We’re In This Together

This is the second of four blog posts in which I’ll be exploring the things we could and should do if we want to spark broader social and political change in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. During these confusing times when we have had to stop or at least dramatically alter the work we were doing, I’ve used the time I’ve spent sheltering in place to think about the implications of the COVID-19 epidemic for the work I’ve been doing for the last half century. Last week, I talked about some of the implications of the pandemic itself. Here, I want to draw some of the broadest lessons it has to teach us. None of these are new to me. However, many of us are able to see their urgency in a new light that might get us to go beyond “nodding agreement” when we hear them made. The next two posts will explore how we might make that happen. Here are the titles for each post and the deadlines I’ve given myself. With any luck, they will appear sooner than scheduled….

May 1                         Changing the (Coronavirus) Narrative

May 8                         We’re In It Together—Principles to Live By

May 15                       Going to Scale in Three Ways

May 22                       Empowering the Seemingly Powerless

The first post in this series took off from Larry Brilliant’s TED interview which I used to draw some lessons from the current crisis. I started  writing it on the assumption that it would be a single post, but once I got a few paragraphs into it, I realized that it was taking me in enough different directions which came together, first, in this series of four posts. They, in turn, will shape what I do once the coronavirus crisis ends and we can resume the kinds of projects we were doing way back on March 1, which now seems like a century ago.

A Different Kind of Crisis

That starts with something Dr. Brilliant alluded to at the end of his conversation with Chris Anderson. The pandemic is, of course, a crisis in its own right but it is also a metaphor or springboard for helping us see—and then come to grips with–a broader challenge facing humanity.

We are all in this together, which is what I want to explore here.

Out of that simple little line comes a set of principles we can base our lives–let along a new political movement–on.

On one level, there is little new to that statement. It’s at the heart of  what those of us who stress interdependence, globalization, and the like have been talking about for decades.

Over the years, people in our audiences have reacted in what my colleagues and I often thought was a perplexing way. They would nod their heads in agreement whenever we used  phrases along these lines Their agreement was often followed by a flurry of action on climate change, security, or whatever issues we were focusing on in that session. Unfortunately, however, their engagement normally didn’t last very long and rarely turned into the kind of impactful movements I will be describing in the next post.

Luckily, there are signs that things might be different this time.

Lots of commentators have compared the pandemic to the 9/11 attacks which was the most recent, unexpected shock that hit us out of the blue and threw our collective lives in a tizzy. But I don’t hear many angry calls for revenge.

Instead, I’m hearing a more hopeful message that is often embodied in phrases like “we’re all in this together.” Our local CBS affiliate is using it as a tag line for their newscasts, which they also describe as “facts, not fear.” Zoom, which itself has become a household term, uses it as the lead meme on its home page. The phrase is so “out there” that a Google search turned up a mere two billion, eight hundred sixty million hits.

Public opinion polls are also showing signs that we are coming together in response to the crisis. David Brooks and others are stressing that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the social distancing and other measures that have been in place for the last two months despite the fact that they have disrupted our lives so much. Governors and other leaders who have sought to unify us around our response to the pandemic have seen their popularity soar, while political leaders in the United States and Europe who have sown division have lost public support.

Spillover on Steroids

Before the current crisis, I had a passing interest in pandemics, mostly because their spread reflects my interest in both exponential rates of growth and “black swan” events in general.

The spread of this one, however, grabbed my interest a lot more for two reasons.

The first is obvious. It hits close to home. I live in its biological and political epicenter. I’m old enough to be at high risk. Etc.

The second reason is less obvious but a lot more important here. Its spillover effects reflect the interdependence of social, economic, political, and environmental life in ways that should lead us to rethink how we address challenges at everything from the global to the individual levels. While I’ll put off discussing what such a movement could look like until next week’s post, let me highlight at least five general themes around which such a movement would have to be based. My beloved peacebuilding will be a part of the mix, but only a part. In addition, the next movement or movements will have to focus on these as well as the specific issues that drive people to become activists in the first place. But keep in mind that I might change my list in the future as events and trends evolve..

  • Wicked problems. This is one of several terms used to describe long-standing problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that you can’t solve them quickly, easily, or separately—if you can solve them all. We almost certainly can solve the coronavirus crisis once a virus is created and can take steps to ease its impact until then. However, it has revealed so many other overlapping problems in so many different places. How are we going to deal with them?
  • Black Swans. Ever since the publication of Naseem Nicholas Taleb’s book of the same name, we have been aware of the growing number of seeming unpredictable and devastating events that pop around the world. At first, they mostly revolved around climate change. Now, we can add pandemics to the list.
  • Boiling frog disease is one of the tried and true clichés used to describe our well-known tendency to procrastinate when dealing with tough issues. While it turns out that frogs do try to get out of water that is gradually heating up, the metaphor still helps us see our tendency to put off dealing with problems until they reach black swan status at which point we find ourselves playing a never-ending game of catch-up.
  • Focusing on the long term. Systems theorists have long urged us to focus on the indirect and long term consequences of our actions. As was the case with boiling frog disease, discussions of systems theory and thinking in terms of the long run often provoked nodding heads but little action. Now, that may be changing as people come to grips with the fact t;lhat the pandemic’s effects will ripple throughout the world in dozens of ways for decades to come.
  • Superordinate goals. This is one piece of jargon I haven’t figured out how to avoid. Superordinate goals can only be reached if all or most of the parties to a problem cooperating in finding and forging a solution. In his recent New Yorker, Charles Duhigg quotes former CDC acting director, Richard Besser, “Democracy is a great thing, but it means, for something like COVID-19, we have to persuade people to cooperate if we want to save lives.” It’s not just COVID-19. His statement holds for just above every other wicked problem we face.

As I noted earlier, there is nothing new in these five bullet points other than the possibility that we just might be taking them seriously for the first time. Or at least that the pandemic provides us with the opportunity now to do so.

Building Back Better—and Bigger

My friends Betty Dhamers and Chris Langdon helped me see what the principles around which the next movement will have to be built on. They work separately but their ideas have much in common. They are not seeking to create new knowledge but to synthesise existing thinking. They don’t define themselves primarily as peacebuilders, but the fact that they viewed the pandemic in the same ways that I do helped me see two broad outlines for a post-pandemic movement or movements which we can begin creating now.

Betty is a management consultant who frequently uses the at least forty year old expression “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” to refer to the largely cosmetic changes companies make when something far more sweeping is required. As we have talked, we’ve realized that we agree on the fact that there are no “quick fixes” or “magic wands” when it comes to organizational development and peacebuilding or, for that matter, when it comes to the coronavirus or any of its spillover effects. As I will show in my next blog post, we have create a demand for change that touches just about every aspect of our lives.

Chris Langdon and his partner Nik Gowing of Think the Unthinkable did a good job of showing what such a new consciousness could be like in a recent podcast on the connections between the pandemic and climate change. As they suggest, new opportunities will present themselves for change in even in countries like their United Kingdom which has a solid conservative parliamentary majority. Among other things, they have begun using the hashtag and meme #buildingbackbetterm, which is gaining more traction in Europe than it is here in the United States. What it means varies from user to user, but it invariably includes returning to a new normal that is qualitatively different and better than the status quo when the pandemic hit.

But better also means bigger by creating movements for social change that transcend the individual issues most of us work on today, including peacebuilding which has been at the heart of my professional life for half a century. That kind of work has to continue, but we need to add another dimension to that work that helps people see—and then act on—the interdependent nature of the problems we are facing.

I’ll always be a peacebuilder. My first vaguely political act was getting angry that “they” had to build nuclear submarines in my home town and that I had to watch them being built from my first, third, and fifth grade classroom windows. I came of age protesting the war in Vietnam and made the transition from political scientist to peacebuilder when I had t come to grips with the renewed Cold War of the 1980s. Since then, I’ve done little but work for world peace, most recently at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and George Mason’s newly renamed Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Still, it is now clear that we have to build back “bigger” if we want to build back “better.”

Next Time

I know I haven’t explored what such a movement could or should look like.

That’s the topic of next week’s post.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.