Blog, Crisis Management, Philosophy + Systems

Ebola Is a True Systems Crisis: It Must Be Managed Systemically or It Cannot Be Managed At All

Originally posted October 21, 2014 on the Huffington Post

As most know by now, the response in the U.S. to Ebola has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the infectious disease has not spread uncontrollably. Despite serious snafus, the health system is learning how to manage the disease. On the other hand, the health system should have known from the very beginning that it was dealing with a disease and a situation that demanded a true systems understanding and appropriate response. The appointment of an “Ebola Tsar” is a belated acknowledgement of the fact that Ebola must be managed systemically or it cannot be managed at all.

Let me address briefly some of the many systems factors.

First, of all, without exception, all crises are due in large part to the fact that a series of key assumptions that we have been taking as fundamentally true prove to be completely invalid, if not outright false. But more than this, virtually all of the key assumptions on which we depend collapse all at once and in their entirety. Most of us can live with the collapse of one or two of our basic assumptions, but few can still function when our entire belief systems collapse. This is precisely why crises are so devastating.

Thus, a basic taken-for-granted assumption was given that hospitals essentially know how to contain infectious disease that originate within their immediate boundaries, they would be equally good at containing severe infectious diseases that not only originate from outside, but from afar. Obviously this was not the case.

Another key assumption was that encasing humans in state-of-the-art astronaut-like protective gear from head to toe was more than adequate in protecting aid workers from catching and spreading the disease. That is, current protective gear and procedures were more than satisfactory. As we now know, protection has had to be revised so that it has become even more stringent. Even more parts of the human body have had to be encased.

Next, there was the assumption that government agencies were not only sufficiently well-coordinated and would thus work together, but that they knew how to present the message that Ebola was a serious health threat, but that there were no reasons to panic. In other words, how do we “scare people enough to get their attention, but not enough to cause wide-spread disruption and panic?” The international airline industry has seen the result in lost revenues as people are afraid to fly.

The international transportation system is of course a big part of the problem, and as such, the disease. How indeed are passengers to be monitored and induced to report that they may have been exposed to dangerous viruses? Threatening to embargo all flights from West African countries is not only simple-minded, but actually is counterproductive. It just induces people to enter the U.S. by other less monitored means, and by doing so, just adds to the danger. But then, fear is never wholly rational.

A truly systemic approach to Ebola and the next inevitable animal to human transmitted disease would start by listing as much as is humanly possible the key assumptions upon which we are basing our recognition of the disease and our efforts at controlling, better yet coping, with it. But even more, a truly systemic approach would recognize that the various assumptions are interdependent, not independent. They affect one another in ways that we are struggling to understand.

Blog, Philosophy + Systems, Politics, Religion + Spirituality, Serialized Blog

Arguments With Ourselves: Wrestling with the Key Issues of Our Times

Published as a series of blogs on Nation of Change

A Native American boy asked his grandfather, “What do you think about the world today?”

The grandfather replied, “I feel like two wolves are fighting–one with hate and fear, the other with love and acceptance.”

“But grandfather,” asked the boy, “which one will win?”

The grandfather answered, “The one I feed.”

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 5, 2013


Arguments big and small envelop us every waking moment of our lives.

From the time we wake in the morning until we go to sleep at night, we are literally bombarded with hundreds of arguments. The vast majority of arguments are of course mundane and thus of little concern or consequence: what to have for breakfast, what to wear around the house, etc. (Give the fact that we are struggling with a nation-wide epidemic of obesity and health related problems, many issues that were once considered ordinary such as what to have for breakfast are no longer mundane.) Nonetheless, increasingly, many are about matters of extreme importance, for instance, whether to go to war, whether gays should be allowed to marry, etc.

It is thus no exaggeration to say—argue—that arguments big and small make the world go around. For this reason alone, this book examines critical arguments with regard to some of the most important issues of our time.

Many fine, intelligently written books already exist that give the important issues of our day the in-depth treatment they so richly deserve. The present book could not in fact have been written without them. But literally none exist that show how the dominant issues of our times not only impact one another, but in a deeper sense are strongly connected. This fact alone accounts for why the definition of our key problems, let alone their solution, is so difficult. In short, our critical problems can neither be defined properly, let alone managed, independently and in isolation of one another.

Hard Hitting

Arguments With Ourselves is an incisive, hard-hitting examination of some of the most important issues and problems we face as a nation; for example: the persistent battles, if not out-and-out wars, between Science and Religion, more specifically between Creationism and Evolution; the frequent and bitter skirmishes between those who defend a traditional conception of marriage and those who are in favor of allowing gays to marry; those who are strongly in favor of greater gun controls and those who strongly oppose them; those who believe in the power of the “free market” and those who believe in strong governmental regulations, more generally, between those who assert the primacy of business versus those who believe fervently in the greater role of government; and of course, the current prolonged and acrimonious discord, if not the deep hostilities, between Democrats and Republicans.

A Life-Long Friend and Colleague

The story of how the author first met Vince Barabba, a life-long friend and colleague, is an integral part of this book.

Some thirty years, Barabba was the Director of the U.S. Bureau of the Census and Mitroff was a Professor of Business Administration and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. The late Russell Ackoff (systems planner and thinker extraordinaire), who was a member of the American Statistical Association’s Advisory Committee for the Census Bureau, brought them together.

Ackoff had previously issued a challenge to the Bureau to think and behave differently. He asked the Bureau to “design an Ideal (not utopian) Bureau for the year 2000.” In a word, Ackoff asked the Bureau to go through the serious planning exercise of envisioning what an Ideal Census Bureau—that is, a Bureau that was freed from the onerous constraints of the present–would look like and how it would function. Furthermore, since Ackoff pioneered the concept of Idealized Planning, he insisted that one of the essential properties of any idealized design was that it had to be capable of being implemented. Ackoff thus challenged the Bureau to produce a strategy for actually implementing whatever ideal design it produced.

As a member of a major Advisory Committee to the Bureau, Ackoff felt that it was not proper for him to lead the challenge he had issued. He therefore suggested Mitroff instead.

Although all of Mitroff’s formal degrees are in Engineering (B.S, M.S., and PhD), for his minor field for the PhD, Mitroff studied the Philosophy of Social Systems Science with Ackoff’s mentor, life-long friend, and colleague, C. West Churchman at UC Berkeley. (Ackoff was Churchman’s first Ph.D. student in the Philosophy of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.). Indeed, his “minor field” quickly became his “undeclared major.” Mitroff was thus well suited to act as a consultant to the Bureau in order to meet Ackoff’s challenge

Many of the tools that Mitroff and Barabba developed for complex problems had their origin in response to the design of an Idealized Census Bureau.[i] However, they were particularly the result of follow-on projects such as the design, management, and policy implications of the1980 and 1990 censuses. They were also refined in additional projects at Kodak, Xerox, and General Motors, where Barabba was in senior management. Mitroff also developed the tools further in his over 30 years of work in Crisis Management.

The Toulmin Argumentation Framework

One tool in particular is the heart of this book: The Toulmin Argumentation Framework or TAF for short.

In the early 1960’s, Mitroff and Barabba made a special trip to the University of Chicago to meet the late, distinguished historian and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin. At the time, Toulmin was a member of the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought.

Toulmin had developed an ingenious framework for capturing the intricacies of complex arguments. We travelled to Chicago because we were interested in applying TAF to complex business situations in which the wrong arguments could literally spell the life or death for a new business venture, key product, etc. Needless to say, we were able to apply TAF in a wide variety of complex and important business and governmental cases. Nonetheless, to our continuing disappointment, TAF has still not been adopted as widely as we believe that it should.

One of the most distinguishing marks of this book is the use TAF to analyse important arguments with regard to significant issues. This not only allows one to capture more succinctly the essential points of the various arguments that pertain to key issues, but ultimately, it allows one to see how the arguments are connected.

Breaking the Tyranny of “Either/Or Thinking”

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 9, 2013

While I certainly do not believe that all situations have two equally compelling positions that are worthy of equal consideration, I do believe that there is always more than one position on every important issue that needs to be considered. Indeed, many demand it. In this sense, I am for breaking the tyranny of so much of the “either/or thinking” that exercises a stranglehold on our nation’s mind. If anything, I am outraged at many of the positions of both parties. To take just one example, far too many Republicans and Democrats caved in to the gun lobby in voting to disallow greater background checks before anyone would be permitted to purchase a gun. I am particularly incensed at recent Republican efforts to pass onerous voting requirements that effectively potentially block higher percentages of Blacks and other minorities from voting. Many life-long Republicans are just as outraged.

This does not mean that on every key issue, all positions are of equal value and therefore deserve equal consideration. It also doesn’t mean that on some issues, there isn’t a single, dominant position that trumps all of the others. For instance, I don’t believe for one moment that there are cases of “legitimate rape.” To think otherwise is to pile additional insult onto injury. Indeed, it is nothing less than additional injury. If anything, the phrase “legitimate rape” is obscene, if not out and out evil. Its obscenity should be enough to stop all discussion dead in its tracks.

Concluding Remarks

As much as anytime in our history, we need to move from the tyranny of “either/or” to the thoughtfulness of “both/and.”

Nonetheless, as the reader will quickly see, on most issues , I am generally left of centre. Thus, I am a harsh, unrelenting critic of the gun lobby. I am also extremely critical of those who are opposed to gay marriage. And, I am extremely critical as well of the proponents of Creationism, more generally towards those who take a hard, unrelenting stand against Science. However, when it comes to general role of Science and Religion, I am critical of both with regard to their persistent inability to reach a reasoned accommodation with one another. I am also equally critical of both Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives.

Although I am generally left of centre, I hope that my rendering of the arguments on key issues will help those that don’t agree with me to sharpen their own arguments. I am thus not asking the reader to necessarily agree with me, but in the best sense to enter into a better argument.

Finally, I need to make absolutely clear that this is not a book on the “logic of argumentation.” It is certainly not about “logical fallacies.” Instead, it about the reasoning that underlies some of the major issues of our times, if not all times.

Arguments big and small do indeed make go around. They always have and they always will.

Chapter One: TAF–The Toulmin Argumentation Framework

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 11, 2013

In 1958, the distinguished historian and philosopher of science, Stephen Toulmin, published a remarkable little book, The Uses of Argument.[ii] In it, he laid out the general structure of all arguments. It quickly became an academic bestseller. It was adopted widely in courses on Rhetoric, Political Science, International Affairs and Policy Analyses, etc. Strangely enough, it was not widely adopted in Philosophy. Such is the fate of all innovators. They are not necessarily prophets in their own lands.

Although Barabba and I first applied The Toulmin Argumentation Framework (TAF) to the analyses of complex business and governmental problems over 30 years ago, to the best of our knowledge, it has still not been widely adopted in schools of business and government, not to mention practice. Few outside of Rhetoric, Political Science, International Affairs and Policy Analyses, etc. even seem aware of it.

TAF, which is shown in Figure 1.1, is deceptively simple. It posits that all arguments (including this one!) consist of a Claim (C), a set of Evidence (E), a Warrant (W), Backing (B), and Rebuttal (R). Since none of the parts of an argument are independent of one another, taken together, they constitute a highly interdependent system. Given that arguments are one of the most prominent components of problems, examining the structure of arguments eventually provides us with deeper insight into the nature of problems and ultimately into complex systems.

Figure 1.1

All arguments, logical or otherwise, terminate in a Claim or a set of Claims. The Claim is the end result or conclusion of an argument. For instance, two very important and currently opposing Claims are: “The huge federal deficits are completely out of control and leading us straight to ruin. Therefore, government programs, and thereby spending, must be sharply curtailed. In short, we must practice austerity.” In contrast, an opposing Claim is: “Yes, the deficits are bad, certainly in the long run, but putting people back to work now is more important than saving money. We need to spend our way out of a terrible recession whose effects we are still suffering. In addition, the Evidence is in from those European countries that have practiced austerity as a fiscal policy. It has failed miserably. It has made their economies even worse off.”

At this time, the point is not to take sides with either one of these arguments over the size of the Federal deficits and what to do about them. Instead, I merely want to illustrate the nature of two highly important and opposing Claims, especially their role in the context of the broader TAF.

All arguments make use of some kind of Evidence E to support their Claim(s). Typically, E is whatever facts or data one has at hand. For instance, those who see the deficits leading us to economic ruin cite the sheer size of the current deficits in the trillions of dollars and the fact that they are growing steadily and the very high amount that is being paid in interest. Thus, the “number of dollars” and the “fact” that “it has been growing steadily” are the Evidence for this position. On the other hand, those who view the deficits differently also acknowledge the size of the deficit, but they see it as a “manageable problem in the future,” citing instances where we have recovered from deficits in the past. Thus, both sides start with very different sets of “facts.” One side starts with the “sheer size of the current deficits;” the other with “past instances where we have recovered from deficits.” The other side also wants to attack the deficits but to pay them down when the economy has recovered, i.e., pay them off in “boom, not hard, times.”

In general, both sides of an argument start with different Evidence because they are working backwards from different Claims. A Claim can thus either be the beginning and/or end of an argument. Once one has a preferred Claim, one searches for Evidence to support it. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, one is generally working backwards from a preferred Claim or set of Claims.

The upshot is that instead of facts or more generally Evidence always leading unequivocally to or driving conclusions, more often than not, it is the other way around. One starts with a favored, pet conclusion, or typically a set of conclusions, and then works backwards to make it appear that one derived it by first starting with “Impartial Evidence,” etc.

The Warrant is the set of reasons why the Claim follows from the Evidence. A good way to think of it is that Warrant is a “conceptual or intellectual bridge” that allows one to go from a limited set of evidence E, to a general conclusion, C. (See Figure 1.1) To put it another way, the Warrant is the “because” part of an argument. For instance, a typical Warrant is: “Whenever E has resulted in the past, C has occurred because E is not only an indicator of C, but a prime factor in its occurrence or causation; since E has occurred this time as well, we are Warranted in concluding C once again.” In this particular example, the Warrant functions as a “continuity preserver.” Supposedly, whenever a particular set of facts or certain events E, etc. have occurred “n” times, then we are Warranted in concluding that they will occur “n+1” times. Furthermore, according to this line of thinking (argument), the larger n is, the more we are entitled to conclude that n+1 will result. Thus, if E has occurred 1000 times, then we feel confident that it will occur the 1001th time.

More often than not, the Warrant is the Claim of a prior argument, and so on ad infinitum. The same is true of the Evidence and all of the parts of an argument. In addition, arguments are key parts of problems. Arguments are parts of problems—indeed, some of their most important parts—because arguments are used to define what is a problem in the first place and how they ought to be handled in the second place.

Most of the time, Warrants are implied rather than stated explicitly. In fact, a great deal of the time they are unconscious. That is, the person is not fully aware of them. In general, they are reflective of a person’s entire personal history. In the case of society, they reflect its general history and current conditions.

Those who believe that the deficits are leading us straight to decline have some form of the following as a Warrant: “Whenever the deficits of a country are of a certain size, then economic decline/ruin is the inevitable and inescapable outcome.” Alternately, “Unless we curb our deficits, then we will go the way of Greece, Spain, etc.”  In other words, “Unless we rein in our out-of-control spending habits, then what is true of Greece, etc. is a forerunner of what lies in store for us.”

Those on the other side reason: “Proportional to the size of our current national GDP, the deficits are not significantly worse than they have been historically. Therefore, it does not follow automatically that economic decline/ruin is the inevitable and inescapable outcome.”

Every argument also has a Backing B. B is the deeper set of underlying assumptions, basic reasons, or values as to why a particular Warrant holds. If the Warrant is not accepted at its face value—which is often the case–then the Backing is necessary in order to support it. For instance, those who oppose increasing the deficits generally believe, “One cannot trust Democrats in general with the economy.” In sharp contrast, those who are more concerned about the well-being of all citizens believe, “All the Republicans want to do is to reduce the taxes of the wealthy who support them.” Like Warrants, Backings are more often than not implicit and even unconscious.

In general, the Backing is the larger set of general philosophical assumptions a person has about what is right (Ethics), human nature, the world (reality itself). Since Backings are generally taken for granted, they are mostly implicit and unconscious.

Another way to think of it is as follows. If the Warrant W is the “conceptual bridge” that allows us to go from the Evidence E to the Claim C, then the Backing B is the “foundation” on which the bridge rests.

Finally, every argument has a Rebuttal R. In principle, R challenges each and every part of an argument. In terms of the metaphor of arguments as a “bridge” between Evidence and Claims, R attacks E, W, and C as strongly as it can. R thus tries to “tear down the entire bridge and its foundation.”

An Example: Four Views of Change

To get a better understanding of TAF, let’s look an important issue: whether an organization or society needs to change, and if so, how much change does it need?

Table 1.1 below shows four positions regarding change and the accompanying Toulmin arguments that are needed to support each of the positions, i.e., Claims.

Table 1.1: How Much Change Does An Organization Need, If Any?

Degree of Change Claim Evidence Warrant Backing Rebuttal
Status Quo No Change Is Necessary Sales of Our Products Holding SteadyNo Serious Threats on the Horizon If Sales Hold Steady, Then There Is No Need for Change We’ve OperatedThis Way Successfully for 30 + YearsWe Are the Industry Leader Serious CompetitionHas Appeared in the Past Year
Moderate Only Moderate Change in Our OperationsIs Necessary Our Products and Operations Are Strong If Sales Hold Steady, Then There Is No Need for Substantial Change We’ve OperatedThis Way Successfully For 30 + YearsWe Are the Industry Leader Serious CompetitionHas Appeared in the Past Year
Major If We Are to Survive, We Must Make Major Changes Our Sales Have Been Dipping Steadily It Is Not Clear That Our Products Will Survive without Major Changes It Is Irrelevant That For 30 + YearsWe Are the Industry Leader This Is Not the Time to Panic
Radical We Need to Become a New Company with Entirely New Products and Services The Market for Our Products and Services Has Tanked We Will Be Out of Business in 6 Months If We Don’t Change Fast We Are No Longer the Leader in Our Industry Don’t Panic Things Will Return to Normal

The positions above are so general that my colleagues and I have used them in conducting numerous workshops with organizations of all kinds, i.e., not just with for-profit organizations. Instead of already presenting them with the table above, we’ve asked them to construct the strongest arguments they can pro and con in order to help them explore what kinds and degrees of change, if any, that are right for their organization. The table reflects the kinds of arguments we’ve heard.

The workshops proceed as follows: Twenty or so top executives and managers are brought together. They are then assigned at random to defend a particular position with respect to change. People are assigned at random because often those who are opposed to a particular policy can make a stronger case for it than its natural allies. Assigning people at random also does not bias any of the positions.

Each group is asked to make the strongest arguments they can for their assigned position. After each group has made their presentation, a timed debate then takes place to see what the strongest arguments pro and con are for each of the positions.

After the debate has taken place, four new groups are the formed by drawing people at random from each of the initial groups. Each of the new groups is then asked to consider the four initial positions and respond to the question, “Now that you heard a debate between four very different positions, what is the best, possibly new, position that is good for your organization right now?”

Note carefully that the process does not leave to chance the exploration of four different approaches to change. Further, it intentionally does not leave out any of the stances along the continuum so that later there will be charges that an important position was neglected.

The process is of course heavily dependent upon the assumptions that are made about the organization, its products, structure, customers, etc. But then, in the course of examining the arguments that are needed to support  a position, the process helps to bring underlying assumptions up to the surface where they can be examined and debated explicitly, i.e., not left to chance.

Concluding Remarks

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 15, 2013

This chapter has introduced the major tool that underlies this book. In effect, the argument is that the situations facing individuals, organizations, and societies are so complex, dynamic, important, and thorny such that whether they know it or not, they need ways of examining the major arguments on which their key decisions depend.

To be clear, I am not saying that TAF needs to be applied to every decision or situation facing an organization or society. That would render it useless and irrelevant. I am also not saying that organizations and societies need to use TAF formally, i.e., lay out the Warrant, Evidence, etc. systematically. But make no mistake about it; I am saying that whether one acknowledges it or not, one is in effect using TAF all the time. Whenever one puts forth a Claim, one is making an argument. Indeed, TAF wouldn’t make any sense at all if it weren’t already in our minds so-to-speak.

Like everything else, the more one uses TAF, the faster and better one becomes at it. Indeed, my colleagues and I have found that it’s easier for people to zero in on the really critical parts of an argument the more one uses TAF.

TAF also gives a new and important meaning to the concept of the Learning Organization and Society. In my view, a Learning Organization/Society is one that systematically keeps track of its critical Toulmin arguments and reviews them periodically to see if the Evidence, Warrants, Backings, and Rebuttals have changed significantly such that the Claims are no longer supported, and hence, are in need of serious revision. In other words, a Learning Organization/Society records and thus has an official memory of its most critical decisions. Obviously, this will not work if the records are used in any way to blame people, which they are unfortunately a great deal of the time. Instead, their prime purpose is to help an organization/society learn from its successes and mistakes. But to do this requires that an organization/society is healthy emotionally. I would be the first to acknowledge that we are far from this ideal. Thus, one of the aims of the book is to help move closer to this ideal.

Of course, historians periodically review and assess the arguments of the past; special interest groups, social scientists, etc., review and assess the arguments of the past and present as well. But they do not necessarily do it formally in terms of TAF.

It should be noted that TAF resides in the entirety of an organization and/or society. For instance, in many organizations, Marketing and/or Finance control or are solely responsible for the Evidence with regard to important business decisions. The top executives control or are responsible for the Claims and Warrants. The Backing resides in the general culture. And, the Rebuttal often belongs to groups low in power. Thus, another requirement of the Learning Organization/Society is that all the parts of TAF be coordinated as an integrated system.

For example, when Barabba worked for Kodak, he conducted a TAF to help explore if and when Kodak needed to get into digital imaging and thus abandon its traditional photographic film business. Even though it had an early opportunity to enter into digital cameras, it proved impossible for Kodak to make the switch. In essence, what Kodak was not willing to do to itself, its competitors did. Its competitors were the Rebuttal.

In effect, Kodak Park, the 2000-acre facility with 50,000 employees that manufactured film and paper, was the real underlying Backing, or better yet, “drag” on the company’s thinking. After all, how could Kodak abandon its financial and emotional investments in Kodak Park? Today, the land has been repurposed as Eastman Business Park.

Arguments are seldom coldly rational and perfectly well organized. More often than not, the clash between Claims, Warrants, Backing, and Rebuttals is better described as a war than a debate. It is anything but a “disinterested inquiry.” But this fact in itself doesn’t obviate the need for better analyses of arguments. It only heightens their necessity. My use of TAF is intended to aid our examination of important arguments, not to imply that all arguments need to be structured strictly in terms of TAF.

Finally, we need to note that arguments do not exist by solely by themselves suspended in some kind of “disembodied space.” Arguments are parts of living, breathing, life stories. All arguments not only exist but function within the larger life-space of a person, organization, society, etc. While I do not necessarily examine these larger surrounding “spaces,” I am nevertheless acutely conscious that they are always there.[iii]

Examining key arguments is no longer a luxury. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

Chapter Two: Deadly Arguments–The Role of Guns

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 19, 2013

There are few issues in U.S. society that are as contentious as guns. This is in spite of the fact that an overwhelming number of Americans are for greater gun controls. For this reason alone, I need to make it as clear as possible that at the outset I am not for the complete abolition of guns. Hunters, sportsmen, and ordinary citizens have a legitimate right to own and to use certain restricted types of guns but only under special restricted conditions. For instance, the average citizen cannot own machine guns. Furthermore, I am strongly in favor of having guns stored safely in gun clubs, as they are in most other Western industrialized societies. Thus for myself, and apparently a majority of fellow citizens, gun owners have a great accompanying responsibility to use and to store guns safely. They also have in my view a serious responsibility to lead the fight for greater gun safety and gun control laws.

The preceding paragraph is the “both/and” part of my argument. The rest of this chapter is unequivocally and unapologetically in the “either/or camp.” There is no getting around the fact that I am in strong if not total opposition to the “gun lobby,” specifically the NRA. There are very few points on which we agree.

I believe in the Second Amendment, but I don’t believe for one moment that it’s absolute or that it was ever intended to be. For instance, I don’t believe that there are valid reasons for the possession of automatic assault weapons—weapons of war– in civilized societies. To the extent that any society allows such types of weapons, it is not in my view “civilized.”

I also need to make it clear that there is no way in a single chapter that one could–assuming that it was even desirable–to cover all of the weighty arguments pertaining to guns. I also acknowledge that readers will not necessarily agree with my choice of arguments, and certainly not my positions with respect to them. In other words, I don’t expect that readers will necessarily agree with my initial choice of arguments and my representation of them via TAF. But then my hope is that my use of TAF will help readers to form their own representation of and positions on the arguments.

Before examining the arguments, I also need to make it clear that I don’t pretend to be a disinterested, neutral observer. I am certainly not proceeding from a pro-gun, pro-Right position. This affects how I state the arguments in terms of TAF. Thus, I first state the Claims in terms of a pro-gun position. I then muster the Rebuttals to the Claims in terms of a left of center position. In fact, this generally true of how I proceed throughout the entire book.

Furthermore, I mainly provide only general references for both the Claims and the Rebuttals. I don’t provide detained references for every point. This is not because the references are not there. They are more in abundance. Rather, in order not to overly burden the reader, I have not provided detailed footnotes for every point in order to make the arguments as tight, short, and to the point as possible.

For this reason, I am the first to admit that in many cases, I commit the same errors of those I am excessively critical. That is, it appears that I merely to assert Claims in the guise of Rebuttals without Evidence. For this reason, I refer the interested reader to the general references for they are crucial in supporting my depictions of the arguments I take to task. They provide ample support for counter-Claims, counter-Evidence, etc.

“Guns Don’t Kill People”: The Granddaddy of All Gun Arguments

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 24, 2013

Figures 2.1 and 2.2 are Toulmin analyses of the most basic of all the arguments for the unrestricted ownership of guns: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” Taken to their illogical conclusion, they justify the unlimited possession of any and all types of guns.



Many have noted[iv] that as far as it goes, the second part of the Claim, “People kill people,” is obviously if not trivially true. Of course people do in fact kill people. Nonetheless, the true function of the second part is to serve as a Warrant to support the first, “Guns don’t kill people.”

One of the sure signs of an invalid or disingenuous argument is that the Claim functions simultaneously as its own Evidence and Warrant. In other words, the argument is essentially pure assertion. We are supposed to accept the Claim because it’s its own proof or self-justification. True, other paltry Claims are offered as supposedly independent bits of Evidence and Warrant, but they are really thinly disguised versions of the primary Claim. Needless to say, over the centuries, philosophers have not been partial to such arguments. They have found the number of arguments that are self-justifying to be zero!

The essence of Figures 2.1 and 2.2 is contained in the Rebuttals. One of the very first things to note is that the number of items in the Rebuttals is far greater than the two main Claims. To be sure, this obviously reflects the fact that the author is not especially partial to guns. As a result, it also reflects the two main sources that I have used as references for the Rebuttals: the Brady Handgun Center, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Nonetheless, like all arguments, the strength of the overall argument pro and con lies with the comparative strength of the Claims, Evidence, and Warrants relative to the Rebuttals. For this reason, let us turn to an examination of the Rebuttals.

The first thing to note is that all of the Rebuttals are a combination of counter Evidence, Warrants, and Backings. That is, as with the main Claims, Evidence, Warrants, and Backings, the Rebuttals are a complex mixture of counter Evidence, Warrants, and Backings. As I stated in the previous chapter, rarely, if ever, do we find so-called pure arguments.

Once again I realize that a strong proponent of guns could muster the same criticisms that I use against them against me. For instance, they could Claim that many of the Rebuttals are pure assertions. In doing so, gun proponents would be offering counter-Rebuttals to my Rebuttals. The difference is that the Rebuttals are not mine alone. They have been assembled from various references that go into the issues in great depth. I thus leave it to the reader to judge the relative merits of the arguments.

The first and most powerful argument against the uncontrolled proliferation and possession of guns is that compared to all other types of weapons, guns are much more lethal. This goes hand-in-hand with the second Rebuttal, “Guns kill people more effectively than any other types of weapons.” Since the NRA is so highly inclined to reduce complex issues to simple-minded bumper stickers-which I am pained to note are highly effective–a counter slogan is, “How many mass drive-by knifings have you ever heard of?”

The third Rebuttal is extremely important. Instead of guns conferring absolute protection and security, having a gun in one’s home ups substantially the chances of suicide. It also greatly ups the chances of intentional and unintentional homicides that are committed in the heat of passion by people who know one another intimately. It also ups the chances of accidental shootings especially by young children.

The fourth Rebuttal says that compared to all other means, suicide attempts through the use of guns are more likely to result in death. For example, taking pills is far much less likely to be “successful.”

Finally, no reasonable person would argue that “Cars don’t kill people; people kill people.” Indeed, the argument is patently absurd. Cars kill people even when one clearly doesn’t intend it. Why then should we accept the argument for guns? Why are they put in a special and protected category?

The fact that cars can be dangerous is one of the chief reasons why we require that before anyone can operate a vehicle on public lands, he or she needs to undergo successfully a course in driver training, pass a driver’s test, and get a license. One also has to be retested periodically.

The fact that cars are dangerous is also one of the prime reasons that the government has consistently pushed for greater safety devices that are built into cars. In many cases, it is far easier to modify cars than it is to modify people. Finally, the registration of cars and their owners has not lead to the confiscation of cars.

Technologies Are Not Morally Neutral

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 1, 2013

The argument in Figure 2.2 is just as insidious as the one in Figure 2.1. Nothing that humans do is ever ethically or morally neutral. All technologies are made with a primary purpose or set of purposes in mind. They are also made with a set of particular stakeholders in mind. For instance, Facebook may well have been used in responsible ways by Harvard undergraduates for whom the technology was first designed. (Even this is debatable.) But it has proved to be an unmitigated social disaster when it is used 24/7/365 for cyber bullying by young people who are not mature enough to use it responsibly.

The overriding fact is that guns are primarily manufactured, marketed, and purchased for use as weapons, not for target shooting or collectors’ items.[v] Cars are not.

Finally, I present Figure 2.3 with little comment since it is mostly self-explanatory.


In fact (E), gun laws are effective. To be sure, by definition criminals don’t obey laws, but that is not an effective argument (Claim) against having laws. We don’t abandon laws against murder because murderers don’t obey them.

Laws reflect the basic will and values of the majority to have and live in a civilized society. As such, they derive their basic existence and day-to-day support from the will of the people. In other words, while not perfect by any stretch, it is the law-abiding members of society that work to make laws work by basically believing in them. Yes, this means that law-abiding citizens have to give up previous “rights” in order to secure a more prosperous and safer society.

The Evidence shows clearly that those states with tough gun laws are more much effective than those states with weak laws in preventing guns from getting into the hands of the wrong people. Those states with weak laws are responsible for guns being imported into states with strong gun laws. This is the strongest argument for having national gun laws.

Concluding Remarks

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 10, 2013

Once again, there is no way that a single chapter could cover all of the arguments pertaining to guns. This has obviously not been my intent. Instead, the basic intent has been to show the power and the utility of TAF. At a minimum, it is a compact and convenient way of summarizing and organizing the main arguments for and against a particular issue. At its best, it gets to the root of important arguments.

For instance, the following TAF is a summary of many of the main themes of this chapter.


Lurking not far beneath the surface of all of the arguments for guns—and for most of the other issues we examine—are fear and varying degrees of paranoia. For this very reason, we need to examine in a later chapter if and how fear and paranoia can be addressed. Indeed, fear and paranoia are some of the most powerful bits of “social glue” that ties most, if not all, of the various arguments together.

In this regard, we would do well to reflect on the comments of one of the leaders of the NRA. He nailed the Backing:

“’You would get a far better understanding if you approached us [the NRA] as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.’ This is not a frivolous comparison. There is an unquestionably religious fervour about the beliefs of many pro-gun partisans. It is grounded in various articles of faith that form the catechism of the NRA: that law-abiding citizens are under constant risk from attack by predatory criminals, that the safety of every person and family depends on the ability of individuals to defend themselves with firearms, that the democratic institutions cannot be counted on to protect our liberties…In the NRA’s world, these are eternal truths. They are not themselves proper subjects for empirical testing and debate, but are rather a priori verities according to which the world is interpreted and understood. [Note that this helps to account for why the arguments of pro-gun advocates are largely pure assertions devoid of any independent Evidence, Warrants, and Backing.]

“To the true believer, the gun is an object of religious devotion…The hollowed place of the gun is reflected in the holy text of the gun rights movement: the Second Amendment…the gun is the ultimate means for a free people to secure and protect all other rights…”

In sum, I have no illusions whatsoever that this book with its use of TAF is for those who are “true believers,” whatever it is in which they believe so passionately. It is for those who by definition are not true believers. It is for those who want to better understand what drives the true believers of the world, not so they can argue better with them, but so they can argue better with themselves.

Chapter Three: Ugly Arguments—Savaging President Obama

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 19, 2013

By any standard, some of the worst “arguments” one could ever hope to find—if they even deserve to be dignified by the term “argument”–are those with regard to President Obama. The arguments are not just plain ugly, but in their unmitigated fear, disgust, and loathing of the President, they cross over the line from reasoned dissent to pathology. They are nothing short of venomous.

As Will Bunch makes abundantly clear in his book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, And Paranoid Politics In The Age of Obama, there are sizable numbers of Americans—primarily members of The Tea Party and fringe conspiracy groups—who are more than willing to impute the worst attributes and motives to the President, and as a result, thoroughly demonize him.[vi]

Figure 3.1 represents my summary of Bunch’s analysis of anti-Obama sentiments. As we saw in the last chapter, in terms of TAF, the arguments are for the most part pure assertions without any real Evidence to back them up. Indeed, as in the case of rabid gun proponents and their unbridled exaltation of the Second Amendment, Evidence is beside the point.


Most of the items in Figure 3.1 are self-explanatory, and thus require little comment. However, one in particular deserves discussion. This is the plaintive cry “I want my country back!” that Bunch heard time and again as he travelled across America, listening to and talking with various people, mainly those who were dispossessed. It represents the cry of those who are unable to accept that a Black man, however gifted, is not only qualified, but was legally elected to be President. It represents all those who have been left behind by the global economy and a world more complex than anything they have ever known. It is a world with which they have not been prepared to deal. In short, it is the painful cry of those who are unable to accept and adjust to deep, substantial change.[vii]

“I want my country back!” is the wish to have things turn back to what they were, and will be no more. It is the loss of normalcy, as it was known.

However, “I want my country back!” is more than just mournful cry of those unable to accept change. It is a cry of outrage, of pure hatred against a Black man, the Other, that is not like them. As such, it has clear racist overtones. But, it represents something that lies even deeper: pathology. To see this, we turn to the creative, original, path-breaking work of one of the earlier pioneers of psychoanalysis.

Before we do this, I need to make clear that there is a form of “I want my country back!” about which the author feels strongly. I mourn the loss of civility. I am aghast at practices such as “sextexting” that demean young women. I am aghast at the unlawful taking and distribution of pictures of young women who have been raped, leading in some cases to their suicide. In other words, not all forms of “I want my country back!” are signs of the fear of progress or racism. There are legitimate things that everyone would like to preserve.

Extreme Either/Or Thinking: The Work of Melanie Klein

Originally published on Nation of Change, July 27, 2013

The path-breaking work of the child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein on splitting is crucial in achieving a deeper understanding why conspiracy groups in particular are highly prone to dividing the world into “good” versus “bad guys and evil forces.” Indeed, as we saw in the last chapter, according to rabid gun proponents, supposedly there is a clear and sharp distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys.” In this simple-minded view of the world, one is either a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” but never both. Certainly, one cannot have aspects of both at the same time. In this view of the world, “good guys” can have all the guns they want without any dangers to society.

Reference to Klein is all but absent in popular, and even academic, books on contemporary politics.  This is unfortunate indeed because Klein is indispensable in understanding some of the most important aspects of complex issues. But then, this is a consequence of the fact that despite all the talk of interdisciplinary cooperation, different fields of human knowledge still do not talk to and learn from one another as much as they need to do.

Certainly a key factor inhibiting greater cooperation is the lack of understanding and acceptance that while psychoanalysis may have started with the analysis and understanding of discrete individuals, it is no longer confined to their study and treatment alone. One of the most important contributions psychoanalysis has to make is the analysis and understanding of group and societal behavior.

Klein is without a doubt one of the early giants of psychoanalysis. Her work with children is invaluable in shedding light on the human condition. It has been said that if Freud discovered the child in the adult, then Klein discovered the infant in the child. In other words, she pushed back even further an understanding of the roots of human behavior. She did this by means of play therapy, which she literally invented.

By definition, one cannot ask children directly, or even adults for that matter, what is going on deep within their unconscious. One has to resort to other means to get a window into the psyche. To do this, Klein gave children toys and various objects with which to play and observed what they said and did with respect to them. If they behaved aggressively by banging or shoving one object representing the child into another object representing the mother or father, or between the mother and father, then Klein was able to see and assess the emotional conflicts that were going on within the child and the family. It allowed a conversation to ensue between the child and Klein.

The phenomenon of splitting was one of Klein’s earliest and most important discoveries. Klein discovered that under the age of three or so, children generally split the image of the primary caretaker—typically the mother, or at least it was when Klein worked early in the 20th century—into a “good” and a “bad mother.” The “good mother” is the “good, comforting breast” that is always available on demand to meet the child’s every physical and emotional need. In contrast, the “bad mother” is the “bad, mean breast” that withholds comfort and nurturance and disciplines the child when necessary.

Under the age of three, the child is generally not mature enough to accept psychologically that the “good” and the “bad mother” are merely two aspects of the same person. But then, the child is not yet psychologically mature enough to accept his or her own “good” and “bad sides.” If there has been trauma, then the split is prolonged. In severe cases, it may never be healed.

Even if there has been normal development, splitting generally persists throughout all of one’s life. On occasion, all of us spilt the world into “good” and “bad guys and forces.” Nevertheless, it is especially disturbing when political parties deliberatively use splitting to demonize one another so as to win votes. It is especially disturbing when the government which is We is viewed as an “alien—the Other.”

In systems terms, splitting is an extreme and dysfunctional form of differentiation. Mild forms of splitting such as analysis (breaking a whole into its constituent parts) are often necessary to allow different voices to be heard and different perspectives to emerge. But to split completely is to fracture, as for example, when we completely divorce the complex interrelationships between people and technology. When they are split completely, the components of a system are more than dissociated; the system is broken, often beyond repair. In short, to split is to break apart in such a way that putting things back together requires much more than rational integration, it requires emotional integration, that is, healing.

Splitting is also interesting for many other reasons. It is in fact the basis for most of the world’s great fairytales. The Grimm fairytales are only one example. Thus, the “good, fairy god mother” is the “good mother” and the “evil witch” is the “bad mother.”

Klein is particularly helpful in understanding situations where it appears that splitting has been successfully resolved, but it really hasn’t. Thus, in The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin makes a strong case for the proposition (Claim) that Conservatives want to have it both ways: They are both victim and victor simultaneously. “They are aggrieved and entitled—aggrieved because entitled—and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitably of its triumph. They thus can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity that [only they can] imagine. This makes them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection…” The whole point is that if conservatives had successfully resolved splitting, then they wouldn’t need to be either victim or victor.[viii] I would only add that Liberals have their own distinctive forms of playing victim and victor. The same is obviously true of rabid gun proponents.

Readers who are interested further in how Kleinian ideas shed significant light on the motives and behavior of political figures are strongly urged to read Obama on the Couch by Justin Frank, M.D.[ix]

Concluding Remarks

This chapter has argued in effect that in the vast majority of cases, the Backing is an expression of forces that emanate deeply from within the unconscious. This helps to explain why the analysis and discussion of arguments in purely rational terms fails so much of the time.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bring the best analyses of arguments that we can. It merely means that rational analyses are necessary, but in and of themselves, they are far from sufficient.

Finally, it should be understood clearly that I am not saying that President Obama should never be criticized. When his actions and policies are faulty, then of course he should be roundly criticized. Furthermore, while people of course have the right to portray President Obama with a Hilter-like moustache, we need to understand clearly that this is nothing more than the vilest form of human expression, if not signs of an out-and-out pathology.

Chapter Four: Gay Rights

Originally published on Nation of Change, August 7, 2013

Figures 4.1 through 4.5 represent five key aspects of the debate regarding whether gays should be allowed to marry or not. We consider whether: 1. Allowing gays to marry violates the centuries old traditional definition of marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman; 2. Marriage is primarily for procreation; 3. Being gay is an abnormality or leads to abnormalities; 4. The Bible forbids homosexuality; and finally, 5. Prohibiting gays from marrying denies them of their basic civil and legal rights.






For the most part, the figures are self-explanatory and thus require little comment. As in earlier chapters, one thing in particular stands out. In Figures 4.1, 4.4, and 4.5, the Claims, Warrants, and Backings are relatively independent of the Evidence.

More importantly, as one scans all of the figures, there is a definite pattern. Those who support gay marriage are for substantial, if not radical, change and for a clear expansion of human and legal rights. Those who oppose gay marriage are not only in firm opposition to change, but for preserving the traditional definition of marriage. Indeed, those who oppose gay marriage do not see the issue in terms of civil rights at all. They see it as a grave threat to the very foundations of society. In this sense, “They want their world to carry on as it is!”

As with all of the issues in the previous chapters, there are huge age differences in how one feels about the issue of gay marriage. Those who are under the age of 65—especially those of the Millennial Generation—are much more strongly in favor of gay marriage than those over 65.

A famous quote by the distinguished historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is relevant here: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents, but rather because its opponents eventually die out and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The same is true of ideas that upset traditional social orders.

The Boy Scouts of America

Originally published on Nation of Change, August 14, 2013

As a closely relatedly postscript, recently, The Boy Scouts of America reversed a long-standing policy by voting to admit gays as members. Previously, gays were not allowed to become scouts. At the same time, the decision not to allow adults to be scout leaders was reaffirmed. Both decisions set off howls of protest.

Conservatives not only expressed their strong disapproval of the decision to allow gays to become scouts, but a number indicated that they would immediately pull their children out of The Boy Scouts. But they went even further. They expressed their desire to found a new organization that would affirm their basic values. In their view, one of the prime attributes of The Boy Scouts was that it inculcated and reaffirmed a sense of “manliness,” a “virtue” that would be lost if gays were admitted as members.

At the same time, gays were offended—“incensed” is a more accurate description–that adults would not be allowed to be leaders of scout troops. There is little if any evidence that gays are more inclined to be pedophiles and thus pose a greater danger to “straight” children under their supervision. But then, Evidence always faces an uphill battle against deeply entrenched views.

The Truths About Gay Marriages

Originally published on Nation of Change, August 21, 2013

For another, recently, The Atlantic Monthly ran an eye-opening article entitled, “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples.”[x] The article dispelled one of the central myths about gay marriage.

One of the chief arguments of those who are opposed to gay marriage is that it threatens the sanctity of marriage. That is, supposedly if gays are allowed to marry then the institution of marriage, which is already under siege, will be further threatened. The article certainly affirmed that marriage is certainly threatened, but not by gays. If anything is at fault, it is the changing economic conditions that make it harder for young people to get married.

In particular, the article pointed out the areas where gay marriages are clearly superior to traditional ones. Freed from traditional gender roles where the man works primarily outside the home and does little housework and the women does most of the housework in addition to working, gay couple are more able to share chores and responsibilities equally. Gay couples are also more able to share emotions and feelings more easily.

Instead of gays threatening the institution of marriage, gays are helping to redefine it.

Chapter Five: Creationism Versus Evolution—Science And Religion

Originally published on Nation of Change, August 27, 2013

Nowhere is the battle between Science and Religion more bitter and contentious than the contemporary war between Creationism and Science. Figures 5.1 and 5.2 lay out some of the major issues that are involved.



Although there are many varieties of Creationism, the basic overriding idea is that Evolution in particular and Science in general are wrong in supposing that they can account for something so complicated as the existence of human beings. To take but just one example, according to Creationism, the human eye is too complex to ever have evolved from primitive organisms or cells. Thus, at a specific moment in time, God must have created humans intact.

To say that Science does not agree with Creationism is putting it mildly. Evolution is able to account for the features we see in animals and humans.

Nonetheless, there is a more significant issue that Science and Religion generally avoid, if not duck altogether. This is the generally unacknowledged “fact” that there is a deep metaphysical side of Science and that this side is not incompatible with Religion. Indeed, it is deeply compatible with Religion. At the same time, Religion has to acknowledge its compatibility and deep dependence on Science.

The Metaphysics of Science

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 4, 2013

The British physicist Stephen Hawking once posed the following question, which I paraphrase, “Suppose some day we physicists are able to write down the grand equation of Everything. That would still leave unanswered, what breathed life into the equation?” In more prosaic terms, what designed and implemented the equation?

I have no doubt that we live in a universe that is governed by the laws of Evolution and physics, to mention only two of the sciences involved. But what created the kind of a universe that is governed by such laws? To answer “God” is to replace one mystery with another. But that’s precisely what Religion does. Religion does what Science is loath to do because humans cannot live with unfathomable mysteries. But then many scientists cannot live with mysteries as well. They persist in hanging onto the metaphysical belief that “Science will ultimately be able to explain everything in terms of natural laws.”

The belief that “Science will ultimately be able to explain everything in terms of natural laws” is not a scientific statement that can be proved or disproved empirically. It is a metaphysical belief. It asserts something about the totality of reality that cannot be proved. We cannot wait until the end of time to check on its validity. The ability to “wait until the end of time” requires an ability far beyond humans.

To be sure, Science has continually expanded our knowledge of the world, but to assert that it will continue to do indefinitely and thus ultimately be able to explain everything is a belief that scientists cannot go out and test as they can other hypotheses.

The trouble is that the vast majority of scientists grow up with a deep distaste for Philosophy in general and Metaphysics in particular. Understandingly, both seem to limit the nature of Science. Even worse, they harken back to a time when Science was racked with unproven speculations of the worst kinds. But this is not how we conceive of Philosophy and Metaphysics. Their role is not to replace Science but to make it aware of its unproven assumptions that all fields of inquiry need to make.

The basic assumptions that the world is intelligible and knowable are religious in origin, not scientific. Science is thereby more dependent on Religion than it wants to acknowledge. But then equally, Creationism cannot pretend to be Science when it violates all the cannons of modern Science.

Chapter Six: Who’s Responsible?

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 10, 2013

Recently over 1000 people died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh. It raised anew questions of the ultimate responsibility of retailers who employ thousands of poor workers to make garments for well-off consumers in Europe and the U.S. The very same issue was raised when a fertilizer plant exploded in the town of West, Texas.

Figures 6.1 and 6.2 present two typical arguments with respect to the issue of responsibility. Once again, the figures are mainly self-explanatory.

However, Figure 6.2 warrants further commentary.



The Processed-Food Industry

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 16, 2013

In the Sunday, February 24, 2013 edition of The New York Times Magazine, an important article by Michael Moss appeared on how the processed-food industry deliberately employs scientists whose specific job it is to design junk food products that are effectively impossible to resist. If there were any doubts before the article was published regarding how the industry intentionally designs products that appeal directly to our cravings for fast food, the article dispelled them entirely. The products were so successful that they not only “appealed” to our natural, built-in cravings for junk food, but they actually “heightened” those cravings.

In addition to the “distasteful” (pun intended!) disclosures about the practices of the processed-food industry, just as important were the revelations about the arguments that the industry used regularly to justify its behavior. The arguments are particularly important because with very little modification, they apply to other industries. They are used over and over again to promote dangerous, unethical, and unhealthy products, e.g., violent movies, pornography, TV shows, and video games, etc.

The major arguments are variants of: “We only give consumers what they want; if there weren’t a market for what we make—if they didn’t demand it–then we wouldn’t make it because we couldn’t sell it.” Just as frequent, “If we don’t do it, somebody else will. Better us than them.”

Stephen Sanger, head of General Mills, put it as follows. He noted that consumers were “fickle.” “People bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good.” “Don’t talk to me about nutrition. Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

Sanger is also reputed to have said that to “react to the critics would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products [General Mills] so successful. Thus, “General Mills would not pull back.” He vowed to “push his people onward.” And, he urged his peers “to do the same.”

One of the most disingenuous arguments that is used repeatedly by those who want to deny or evade any responsibility whatsoever for the ill effects of their products, actions, etc. is the “complex systems dodge.” The argument goes as follows: “A complex system of factors are responsible for obesity, etc.—whatever the social ill. Thus, there are no direct cause-effect relationships between the consumption/use of our products/services and some societal problem.”

What’s so disingenuous is that persons and organizations that generally show little, if any interest, in complex systems thinking, suddenly become, when it is in their direct interest, experts in systems thinking! Of course, in today’s complex world, no single factor by itself is rarely, if ever responsible, for the cause of another desirable or undesirable effect. But this does not mean that individual factors do not contribute at all.

Consider the movie/TV/video game industry. There is an over 30-year history of research that shows that there is a significant correlation between the repeated exposure of children to violence and aggressive behavior. Indeed, at-risk children from low-income environments show greater ill effects to prolonged exposure. But since correlations are not causality, the industries argue in effect, “Whenever the correlation between our products, etc. and some societal problems are low, we are warranted in not taking any responsible actions.” Of course, this only raises the prime ethical question, “How high would the correlations have to be before you acted responsibly?”

Notice carefully that in sharp contradistinction, no cardiologist would ever argue, “Because a certain factor or set of factors contribute only modestly to the chances of a heart attack, we should ignore them.” Instead, they argue, “Treat every risk factor as seriously you can to lower the chances of a heart attack.”

Clearly, we are far indeed from anything even approaching a Cardiological Society.

Chapter Seven: The Tyranny of Either/Or—Extreme Moderation

Originally published on Nation of Change, September 24, 2013

Table 7.1 and Figures 7.1 through 7.3 represent the arguments of three positions along the political spectrum with regard to the issues we’ve examined. In terms of the table and figures, I am clearly a moderate but with a tilt somewhat to the left. Hence, the term “extreme moderate” best represents my views.





The point of the table and figures is not to argue that moderate positions are always better. Nor are they always “moderate.”

As we have before in our tumultuous history as a nation, we need to move beyond the tyranny of either/or thinking to both/and. I have no illusions whatsoever that at this time in our history, that this is easy. Indeed, given the current political climate, it’s as difficult as any time we have ever faced as a nation.

In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism, Thomas Mann, a liberal, and Norman Ornstein, a conservative, both place more blame on the Republican Party than they do on Democrats, although there is more than enough blame to go around for the breakdown in our inability to get along, let alone govern with any degree of respect and civility.[xi] Mann and Ornstein essentially see the House dominated by right-wing insurgents who are scornful of compromise, which of course is the kiss of death for both/and thinking. The current crop of Republicans put fealty to their party ahead of problem solving, which again is the kiss of death for both/and thinking. For this and other reasons, Mann and Ornstein view the current Republican Party more like an apocalyptic cult than a political party.

What suggestions then do Mann and Ornstein offer for ways out of the impasse? In a word, expand moderate thinking by expanding the electorate through the reduction of gerrymandered Congressional districts. It is hoped that this will help to bring out more moderate voters and candidates.

Other ideas include recreating the “public square” where hopefully more moderate ideas can be aired. The idea that has the most power is the restoration of public shame. Public shame has the most power because it penetrates to the deep emotional Backings that are the true drivers of most arguments. Public shame works by having those with more moderate voices speak out loud, clear, and long against the extreme arguments of the NRA, conspiracy groups, etc.

Concluding Remarks

Originally published on Nation of Change, October 1, 2013

In the end, the author would be naïve beyond belief if he thought that an analysis of arguments alone would be enough to prompt deep changes in how we view the vital issues of our times. An analysis of arguments is necessary, but it’s hardly sufficient.

One’s attitudes towards guns, President Obama, gays, and responsibility are more than a matter of arguments, logical or otherwise. They are a matter of lived, core beliefs.

The Backings that move men and women reside in their souls, not just in their minds alone. But then this is a fitting argument on which to close a book about the power of arguments.

[i] Barabba, Vincent P., and Mitroff, Ian I. Time to Get Real!, Tools for Navigating a Complex, Dynamic, and Messy World, in preparation, 2013.z

[ii] Toulmin, Stephen, The Uses of Argument, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,

England, 1958.

[iii] See Walton, Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach, Cambridge, 2008.

[iv] See Henigan, Dennis, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths Paralyze American Gun Policy, Potomac Books, Washington, DC, 2009; see also, Webster, Daniel W. and Vernick, Jon S., Eds., Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2013.

[v] See Henigan, op. cit.

[vi] Bunch, Will, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, And Paranoid Politics In The Age of Obama, Harper, New York, 2010.

[vii]  Knight, Peter, Ed., Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America, New York University Press, New York, 2002.

[viii] Robin, Corey, The Reactionary Mind, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, p. 99.

[ix] Frank, Justin, opcit.

[x] Munday, Liza, “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples: Why Gay Marriages Tend To Be Happier And More Intimate,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2013, pp. 56-70.

[xi] Mann, Thomas E. and Ornstein, Norman J., It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism, Basic Books, New York, 2012.

Blog, Philosophy + Systems

American Bhopals! It Starts with Universities

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 28, 2013

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India exploded. Approximately 3800 people were immediately killed. At least another 8000 died in the days and weeks following. It was and remains one of the worst industrial disasters on record.

Union Carbide bore the brunt of the blame since it owned 50.9% of the plant. The remainder was owned by an Indian subsidiary.

The causes of Bhopal have been well documented. Basically, the efforts to stem a financial crisis led to an even worse one.

In order to stop the plant from losing money, the decision was made to cut costs. Unfortunately, this resulted in letting go some of the most experienced operators. Other experienced operators who were demoralized left of their own accord. As a result, mainly inexperienced personnel were left to operate the plant. Furthermore, those who remained suffered from increased job pressures. This further lowered morale that was already dangerously low to begin with.

In addition, the plant was initially poorly designed. It was also poorly maintained. All of these factors combined to produce a gas explosion when an inexperienced operator opened the wrong valve allowing water into a tank. The resulting chemical reaction produced a dangerous gas, methyl isocynate, which spewed into the surrounding slums that had been allowed by the Indian government to crowd up next to the plant.

The surrounding community had not been prepared in any way for a disaster of this kind. All they knew was that the plant produced a kind of fertilizer. If they had been warned of the potential danger, they would have known that since methyl isocynate is heavier than air, the best thing to do was to lie down on the ground with a wet rag covering one’s eyes, nose, and mouth.

The explosion that occurred last week in the town of West, Texas does not even begin to approach the enormity of Bhopal. Nonetheless, while the numbers of people killed — 14 — and injured — 200 — may not match Bhopal, one death and injury is one too many.

While the causes of the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas are still under investigation, one ugly fact stands out. Like Bhopal, homes and schools were allowed in to be built and remain in dangerous proximity to the plant. Furthermore, the people were not aware of the danger to which they were subject.

In my over 30 years of studying and consulting with crises and disasters of all kinds, one key finding emerges time and again. The major causes of all crises and disasters are due to individual operator errors, misjudgments, poor decisions, and faulty organizational priorities. Yes, technology breaks down, but more often than not, this is the end result of human actions and inactions. Technology doesn’t operate itself. People not only operate it, but organizations set priorities for its maintenance and safety. More than we acknowledge, pressures to get stuff out the door in order to generate profits typically override concerns for safety.

But I believe something even deeper is responsible as well. The ways in which we teach business and engineering students is outmoded, even dangerous. In the late 1950s when I went to engineering school, social science was only taught superficially. Worse still, it was regarded as an “inferior subject” not worthy of the time of engineers. It wasn’t a “real science” like physics and engineering. The same attitude largely prevails in business schools where I have spent over 45 years in my teaching career. It’s not that there aren’t courses on “people and organizations,” but that they are not taken seriously by far too many students and faculty.

Although some engineering schools have tried to teach engineering and behavioral science together, especially as they affect the design and operation of dangerous technologies, I don’t believe we’ve gone far enough. Behavioral science is not just a “nicety” to add to the curriculum, it’s absolutely essential.

The “solution,” if there is one, does not lie in more “interdisciplinary courses” — although they are certainly helpful — but in the fundamental recognition that it is a false philosophy that separates technology (the physical world) and people (the social world) to begin with. As Russ Ackoff, systems thinker extraordinaire and one of my philosophical mentors put it, “Nature is not organized in the same way that universities are.” Until we learn this, and even more act on it in the design and management of organizations, we’ll see more Bhopals and West Texas’s.

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 28, 2013

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Sociology

The Banality of Evil Arguments

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

In April 17, 1775, Boswell recorded one of Samuel Johnson’s most famous lines, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” If he were alive today, I believe that Johnson might well say, “Evil arguments are the first and last refuge of scoundrels.”

On the April 9, 2013 edition of the PBS NewsHour, there was a mild debate of sorts between Jim Johnson, Police Chief of Baltimore County, and Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The topic was of course background checks for gun owners. Predictably, Johnson was for checks and Keane was against them.

Although I’ve heard it many times before, I was particularly shocked by Keane’s use of a particularly insidious argument against background checks. Given that painful interviews with some of the family members who lost loved ones in the tragic Newtown shootings had aired recently on the CBS program 60 Minutes and were thus still fresh, the more I listened to Keane, the more that the phrase “the banality of evil arguments” flashed through my mind.

Time and again, Keane argued that if background checks were required before someone could purchase a gun, then it would place an inordinate burden on “small mom and pop gun dealers.” The particular word that Keane used repeatedly to signify the burden that small dealers would face was “inconvenience.” That is, they would be “greatly inconvenienced” by having to fill out all the forms that background checks would require. After all, why should they be required to do the work of the government?

If this is not a prime example of an argument that is both evil and banal, then I don’t know what is!

As a parent, spouse, relative, or friend of someone that has lost their life in a senseless shooting, how does one weigh the “inconvenience” of a gun dealer versus the inconsolable pain that one will experience throughout all of one’s life? One can’t! This is precisely what makes Keane’s argument banal and evil.

If I wanted to insult those who had lost loved ones and cause further pain, I couldn’t think of a more inappropriate word than “inconvenience.”

By the repeated use of such utterly wicked arguments and words, gun proponents don’t know it, but they have already lost the argument with regard to greater gun controls. Whether this Congress finally votes for background checks or not, gun proponents are in their last throes. To be sure, greater restrictions on the manufacturing, sale, and ownership of guns are still a long ways off, but they will happen.

One shouldn’t even have to say it, but given the hysteria surrounding the issue, this doesn’t mean that honest, law-abiding citizens won’t be allowed to have any guns at all. They will. It does mean that eventually there will be a ban on military assault type weapons in the hands of civilians.

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems

Want to End Gun Violence? Write A Good Bumper Sticker!

Originally published on Nation of Change, February 8, 2013

One of the reasons why the NRA and rabid gun “enthusiasts” are so effective in getting their ideas across is that they’ve perfected the art of writing bumper stickers. They’ve taken extremely complex ideas and reduced them to half-truths and pithy, easy-to-remember slogans.

Why shouldn’t liberals and progressives fight back? Or are we “too pure to sink to the level of communicating effectively with a wider public?”

I think the attitude that liberals and progressives are somehow “above” such forms of expression is not only wrong, but “dead wrong!” Pun intended!

We do ourselves a great disservice by not communicating our ideas as simply and as forcefully as we can. To do so is not necessarily to debase them. It is to sharpen them.

Sadly, I have been unable to find any sites on the Internet that have “bumper stickers for gun control advocates.” They may well be there, but I haven’t found them.

In the spirit of countering the NRA and other organizations, I offer the following as merely one attempt to come up with bumper stickers for those like myself who want tougher gun control laws. Since they merely represent a first attempt, they are a work in progress. This also accounts for the fact that there is a considerable overlap and repetition between the items.

One last thought. If you have to explain it, then it isn’t working.

Baseball Bats and Cars Can Kill, But They’re Not Made for Killing. Guns Are!

Help us speak truth to power. Donate what you can afford to support NationofChange.

We Don’t Abandon Laws Against Murder Because Murderers Don’t

Obey Them! Why Are Gun Laws Any Different?

How Many Mass Drive-by Knifings Have You Heard Of?

Automatic Weapons Kill More People Faster Than All The Baseball Bats, Cars,

And Knives Put Together!

Guns Kill Whether A Good Or A Bad Guy Fires Them.

People Die, Not Guns!

Guns Laws Make It Harder For Outlaws To Get Guns!

Outlawing Gun Laws Helps Outlaws Get Guns Easier!

Get A Gun! Kill Yourself On The First Attempt!

Guns Don’t Give People A Second Chance NOT To Commit Suicide!

Get A Gun. Have An Accident. Kill Your Loved Ones And Yourself!

More Americans Have Died From Accidental Gun Shootings Than All The

Americans Killed In Vietnam!

Buy A Gun And Up The Suicide Rate By 57 Times!!

If more guns made us safer, then the U.S. would the safest country in the world.

Stop the government plot to confiscate our cars by forcing us to register them!

I strongly encourage others to come up with more and better slogans.

Originally published on Nation of Change, February 8, 2013

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Sociology

Enough Is Enough: It’s Time to Get Tough on Organizations That Involve Children in Any Form or Manner

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

For over 30 years, I have consulted with regard to and studied virtually every type of crisis imaginable (manmade and so-called natural disasters, criminal, environmental, ethical, financial, PR, terrorism, etc.). I have particularly studied the general lessons that all crises have to teach. I want to apply a few of these lessons to one of the most egregious of all crises: child abuse.

Whether we are experiencing an “actual, real epidemic” of child abuse or because of the overwhelming presence of the media we are just more aware of it is beside the point. What is not beside the point is that some of the most important and highly esteemed organizations have not only engaged in serious cases of child abuse, but engaged in concerted and repeated actions to protect and/or shelter those guilty of committing abuse. These include: 1. The Catholic Church; 2. The Boy Scouts of America; 3. Penn State; and 4. BBC. To add to the list, recently, the voice of Elmo supposedly had a sexual relationship with a then-underage boy. As a result, he abruptly resigned from The Sesame Street Workshop in order to protect the organization from further unpleasant publicity.

In short, some of the most highly esteemed organizations and institutions have engaged in nothing less than the worst kind of betrayal of the public trust.

Since the cases are well-known and have been covered extensively in the media, I shall not bother to review the livid details. Instead, I want to cover what my years of studying crises lead me to suggest.

The first and primary lesson that it is never ever the case that no one in an organization knows or knew what was going on or occurred. Instead, out of obedience, misplaced loyalty, or fear, they are pressured to keep it to themselves. Or, if they do report it to a higher-up, they are assured that the situation will be dealt with firmly and promptly. When they see that nothing is done and/or that those who report it are dealt with harshly, they soon learn to turn a deaf ear and blind eye.

The second primary lesson, which is strongly related to the first, is that, no matter what the particular kind of crisis, the vast overwhelming majority of organizations cannot be trusted to monitor themselves. (This is one of the other lessons that crises teach.) For this reason, I insist in no uncertain terms that at their own expense organizations and institutions that involve or serve children in any way be monitored for any hints and possibilities of child abuse at least once a year by outside organizations specifically equipped and trained to do so.

I am extremely well aware of what I am calling for. It will not be cheap or easy. But then, it will cost substantially less that the cost of a full-blown crisis. (This is another of the other lessons that crises teach. Crises always cost more than preparation and/or mitigation efforts.)

To be perfectly clear, I am calling for trained interviewers to conduct broad open-ended interviews with a broad cross-section of the members of organizations to probe for potential cases and indicators of child abuse. Under no circumstance are the interviews to be designed to seek out and punish gays and/or consenting adults for whatever they wish to engage in the comfort, privacy, or security of their homes. It goes without saying that whatever the practices, they are not to be engaged in at work.

I am well aware of the response of civil libertarians to such ideas and proposals. For this reason, the individuals and organizations that conduct such interviews have to do everything in their power to respect and comply with the privacy of individuals. Indeed, to avoid their own crises, they must do everything they can to seek out and work closely with civil libertarians to design interviews that will meet their standards. Whether they can meet those standards or not, I still recommend that such interviews be performed.

As a social scientist, I am of course well aware that nothing is perfect in assessing the behavior of individuals and/or organizations. But then crisis management also teaches us that perfection is not the standard. Despite our best intentions, we can’t prevent all crises. But this doesn’t relieve us from doing everything in our power to lower the chances of crises.

In balancing the rights of adults versus those of children, I am obviously squarely on the side of children. Those who choose to work in organizations and institutions that involve or serve children have no alternative in my mind but to subject themselves to greater scrutiny.

Finally, it is to their benefit that organizations allow themselves to be monitored. How else can they not merely protect but ensure their reputation? If not, then they had better be prepared for severe losses in financial support and membership.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November, 28, 2012

Blog, Philosophy + Systems, Psychology

Economics: The Psychologically Naïve Science

Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 9, 2012

I admire Paul Krugman. I really do.

Having won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Krugman is not only a great economist, but he is a wonderful and witty writer. His many columns in The New York Times and books (for his latest, see End This Depression Now) are a testimony to his ability to explain arcane topics in terms that the layperson can understand. To accept his ideas is another matter.

For instance, why do Republicans violently oppose any form of a government stimulus even though that’s precisely what The Great Depression supposedly taught us in order to get the national economy working again? Yes to be sure, any stimulus big enough to do the job will in the short run add substantially to the deficit (even this is debatable), but in Krugman’s pithy words, “The time to save water is not when your house is on fire.” The time to pay down debt is when the economy is doing well, not when it’s strapped.

Again, why the nasty and fierce opposition to such ideas? That they are somewhat counterintuitive is only part of the answer. The deeper answer lies outside of economics.
If the government can successfully attack the recession — what Krugman rightly calls a “minor depression” — then when the recession is over, government will be empowered to attack a host of never-ending societal problems. According to Republicans, this not only breeds greater dependency on government, but it eventually unleashes greater restrictions on business and hence on our “freedoms.” Worst of all, it would cause billionaires to pay more in income tax for the “greater good of society.” And this in turn means giving support to those who are viewed as “freeloaders and undeserving.”

Consider another. Why do those at the very bottom rungs of society often oppose, again in the most violent terms, government health care? Because, if one accepts such aid, then one finally has to admit that one is indeed at the very bottom. And that is far too painful to do.

Irrational? Perhaps.

Notice that we have been steadily moving from the land of so-called “rational economics” into the lands of politics, psychology, and sociology.

Now Krugman is very good in acknowledging that the acceptance of his and the ideas of other leading economists is more often than not a matter of politics than it is of economics. Still, unfortunately like the great body of economists, Krugman is not good in acknowledging that, no matter what the field of human endeavor, all of our ideas rest on a foundation of deep psychological and sociological assumptions and predispositions.

This is precisely why I not only view economics as the “dismal science,” but as one of the many “psychologically naïve sciences.” This is also why in my many previous op-eds I have stressed in particular the role of psychoanalysis in helping us to understand political behavior. Yes, to its credit, economics has finally developed “behavioral economics.” But, one, it took far too long to do it, and two, the type of psychology that behavioral economics sweeps in is still not deep enough to account for the seemingly irrational complexities of human behavior.

I don’t know how to get the very poor and the very rich to change their attitudes and behavior. But, one thing I do know: If we Liberals and Progressives want all of us to change, then we’ll have to learn to tell more compelling stories that appeal to our hearts and emotions, not just our brains.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 9, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems

The Origins of Republican Pathology: Rebuilding the Emotional Containers of Society

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 13, 2012

By now, it is of course a truism to say that the Republican Party has tilted so far to the Right that it is extreme, if not literally a cult. As harsh as this may be, it doesn’t even begin to describe what’s wrong with it. In a word, the Republican Party is deeply pathological. In saying this, I am not using the term “pathological” flippantly. While I am not a practicing clinician, I do have a background in psychoanalytic thought.My point is that in order to see pathology, one has to dig deeply below the surface of everyday life. And, that’s precisely what psychoanalysis helps us to do. While psychoanalysis originated primarily in order to help individuals, it now has an important role to play in helping society as a whole.To see this, it is enough to consider the work of Wilford Bion. Bion is one of the greatest psychoanalysts of all time. His pioneering discoveries not only shed important light on the very earliest stages of childhood, but they also help to explain the toxicity that is rampant throughout our current public discourse and politics, particularly that on the Right.

From his work with adults—most notably psychotics–Bion was able to work back to the earliest roots of psychosis–pathology in general. The earliest stages of life are governed by an incredibly powerful interplay of, mostly unconscious, intense emotions between a mother, her young infant, and the child’s other caretakers.

“Projective identification” is the technical term for the process. It is the means whereby young infants project outward onto others thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are too painful, unpleasant, and intense for them to bear at their stage of emotional development. In other words, the internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions that unpleasant experiences trigger in young children—e.g., fears of abandonment, the demise of their caretakers as well as their own fears of destruction, not being fed physically and/or emotionally and at the precise moments when the child wants it, etc.– are not only expelled in often angry and hostile ways, but dumped onto others. In this way, others, and not the child, are seen as the “cause” of all that is experienced and felt as unpleasant. In a similar fashion, those aspects of the child that are experienced as “bad parts of oneself,” and thereby unwanted, are also projected outwards onto others. This is the only mechanism available to very young infants and children for dealing with unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Their cognitive abilities are not yet developed so that they can understand what’s happening and thus deal with it in more acceptable ways.

This is the “projective” part of “projective identification.” The “identification” part occurs if the child and/or his or her caretakers “identify strongly with” the projections, i.e., psychologically speaking, regard them as “true” or “warranted.”

If the mother and/or caretakers are “understanding,” i.e., if they are not overly distressed and repelled by the often violent thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the child, especially since they are typically expressed in the form of directly hostile and vicious attacks on the mother and/or caretakers, then over time they help the child to “contain” his or her own unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

In the beginning of life, the mother and other caretakers are literally the “emotional container” for the child whose own internal “container” is not sufficiently well developed to act on its own. But if for some reason, the mother and other caretakers are themselves not sufficiently developed, then the child’s “container,” and hence development, is at risk of being impaired.This is not to lay sole blame on the mother or other caretakers, for many other factors such as abuse and trauma by others can also seriously interrupt healthy development. Also, some children are more susceptible to violent outbursts due to neurological and physical factors over which they have no control.

With these ideas in mind, let me turn to today’s toxic public discourse and politics.

In their important and powerful book, It’s Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein lay the blame for today’s toxic politics primarily at the feet of the Republican Party ( They especially single out Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich realized early on that the Republican Party could end the 40-year rein of the Democratic Party through the use of the worst smears and invectives, i.e., essentially by demonizing the Democratic Party. Indeed, to Gingrich and others, this was seen as the only way they could recapture the Congress and the White House. Thus, Democrats were not only branded as “socialists,” but even worse, as “traitors.”Obviously, except by conducting direct clinical interviews with Gingrich, key members of the Republican Party, and the Tea Party, we have no way of knowing what if any trauma they experienced such that they are driven repeatedly to use the most violent invectives in demonizing their opponents. Nonetheless, one thing I know for sure. One does not manifest such violent feelings repeatedly unless there has been serious disturbance of some kind in a person’s history.

But I want to make an even more important point. Social scientists have long known that there is a direct societal counterpart for every single one of the mechanisms that pertain to individuals, and vice versa Thus, society is often equated either with the mother—The Motherland—and/or the father—The Fatherland because society is a surrogate parent. It is a parent writ large. In the case of The Motherland, society is perceived and experienced primarily as benevolent and nurturing. In the case of The Fatherland, society perceived and experienced primarily as authoritarian, harsh, and unforgiving.

No wonder Birthers are driven to such extremes of pathological rage. How could a “true mother” give birth to and anoint a “Black Other” with the highest office in the world? The only way she could is through a deep act of betrayal. And, betrayal by one’s mother, real or symbolic, is the worst of all crimes. It unleashes such a torrent of fury that it wants to destroy the guilty party again and again. No wonder why The Radical Right wants to “kill government!”

In a word, the “emotional containers of society”—our grand institutions, our leaders, our supposedly shared history and values–have broken down. They are “leaky” at best. They are no longer able to “contain” the emotional impulses of the Far Right. The impulses have literally broken through the normal constraints of society that are there if only in part to help ensure civility.

To counter such tendencies that can literally destroy a society, Mann and Ornstein propose among many things, a Shadow Congress made up of retired Congress Persons to “model” civil discourse and reasoned examination of the great issues that by definition cannot be dealt with by a pathological Right. They also propose that popular figures need to speak out constantly and reinforce healthy emotional discourse.Let me end by quoting one of my favorite social philosophers, Jonathon Swift: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into in the first place.”

You don’t reason with pathology. You cope with and treat it emotionally with the best means society has at its disposal. You mobilize public figures and moderate politicians to speak out calmly, continuously, and forcefully, and by doing so, reinforce healthy discourse.In sum, there is no greater challenge facing us than rebuilding the emotional containers of society!

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 13, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems, Psychology

How Groups Become Extreme

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 12, 2012

In two recent op-eds in the Huffington Post (“Is Truth in Politics Possible? Is Truth Possible in Anything Human?” and “Absence of Truth: Why the Republican Candidates Can’t Get Anywhere Near the Truth”), I argued that historically there are at least four different kinds and meanings of “truth.” There are of course more than four. But four is enough for my purposes.

Very briefly, first, there is traditional, primarily fact-based, impersonal, seemingly emotion-free, and unbiased scientific truth. (Science isn’t emotion free at all and it’s certainly not completely unbiased. It just hides its emotions and biases better than most fields. It also kids itself that they aren’t there. As someone with a Ph.D. in engineering, this doesn’t mean that I don’t believe strongly in science. I not only believe strongly in it, but I condemn those who don’t. Since it is done by humans, I just don’t believe that science is perfect.)

Second, there is speculative, philosophical, and theory-based science.

Third, there is community-based, social truth. This kind resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a community.

Fourth, there is also the kind that resides in the social customs, morals, religion, and wisdom of a small unit, typically a particular family, or close set of friends.

I also argued that all four of these ways fundamentally presuppose and depend deeply on one another. They couldn’t exist let alone work without the others.

I also argued that the current crop of Republican candidates has lost complete touch with truth (reality) because it is the captive of primarily one and only one way of knowing. In brief, the Republican candidates are the captives of the most primitive and debased forms of the third and fourth ways of knowing. For instance, in rejecting evolution and global warming, they are rejecting not only science, but rational thought itself. No wonder why liberals such as myself are so outraged and turned off by their ignorant rants.

But the question I want to raise here is: “How did the Republican Party become so skewed in its thinking? How did it become the captive of a perverse way of knowing and concept of ‘truth’?” There are of course sound historical answers to these questions starting with Goldwater’s humiliating defeat in ’64. As potent as these explanations are, I want to offer a different one.

In the late 60’s, a lifelong friend and colleague, Ralph Kilmann, and I hit upon the idea of putting all those with the same psychological outlook into the same group. Using a psychological test, we put all those who believed in the first way of knowing into one group; all those who believed in the second way into another one, etc. We then gave all the groups the same open-ended exercise: “What is your group’s definition and/or idea of ‘society’s most important problem?'” We also asked each group to: (1) build a collage of their problem definition so everyone could see their thinking, (2) give their collage and problem a short identifying name or label, and (3) list as many characteristics of their problem and collage as possible.

In this way, we were able to “see” personality, which by definition is an “internal state of mind,” and thus very difficult to observe by the untrained eye.

The exercise worked so well that my colleagues and I have been using it for over 40 years to help groups and organizations of all kinds to understand why different people don’t see the world in the same ways. The purpose is not only to help them understand one another better, but to use their differences constructively.

Putting people who all think alike into a common group does at least two things almost instantly. One, the particular group in which people are put very easily and quickly reaches strong, if not nearly complete, agreement. Two, the differences between the groups become magnified and even more intense. This makes it even easier to see differences in personality.
Notice carefully that we gave an open-ended exercise for if we had defined the exercise precisely, then in effect we would be operating primarily out of the first way of knowing. We deliberately wanted to give something nebulous on to which all the groups could project their different personalities.

After the groups have presented their collages, it quickly becomes apparent that each of them is speaking a totally different language. If one’s native language is German and another’s is Chinese, one usually doesn’t hesitate to involve a translator, particularly if one’s negotiations are crucial. But, one rarely involves a translator if people seem to be speaking the same language when in fact they are not.

If in addition, one introduces people into each group who are especially aggressive and extreme proponents of their particular way of looking at reality, then the groups quickly become even more extreme and one-sided. It then becomes virtually impossible for them to see that there is anything worthwhile in other ways of conceiving of reality.

In short, it is rather easy to create extreme groups. Indeed, over time, more moderate members are expelled for not adhering to the “group line.” And, the more that are expelled, the more extreme a group becomes.

I wish we could do for society at large what we are able to do in our workshops. There we are able to step back and explain how we created the groups, how and why they speak different languages, and help all the participants to come to see that the problems we are facing are so complex that they can’t even be properly defined, let alone solved, by one and only one way of looking at the world.

To build up their capacity to understand and appreciate different ways of apprehending reality, one of the other things we do is to create mixed groups. We then give them complex problems such as global warming that cannot even be defined, let alone solved, unless they integrate different ways of thinking.

To put it mildly, it takes a great deal of practice and encouragement to appreciate all four ways of knowing. To say that we desperately need more people who can do this is one of the great understatements of our time.

For this reason, I am utterly appalled when Sen. Santorum says that “going to college is an elite idea.” Really! College is one of the best, but not only, places where we can learn about ourselves by having our ideas challenged.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 12, 2012

Blog, Business, Crisis Management, Philosophy + Systems

Managing the Mess

By Emery Roe and Ian Mitroff

An odd aspect about the financial mess is how little discussion has been given to managing it, and the economic crisis with it, as messes.

In all the finger-pointing, one party has escaped with less attention than deserved – business schools. It is opportune to ask what schools would be teaching if they took mess management seriously.

First, they would be teaching systems thinking, not the mathematical modelling that passes for it today. Mess management requires people who know the interconnections among diverse systems of households, finance, the economy, politics and society. It requires people that tolerate and can map out complexity. Too many business faculties do not do this, consequently adding to the mess instead of helping to manage it.

Second, inter-systems experts are not in business schools. Mark Lombardi, a conceptual artist, showed how important Osama bin Laden was to politics and finance. He placed bin Laden in an earlier financial and political crisis – he did it in 1979!

Our argument is that works such as Caryl Churchill’s play, Serious Money, about the events leading to the 1987 stock market crash, must be part of systems thinking about the events of 2008-09. Unless we make these connections, we manage the wrong problem. By ignoring the “messiness” of complex systems, many in business schools are guilty of solving wrong problems precisely.

Third, we need to show students how connecting the dots in the financial crisis changes the dots. The crisis has been described as a hurricane breaching the levees of banking and financial institutions. This confuses the hurricane with the limitations of the levees.

Levees can be overwhelmed to the extent that independent flood protection systems become tightly coupled systems spreading the disaster further. Unless we mitigate climate change, we cannot lessen future hurricanes, but we can design and manage better levees. In crisis and reliability management, we can and should design systems that work even when independent risks turn out to be inter-dependent and when rescues create their own messes. This requires better damage containment systems before the arrival of the next crisis and better management of setbacks during the crisis.

Fourth, good mess managers are not just the Paulsons, Trichets and Bernankes, they are also the professionals in IT units, engineering divisions and business continuity operations. Governments promoting infrastructure development as an economic stimulus need to understand and capitalise on their management skills in recognising system patterns and formulating local scenarios.

Financial and economic services cannot be reliable without equally reliable telecommunications and electricity. Those who provide these services constantly work on the edge, around the messes created by ill-informed policies and poor technology design. These managers keep our interconnected critical infrastructures running and prevent accidents which would add billions more to the financial and economic crises. Society’s most under-utilised resource remains the skills of professionals who keep our infrastructures reliable.

Business schools would do well to learn a lesson from the September 11 attacks; air traffic controllers achieved the unprecedented in landing all 4,500 commercial and general aviation aircraft in the US safely. Success meant managing all the messes in between.

This is what we expect from business faculties – guidance in landing the economy and finance safely. They could do more if they understood better what experienced mess managers are doing to land the assets set into flight by business schools.

Emery Roe (along with Paul R. Schulman) is the author of High Reliability Management: Operating On the Edge, Stanford University Press and a member of the Collaborative for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley.

Originally published on February 2, 2009, on Republished with permission.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009