239 Days in America, Day 17: April 27, 1912 | Washington, DC

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue 1

President Taft had invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to visit him at the White House at 12:30 [on Sunday, April 28th]. On Friday morning ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had spoken at the President’s church, All Souls Unitarian on Harvard Street. Then, on Saturday, members of the Taft family had attended an evening reception that Mrs. Parsons had held for 300 dignitaries in the capital.

William Sulzer, the Democratic Congressman from New York, had also come to the Parsons’ for a private interview with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He was Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and said later that he felt he had just talked with the prophet Elijah, and Moses. Shortly afterward, another invitation arrived: this one came from Champ Clark (D-Missouri), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to address Congress the following week on his vision of world peace.

Washington D. C. 2

At the Parsons’ reception in the afternoon He [‘Abdul-Bahá] said to a Justice of the Supreme Court, “‘It is possible to establish such unity among the powers of the whole world as is found in the United States of America.’”

To some of the doctors He said, “‘I hope that you will raise the standard of the universal peace.’”

To a mathematician He said, “‘I hope that you will try to teach the truth and principles of divine relations to different nations as you are teaching mathematics to different persons in your school.’”

To Admiral Peary He said, “‘I hope that you will explore the invisibilities of the Kingdom.’”

To the Archbishop He said, “‘I hope you will throw away the injurious formalism, enforce the truth of the teaching of Christ, and remove all those dogmas that are against science and reality.’”

To a member of Congress He said, “‘As you are endeavoring for the good of America, so you must put forth your energy for the good of the whole world and all the nations.’”

“Remembering those who looked into His eyes” 3

Talk to Theosophical Society, Home of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur J. Parsons , 1700 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, D.C., 25 April 1912

Man has two powers; and his development, two aspects. One power is connected with the material world, and by it he is capable of material advancement. The other power is spiritual, and through its development his inner, potential nature is awakened. These powers are like two wings. Both must be developed, for flight is impossible with one wing. Praise be to God! Material advancement has been evident in the world, but there is need of spiritual advancement in like proportion. We must strive unceasingly and without rest to accomplish the development of the spiritual nature in man, and endeavor with tireless energy to advance humanity toward the nobility of its true and intended station. For the body of man is accidental; it is of no importance. The time of its disintegration will inevitably come. But the spirit of man is essential and, therefore, eternal. It is a divine bounty. It is the effulgence of the Sun of Reality and, therefore, of greater importance than the physical body. 4

Saturday, April 27, 1912

Mrs Parsons offered the Master a sum of money but He said that she should distribute it among the poor. No matter how much she supplicated, He would not accept it, saying, ‘If we had not had the money necessary for the expenses of the voyage, we would have accepted your offer.’

The Treasurer of the United States had lunch with the Master. This gentleman was very happy and smiling as he bade farewell to the Master. Later, the Master went to the home of an official to say goodbye. The man embraced Him, weeping with joy. When I saw the smile of the Treasurer and the tears of the official, I recited this poem: ‘The smiles and tears of the lovers are from another world.’

The Bahá’í meetings and the outstanding qualities of the Master have received such acclaim that today, out of jealousy, some narrow-minded Christian clergymen spoke out against the Cause.

Since this was the last night of the Master’s stay in the this city, Mrs Parsons held an elegant reception for dignitaries and city officials in honor of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and on behalf of the Orient-Occident Unity Society. Three hundred people in formal attire assembled in the spacious rooms, which were beautifully decorated with flowers and ornaments. When the Master came downstairs, each guest, man and woman alike, approached Him with the utmost reverence to shake His hand. They introduced one another and paid Him their respects. The guests then went into the dining room to partake of the repast prepared for them, including beverages, cakes, ice cream and coffee.

After they had eaten the guests were ushered into the music hall while the Master sat in another room to receive those who wished to see Him. He answered all their questions. To a Washington judge He said: ‘It is possible to establish among the powers of the whole world the unity which is found among the states of the United States of America.’ To some doctors He stated, ‘I hope that you will raise the standard of universal peace.’ To a mathematician He said, ‘I hope that you will try to teach the truth and principles of divine religions to different nations just as you are teaching mathematics to different persons in your school.’ To Admiral Peary, the explorer of the North Pole, He said, ‘I hope you will discover the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.’ The Master spoke to a bishop, saying, ‘My hope is that you will abandon harmful imitations, spread the truth of the teachings of Christ and remove all those dogmas that are against science and reality.’ To the chargé d’affaires of Switzerland, the Master described His sojourn in that country. To some relatives of the President of the United States [William Howard Taft] He spoke about divine civilization. To a member of Congress, He said, ‘Just as you are exerting yourself for the good of America, so must you expend your energy for the benefit of all the nations of the world.’ He also spoke to the head of the United States Patent Office and the General Consul, the President of the Peace Congress and other well-known personages.

When this magnificent meeting ended, the guests came to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá one by one to shake His hand and to say goodbye. The night was one of the most blessed nights and that meeting one of the most great and important meetings. 5

  1. Menon, Jonathan. “At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” 239 Days in America, April 27, 2012. https://239days.com/2012/04/27/at-1600-pennsylvania-avenue/.
  2. Ward, Allan L. 239 Days: ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s Journey in America. Wilmette, Ill: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979, 45-46.
  3. Van Ness, Zabine. “Remembering Those Who Looked into His Eyes: Abdul Baha’s Visits with Some Influential Dignitaries, April 11th to December 5th, 1912.” PDF, Seattle, WA, 2012, 31.https://hearttoheart.co/PDFs/Abdul-Bahaandhisvariousvisitations.pdf.
  4. ʻAbduʼl-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ʻAbduʼl-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Edited by Howard MacNutt. 2nd ed. Wilmette, Ill: Baháʼí Publishing Trust, 1982, 60. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/3#470126563.
  5. Mahmud-i-Zarqani, Mirza. Mahmúd’s Diary: The Diary of Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání Chronicling ’Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey to America. Edited by Shirley Macias. Translated by Mohi Sobhani. Oxford: George Ronald, 1998. https://bahai-library.com/zarqani_mahmuds_diary&chapter=2#section34

Syllogisms about Power, Corruption, and Change

A syllogism about power:

  1. Human social systems / institutions are hierarchical and concentrate power at the top of their structures
  2. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Lord Acton
  3. Human social systems / institutions will inevitably become corrupt

Why?

The answer is rooted in the interplay between our basic instincts for survival coupled with our evolved reasoning capabilities as Homo sapiens. Our advanced thinking capacity provides us with the ability to make choices whether to spend, save, keep, or give of our time, talent, skill, experience, insight, and energy. Like most animals, we care for ourselves by spending for what we need in the moment yet saving some for later in the event we need it. However, only humans have the option to accumulate and keep more than is ever needed or give the excess to others who are less fortunate so that their needs are covered as well. While the “spend and save” dichotomy is fundamental within many animal species, the “keep and give” dichotomy resides solely in the realm of higher reasoning exhibited by Homo sapiens.

Having the chance to acquire more than what is needed is a compelling motivation to discover and exploit opportunities. But what if discovery, exploitation, and gain from opportunities deprive others of similar opportunities? Or what if the consequences are even direr in that not only do others have no opportunities to do similarly, but their basic survival is at risk?

The “keep and give” dichotomy becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, human intelligence provides the means by which we can make or take more than we need. On the other hand, this same intelligence gives us the insight to heed a noble principle or ideal and choose to give what we have made or taken, yet do not need, to others whose survival is at stake. This is a difficult choice. For many who are caught up in the fast track of making and taking, to give does not feature very prominently and greed sets in. For others, it is not the rush to accumulate more that drives them, but quite the opposite – the fear of loss and being put into a situation where there is not enough to survive. Regardless, too many burn up their worth as creative and innovative human beings along the fear-greed continuum.

Figure 1 above illustrates a simple hierarchical social system formed by the three basic cornerstones: fear – greed – principle / ideal. Over time, however, the triangle shrinks in height until the principles and ideals that were so sterling and compelling at the outset become lost in a sea of the platitudinous and pedestrian and their relevance and influence are lost. Hierarchy, mired in the mud of fear and greed, has little nobility; it is corrupted.

Any hierarchical social system begins with a balance of principles and ideals worthy of aspiration and hope linked to the daily realities associated with fear and greed. A social system framed by such noble thoughts seeks to give all a better life. The preamble to the Constitution of the United States offers an example of these worthy ideals framing the social system of a nation:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What really happens, though?

A syllogism about corruption:

  1. Corrupt human social systems benefit their ruling minorities at the expense of their ruled majorities
  2. Ruling minorities make rules that preserve their social systems and concentrate power further
  3. Corrupt human social systems insulate their ruling minorities from their ruled majorities

Beginning in 2003, there occurred numerous instances of abuse and torture of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq (aka. Baghdad Correctional Facility), by personnel of the 372nd Military Police Company, CIA officers and contractors involved in the occupation of Iraq.

An internal criminal investigation by the United States Army commenced in January, 2004, and subsequently reports of the abuse, as well as graphic pictures showing American military personnel in the act of abusing prisoners, came to public attention the following April, when a 60 Minutes news report (April 28) and an article by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker magazine (posted online on April 30 and published days later in the May 10 issue) reported the story.

The resulting political scandal was said to have damaged the credibility and public image of the United States and its allies in the prosecution of ongoing military operations in the Iraq War, and was seized upon by critics of U.S. foreign policy, who argued it was representative of a broader American attitude and policy of disrespect and violence toward Arabs. The U.S. Administration and its defenders argued that the abuses were the result of independent actions by low-ranking personnel, while critics claimed that authorities either ordered or implicitly condoned the abuses and demanded the resignation of senior Bush administration officials.

”In Address, Bush Says He Ordered Domestic Spying” by David E. Sanger, NY Times, 18 December 2005:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 – President Bush acknowledged on Saturday that he had ordered the National Security Agency to conduct an electronic eavesdropping program in the United States without first obtaining warrants, and said he would continue the highly classified program because it was “a vital tool in our war against the terrorists.”

In an unusual step, Mr. Bush delivered a live weekly radio address from the White House in which he defended his action as “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.”

He also lashed out at senators, both Democrats and Republicans, who voted on Friday to block the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the president’s power to conduct surveillance, with warrants, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The revelation that Mr. Bush had secretly instructed the security agency to intercept the communications of Americans and terrorist suspects inside the United States, without first obtaining warrants from a secret court that oversees intelligence matters, was cited by several senators as a reason for their vote.

”Katrina’s Racial Wake” by Salim Muwakkil, In These Times, 7 September 2005:

Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath have stripped away the Mardi Gras veneer and casino gloss of the Gulf Coast region, and disclosed the stark disparities of class and race that persist in 21st century America.

The growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country is old but underreported news – perhaps in part because so many of the poor also are black. Accordingly, many Americans were surprised that most of the victims of the New Orleans flood were black: Their image of the Crescent City had been one of jazz, tasty cuisine and the good-natured excesses of its lively festivals.

Where did all those black people come from, they wondered; and where were the white victims?

African Americans make up about 67 percent of the population of New Orleans, but clearly they were disproportionately victimized by the hurricane and its aftermath. And while blacks make up just about 20 percent of those living along the Gulf coast of Mississippi, their images dominated media representations of the victims there as well. In addition to race, the common denominator between blacks in both states is poverty. The “Big Easy,” has a poverty rate of 30 percent, one of the highest of any large city. The state of Mississippi has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any state and the second-lowest median income. The state’s Gulf Coast experienced an economic boom when casinos were legalized in the early ’90s, but that new affluence did little to ameliorate the race/class divide that has deep roots in the region.

Among other things, the monster storm blew away the pretense that race has ceased to matter in the United States. Media coverage of this major disaster has made it clear that poverty and race are highly correlated.

Katrina also unearthed other uneasy truths; including the glaring ineptitude of the federal government, the domestic consequences of the illegal Iraqi invasion and the media’s proclivity to employ racial stereotypes.

Critics complain that the overwhelming blackness of the victims may have been a factor in the government’s apparent slowness to respond. In a reflection of popular black opinion, hip-hop artist Kanye West went off-script during an NBC benefit concert for Katrina victims and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

How did we get to this?

Hierarchical social systems are in a continual state of flux. Figure 2 above introduces some of these dynamics. These systems begin with lofty ideals and noble principles. This is the realm of the abstract, intangible, and philosophical where people in relationship to people posit their aspirations, dreams, thoughts, and feelings from which they describe and envision a better reality.

Such ideals do not remain in a pristine and unchallenged state. Like the people who populate them, social systems have basic needs / resource requirements that must be met in order for them to function. These resources have to be extracted / exploited and converted / deployed so the system can utilize / consume them. In other words, people in relationships to “things” make the system function and, hopefully, engage in behaviors that put the vision into practice.

People have different motivators that prompt their participation in a social system. Some are engaged by an envisioned end state constructed through relationships to people. Others are compelled by their relationships to things – the anticipation of rewards for contribution or a sense of obligation. Moving from vision to action puts the social system on a slippery slope toward compromising its values. Corruption sets in as anticipation of rewards gives way to greed, a sense of obligation succumbs to abject fear, and guiding principles fade from view.

However, the intention people have for a social system is to remain within the middle – a “dynamic balance zone” – where forces from the less evolved side of human nature that drag the system into the clutches of a fear-greed continuum are matched by forces resulting from new personalities and structures in the system that renew the vision and exalt the ideals once again. This dynamic balance zone is where relationships to people and things are positioned within a broader, more “ecological” context. Such positioning enables members of the system to take responsibility for the effect their actions have on others in the system and be held accountable for the consequences of their behaviors overall.

And that means what?

A syllogism about change:

  1. Corrupt human social systems are vulnerable to change
  2. Subversive groups form within ruled majorities, gain power, and force agendas of change on the ruling minorities
  3. Corrupt human social systems are supplanted

A human social system is corrupted through the increased infatuation of its members in their relationships to things rather than their relationships to themselves and others. This love of the material immerses people in the fear-greed continua and distances people from one another. This distancing is a critical determinant of how the social system will function because it establishes a condition where the consequence of one’s behavior on others is not directly experienced. In other words, there is an isolation / insulation of people in the ruling minority from the ruled majority. This breakdown in causality might be useful in the military where commanders issue orders that put soldiers in harm’s way in an effort to attack or defend. In a social system where the general health and well-being of members is contingent on socially responsible and ecologically balanced actions such a breakdown can lead to disastrous outcomes if the ruled majority pursues countermeasures; e.g., Barbara Bush:

And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.

The degree of corruption is offset by degree of affiliation. Just as getting mired in fear and greed isolates people from one another, the formulation, articulation, and pursuit of a noble principle / ideal brings people together. No meaningful collective action can occur without people first agreeing on what they want to have happen as a result – envisioning a future worth achieving.

Figure 3 above illustrates these two counter-balancing dynamics: on the one hand, more fear and greed, more corruption; more principles and ideals, less corruption; and, on the other hand, more principles and ideals, more affiliation; more fear and greed, less affiliation. Of course, in a complex system these dynamics are playing out continuously and in a highly unpredictable manner. The only assurance we have is that there are as many or more ways to affiliate with others for mutual benefit across the community as there are opportunities to engage in the pursuit of sheer material gain. It is a question of balance for each of us and to realize that the operation of the whole requires both. How DO we stay centered? Well now, that is THE question!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Friday, December 23, 2005

The Problem of Power

Since humanity began its odyssey out of Central Africa millennia ago, hierarchy is the only consistently adopted structure for distributing power within a social system. This structure holds intact the social system in which it exists. To do so, it exercises three roles:

  1. Define “boundaries” – territorial, birthright, and behavioral – that determine who’s in and who’s out
  2. Provide security that protects the boundaries, preserves the lineage, and maintains the behavioral guidelines
  3. Respond to changing circumstances so that the primary social system persists

Hierarchy is easy to install since it begins when one person assumes a dominate position relative to another. It is efficient. The dominant one sets the boundary conditions and subordinates operate within them. When coupled with fear of consequence if one does not stay within the boundaries and the promise of reward if one meets or exceeds expectations the vast majority of members comply with the dictates of the hierarchical social system.

Members of hierarchical social systems participate in governance, free enterprise, and non-governmental affiliations. The rulers set the parameters in which members operate so that government has the resources to assure security, enact rules of conduct, ownership, and commerce, and provide a system of jurisprudence in the event that members do not follow the rules or violate the rights of members. Property owners, business owners, and those who contribute their skills, time, and energy are compensated, pay some percentage of their profit and income to government so that it can function, and voluntarily give to community-based organizations that benefit the commonweal and care for those who cannot contribute. It is a system of cooperation, choice, and commitment that is simple and elegant.

Hierarchy is a structural “tool” for managing social systems. It is the integral framework upon which all institutions – governmental, business, or non-governmental / not-for-profit – are built. As such, it becomes a common denominator that cuts across society in all its endeavors. Like any tool, it is neither good nor evil. How people use hierarchical structure within their institutions and throughout their social system is what imbues it with certain characteristics of morality, ethics, and fairness and places it on a continuum of social justice ranging from barely evident on one end to being a matter of course on the other.

The driving force that shifts a social system along the scale of social justice is the use, or abuse, of power. Hierarchical social systems concentrate power in the hands of a minority number among the overall population. As Lord Acton stated, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In other words, when holding a dominant position, some are seduced by the power they have over others. This prompts them to do the following:

  1. Stay in their positions of power
  2. Keep the hierarchical social system intact so that the positions of power they hold are preserved
  3. Curtail affiliation among those who are disenfranchised by the system so that the threat of insurrection is quelled.

Basically, people who are so affected are drawn by the possibility of extracting even more profit or garnering more control. They limit choices for subordinates and force compliance to rules and conditions that are not beneficial to members. In addition, they attempt to keep the system as it is so that their gain is consolidated and ideally, continues to grow.

As an example, approximately 50% of the world’s population earns less than $2 / day per capita through subsistence agriculture. The hope of a higher quality of life is dashed each day eking out an existence under the harshest of circumstances. Leadership in these countries is averse to mechanize and modernize agriculture because those displaced would venture to cities in an effort to find work. This would overburden the already congested and over-stressed infrastructures in these urban areas elevating discontent and unrest. Better to keep people where they are so they are contained having to care for themselves. Meanwhile, the economies grow and the top echelons gain wealth.

Another example: according to an article in The Open AIDS Journal entitled, “HIV Infection and AIDS in Sub-Saharan AfricaUNAIDS report,” Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 70% of all people afflicted with HIV in the world. This area holds some of the world’s richest natural resources, yet the population is in grave peril, health-wise, including leaders. In fact, that is the point. The world has known about AIDS / HIV in Africa for nearly 30 years and has only in the last five mobilized efforts to do something. All indications suggest it is too little, too late. Millions have died from AIDS already and millions more will do so over the next two generations as the endemic unfolds. Sub-Saharan governments are rendered ineffective due to a lack of competent, experienced leadership, citizens are not able to care or fend for themselves, economies slow their growth, and property ownership and control shifts to foreigners. Colonies once lost due to revolution are reclaimed – without firing a shot.

As yet another example, consider genocide. In his 1994 book, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900, author R.J. Rummel defined and documented “democide,” e.g., atrocities committed by governments on their citizens. Of the nearly 170 million who died at the hand of their governments during the 20th Century, 130 million, over 75%, were victims of four regimes: Soviet, Communist Chinese, German, and Nationalist Chinese. This does not include Rwanda in 1994. And genocide continues as the people from Darfur have borne witness every day this year. A weakened population becomes weaker. Those who hold the most power in the world act as though they are powerless as these horrific injustices go unchecked. The reality is there is nothing to be gained by intervening and much that could be lost if circumstances go awry. The people of Darfur, like the millions before them, are collateral damage in an economic power struggle of global proportions.

In his unsettling essay, “Waiting for the Lights to Go Out ,” published in the October 16, 2005 edition of The London Times, Bryan Appleyard posits a rather grim future wherein civilization is doomed to return once again to the Dark Ages. The central theme of his essay is the meltdown of society as we know it due to our insatiable addiction to oil, the inevitable depletion of oil reserves, and our woefully inadequate and untimely response to that eventuality. At the heart of his thesis is that human nature has not progressed very far since we began our migrations throughout the world from our African origins. Appleyard states, “Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong.” Not particularly encouraging!

Rulers enact laws that are increasingly restrictive, militaristic, and draconian or become arbitrary in their decisions. Owners pull more profit, become more risk averse, and offer fewer benefits. Having less voice and impact, non-governmental organizations become more fanatical and close-minded; their ratios of administrative overhead to pay-out increase, and beneficiaries receive less real assistance.

In summary, the thirst for power and the specter of losing it becomes a corruptive force that undermines the fundamental tenets of a system that is given to efficiency and effectiveness if used honorably. People suffer for lack of true justice. Is there any way institutions, no matter how well-intended, can escape the slippery slope into corruption and injustice? Or is this simply the dark underbelly of hierarchy which must be accepted until people have more distance in time from their early violent struggle for survival as Homo sapiens? What is your opinion?

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 12, 2005

Pareto and the Pyramid of Power

The year 2006 marks 100 years since Vilfredo Pareto noted that 20% of the population owned 80% of the property in Italy. This conclusion combined with the analysis methods that support it led to the formulation of the “Pareto Principle.”

The tools and techniques associated with this principle have widespread application in circumstances where a small subset of one category causes a significant effect within a large subset of another category. During his work with industry, Dr. Joseph Juran coined the phrase, “the vital few and trivial many,” to describe the effect of the Pareto Principle in the business setting. For example, a company has a staff of ten sales representatives. Of the ten, the three highest performers generate 60% of the sales made during a reporting period, the five middling performers bring in 35%, and the two lowest performers contribute only 5%. Armed with this information, responses can be developed that are tailored differently for each of the three groups in an effort to increase overall sales performance for the least investment or cost. Another example is in a set of 100 manufacturing operations where the overall defect rate is .1%. There are 10 operations that cause 90% of the defects. Addressing those 10 are going to have a much more positive effect on the performance of the whole than focusing attention on combinations of the remaining 90 operations. Like most rules of thumb, the Pareto Principle can be misused; but in general it helps prioritize activities, separate the important from the pesky, and focus limited energy on the items that are going to make the most difference.

The Pareto Principle had it birth in economics, a social science. Given this background, there is another application for the Pareto Principle that covers additional ground. When this basic postulation – a small percentage of the population owns a large percentage of the property – is bracketed by two corollaries – a small percentage of the population enacts and enforces a large percentage of the rules that govern the behavior of the overall system and a small percentage of the population receives a large percentage of the compensation awarded by the total system – the resulting triad describes a fundamental truth about social systems: a small percentage of the population controls a larger percentage of the power within the whole system.

The exercise of power in a social system establishes an individual or group in a dominate role and subordinates the larger population of individuals or groups within that system. The population size can range from two – one person in relationship with another as in a marriage – to one over millions as in a country ruled by dictatorship. Regardless of population size, structure is required to maintain a requisite level of control over myriad dominate-subordinate relationships in the system so that the system persists. This structure is hierarchy.

Hierarchical social systems impact the people within them in three key ways:

  1. Each person belonging to a hierarchical social system has hierarchical relationships with all others in that system
  2. Each person has concurrent membership in multiple hierarchical social systems and can hold positions at different levels from one hierarchical social system to the other
  3. All hierarchical social systems concentrate power in the hands of a select few.

The universal symbol for a hierarchical structure is the triangle. Authority is held at the top, then distributed in varying degrees, level by level from the top to the bottom. However, a more appropriate geometric symbol for a social system is a three-sided pyramid (reference image below). One side of the pyramid is the hierarchical structure of governance. People participate in governance by making / changing the rules, enforcing the rules, and obeying the rules. Of course, there are always those who choose not to obey the rules. They are subject to some consequence levied by those who enforce the rules in the interest of what is called justice. The net result is that only a few operate at the top of the governance triangle to set and manage the rules while the clear majority obeys.

Another side of the pyramid is free enterprise. People participate by doing work that adds value for which they are compensated. They exchange that compensation for other goods and services they need and want. Wrapped up in free enterprise are concepts of property and ownership, money and capital, business and entrepreneurship, markets and customers. Wealth, in the form of assets, rests in the hands of a few.

The third side of the pyramid is affiliation. People participate by joining different groups and organizations which represent shared beliefs and ideals, customs and traditions, principles and values. These groups carry out activities that promote “causes” shaped by their worldviews. They provide forums for members to have voice and presence concerning their perspectives and interests. Those having the greatest access and influence are those who have the highest positions in the hierarchies of these organizations and represent the strength in numbers or vantage point of their memberships.

These three arenas: governance, free enterprise, and affiliation define the landscape in which organized human endeavor is conceived and carried out. The pyramid they form is a pyramid of power that develops and deploys human intelligence, energy, and skill to build, adapt, and sustain civilizations. While the three are vitally important as standalone systems, the interrelationships among them determine the effectiveness and efficiency of the whole. People vote for their leaders in governance. People make and buy based on supply and demand. People form non-governmental organizations to give body and shape to their views and interests. People derive power from the pyramid in unequal portions from the three triangles but regardless of the combination, the power they get is sufficient to stay in the system and work together so that the system persists.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, December 10, 2005

Forums and Agendas

Conversation, —simply defined as a combination of verbal and non-verbal “statements” between two individuals,” —is the fundamental building block of human communication. Conversations can be real-time or asynchronous. Participants can be present, virtually or physically.

Regardless of how a conversation is enacted, at a minimum it strives to produce understanding. In many cases being understood is insufficient, especially when changes to one’s current condition are expected. A press ensues for agreement about what is, what that means, and what are possibilities for the future. With agreement in hand about a preferable condition it is possible to pursue commitment —the impetus for deliberate and purposeful action which drives experimentation, learning, and, ultimately, influence.

Any conversation, formal or informal,, consists of a forum and agenda. A forum is the context in which a conversation occurs. This includes who is in the conversation (invited and attending), where the conversation is held, what technologies are used to support the conversation, what date and time the conversation takes place, even in what language the conversation is conducted. The agenda is the subject of the conversation. Depending on psychological, social, and political factors, the agenda can be explicit and openly stated or implicit and hidden. In addition, there can be more than one agenda in a conversation each shaped by a different motivation and entertaining a unique position along the explicit-to-implicit continuum.

This blending of forum and agenda makes conversation an extension of complex human social behavior. Knowing the agenda(s) requires relating it to the forum in order to get a fuller sense of what is behind the conversation and a better interpretation of what are the expected outcomes of the conversation. Obviously, the more one knows others in the conversation and their contextual circumstances the higher the likelihood of accurately “reading”” the agenda layers and offering culturally appropriate responses.

Conversations are convened. Someone sets the forum and determines an agenda and others participate. Convening is an exercise of social power. Everyone is experienced at convening if nothing more than saying “Good morning!”” to another and soliciting a response. This requires minimal social power to extend the invitation for the other to join. However, depending on who are the desired participants in a particular conversation, differing levels of power are often required to garner the commitments of each to join.

Social power is directly related to the capacity one has to affect consequences for others. The more a person can influence the context in which the interests of others are advanced or met and costs are minimized, the more convening power that person has. Social power not only grants an individual the license to convene, it also permits a person to NOT invite. A conversation says much about the convening authority carried by the person who initiated it based on who is there AND who isn’t!

Knowledge brokers are conveners. They are granted the authority to initiate conversations based on the trust placed in them by participants that their “ground truths”” will be respected and their stories heard and understood. Knowledge brokers gain this trust because of the consistency and thoroughness with which they conduct personal investigations of truth then relate those discoveries in conversations where to speak one’s truth carries a potentially negative consequence. This capacity to know one’s truth, grant others the conversational space and opportunity to hold and state theirs, and pursue the lines of experimentation, learning, and influence that follow understanding, agreement, and commitment is a hallmark of a knowledge broker.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, September 10, 2005 and updated on Saturday, September 24, 2005