So a few crooks get arrested out of Wall Street and unemployment hits 10% — and now you’re looking for a fundamental change in the way people look at things? Unlikely. That would be a shift in paradigm.
What is a paradigm anyway? It’s the usual pattern. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it’s “a philosophical and theoretical framework.” This doesn’t change easily like the bed sheets or an oil change. It’s the way everybody sees things.
Paradigms can shift, however.
Young children see things differently. The way they see it, in a storm, trees create the wind, by thrashing around. They grow up, they finally get it: the wind has the power, it blows the trees around. The reversal is part of a paradigm shift. It’s a necessary change and the kids need it, to get on with life.
But we’re about politics here. We can all see that our government makes a lot of noise and screws around in a corrupt way, governing us. We might agree, it’s time for a big change. Government should do what we want.
Currently, for instance, we’re in a time of authoritarian surveillance (1). Imagine that if the situation was reverse, and the people kept suspicious watch on the government. Then the government would fear the people, and that would be a real paradigm shift.
Problem is, an old paradigm is an addiction. The old paradigm is a habit. It attains the status of ‘conventional wisdom.’ (It’s sometimes called the dominant paradigm.) Giving in to an old habit is always inviting, it’s like getting back into a warm bath.
It’s also the monkey on our back.
The old paradigm is also conservative. Conservatives don’t like change.
Like this. A scientist once did an experiment, putting on goggles that had upside-down lenses. You can make them, some goggles that reverse the way you see everything top-to-bottom, left-to-right. For the first four days this is really inconvenient, nothing works, you’re bumping into the walls. Then comes a period of confusing reversals. Then, on day four, a sudden switch. Now the brain has decided how to handle the confusing look of things, and it starts seeing everything right side up (2).
That’s the substance of a real paradigm switch. It’s an inside job.
Sometimes a whole society needs to go through learning to see things different too. Some fundamental and necessary changes, to advance.
Some paradigm reversals are excruciatingly protracted and painful. It may even come with the threat of death. From the sun revolving around the Earth to the other way around. In one period in history, the church was burning people alive for getting it right. From a nation that practiced slavery to a nation that does not. Many, many people died fighting that paradigm switch.
A shift is often preceded by deep distress, which is the motivating thing. People sense: the old ways can’t go on, there’s something very wrong. Or absurd. Then things gets worse. For a long time, try this adjustment, try that, while the distress gets painful. Then there’s a tipping point. After that, if you persist in hanging on to your old ways, like clinging to a sinking ship, things get downright dysfunctional. Everybody knows the old way isn’t working, and a change is necessary. But they try to make more minor adjustments, staying inside the ‘conventional wisdom’ box. This just prolongs the agony.
See, a paradigm shift is quite different from an adjustment. It’s a tip-the-turtle.
An adjustment is not a paradigm shift. An adjustment is like if you say, ok we can do everything the same, except use green pencils instead of blue. Another adjustment, for example from our personal lives, is like when we start dating someone different, but stick with the same paradigm called the single life. Or another ‘adjustment’: try painting the house a different color, maybe that will keep the marriage together?
But the real paradigm shift is an inside job.
Inside out, like a glove.
So when the real change finally comes, first, looking for solutions, the search for a new paradigm gets energetic. Now people know what the switch will look like. They try it. It gains popularity.
Mow the new paradigm is growing, and for a time it lives alongside the old. Now the old paradigm and the new paradigm are like two opposing camps, and they dig in. Keeps reversing directions, flipping and flopping. Contradicting themselves. Bearish, bullish. This is the truth; no, correct that. Down, up, down, up.
But eventually, there’s the tipping point and one side wins so, like, getting divorced is an actual paradigm shift. Or in your life, a paradigm shift is when you stop trying to make adjustments inside your life as a tug boat pilot and move to Oakland and go to work as a teacher and you don’t go back. Afterwards, things look different. You can look back and laugh at the old way. And it can be healthy. Like it was when you shook the cigarette monkey off your back and quit smoking.
But we’re about politics. We’re looking for a paradigm shift in government.
Congress has been reviled for many years. A shift is long overdue, the current way doesn’t work. The change must come. This way of governing has long been dysfunctional.
Do you think Congress is going to shift its way of seeing things? Could Congress shake off its old bad habits? What about the big monkey: lobbyists and their graft?
Although it’s toxic, it’s the paradigm. In our current way of seeing things, it’s quite ok to have a government, which is steered by corporate lobbyist, turn around and steer our lives. That’s our theoretical framework. No matter how rotted out, it has the status of conventional wisdom.
Our government is corrupted by pay-and-play. Daily we eat the consequences.
Well, let’s try something. An adjustment: Let’s try denouncing our politicians for exploitation, greed and materialism.
Nope, that doesn’t cut it. That’s what editors are doing. Editorializing is recognizing the problem, but so far no change.
Let’s try some other adjustment: voting politicians out and installing new? But time and time again the new representatives adapt to the standing habits in DC, they quickly get inside the old paradigm. So that doesn’t cut it. Today, our representatives in Congress are making big, big money. About fifty percent of our senators are millionaires. (How representative is that?)
Our nation is saturated in the grand paradigm that says selfishness is good, that greed is good. Greed has been called rational. Congress is showing us the way.
There will be no paradigm shift until ‘selfish’ becomes again a personal insult, and it’s hurled at politicians.
Now. Here comes the point you and I agree: When will that happen? Never.
But the point is, why not?
Because we don’t like risk. The risk of change is more fearsome than the wreckage being wrought by the old paradigm.
Regrets. In our government, we don’t expect a paradigm shift this side of Judgment Day. We have actually gotten to the point where the old paradigm, sick as it is, is necessary like an addict who cannot get along without his fix. Old paradigm: greed is good.
And they’ll fight wars before they switch.
Let me play this out. Prediction: Protecting the old paradigm, the government would sooner put soldiers on our streets to deal with social unrest from a collapsed economy, than deal with the corruption that caused it (3). I’m saying, place your bets: we’d see tanks bearing the American flag in our side streets before we’d see an end to corruption in government.
Another example. Could poverty become such a national concern that the poor suddenly get more media attention than the rich? That would be a paradigm flip. But there will be no such switch.
Other parts of the old paradigm have been around for centuries. Like a drop of ink in a glass of water, it has had time to spread. Here’s another one, the capitalist conviction that social inequality is good.
Understand, there’s new scientific evidence that it’s the reverse: social inequality is a killer (4). It’s in our face. But will we change?
So are we expecting any reversals of these?
“Over my dead body.” “Hell no.”
So let me understand this. We’re facing a drawn-out economic collapse. You’re looking for some kind of a fundamental change in national attitude?
Here’s another example. The new, moral attitude that the average worker has an existential right to a living wage and a health safety net.
Nope. We prefer the old, toxic paradigm: the moral attitude that it’s good to keep the average worker nervous – about wages, about benefits – because that keeps him on edge, and eager to work.
Despite the screeching, flapping absurdity of some paradigms, we’ll hang on and hang on.
Listen. The current system’s just not working. Our nation has been looted, our economy has been dismantled by self-serving capitalists. The old paradigm (way of looking at things) hasn’t been working for a long, long time. We need to stop.
As in: If your horse dies, get off.
But there will be no paradigm shift.
Not until Congress locks its doors on lobbyists.
Change the paradigm?
There is no such switch in the offing.
We’re asking for Congress do its business without corporate stalkers in every coat room? To turn around and work for the national good?
As soon as this storm blows over, we’re running back to greed.
1. The ACLU has a website showing where most of the surveillance is, here.
2. This is a famous experiment in perception, here.
3. See the home page of this blog for more on military used for civilian policing, also here.
4. It’s now established that social inequality shortens life expectancy, here.