paradigm shift is likely to be much less pleasant than evolution by design.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said "be the change you want to see in the world." So, maybe for a moment, we need to set aside our globe-spanning concerns and think on a more local level. On a personal level, and on a community level.
A community, just like we have here on Newsvine.
So...on a personal level, what aspirations do we have for our relationships between our fellow members of the human family? What are the characteristics and commonalities of our individual visions for our relationships?
If we can come to an understanding there, perhaps we can work to grow that consensus - or at least a respect for the aspirations of others - at the neighbourhood level and at the municipal level. Who knows...perhaps in the best tradition of grass roots movements, the discussion can evolve to embrace a species-wide vision for change.
Anyway, what have we got to lose?
I've been grappling with this question of how to establish a collective vision for the future for a while, and a few months ago I established a group to explore perspectives - both forward-looking and historical - on intentional communities, utopian concepts and various aspirational thinking. While I have yet to formally announce it, I would be very pleased if Utopiavine were to become host to Newsvine conversations of that sort. Please consider joining the group, and providing your comments regarding your visions for the future of the human family, whether they be economic, cultural, technological, social or otherwise.
I propose to kick off the discussion by posing one last question. As I mentioned earlier, I have worked in the field of change management. There, one of the articles of faith is that "measurement drives behaviour". So, if we were to come up with a vision for the future, what would be a valid metric against which to gauge our progress?
I have participated on some threads that suggest we already have such metrics. Many - in defence of the proposition that "the United States is the best country on earth" - have suggested it's no more complicated than using GDP. But, as pointed out by the website of the nascent Canadian Index of Wellbeing, GDP is a sub-optimal measurement of even solely economic performance:
Even within the limited scope of the economy, the GDP fails to distinguish between economic activities that are beneficial and those that are harmful to our overall wellbeing. The sale of cigarettes and trans-fat-loaded fast foods, for example, causes the GDP to go up, but no one would really argue that this is good for our wellbeing. We count timber cutting as an economic gain, but we don't subtract the depreciation of our forests as a loss. Fish stocks decline and soil erodes, but the national balance sheets do not track the health of natural capital.
Even if we were to develop a better economic index, it's obvious that many among us value other factors, and would prefer measurements oriented toward more 'humane' statistics, such as literacy levels or infant mortality.
Increasingly, though, there is a realization that attempts to measure culture must take a more integrated approach, considering a much broader range of influences across the life experience spectrum. These kinds of measures inform the efforts of the United Nations, when they develop composite measurements such as the Human Development Index, which summarizes "quality of life" using a blend of life expectancy, adult literacy and GNP per capita. It is a suggestive, and more holistic approach, and clearly more balanced.
Based on that objective, though, perhaps the best tool for measuring progress toward becoming the kind of species we wish to become might be the Gross National Happiness index first developed by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of idyllic Bhutan - called by some "The Last Shangri-La". The GNH captures human aspirations associated with the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance.
As such, perhaps it offers hope for true progress in the overall promotion of human aspirations.