Mayvin Director James Traeger explores paradigms and monocultures.
I was sitting with my friend Adam, one of my favourite people, in one of my favourite places in London, on the 6th Floor of the Royal Festival Hall, overlooking the river by Hungerford Bridge. The psycho-geography of the place is immense- the expanse of the Thames Embankment provides the perfect backdrop for thinking of parallel breadth. We were talking about God, as you do. I suspect I am slightly more of a believer than Adam, although I also suspect there are many in the world who are more of a believer than I am. But nevertheless there is a sense I have that goes beyond what I ‘know’.
Adam asked me about that: how is it that I can know more than I ‘know’? For me, it comes from the same root as the reason why there are so many clever people out there who act in very daft ways sometimes. The essence of this is about people who don’t consciously posit that they know everything, but whose thinking is ‘fully formed’ – that is to say, they have eradicated doubt by latching onto a system of thinking that is, in itself, complete.
There are many such systems, in science, politics, religion, management. They are sometimes called ‘paradigms’ – defined as a complete worldview, which its associated underlying assumptions, truths and ways of approaching all presented problems.
A paradigm is a wise thing – it enables all things we encounter to be explained by a set of rules. So if I hold a rational-scientific paradigm, and I encounter something new, like an alien life form, I have a set of principles and logics by which I come to research it and communicate with it. The Voyager space probes, launched in the late 1970s, and the first human objects ever to leave the solar system, may one day encounter such aliens, and for this purpose they contain a solid gold record disc, designed by the philosopher-scientist Carl Sagan, that intends to address this potential ‘first contact’ within a most elegant rational-scientific paradigm.
If, on the other hand, I am imbued with a management paradigm, I would swiftly be able to sort this alien into a bureaucracy and give it a set of definable tasks. It sounds preposterous, but it makes sense, at least in itself. Max Weber the father of sociology suggested that bureaucracy is the most efficient system of human organisation. In order for it to work, its logic must be applied with unswerving determination. But this means of course, that as well as relatively efficiently sorting us all out for driving licenses, plane tickets and health care, this machine-mind will, with unquestioning resolve, organise train timetables to the gas chambers. In such a management paradigm, there is only a remorseless commitment to ‘how?’, and never a questioning of ‘why?’
Paradigms compete of course. My conversation with Adam was prompted by his own frustration with colleagues, in an Academic institution. Mayhem is created by a refusal to budge from their singular approaches. In and of themselves, they made sense, but jostling alongside each other creates a poisonous dynamic. This is archetypal of the challenge in managing a University, hospital or any business where highly proficient people refuse to adjust their outlook or behaviour to compensate for the greater good. Hence the daft output of very clever people. So the problem with any paradigm (which is also its strength) is its completeness. This means that generally anything it encounters which doesn’t fit in is changed to fit in, rather than the other way around.
So a religious a paradigm encounters a new phenomenon and calls it an abomination, yet similarly a rational-scientific paradigm encounters a sense of spirit or soul and calls it ‘the ghost in the machine’, or just wishful thinking. Neither have any space for ‘not knowing’. And our inability to embrace the ‘not knowing’ can be the biggest danger to organisations, nature, the planet, of all things. Many a scientist or archbishop will tell you that they are ‘open’ to new ideas, but like the fish and the water it swims in, they do not realise the invisible barrier to their own ‘openness’. Their way of seeing skews everything.
Coming to Singapore recently, the plane dipped over the southern tip of Malaysia. The landscape was tropical, yet it was covered by a uniformity, a similar kind of uniformity as you see in Andalucía, or the Midwest of the United States. It is the uniformity of a monoculture; in this case, a vast stretch of palm oil plantations. In Southern Spain it is all olive trees. (You couldn’t call them ‘groves’. This makes it sound far too idyllic.) In the mid-west of America it is wide miles of wheat. Once when flying over them, I calculated their size by the time it took our shadow to pass over, at the speed our pilot said we were going. These countless fields were all about a mile and a half across.
Monocultures are pernicious because they go against nature’s grain. In The Origin of the Species, Darwin used an ugly metaphor to describe evolution: he said its progress was like a ‘yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes with one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.’
In other words, nature’s basic trope is, as a garrulous, slightly out of control drunk might slur… ‘and another thing…!’ Endlessly; always ‘…and another thing!’ Never stay the same, always change. In the light of that, we can see why monoculture might be misguided. It says ‘the same thing…’ over and over again. In thinking terms, it’s the same; diversity makes for a healthier eco-system.
Yet as we grow old, settle into a mental rut. We stop being like nature. It becomes ‘and the same thing!’ Not just in what we do, but in how we are, and in what we think, and how we think. We literally stop growing, in every whichway. This means that the world is constantly assaulting us with its newness, (‘and another thing!’), and we develop a shell around our worldview, whereby it simply won’t be threatened. So our view of the world becomes ossified, in order to protect our vulnerability inside that shell. And that means that no matter how clever we are, we develop a paradigm, an ideology, that is fully formed, and seemingly unassailable.
Everyone has a paradigm, an ideology – a set of beliefs that makes up a system that explains everything. We can have the well-known religious ideologies, or politico-philosophical ones, or perhaps we develop an ideology of football, fashion, or how to run our business or family. Like all ideologies, these also throw out a monocultural lens onto every scene we see, shading its differences with a smear of our particular colour. The trouble is, because it colours our whole world, we can’t see it ourselves.
So Adam and I were grappling with why seemingly clever people can behave in such daft ways, and I put it down to their need to fit everything into their worldview, and for that worldview to be fully formed, and thus resistant to adaptation, in the same way that Darwin’s ‘yielding surface’ isn’t.
And about God? Well I read Christopher Hitchens book recently (God isn’t Great – Why Religion Poisons Everything) and by and large I agree with what he says, but the piece that is missing for me in his analysis is his lack of doubt. Not in terms of what he talks about (which is just the tip of the iceberg) but because of how he talks about it. His strident voice suggests, once again, a fully formed paradigm; a rationality that is complete of itself. His lens has a particular monochrome. That doesn’t do him or the world any good. By and large, whilst most of the biblical stuff does leave me cold, I know that there is a kind of mystery that isn’t explained by my limited rational-scientific paradigm.
I know enough about God to know that I don’t know very much at all. My paradigm has a crack in it, thank God, and that, as Leonard Cohen once famously said, is where the light gets in.