Playing with Dragons

Why we choose the burden of outdated power structures

The modern age opened with the advent of modern science and a deliberative effort to demonstrate truth with examination of evidence. Modern democratic processes emerged from this break with feudal history. Today, we are living in post-modern times—the period after modern breakthroughs became the general foundation on which new discoveries were then made.

Philosophers, architects, literary theorists, painters and politicians, will all define post-modern in different ways, but what we can say is that we have emerged from modernity into a time when legitimacy is not inherited or seized, but rather developed through decentralized processes of discussion, coordination, and responsible accountable governance. Today’s most recognized monarchies own their legitimacy only because they support and sustain democratic political systems that carry out the acts of government in parallel to their position as historically founded national leaders.

We now routinely enjoy so much personal choice, with deep empowerment available to so many people in all kinds of situations, that old rules and time-tested institutions often appear too rigid to carry the relevance that brings legitimacy. In the old way of doing business—rooted in feudal structures for adjudicating and mobilizing power and influence—strict and stable structure was itself part of what conferred power and legitimacy; in the post-feudal period, we have been gradually, over centuries, moving into a standard where principle and moral fortitude are exemplified by adaptive, inclusive agility and a capability for mutual empowerment and transformation.

Because we have not yet solved the problem of competitive inequality among old and new powers—or among those born to privilege and those born without—we live in a world divided by inequalities that seem insurmountable, and which at this moment in history appear to be worsening. The temptation remains deep and rich to seek shelter in the emblematic factionalism of the feudal system, where fiefdoms and life/death confrontations kept resources scarce, stakes high, and armies on the march. This feudal factionalism allows us to blame others for our fears and hardships. Combat becomes a norm in such situations, as survival is guaranteed by the tribal allegiance that brings cohesion to a narrowly defined group.

Post-modern people, flush with so much freedom, information, and opportunity, are tempted by feudal factionalism, because 1) concentration of resources means the stakes remain too high for too many; 2) the resonance of these conventions is woven into how we think about social structure, at virtually every level; 3) even after hundreds of years of modern democracy, our institutions continue to trust more in feudal dynamics of concentration, containment and division than in open personal empowerment, as a paradigm for power management. This means we are susceptible to new segregations, new prejudices, insinuations of unproven ulterior motives, and the excuse-making that floods the space of fake news.

Surveys of fake news readers show they “trust” these sources more than others, even knowing the information is unfounded or flagrantly false. Post-modern citizens of the world are seeking self-gratifying tribal narratives, “trusting” more in that emotional experience than in their own ability to leverage truth for sustainable thriving.

Large numbers of people actively trade away the empowerment inherent in the open information culture of our times for a feeling of momentary gratification that leaves them sidelined and disempowered. These tendencies are fire-breathing fact-free flying monsters that unleash deep devastation on unsuspecting villages. We are playing with dragons, even though we know there is a more imaginative, collaborative way to live, ready to be lived in peace and prosperity, if we are willing. We no longer need to live as if medieval power struggles were the rule, but from frustration, injustice and desperation, we still choose to carry this unnecessary burden.

[ The Note for December 2016 ]



For those of us working to build a new civic space, to establish new ways for people to bring intelligence and judgment to decision-making processes that affect their futures, we are not fighting dragons to the death; we are working to welcome everyone into a smarter, more human-friendly future where mythical monsters don’t force us to live through cycles of fear and conflict.

Crucial to getting beyond the playing with dragons mindset is the work of getting beyond the urge to dismiss others as inferior or irrelevant. This tendency deepens the attraction of new segregations that separate, contain, and marginalize people, who might otherwise work together for better outcomes and for a smarter defense of universal values, human dignity, and natural life-support systems.

This final Note for 2016 should not be seen as a pessimistic analysis of our times but rather as a focused attempt to describe a problem we are facing, together, and which can be overcome if we focus on harnessing the unprecedented opportunity for generalized human empowerment. Optimism is no-nonsense. It requires the application of evolving, interactive, imaginative intelligence. This is what builds the world.

In 2017, we should focus on leaving dragons out of the equation, pulling down barriers to accelerating shared prosperity, and shifting to a smarter, more ethical mindset wherein we accept that exclusion and hostility don’t do good, but integral ecology does.

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