Sunday, May 29, 2011


“The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts” by Peter T. Coleman lives up to its title.  Don’t confuse it with other “Five Percent” books -- there are several.  Don’t confuse it with the 20/80 rule, which is about business:  twenty per cent of the effort/product should produce eighty percent of the profit.  And so on.  This not-very-long, not-very-hard-to-understand book is about the way the universe works, either in the micro or macro senses.  It is about how complexification gives rise to life by forming nodes or nexuses, little knots of forces, which are sometimes good and sometimes bad -- at least from the viewpoint of humans.

Take war for instance.  Please.  In fact, the driving force behind the book is the International Project on Conflict and Complexity.

“ICCCR’s International Project on Conflict and Complexity (IPCC) is an interdisciplinary consortium of peace and conflict scholars and practitioners from anthropology, psychology, international relations, physics, and complexity science, funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, working to generate new insights and methods for addressing difficult, unresolved issues in the areas of violence prevention, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace. It supports a variety of innovative, inter-disciplinary, scholar-practitioner activities.”
A lot of people produce this kind of statement -- all of them nicely sitting around the table being proudly credentialed.  What qualifies me for being any sort of expert or thinking I can judge what works or doesn’t?   Battle scars, that’s what. 

Beyond that, in 1957 when I took my first “Language and Thought” class from Dean Barnlund, a gentle man who tried to teach us discussion skills in spite of loud students who protested they were being confused on purpose, I thought I’d found the key to the universe.  Northwestern University School of Speech (now renamed and reorganized) was the first place where I ran into the contrast between those who MUST have simple rules in life (whether they are liberal or conservative, progressive or reactionary, black or white) and those who are always looking for the edges, the interactions, the gray areas -- maybe in order to find a force for potential growth.  Ecosystems are balanced and integrated.  One must go to the edge of the forest, where it abuts onto a meadow to find a place for creativity, where a living being can control its environment by ducking in and out of the shadows.

Originally I ordered this book because I want to rewrite my own manuscript that I call “Heartbreak Butte,” which is about the little hamlet upstream from Valier where I taught for two years (1989-91).  It’s a place that gets stuck in violence, prejudice, and intimidation.  Not many can survive there, but some do.  Even thrive.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, because they often want to prevent change. 

Not many will admit that one reason reservations have a hard time is because too many people (often white) are making big-time money off the vectors that prevent growth:  for instance, supplying alcohol and drugs.  The FBI secretly likes the romance of being the only real Big Time force for good on a frontier: THEY decide who gets prosecuted or even investigated for rape or murder.  But they are not part of the community, so formal retribution is always administered from outside.  Informal retribution lines up ancient schisms and current family wars in exactly the way this book identifies as paralyzing change.

My key motivator is an incident a few years ago when one of my former students was beaten to death by her drug cohort.  Everyone in town heard her screaming, everyone knew what was happening, and no one could think what to do about it -- so they decided she deserved it.  She herself thought that.

I sat down and made a list of what I would do.  It was highly relevant because I was in Portland where the FAS little girl next door to my mother had beaten her new puppy to death.  It began on the front porch as I was walking by and I tried to intervene, but the girl took her screaming pup into the house.  My mother begged me not to call the police or animal control (where I had worked) because the girl’s mother was so frighteningly violent. Even if she didn’t dare do anything to my aged mother (who was in her eighties) the woman would attack her own parents, also helplessly elderly.  My mother was afraid of her car being trashed, of her house being burned.  These were realistic concerns.  My list of what to do to intervene for the girl being beaten in Heart Butte was similarly drastic:  ram the house with a pickup, set the house on fire and call the fire department which would undoubtedly claim that the truck wouldn’t start for some mysterious reason.  I rejected guns out of hand.

So why didn’t I do something for this girl while she was in my class?  Why didn’t I teach her something that would change her idea of who she was?  Her grandfather, with whom she lived, had been described by his real name in a book as a drunk and troublemaker.   Just writing this much here will cause people to recognize whom I mean.

There are at least a hundred factors holding the status quo in place.  One of them this year may be a repeat of the flood that wiped out the hamlet in 1964.  Another may be the growth in population, the housing projects which were built where powerful people would benefit from them -- on flood plains.  Reservation construction does not have to meet state construction standards.

But other factors push for change: a functioning store, a medical clinic, strong churches who bring in outsiders every summer.  The schools are up high, out of the flood plain, big enough to be shelters.

When I became a minister (1982), it was in large part because I’d been to Leadership School where a big component was organizational design.   The kind of Div School education I had was very much focused on complex systems, which is what distinguishes a university from a small Bible college where one is taught The True Way -- no argument.  People sort themselves out when they attend such institutions or join denominations or even buy homes where jobs are.  Small towns are congenial for people who want stability and rule-based living.  Cities appeal to those who can adapt, transform, move through the interstices. 

Make no mistake -- I’m “with” the latter.  I just choose to live here.  But the prairie only seems to be a simple place.  Where it is untouched the sod is complex with interwoven beings.  That cannot be said for the zillion square miles of monoculture grain in straight rows.  Nor for the white whirring pillars of the windfarms.  We don’t know what the consequences of that will be.

BUT, this book illustrates, simplicity may be a force for good, may SAVE complexities.  Just so we keep the flow moving and the flood gates working.

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