Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Institutions and the Voices on the Periphery of Power

20150427_175358I am excited that a tactic currently being used by many social justice activists appears to be having some effect, at least in the short term, and that tactic is (of all things) mass calling legislators.  I have not seen that it is causing legislators to change their minds on anything, but it does seem to be making them a little less brazen, at least publicly.  It is slowing them down more than stopping them on things like disbanding ethics watchdogs and rapidly approving cabinet appointees who have not even completed ethical review processes yet.  Slowing down injustice is a small success, but right now I am getting excited about any success, no matter how small.

And, we are already beginning to see the pattern I have talked about for years.  Those same legislators and their staffs are beginning to develop an “immunity” to the effectiveness of this particular tactic… they are beginning to just accept that such calls are part of the background, or to give them a meaning that allows the calls to be effectively dismissed (this is just a coordinated effort of a bunch of liberals on Facebook).  If I am right, then we will rapidly see this tactic “expire”, because the centralized power it is targeting will have developed a “meaning set” that gives them an effective immunity to the tactic.

There are two patterns among human institutions that are at play here.  Underlying the pattern of the expiring nature of all tactical innovations of social protest lies the deeper human institutional pattern of the centralization of the “voices that matter” in systems of power.  One of the tensions which I learned to use in analyzing systems of power is to explore where the system rests on the ability for “constituents” within the system to express their voices in relation to those who are “leaders” or who are “central” within the system.  What is the power balance of expression between the voices of those at the center versus those at the periphery?

There is a natural flow in human institutional systems of the voices of those closer to the center of power in a system growing in influence and importance, while the voices of those further away from the center of power diminish in influence and importance.  Institutions can counter this natural pattern, but only by building in active patterns and practices that raise the importance and influence of voices at the periphery.  This natural pattern can also be interrupted by the voices as the periphery of the system of power growing in strength for a period of time, or expressing their voice in a novel way that the voices at or near the center of the system of power cannot put a “meaning set” around in order to dismiss.

The healthy system allows for robust, institutionalized practices that raise up the voices of the periphery to a level of parity with the voices near the center of the system of power.  And yet the natural pattern of increasing the power of the voices near the center of the system of power will always remain.  When the institutional structures that raise the voices of those at the periphery of systems of power decay or dissolve, then those at the periphery of power are left with only the occasional tactical innovation that, for a brief moment, causes those voices at or near the center of the system of power to doubt the “meaning sets” that allow them to dismiss the voices of those at the periphery for a brief time.

Here is my point… institutional structures that raise the voices of those at the periphery, if they are defended and maintained, can create a healthy power balance in an institution over a long term.  But they must be actively maintained.  The institution must actively seek to listen to the voices that are further away from the centers of power as much or more than they listen to the voices that are near the centers of power.  The tendency,often for reasons as innocuous as convenience, is to increase the weight given to the voices at or near the center of the system of power, and decrease the weight given to the voices further away from the center of power.

I’m describing a pattern here that I think applies to all human institutions.  Be it a family, a church, a school, a government, a non-profit… all human systems.  Either there are institutional practices and systems that actively support and build the weight given to the voices at the periphery, or the periphery is left only with the expiring power of rotating tactical social protest, which only slows down the process of the centralization of power, but does not stop it.

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David

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