Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to some of the thinking and writing of Jamshid Gharajedaghi. In 1999 he wrote “The third generation of systems thinking (design) responds to the triple challenge of interdependency, self-organization, and choice in the context of sociocultural systems”. For the purposes of this blog, I am particularly intrigued by the notion of “choice”.
It is not surprising that in any society where there is scarcity, maldistribution or uncertainty in terms of wealth, freedom, power, knowledge and so forth, we shall in time see different forms of alienation, polarisation and, eventually, a disintegration of the social system. Across the globe there is evidence of social systems breaking down – this happens at the level of countries, organisations, cities and families. At some stage, one has to ask whether or not scarcity, maldistribution and uncertainty are “objectively” definable, or whether it is a function of perception.
It would seem to me that at the low end of the scale it is relatively easy to be objective about scarcity. Let me provide some examples:
• When the largest proportion of people in a country do not earn enough to survive, we will all acknowledge that there is scarcity; and
• When people in a country have no or limited access to education, we will all acknowledge that knowledge will be limited (setting in motion a range of other consequences).
Concerning maldistribution, it seems to me there is significantly less objectivity. Some examples will illustrate:
• When 10% of the richest people in the world own 90% of all material wealth, is this generally seen as maldistribution? If so, why was the processes leading to this allowed to continue?
• When education of a standard suited to being internationally recognised becomes available only to the super wealthy, is this maldistribution?
• When poorer people cannot afford minimum levels of healthcare, is this maldistribution?
It seems to me that maldistribution (inequitable distribution) only becomes an objectively observable issue when it leads to scarcity for a sufficiently large number of people. This is when we see alienation (distancing oneself from the system) and polarisation (us and them). The outcry becomes one for “equality” and not “equity /fairness”.
In the sense of absolutes, I understand this process (at least superficially) and can really empathise with people of all races, colours, religions, sexual orientation, language preferences and so forth who suffer as a direct consequence of maldistribution leading to scarcity for some.
On the other hand, I also understand that for many individuals the notion of scarcity or maldistribution is a perception and not a fact. In the last few months I have heard from a number of managers in client organisations that people increasingly define their salary expectation not in terms of what is reasonable for the outputs delivered, but in terms of their own level of indebtedness. This is where Gharajedaghi’s notion of choice becomes interesting to me. If I choose to do particular things which then lead to me having the perception / belief that there is scarcity / inequity, who should rectify it? The key question may therefore be: “If I CHOOSE to see things as inequitable, does this not make everything inequitable?”.
The case of the students disciplined for painting themselves purple (and with glitter) for a frat party with an alien theme comes to mind. Some people have chosen to see this as a form of racism and suddenly all sorts of action is taken and apologies demanded and made. Why? Why do people (who may or may not have seen sci-fi movies with purple aliens) CHOOSE to immediately see this as some racist action? Have we gotten to the point of alienation and polarisation where EVERYTHING is CHOSEN to be seen in a particular way? Really, get over yourself! You are not the centre of the universe.
Every day of my life I am fortunate enough to engage with South Africans of all types who choose to see things in a constructive manner, who choose to be inclusive and collaborative. These are all good people, doing what they can to make their organisations, communities and this country a better place for all of us. The one thing they (and I) should do more often is challenge those who choose to see everything through a lens of inequity and negativity. By all means, draw out attention to inequity and injustice, but then also make the choice to help the good people of this country to make this country work.