35. The learning society

Ch 35

Summing it up – a learning and regenerative society

This Part has presented some of the key ideas which might underlie a truly “civilised” society.  A society based neither on individualism and the pursuit of private wealth and power (“social Darwinism”), nor on collectivism (the subjugation of the individual to the commons), but on human solidarity (mutual support tempered by respect for the individual).

A new place to stand – a summary of summaries

Core human rights, such as those described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, need to be available to and protected for every human being, by our mutual assumption of responsibility to make this happen.  Human solidarity is the foundation, but the superstructure of a civilised society is the attitudes and institutions which address the issues discussed in Parts Two and Three.

We need to relearn to work with Nature, rather than continue on our current extractivist path.  The chapter on working with Nature discusses five key requirements of this partnership – stopping fossil fuel use, accelerating reforestation, abandoning industrial monoculture and monocropping, changing the balance in our sources of protein, and restoring the oceans.

Our economic systems need to be re-engineered on the basis of thrift rather than consumption, supported by a new financial system, which will probably need to start from the introduction of local or community currencies, to support local activity and build local resilience.

To underpin these changes, we need better ways of thinking.  We need broad and deep education in systems thinking, and we need to make more and better use of the precautionary principle, complemented by what I call the “precautionary imperative”.

The good news is that we already have both the material technologies and also the social and governance structures needed to enable us to do all this.  What’s stopping us is the commitment of the wealthy and powerful to maintaining the current system of theft from Nature and from the rest of us.

Political power needs to be redistributed by replacing the form of democracy with the substance – with what I call real democracy.  Financial power needs to be redistributed by a major and ongoing process of restitution and redistribution.  And coercive power needs to be redistributed by deweaponisation.

Finally in this Part, to combat the problem of otherness, we need to train ourselves to make a habit out of celebrating diversity.  This can be hard, but diversity is a foundation of resilience, indeed it is a foundation of life, and we need it to build a civilised society.

Learning as a fundamental principle

One of Frieda’s and my favourite television series is “The Good Wife”.  We find the lead character, Alicia, very engaging, the other main characters sympathetic, and the legal “one-upping” very entertaining.  Season 6 had two strands that are very relevant to some of the themes in this book.

The first is the processes of election, when Alicia stands for the office of State’s Attorney.  The focus on influencing the “few”, and the cynical acts and behaviours of the “electoral minders”, are a near perfect illustration of the removal of elections from anything resembling the “real democracy” discussed in chapter 31.

The second is a very good introduction to my summing up of what I call “a learning and regenerative society”.  It is a statement by the right-wing billionaire who hires Diane to present the “liberal” viewpoint at sessions where he works out which causes to support in legal battles – all with a view to entrenching conservative values:

“I like people who stand by their principles.”

It sounds very worthy, doesn’t it?  It has a ring to it.

It is spoken as a compliment to Diane, and an insult to Democrats (Obama and the Clintons, to the best of my recollection) who have changed their stances on gay marriage.  The billionaire is accusing them of political opportunism, of just changing their stances because they saw electoral advantage in it.  And it is perfectly possible that they were just being opportunistic.

But there is another possibility, one that the billionaire is denying the possibility of.  That is, that they had learned something new, which had changed their moral stances on this matter.

When I was young, I was educated in a society that assumed that women and “people of colour” (ie non-Europeans) were inferior.  And, as a child, I learned to assume this too.  Even though my parents were progressive humanists, the dominant narrative in my society taught me that blue was better than pink, and that white was better than brown.  That was only 50 years ago.  Homosexuality, by the way, was way below the horizon at that time in that place.

As I grew up, I learned that many of my early assumptions about these things weren’t just wrong, they were deeply damaging, both to the people who were treated as inferior, and to those of us who assumed superiority.  And while I learned about “women’s rights” at a superficial level when I went to university in the late 1960s, it wasn’t until the late 1980s, as I followed my wife’s university work on “women’s studies” that I gained a better understanding of the pervasiveness and destructiveness of this problem.  Which persists today, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I was taking part in a large shift in perception that happened in many parts of many affluent Western societies over that period, one which has resulted in better status for women and people of colour, but which has not yet created the “equality” that most now pay lip-service to.

The development of gay and other non-heterosexual rights has followed on from this.  And it is more controversial, because the “otherness” of different sexual orientations and gender preferences appears to be a bit threatening – well, to so-called “real men”, at least.

We on the progressive side are learning.  It is sometimes a struggle, and it is never complete.  There is a lot of conditioning to overcome, and many current drivers which try to reinforce such things as sexual and gender stereotyping and differentiation.  A current example of this is my daughter’s search for gender neutral clothes for her first child.  It is an enormous effort to get anything other than blue for boys and pink for girls.  And the “boys’” and “unisex” clothes are largely functional, while the “girls’” clothes are all frills and cuteness.  When she asks why this is so, retail assistants regard with her with attitudes ranging from bemusement to scorn.

But we are learning, and we have learned, at some level or another, to discard the idea of women’s inferiority.  And we’re learning to accept wider diversity as well.

The billionaire is upholding a rigid and unchanging set of values, of heterosexual behaviour and the “sanctity” of heterosexual marriage.  Thus it has been, thus it is, and thus it must be.  For ever and ever, amen.

The billionaire is wrong to do this.  There is nothing wrong with “standing by your principles”, unless something comes along which challenges them but you refuse to engage, question, and perhaps rethink them.  Learning and developing your thinking is not a sin, it’s a virtue.

The fact that the billionaire dislikes people who change their ideas (particularly so that they differ from his) is repugnant. Moral flexibility is not necessarily bad.

I am not talking here about the “moral flexibility” which isn’t sure that being paid off in an alley with a brown paper bag full of used banknotes is bad, or that science is of varying use depending on how it fits with your beliefs.  I’m talking about the moral flexibility that comes from being open to new concepts and new perspectives, of allowing one’s framing of the world to be challenged.

The philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Pierce saw that the standard forms of logical reasoning which then existed, induction and deduction, were incomplete.  Induction is reasoning from particular cases to a more general conclusion, and deduction is reasoning from a given set of premises to a provable conclusion.

Pierce invented a third form of logical reasoning, which he called “abduction”.  It is based on the idea that, on observing something new or surprising (let’s call it “a”), you form a hypothesis about it (if “b” were true, then “a” would be a matter of course).  And you hold that hypothesis till something newer or more surprising comes along, at which time you form a new hypothesis.  This is actually a description of good scientific process.

To me, Pierce has also exactly described our learning process, and the necessary processes for a learning society.

The learning and regenerative society

The essence of a learning and regenerative society is to continuously challenge and reframe how we see the world, so we are alive to, and engaged with, the infinite number of possibilities in it.

We can’t be doing this all the time of course.  First, it would be exhausting.  And second, we need stable places to start from if we are going to deal effectively with the infinite kaleidoscope of the real world.

This Part has attempted to describe the stable places I think we need to start from.

And Pierce and abduction give us the core mode of thinking that enables us to cope with all the novelty that the world throws at us.  We need to understand, deep down, that our beliefs and attitudes are only temporary things, ways of coping with a world that will regularly surprise us.

The learning society sees learning as an ongoing activity, not a store of knowledge.  It supports learning through both formal and informal means.

It does not see learning as “getting new technical knowledge to prepare yourself for frequent job changes, because we’ll pull the rug out from under you”.  This is how the capitalist system has hijacked the idea of the learning society.

The learning society knows that mistakes will be made, and plans its actions so that those mistakes are reversible, or at least their effects can be minimised.  It is comfortable with the fact that we don’t know everything, and cannot predict outcomes in complex situations, so it designs its social and economic programmes themselves as learning processes.  It locks in as few things as possible irreversibly, and those that must be locked in are only locked in after deep and careful consideration, and universal consultation.

The learning society is deeply democratic, because those in power also have to learn to learn (one very useful definition of power is “not having to learn”).  And it is deeply egalitarian, because one of its foundations is that all must be given the opportunity to learn, at all times.

It is regenerative, because that is what learning allows to happen.  It adds new understanding, and creates new possibilities.  And only a few – mostly academics – will be content with just learning.  Most people will act on their new understanding, and create new things which refresh or replace the old.  This is regeneration.

Many of us in the affluent world have been trapped in a series of ruts and habitual behaviours.  The rat race of wage slavery, the mindless tedium of much television, the triviality of many other social media, the unthinking acceptance of the utterances of power, the pursuit of material wealth beyond what we actually need – these are all symptoms of mindlessness, of allowing ourselves to be just cogs in a machine.

We need to break out of this, not just for our own personal benefit, but also because the machine is taking us at ever-increasing speed towards a precipice which threatens our very existence.

The learning and regenerative society is what we can create by breaking out.

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