Reflections on Paradigm-Changing Public Action

Community members have been exchanging their thoughts and feelings about the October 30 DEP Hearing. I’m working on a summary that will include things people agree on, things we disagree on, things we can only guess at because we don’t have much information, and goals.

In the meantime, here’s one take on the relative values of technical and emotional approaches to changing community and institutional priorities and decision-making models, written by one of the email correspondents:

I fundamentally and very strongly agree that we have to become more thoughtful, as a group, about the tone with which we approach this and similar public actions. But I’m not fond of the notion that there’s a  “best” tone.

Over the years I’ve realized that people who like precise, organized, technocratic approaches to things – such as engineers, physicists, and mathematicians – tend to overestimate the importance of homogeneity in how citizens take action.

But Penn State’s energy predicament is primarily a social and political problem, not a technical one. So there isn’t a nice, clean problem statement, such as one finds in a engineering problem-solving situation, and there also isn’t one “optimal” approach. It takes a village, so to speak. And sometimes, putting the anger and pain of the village out there is not only justified, but very valuable.

Politics is not engineering. It is not about having absolute clarity and unambiguous problem statements, or having “best” solutions at which one can arrive at logically using some idea of “best practices.” It’s messy, and emotional. It’s just as much – in fact, I’d argue, more – about rhetoric as it is about facts. I don’t believe that the ideal public tone should be rational, unemotional, and technocratic. Anger is justified. Emotion is justified. A sense of urgency is justified. Using conflict resolution principles doesn’t mean failing to speak one’s truth, or failing to speak truth to power.

Indeed, failing to present ourselves as living, emotional creatures only suggests to people that we are weak-willed and don’t really care about our values–which is to say, we do not have integrity and do not believe in right and wrong. It sends the signal that we are willing to compromise away pretty much anything to maintain comity.

As we move forward, we need to speak in a way that’s not just “anti,” but more about our vision for a better community. We need to become more technologically and economically aware so that we minimize saying things that make us look ignorant, foolish, or naive.

But a diversity of viewpoints and expertise is OK. We want to encourage each other, and not cringe every time someone says something in a way that’s not how we might have preferred they say it.

Politics requires that we attract more people than we alienate. But we will alienate people. The social transition we seek will involve conflict. We will not be able to avoid this conflict by just trying to be “more nice,” because the existing order will oppose any changes that it perceives as reducing its social status.

In fact, being emotionally bland and focusing only on the technical will fail to bring people to our side. So the question is, what is the type of emotional tone we want? What story do we have to tell our fellow citizens? How do we frame our justifiable anger and sense of victimization in a way that reaches out to others instead of pushing them away?

I think one key is having a working understanding of social class. That means we should never be personally attacking the people who are in the trenches doing this work at the Office of Physical Plant. Every one of them I’ve talked to has a sincere desire to make the world better – though they, like most of us, are stuck functioning in the conventional, failing paradigm we’re trying to change.

Every one of them I’ve spoken with knows already that the university’s strategic energy plan is inadequate. Every one of them wants to be our ally in this fight, but doesn’t see a way to do it.

We need to help them feel comfortable so that they can “come out.” To me, that means we need to focus our criticism not on the grunts making the plans, but on the upper-level administrators (including the Board of Trustees) that have so severely restricted the design and planning space that the OPP engineers have to work in.

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