Gate-Keepers of Knowledge Redundant?

Personification of knowledge (Greek Επιστημη, ...

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Knowledge is made from information. In the past, information was held in scrolls and tablets and books and individual human brains scattered throughout society. Scholars, teachers, doctors, scientists, priests, philosophers and their ilk, were the only ones with access to this information.

Things are different now. Or at least potentially different.

Now information is freely available and if we suffer from anything it is information over-load rather than information scarcity. The gate-keepers still exist but only because we still believe we need them. Today, even if you live in a remote corner of the planet you can probably get access to the internet and therefore find information on pretty much any subject. Some of it will be wrong – but so what – it was ever thus.

So now that the gate-keepers are redundant – we don’t need them any more –  and we can pretty much find out anything we need to know to make our own informed decisions, we find ourselves in a place that humanity has never been before.  The challenge here is to begin to find our way in this uncharted territory. Because it isn’t about information any more, anybody, anywhere can get that – now it’s about knowledge.

Now the challenge is learning to think so that all that information we can so easily access can be translated into knowledge. This democratization of information also means that everyone is both entitled and required to contribute to the generation and application of knowledge. There are no longer any obstacles to this – the only gate-keeper that remains as an obstacle for us to overcome, is our own belief that this is someone else’s job.

(1) John D. Rockefeller

The Power of Concepts.

1888 photo of Helen Keller holding a doll. Wit...

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Unmapped Regions

Humanity has a long history of aggression, oppression and competing so we know how to do all of those thing. However, now that more and more research is showing that cooperation and reciprocity are not only nicer ways to live but actually more productive and successful, we might like to try changing our ways. But it’s difficult when you don’t know the lie of the land. If it was physical land that we’d never travelled in before, we’d use a map. In just the same way, we can use conceptual maps and frameworks to help us find our way as we learn to live harmoniously together.

The Power of Concepts

Helen Keller was born in Alabama, in 1880.  Born sighted and with hearing, just before she turned two, Helen contracted a serious illness which left her blind and deaf.

Helen’s parents were wealthy and devoted to their daughter.  Helen, a bright little girl, worked out signals so her family could understand her but even so, as she grew she became increasingly frustrated. By the time she was six, Helen was wild and animalistic, throwing tantrums and struggling in a world she couldn’t understand.

In 1886, Helen’s parents employed Anne Sullivan as a teacher for Helen. Anne’s parents had travelled to America from Limerick, Ireland to escape the Famine. By the time Anne was ten, she was almost completely blind, her mother had died, her father had abandoned her and she was living in the State Alms House in Tewkesbury, Massachusetts.

But Anne was famously determined. At fourteen, she personally asked one of the patrons of the Alms House for help.  He responded by sending her to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. The School sent Anne for corrective surgery and her eyesight, though not completely restored, was greatly improved. At Perkins she learned to read and write and also learned a manual alphabet that she used to communicate with a friend who was deaf as well as blind.

In 1886, at the age of 20, Anne graduated from Perkins as valedictorian of her class and was employed by the desperate Kellers to come and teach Helen. Due to her earlier blindness, Anne understood some of what Helen was feeling but even so, by the time Anne arrived, the little girl was so entrenched in her own world it was hard to reach her. As Helen herself later wrote of this time,

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul…(1)

As Helen was such a bright child she had no difficulty learning the signs for words once Anne Sullivan began to teach her but even though she could make the signs she still had no concept of these things.

I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. (2)

Helen initially hated Anne and threw tantrum after tantrum as her new governess tried to teach her to understand and communicate. It looked hopeless and then, one day…

Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! …I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house each object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.(3)

Once Helen grasped her first concept her tantrums stopped. She now had a way to understand the world. From then on, even though she couldn’t see or hear she could ‘picture’ reality by using concepts – like internal maps – to guide her.

Helen moved from understanding material concepts like water, table, mother etc to understanding more abstract concepts – like thinking and love – also courtesy of her painstaking teacher. As David Bohm says of this incident in Helen Keller’s life.

This (the concept of water) initiated a fantastic revolution in the whole of her mind, the depth and scope of which we find hard to appreciate without having experienced directly what it means to live without conceptual abstractions. As a result where there had been a child without the ability to communicate or even to think, there was now a more or less normal human being.(4)

Helen Keller went on to become the first deaf-blind person in the US to obtain a Batchelor of Arts degree. She lived a long and successful life which included campaigning for peace and female suffrage as well as helping others with disabilities.

Born Lucky

Those of us lucky enough not to be deaf-blind can easily take for granted the formation of concepts. From the moment of birth our senses provide us with information that helps us to automatically develop concepts for everything we see and experience. Then, as we grow and develop, we become able to add other information in order to help us to better understand the world.

For example, as children we develop our concept of family based on our experiences – for good or ill – within our own families. When we grow up we move out into the world and begin to add to this basic concept. Eventually, most of us have a ‘concept’ of family that includes our experience of our own family, our observations of other families and even a notion of how our ideal family should operate.

Making Our Own Maps

Taking time to look at the world and reflect on things we see and experience is a valuable and rewarding process.  This process engages us consciously and can help enhance our understanding of living in every way.

Helen Keller knew something we often don’t realise – that one might have to struggle to gain a concept but that it is a worthwhile struggle as it isn’t truly possible to make much progress or even gain much happiness without them.

How Can We Live Together? – Part V – Gate-Keeping Knowledge.
(1) Helen Keller,The Story of My Life, Cosimo Inc, 2010, p.11


(3) ibid

(4) David Bohm, On Creativity, Routledge Classics, 2004, p.6

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How Can We Live Together? Part III

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting...

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Believing is Seeing.

Until about 500 years ago we all believed planet Earth was at the centre of the Universe. Geocentrism  – i.e. the belief that the sun, moon, stars and planets all circle the earth – was taken to be a scientific fact. When astronomical observations of the planets didn’t quite fit with this ‘fact’, new scientific theories were developed to explain these anomalies.

This belief in geocentrism was, for the most part, without any hidden agenda. It was just, quite literally, unthinkable for most people that the universe could be otherwise. The geocentric model was seen as the ‘natural’ order of things and all science during that time used this ‘fact’ as its reference point.

Galileo, Galileo…

Down through the ages many scientists suspected this was wrong, but it wasn’t until after the time of Galileo, in the 1600s, that heliocentric cosmology – i.e. where all the planets (including Earth) circle the sun – began to take over. Galileo’s heliocentric proposals were, famously, met with bitter opposition from clerics and philosophers. However, gradually, as telescopes advanced, heliocentricity became an easily provable hypothesis. Over time then, it seeped into the general unconscious so much so that nowadays we can’t understand how anyone ever believed otherwise.

But why was there such vehement opposition to heliocentrism? Some of the opposition was definitely due to a literal interpretation of Christian and Islamic scripture, but perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps some of it can be explained by our tendency to see the world, not as it necessarily is but how we believe it to be.

Theory versus Reality

In his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the physicist David Bohm speaks about how we each see the world and how this has a significant influence on our actions. As he puts it,

our theoretical insights provide the main source of organization of our factual knowledge.(1)

Bohm also speaks about how we often mistake our own perceptions for proven objective reality and then, truly believing we are in possession of ‘the facts’, we act.

So what do we really think about the world and how do we even find out?

Although our modern way of thinking has, of course, changed a great deal relative to the ancient ones, the two have one key feature in common i.e. they are both generally “blinkered” by the notion that theories give true knowledge about reality as it is. Thus both are led to confuse the forms and shapes induced in our perceptions by theoretical insight with a reality independent of our thought and our way of looking. This confusion is of crucial significance, since it leads us to approach nature, society and the individual in terms of more or less fixed and limited forms of thought, and thus, apparently, to keep on confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience. (2)

Throughout history there are countless examples of how we have not only espoused a belief but then convinced ourselves that we have scientifically proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt and thereby made it a ‘fact’ of objective reality. Some of these ‘facts’ that we use to operate our world are simply a lack of information and as soon as more information becomes available we adjust them accordingly. However, as was proven by the slow up-take on heliocentricity in the face of overwhelming evidence, we are not always open to seeing things differently. And if this is the case with physical phenomena then how much more is it the case regarding our human interactions?

American Psycho?

American psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, in his book, The Protest Psychosis, examines the incidence and diagnosis of schizophrenia in the US. Up until the 1950s most US patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were women who were unwilling, or unable, to look after homes and families or were seen as an embarrassment to their husbands.

However, since the 1950s, schizophrenia is disproportionately diagnosed in young, African-American men. Of his work Metzl says,

I integrate institutional, professional, and cultural discourses in order to trace shifts in U.S. popular and medical understandings of schizophrenia from a disease of white docility to one of “Negro” hostility, and from a disease that was nurtured to one that was feared.(3)

Metzl also makes a case for a link between clinical changes in the understanding of schizophrenia during the 1960s and 70s and the rising civil rights movement in America. Where he says that, …in its worst moments, (the medical establishment) treated aspirations for liberation and civil rights as symptoms of mental illness. (4)

Learning to See.

It is easily provable that what we believe to be true is influenced by what we believe in the first place and it is equally easily provable that this human inclination has caused both individual and societal problems throughout history. However, there is nothing intrinsically bad in this – only in its application. We don’t need to eradicate human instincts but rather to train them so that they assist us to grow and develop. For example, we don’t tell our children to ignore their hunger and not eat but rather we teach them to eat properly so that they can be healthy and get the most from this instinct.

Becoming Conscious.

In the same way we can look at our tendency towards viewing the world through conscious and unconscious conceptual frameworks and rather than try to eradicate this practise we can develop it. By making these conceptual frameworks conscious we can better construct them as useful lenses for viewing the world, which will help us to be in charge of our instincts rather than vice versa. Once we are conscious of them, our conceptual frameworks can act as maps that really help us as we try to make progress both as individuals and societies. Because the lenses we use to look at the world will do more than just cut the glare, they will dictate our actions and, thereby, ultimately create the world in which we live.

*Photograph of David Bohm – Wikimedia Commons

Next:  How Can We Live Together? Part IV – Conceptual Maps.

(1) David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 5

(2) ibid, p. 6

(3) Jonathan M. Metzl, The Protest Psychosis, p.11

(4) ibid.

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How Can We Live Together? Part II

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game developed in the 1950s as an exercise in game theory and military strategy.  The scenario of the game is as follows:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. There is insufficient evidence for a conviction, so, the prisoners are separated and each is offered the same deal.

The Dilemma

  • If you testify against your buddy and he remains silent – he gets 10 years in jail – you walk free.
  • If you testify against your buddy and he testifies against you – you both get 5 years prison-time.
  • If you both remain silent  – you both spend 6 months in jail on minor charges.  

Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent.  Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act? 

In a game where there is a known number of rounds the only way to win the game is to defect. However, in the 1980’s, political scientist and complexity theorist, Robert Axlerod, decided to create an experiment based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. He modified it slightly insofar as it was to be repeated an unknown number of times and thus, it became what is known as the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Tit-for-Tat as Cooperation

Axelrod organized a computer tournament to which people were invited to submit programs encoding different strategies for playing the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. He published the results in his 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation.

This process simulates survival of the fittest…The analysis of the tournament results indicate that there is a lot to be learned about coping in an environment of mutual power. Even expert strategists from political science, sociology, economics, psychology, and mathematics made the systematic errors of being too competitive for their own good, not being forgiving enough, and being too pessimistic about the responsiveness of the other side…there is a single property which distinguishes the relatively high-scoring entries from the relatively low-scoring entries. This is the property of being nice, which is to say never being the first to defect.1

The winner of the tournament (and most tournaments for over 20 years) was one of the simplest programmes entered. It was a programme called Tit-for-Tat. Axlerod’s research found that cooperation was simply the best strategy – even for emotionless computer interactions – if you wanted to win the game.

Cooperation as a Winning Strategy

According to Axlerod’s research there are a number of features that make cooperation the winning strategy and these features hold true across the board whether computers or people are playing the game.

  • Increase ‘the shadow of the future’ – Axlerod found that when players expect to meet again they have a bigger investment in not alienating their opponents.
  • Have high levels of reciprocity. Small teams can prevail as long as they act in a reciprocal way.  This includes not cooperating when others are uncooperative but being ‘forgiving’ as soon as a willingness to cooperate returns. He found that reciprocity not aggression provided the best protection against exploitative strategies.
  • And finally, in general, Axlerod’s study suggested that there was no ‘best rule’ that existed independently of others – all strategies were most usefully worked out as a response to the others involved – just as is the case in all reciprocal environments.

Cooperation on the Battle Front

Axlerod didn’t confine his studies to computer or other simulated environments but shows how these ‘rules’ exist in the real world.  He contends, for example, that the famous incidents of cross-side cooperation during WWI show many of the same features.  Axelrod says that, the ‘live and let live’ arrangements that spontaneously developed in these instances, happened because the same small units faced each other in immobile stand-off trench warfare for extended periods of time. This meant that they had a much more sustained relationship than would be possible in a situation of mobile warfare. From this, a sort of status quo grew up which governed the behaviour of each side and included rituals and ethics.

Cooperation first emerged spontaneously in a variety of contexts, such as restraint in attacking the distribution of enemy rations, a pause during the first Christmas in the trenches, and a slow resumption of fighting after bad weather made sustained combat almost impossible. These restraints quickly evolved into clear patterns of mutually understood behavior, such as two-for-one or three-for-one retaliation for actions that were taken to be unacceptable.2

So if cooperation is the winning strategy even in computer logic – why don’t we cooperate more? It could be because we are not really sure how to proceed. We have plenty of experience of acting in competitive, adversarial and selfish ways but not as much experience of cooperation.

All of which means that we are more or less in uncharted territory if we wish to progress as a human race in a reciprocal and cooperative way. So if we treat this situation as we would treat the approach of any uncharted territory, we might usefully first look for maps that will help us to find our bearings as we ‘settle’ these virgin territories.

How Can We Live Together? – Part III – Believing is Seeing – How Our Beliefs Influence Our View of Reality.

(1) Game Theory and the Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axlerod, From Gaia to Selfish Genes, Ed.Connie Barlow, M.I.T. Press, 1998.

(2) Chapter 4 – pp 73-87, The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axlerod, Basic Books, 1985

How Can We Live Together? – Part I

Just as Newtonian physics has created a mechanistic mind-set which we have applied to human interaction, Darwinism has created a belief in a fundamental selfish savagery between humans. The concept of the survival of the fittest has been applied to human interaction just as much as to animal and plant life. And there is no doubt that it has a certain truth, however, it just isn’t the whole story.

Natural Born Co-Operators

Biologists are coming to believe that co-operation and mutual aid have contributed at least as much to the survival and evolution of life on earth as competition.(1) Many of these scientists claim that Darwin is being misunderstood when he is represented as claiming that the only adaptive string to our bow is competition. They say he just didn’t have time to do the research into the other types of adaptive behaviour. But other scientists have done this work and they have concluded that there is more to the story of the evolution of our species than just natural selection. (2)

In the natural world there are hundreds of examples of mutual aid – whether its nitrogen fixing fungi or plovers cleaning crocodile teeth, many life-forms, acknowledged as much less sophisticated than human beings, are truly able to have these mutually advantageous relationships. In all examples of mutualism some type of environment is created which is of benefit to all participants. And while it is more biological enlightened self-interest rather than altruism, it does demonstrate an important principle – co-operation offers the best chance for survival and development even at a fundamental level.

Mutual Aid and Reciprocity

As early as 1902, the zoologist (and anarchist)Peter Kropotkin wrote,

“In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.” (3)

Human beings are undeniably a sociable species and whether we like it or not this social connection doesn’t just end with our immediate family or circle of friends.  As well as being undeniably related to every human on the planet according to our genome, we are all now living in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller.

Like an extended family packed into a small house we need to accept our interconnectedness and work out how to get on with each other…

(1) Frank Ryan, Darwin’s Blind Spot, evolution beyond natural selection, Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

(2) Robert Wesson, Beyond Natural Selection, MIT Press, 1993

(3)Peter KropotkinMutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), Conclusion.

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From Bystanders to Third Siders.

LAPD vehicle at a crime scene in Hollywood.

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William L. Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes and long-time conflict resolution expert, has developed an idea and a movement called, The Third Side. Ury’s belief is that in every conflict there are three, not two, sides. The first two sides are obviously those in conflict but Ury says that we – the uninvolved onlookers – the ultimate Bystanders – form the Third Side.

Third Sidedness and Conflict Resolution

In Ury’s opinion the power to resolve most conflict lies in the Third Side rather than in the two sides actively engaged in the fight. He tells many stories of how this works – from African villagers who hide the poisoned spears of the warriors whenever arguments break out between them, to ordinary people of all sorts simply standing up for peace and hope and ordinary human happiness.

Mothers Unite.

One such story, as related on Ury’s web-site – – is very representative of how this process works. In the early 1990s in East Los Angeles, a group of concerned mothers who were members of the same church came together to pray for a solution to the gang violence in their neighbourhood. Eight gangs were active in their parish and gang killings and injuries happened almost daily. After much prayer and reflection, the group came to the conclusion that if they wanted to solve the ‘war’ in their neighbourhood they had to step outside their own comfort zone and be willing to go into the battlefield themselves.

Full of fear and trepidation, seventy women, and a handful of men, began a peregrinacion – a pilgrimage or procession – from one gang area to the next. When they met gang members, the mothers invited them to pray with them and offered them food. Then they produced a guitar and began singing ancient folk songs to and with the gang members. As the first night wore on, the gang members were more and more baffled and thus, the conflict was interrupted.

Buoyed by the obvious effect of this new approach, the mothers formed the Comite Pro Paz En El Barrio — Committee for Peace in the Neighborhood and  continued their walks each night and, within a week there was a dramatic drop in gang-related violence. As time passed each side came to know those on the other side and the cycles of violence were interrupted and replaced with more constructive action.

By provoking a confrontation with their humanness, they unleashed a process of communication and transformation. Their activity changed the gang-members and themselves. The women listened to the deep anguish of the gang-members about the lack of jobs and about police brutality. This led them, in turn, to develop a tortilla factory, bakery, and child-care center, creating some jobs and giving the gang members an opportunity to acquire job skills. It was also a space where conflict resolution techniques were learned, because people from different gangs worked together in these projects. The women then opened a school. And they shifted from a “Neighborhood Watch” mode — where they were the eyes and ears of the police — to a group trained to monitor and report abusive police behavior, a development that has redefined the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the barrio.(1)

This is a great example of individuals, acting as individuals in union with others (like heart cells working together to pump blood around the body) not only for their own collective well-being but also the well-being of even those creating the dysfunction. It had to have been scary to do that, to believe in ‘humanness’ when none was really in evidence – but that’s what they did and in spite of the fact that these women didn’t belong to either side of the conflict raging all around them, they became the ones to effect a solution.

 It is time to try peace a little while. If it fails, we can always go back to war. (2)

The idea of the Third Side transfers the power away from those directly involved and opens it up to those not causing but affected by the problem. It empowers the victims and bystanders and turns the idea of responsibility on it’s head. Instead of focusing on those who are responsible for a given situationit reminds all of us of our responsibility to everything and everyone else with whom we share this planet.  

Who knows if it can work in every situation but it’s certainly well worth trying. After all what do we have to lose?

  2. ‘Abdul Bahá, Star of the West, v. 10, p. 196-197

The Butterfly Effect in Social Action.

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-li...

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When faced with the suffering in the world, most of us don’t believe we have the power to change things – so we don’t do anything. This isn’t only because we don’t know what to do but also because we can’t be certain that we can ‘fix’ things  – so we don’t even try. As a society, we have become so result oriented that we have moved away from doing what we believe to be right towards doing only what we believe will have succeed.

When our whole orientation is towards outcomes, we can become afraid to even try new things as our actions are defined solely by success and failure.  But perhaps more importantly than that, this focus on results has also robbed us of the notion of being moral agents in our own rights and substituted instead, the much lesser ideal of success. Hence a moral action that doesn’t result in a ‘successful’ outcome is seen as a waste of time while an amoral – or even immoral – action that brings about a desired result is seen as not only more practical but also better in every way.

This is not just a morally dubious way to approach the world but also one that is so subject to outside influence it is simply reactive, rather than active and coming from a place of strength. Regardless of our experiences or hopes of prevailing, it is, in every way, more useful to judge our actions relative to an ethical and moral standard rather than relative to their chances of success. When we don’t do this it is not just a cause of small, insignificant personal problems but, I believe, one of the problems at the root of most serious societal dysfunction, as even when we do know what to do we don’t do it because we aren’t guaranteed success.

The problems of the world seem impossible for us to approach, let alone solve.  We are all Davids in the face of Goliaths of corruption or violence or suffering. But the fact is that even stupendous achievement are rarely one ‘big’ action but rather countless tiny, discrete acts of bravery, integrity and conscience. If you take each tiny ethical action and add it to the next tiny ethical action and continue to do this across the board – eventually you have a huge tsunami of moral behaviour which has the power to effect great change. Unfortunately it is also true in reverse. All those tiny and seemingly insignificant immoral actions that we all perform – the white lies, the small cheats – also add up and engulf everything.

Every single thing that every single one of us does all of the time matters in the overall scheme of things. There is no such thing as a deed – good or bad –that doesn’t have some effect somewhere. To have a better understanding how this actually works it is useful to see how it works in the natural world where it manifests as The Butterfly Effect. 

As well as being the ‘father’ of chaos theory, Edward Lorenz was also the first person to speak about the now famous Butterfly Effect. This metaphor describes the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory – which simply means that a small change at the start of any complex system can have large effects elsewhere. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small initial differences in the atmosphere (which is a complex, dynamic system) could trigger vast and often unsuspected results. These observations led him to formulate his theory of change which was ultimately named after a paper he presented in 1972 entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

The idea of the butterfly’s wing flapping is that, tiny as the movement is, it can still create equally tiny changes in the atmosphere that might ultimately alter the path of a tornado, delaying, accelerating or even preventing the occurrence of that tornado in a certain location. The flapping wings simply represents a small change which causes a chain of events leading to large scale alterations in the ultimate event. While the butterfly is not responsible for causing the tornado – in that it doesn’t provide the energy for the tornado – it does have a part to play insofar as the flap of its wings is an essential part of the initial conditions which result in the tornado – without the flap that particular tornado could never have existed.

Most of us feel as insignificant as any butterfly in a storm when we are faced with the massive injustice and suffering in the world but if it is true that small, seemingly insignificant events can have a huge influence on ultimate outcomes maybe we would have more respect for butterfly wing actions and be more willing to try them in the hope of effecting change?

Weapons of the Spirit

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The day after the Vichy Government in France, made an agreement with the Nazis to hand over all Jewish refugees, Andre Trocme, Pastor of the Protestant church in the tiny village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon gave the following sermon in his church

“Tremendous pressure will be put on us to submit passively to a totalitarian ideology. If they do not succeed in subjugating our souls, at least they will want to subjugate our bodies. The duty of Christians is to use the weapons of the Spirit to oppose the violence that they will try to put on our consciences. We appeal to all our brothers in Christ to refuse to cooperate with this violence…
Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty. Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.”

From that day in 1940, every Chambonnais who was asked to hide a Jewish refugee did so. They helped them to make false identification cards, told everybody that all new arrivals were cousins who had come to live with them and had a policy of never asking any refugee whether or not they were Jewish. The most amazing fact of all was that, not one villager ever handed over a Jewish refugee to the Nazi authorities.

Safe Passage

The Chambonnais were particularly interested in the child refugees, educating them alongside their own children. The residents of Le Chambon helped to set up and operate an underground operation smuggling refugees to safety in Switzerland. All of the residents of the village and surrounding area had a hand in this shielding of the refugees. The local Quaker community and many other individuals and organisations took an active part in this process. Whenever the residents knew Jewish refugees were expected they would discuss how many Old Testaments were arriving and on the many occasions when the Nazis arrived to search, the refugees were hidden in the countryside. When the soldiers left, the locals would go into the forest and countryside, singing loudly as a signal that it was safe to come home.

“I know no Jews…”

In the summer of 1942, a Vichy government official arrived demanding that they hand over the Jewish refugees that the government knew were hiding in the village. When questioned about the new arrivals in the village, Pastor Trocme said he knew no Jews – only human beings. Two weeks later the furious Vichy police and Nazis arrived with buses to take away the Jewish refugees but after weeks of constant searching and harassment, the police left empty-handed.

Eventually, however, Andre Trocme and his associate Edouard Theis had to go into hiding and in 1943 – Pastor Trocme’s cousin, Daniel Trocme, and the children and teenagers he was hiding were discovered and deported to Maidnek Concentration camp where they were killed. The Chambonnais continued, however, to shelter any and all Jewish refugees who sought their help.

French film-maker, Pierre Sauvage, was one of the Jewish children saved by the Chambonnais. Sauvage was born and grew up in the village and he was eighteen years old before he discovered that he and his family were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. When Sauvage returned to Le Chambon in the late 70’s to make a documentary about this remarkable period– Weapons of the Spirit – he tried to find out exactly why these people had risked everything to save strangers.

Interviewing Henri and Emma Heritier – a peasant couple then in their 80’s, who had helped to look after him when he was a child – Sauvage found them shy and unwilling to answer more than just a simple – “When people came, if we could be of help…” This from a couple who helped many refugees, and who, when the Germans raided, hid the village forger’s documents and equipment in their beehives.

Part of the solution

So why did c. 5,000 Protestant French villagers and farmers decide to help save the lives of 5,000 Jews at such enormous risk to themselves? Why did they decide to defy the Nazis, as well as their own government, and run the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, dispossessed or even killed for strangers?

The village pastors who led the resistance and protection of Jews, Andre Trocme and Edouard Theis, believed that if they failed to protect the Jews they would share in the guilt of the evildoers. It would appear that this belief was widely shared by their friends and associates in Le Chambon.  What they did took enormous courage, but it also gave the Chambonnais back some of the power they had lost during the Nazi occupation because, as Viktor Frankl said,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose on’s own way.”

And that is exactly what the ‘good people’ of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon did, they chose their own way and decided not to let evil succeed. Instead of ‘nothing’ they did ‘something’ – in the face of overwhelming odds. And their courage and commitment to doing what they believed was right saved 5,000 innocent lives – quite a result when you think about it…

Being ‘Herd’…

Scholars might argue that Edmund Burke never said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but most of us would agree that whoever said it, it is absolutely true.

The Bystander Effect – or Genovese Syndrome – is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. It would appear that the more people present when something bad happens, the less chance there is that anybody will help.

This is a controversial theory first put forward after the much publicised murder of 28 year old Kitty Genovese in 1964. According to reports at the time, 37 people in the New York neighbourhood where Kitty Genovese was attacked, saw her struggle or heard her scream and call for help.  A man shouted from a window which made her attacker run off after he first stabbed her.

But when nobody came to Kitty’s aid, the attacker, 29 year old Winston Mosely, returned.  He found Kitty in the hallway of her apartment building where he raped and murdered her.  During this protracted attack, which lasted more than half an hour, only one person called the police. By the time help arrived, Kitty Genovese was dead.

The controversy as a result of the Kitty Genovese murder gave rise to a number of studies.  And while nowadays there is evidence that the Kitty Genovese murder was sensationalised by the media, the fact is that it’s a phenomenon we all know exists.  We put it down to our materialistic, modern attitudes and our growing selfishness but the explanation is probably not so much associated with modern life as with ancient, instinctive behaviours.

One of the main theories put forward to explain the Bystander Effect is the suggestion that we are predisposed towards ‘herd’ behaviour. This is an instinct that has served us well as a species because let’s face it – if the ‘herd’ begins to run because someone shouts ‘Lion’, then it is definitely safer to run first and ask questions later! The only problem is that it may not be quite as useful a reaction in complex social situations as it is on the Plains.

Another explanation for the Bystander Effect is the idea of ‘diffusion of responsibility’.  This means just what it seems to mean – the more of us there are around, the more diffuse our feelings of personal responsibility.

Hey Man in the Blue Sweater!

But there is a feature of the Bystander effect that is perhaps less well known and that is that it appears to be very easy to overcome.  Simply recognising the possibility that anyone (me, you – anyone) may not intervene in an emergency can mean that we do intervene.  Just that much knowledge can make a difference.  Also, it is well known that, in general, when bystanders are specifically asked for help –Hey man in the blue sweater – they tend to respond positively.   It as if a consciousness of ourselves as individuals seems to generally bring with it not just a myriad personal likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies but also an awakening of moral and ideological beliefs and even a willingness to help others.

So, here’s the question – does the war and poverty and violence and hatred we see all around us on our planet flourish – at least in part – because we suffer from a global Bystander Effect?  It would seem logical that this might be the case.  After all, if having six or seven people witness an emergency slows down or destroys our individual reaction then what if 6 or 7 billion people see the same thing?  How diffuse must that responsibility feel?