PART I -- Fragmented Knowledge:
How It Leads to Helplessness at Work, at Home, and in the Wider Community
I wonder increasingly what keeps Americans from acting in response to the growing encroachment on our civil liberties, blatant crime and exploitation by elected and corporate leaders, and a foreign policy which threatens the survival of our planet. The more we don't act, the more scared we feel and the lower our self-esteem; we may experience a downward spiral of helplessness that only increases as we fail to act.
I hear the causes of this failure to take action hypothesized as "apathy, greed, ignorance, cynicism." I think these words are inadequate to describe the cultural or systems webs we are caught in. The denial of obvious facts, the refusal to be an active citizen of a democracy and the inability to take responsibility for the big picture has multiple roots.
In our book Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Surivive It, which I co-authored with my husband Chauncey Hare, we described how authoritarian organizations create learned helplessness through norm hypnosis. Dysfunctional families do the same to children and our schooling is notorious for "dumbing us down" -- all appropriate preparation for entering a workforce we as workers do not control.
In another article at this Web site ("As Workplace Abuse Escalates Why Don't We Working People Confront it Collectively?"), I have written about the emptiness and loss of meaning that is caused by the breakdown of community relatedness and our investment in image, which keeps us slaves to corporate-defined systems and unable to organize ourselves effectively outside them. Our institutional systems, without conscious involvement by citizens, define our realities and conspire against us from birth, both inside and outside work.
I believe the compartmentalization and specialization of knowledge plays a key role in keeping us from grasping conceptually what is being done to us and finding ways out. Compartmentalizing fragments our picture of the world. It means we can only see "what is" in the boxes that are already defined by various fields of interest that each have their legitimized topics and languages. We can't see what doesn't fit into those boxes or falls through the cracks. If we try, it tends to look vague, or be a conglomeration of many things mixed up and hard to define: we don't have a ready language to describe and delineate the strands of it. Because we can't look at it or put words to it, we are virtually disallowed knowledge of it. This "conspiracy of ignorance" denies us understanding of the richness and complexity of the interlocking systems that govern our lives.
Prescribed Professional Blindness
Elite professional subcultures prescribe blindness toward an integrated, holistic perspective. Each profession shapes knowledge to their needs and norms within their professional and corporate environments. Professions assume expertise and power that is denied to anyone outside their boundaries, laypeople and professionals in other fields.
They engage in the same kinds of power struggles common to corporate cultures, hoarding pieces of information, arguing points within a fixed set of assumptions that is never challenged because it would violate the norms of the profession. People in these professions jockey for status through publication, or for acceptance by the academy as the originators of advanced ideas or discoverers of new information.
There is no reward for thinking outside the bubble, no free thinking encouraged, because perspectives on intellectual and professional reality are bound by the same norm hypnosis as in any corporation. There is no encouragement to bridge professions, because each profession is competitively engaged in shoring up its members' value as experts pitted against other professions, to be seen as more worthy of public trust and funding because they provide something no one outside their rigors can understand.
Social change groups unfortunately tend to follow the same model as professional groups -- they develop their own doctrine, language, and methods, their own orthodoxy, their own closed systems of analysis and organizing. They engage in fights for status, competition with other groups, rigidly bound by their own norms. The result is they are unable to meet the challenge, to get through to Americans who through ignorance and defensiveness fail to perceive and understand what is happening to them.
Mavericks Who Bridge Professional Realities
Let me make it clear I'm not talking primarily about being denied facts when I talk about the fragmenting of knowledge. I'm talking about realities, perceptions of reality, ways of conceptualizing what is going on inside us and around us, and what governs how we interact on every level. I'm speaking of selective, interpretive, and deceptive arrangements of reality, the framework within which a professional or an activist is allowed to think and allowed to create language. I'm talking about a taken for granted, unconscious limitation built into every profession and every political organization that blinds us to seeing, knowing, grasping anything outside its grid of what is acceptable.
Ultimately, this can result in different things being seen as "facts" within different frameworks. Postmodern deconstruction has made clear: the subjective assumptions of the investigator influence the findings of an "objective" investigation.
When we wrote Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It, we were mixing clinical psychology with organization development, and pulling concepts from social psychology and anthropology as well. We were acting as mavericks in the world of clinical psychology, where there is little real comprehension of the power of systems on the individual, despite the literature on techniques of working with families. We were also mavericks in organizational psychology because we were delving so deeply into the individual unconscious of the organization members. In other words, we were violating the normative grid of each profession, and one result is that our work is recognized by neither academy; we have a hard time receiving institutional credibility. However, by our integrative boundary-crossing, we were able to describe the phenomena of the workplace in a way that has allowed us to help hundreds of people, and save the lives of some.
Our work has been enhanced by mavericks in other fields, able to write about the political and class aspects of shame, or the narcissistic process in corporations. They also had to go outside the normal bounds of their subjects (the first a clinician, the second a business professor) in order to reach the important realizations they came to, for which we are deeply grateful. Their books did not make the best seller list as ours did not.
Citizens of a Democracy Need to "Know"
Even though there is a price to pay for pushing the envelope of how people are used to thinking, that envelope must be pushed. It is not only the particular canon of any profession or social change group that must be challenged. The idea that compartmentalization and ownership of knowledge by a closed group is healthy, even sacrosanct, must be questioned. The specialization of knowledge today bears too close a resemblance to the labor "reforms" of Frederick Taylor at the end of the 19th century, when he separated the design of the product from the execution of production, and broke the production process into the compartmentalized tasks we call the assembly line. Taylorism destroyed a class of powerful craftspeople and created an ignorant robotic workforce who were malleable to the control of an elite of managers.
What we need is a 21st century Renaissance, where people are wakening to a new level of "knowing," a new way of metaprocessing how we know things, how we share knowledge. We can maintain standards for practicing professions and yet subordinate professional identity to a wider identity as people who treasure our ability to understand the world we are a part of so that we can truly take responsibility for it. Isn't this a minimal necessity for becoming conscious citizens of a functioning democracy? To me it is a minimal requirement of integrity as a citizen of this planet.
"Not Knowing" As Political Control and Emotional Defense
What prevents our developing a wider kind of knowing is both a political and personal investment in staying in our cubicles.
Politically it is to the advantage of the ruling elite to keep knowledge fragmented, and thus keep us ignorant and disempowered. As long as knowledge is provincialized and thus distorted by each private profession, no one but those ruling elite who have access to all the professional strongholds and advisers are authorized to put the various disciplines together to aid their control of us. Even they don't get the whole truth because they won't pay attention to information that threatens their control or causes them to feel shame. The professionals themselves are safe in the villages of their academies, sheltered from taking active responsibility for developing a larger picture, distracted by their own norms and power struggles. The social activist groups, for all their real dedication, become trivialized and marginalized by their own insulation within their subcultures.
As individuals each of us, including professionals with a particular knowledge base, can too easily retreat into the fragmentation of knowing I have described. The primitive part of our brains, solely interested in survival, still believes that "what we don't know can't hurt us." Just as highly abused children split or fragment into discrete parts of themselves to endure trauma, we can as a nation fragment our knowledge of our own trauma so that we don't have to face it all.
This is similar to the experience of children who develop multiple personalities to spread their traumatic experiences out over separate memory segments or "parts" that are unaware of, and act independently of, each other. This means that no one part or "personality" has to face the overwhelming picture of all that happened. It also means these children never have to see or face the truth of what happened; they are defended against an unbearable totality of experience. However, not facing the truth limits the creative healing of that totality, because it can never be understood and addressed until the parts can share their knowledge.
We Need a Process for Joining Realities
Postmodern deconstruction does us the service of demonstrating that no one has an absolute objective hold on reality. However, this does not absolve us of the absolute responsibility collectively for the suffering we cause each other on this planet. To me this means we have to find a way to join our realities and our knowledge in order to save ourselves.
When fearful, we tend to shrink to the lowest common denominator, to simplify our reality, to become reactive and return to the instinctive brain, which is not the most developed part of us. In taking responsibility jointly for our planetary crisis we have to do just the opposite. We need to think divergently now and be creative, to engage in a reality-joining process that is synergic and inclusive of the value in each of our professional, intellectual and personal perspectives. We need to join our languages and systems of seeing: to me this is what a democracy requires if we are going to have one at all.
We need to get beyond arguments about whose perspective is "right," straining to get each other to hear our truths. We have to assume there is truth and limitation in each reality, to stand in each other's shoes, listen deeply, and then answer the question: if we posit a reality which can include the value of both these perspectives, what would it be?
Because of growing political and economic threats our impulse is to adhere more strictly to the norms and dogmas of our professional or activist worlds as though they were fortresses. I believe this moment in history demands the exact opposite of us, that we grow beyond our professions and our needs for safety and denial.
We need to reach for a joining of knowledge that will provide us with two things: a comprehensive analysis of what is happening to us, and ways to overcome the obstacles to organizing ourselves. This is our best hope for matching the force of destruction the power elites have set in motion.
PART II -- Repairing Fragmented Knowledge
Because I want knowing to become a process that leads to activism, and one that is shared in community, writing the above analysis is not enough. From my own admittedly limited reality, I want to offer my vision of steps toward the joining of all of our perspectives.
It seems to me that a metalanguage must be agreed on to describe how we join our points of view and to address what gets in our way as we are attempting to do so. I think we need a behavioral process that works, ways to interact with each other collaboratively, and to achieve this we need words to define the steps and parts of this collaborative process.
To say this another way, we need consciously to create a set of norms that will define the new culture of joining realities. You can see in the fuzziness and abstractness of the terms I'm using -- "perspectives," "realities," "behavioral process" -- the very lack I'm speaking of: a clear, precise vocabulary to describe the steps of an intellectual collaboration that would take us beyond authoritarian norms and academic limitations. We don't have this vocabulary yet, so I can only point toward what we've not yet articulated.
I believe that training in behavioral processes, and language used to describe behavior, is a necessary prerequisite for all of us who want to communicate and join our perspectives about what is happening to us in at work and in our communities, and what we can do about it. I acknowledge this is my bias, to see political and economic reality in terms of individual and systems psychology and behavior.
I can't see how we can create a conscious culture of knowing collaboratively without the essential building blocks of words that define behavior. If we don't have a consciously constructed metaculture for talking to each other, by default and unconsciously we will return to the old norms of power struggle and misunderstanding we are used to. I have seen this happen over and over in small and large groups of all sorts.
How It Feels to Shift Cultures
Let me try to illustrate what I mean about the subtleties of changing behavior and language that come from entering a culture different from what we've been used to before. The obvious example is traveling to a foreign country -- but not simply as tourists, who experience the strangeness from inside our own perspective briefly, but as persons who become part of a new country, learn the language and the customs.
We notice how our belief system shifts, how the assumptions unconsciously underlying everyday living shift away from what we're used to as we get immersed in the new culture. We do things differently, we feel different about what we do and who we are, we see the world in a new way, and it's even hard to find words to describe the differences. Maybe we don't even try. But if we do try, that commenting on the cultures from outside them is an example of a metaprocess and a metalanguage.
Less obvious, more subtle cultural shifts are experienced by us within our own country moving from one geographical area to another. Even more striking are the changes we experience in reality when we become part of a social change movement. Many women experienced a radical shift in identity from the experience of the women's movement that shook very deep assumptions for them about what was possible and necessary for them, what it was acceptable to feel and do, and how the world looked to them. It has taken decades of women writing on these changes to begin to develop a language for the way women felt one-down to men, like half or partial persons.
This required divergence from the rock solid assumptions of sex roles and what a "normal" woman was, at a time when there was great social penalty for it and no defined norms to move toward. This kind of shift has happened and is still happening in all the movements of "identity politics" that have changed people's sense of reality so radically. People have had to risk going outside the given limitations and assumptions about reality, to define new experiences and create a new language to describe them. In the case of oppressed groups, the motivation to take the risk was that the oppression felt intolerable.
The Process of Creating Reality
Now we need to take this process, this shifting away from limiting assumptions to a new reality, beyond the realm of identity politics. We need first of all to become literate and conscious about the process of creating reality, to identify all the realities we live in and therefore participate in co-creating and maintaining. And we need to become very honest in looking at how these realities define and limit who we think we are and what we dare to do. Then we can start taking the risk of changing them collaboratively -- to look at where change would be good, and to dialogue with each other about how to do it.
An example is the orthodoxy limits on professionals and activists, and how these limits fragment knowledge (addressed in Part I). If we break free of these constraints, and pool and integrate our knowledge, we can ask many exciting questions. For me a pressing question is, what in the nature of the reality or realities that Americans are attached to prevents them from responding to encroachments on their civil rights? Next, how can we address these realities when we talk to people about politics? How can this new awareness of realities affect the way we "organize" people?
The awareness of how we create realities, and the behavioral language and social technology to do so consciously, may soon be necessary skills for citizens to sustain a democracy. In order to take "democracy" beyond words on pieces of paper into the actual interactions of daily life, people need to be able to monitor realities consciously all the time. The process of monitoring norms, assessing them, and renewing or altering them with awareness in all our organizations and institutions on a regular basis may be the only way to keep our "democracy" functioning as a true democracy.
Changing Organizations from the Inside Out
Finally, I want to bring this essay back to my starting point, the territory I am familiar with, workplace realities. And I want to end on a positive, "can do" note.
We have seen people who have overcome in a very practical way obstacles to integrating previously fragmented knowledge described in this essay. These are working people who learned the language and skills we refer to in our book on work abuse and have had a powerful impact on an organization, not only on their own behalf, but as an influence on others. They have conquered their need to be reactive at work; having learned behavioral language, they have studied the workplace reality consciously and have taken strategic steps to bring about change for everyone.
When as few as two or three people in an organization acquire these skills, and form a supportive and strategic subculture together, they will find uniquely synergic ways to leverage the organization toward change bottom up and inside out. We know of two specific instances in which this has already happened. Many more are possible; we have to believe we can do it.