The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.

GOVERNANCE, UNCERTAINTY AND COMPASSION with DONALD MICHAEL, Ph.D. 

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Today we're going to be examining "Governance, Uncertainty and Compassion." My guest, Donald Michael, is a professor emeritus in planning and public policy and also psychology at the University of Michigan. He's a former policy analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the Institute for Peace Research, for the National Science Foundation, and many other organizations. He's the author of several important books, including The Next Generation, The Unprepared Society, and Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn. Welcome, Donald.

DONALD MICHAEL, Ph.D.: I'm delighted to be here.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, one of the major focuses of your work in looking at governance has been long-range social planning -- both the need for it, and the impossibility of really doing these plans. One of the things I think you point out -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is that really to date there's been virtually no long-range social planning in government at all.

MICHAEL: Well, I think that's generally true, and that has resulted in very serious consequences, an accumulated pile-up of problems and possibilities both, that to be dealt with are going to require long-range planning. We're really in an ironic dilemma in this society, and you put it very well in your introduction -- that we've got to do it, whether we're talking about education or health or use of natural resources or many other areas, building cities and the like. We've got to do long-range planning in order to use our resources effectively and to have them available in the form we need in the future.

MISHLOVE: There is a counter view to this -- that is, that we can just go ahead and do what we need to satisfy our current short-term greed or needs, and then eventually the pendulum will swing the other way, and things will correct themselves because they'll get out of hand. You take issue with that.

MICHAEL: Sure, and all you have to do is look at the state of the world today to see that you can make a very good case that that old approach won't work. I know of very few serious students of what's happening in the world and what needs to be done, including even political people when you talk to them behind the scenes, who would argue that you can just bumble along and let things happen -- gather our rosebuds as we go, so to speak, and let the future take care of itself. If we did that, we would pollute the world, we would use up the natural resources that are available too quickly, we would leave nothing for the generations to come in a form that would be worth living in. So we've got to have that long-range approach.

MISHLOVE: The tricky thing, as I see it and as you point out, is that it's hard for us to be certain about where we're going now. There are experts who say we've got plenty of resources, nothing to worry about, other experts who say we're running out. How can we plan at all in the midst of this uncertainty?

MICHAEL: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is revise, in a sense, the meaning of planning. In the past planning has meant in effect having control over the situation, getting from here to there in the future in a precise, controlled, highly structured way. Now we can't do that -- in part because our knowledge is insufficient for doing that, in part because events happen with the best-laid plans and change that situation. So planning, then, instead of being a highly scheduled effort to control getting from here to there, instead has to be seen as a pedagogy, if you will, for learning how to move in directions that we generally want to go -- revising our movements and our directions as we go, changing as we go. It becomes more like white-water rafting as a process, or being an explorer, going out into new country where you don't know what you're going to get to, but you have to prepare yourself to be able to change as you move through that country.

MISHLOVE: In other words, if you've got a goal that you're moving towards through some kind of -- you might call it a cybernetic feedback process -- you may wind your way back and forth, up and down, but eventually you'll get to that goal.

MICHAEL: Precisely. Or you may decide as you go along that that goal isn't precisely the one you want to go for, and you change it. Now, what's central to that way of going about things is a major reperception about what constitutes competence. In the past the director of activities, whether it was in a corporation or in a government agency, was seen as competent and saw themselves as competent, if they were certain about how to do what we're talking about.

MISHLOVE: John Wayne, the strong leader.

MICHAEL: The John Wayne type. And if you listen to political statements, or read annual reports, that's still the general way of presenting the competent leader-executive -- they know how to do it. Now what we're talking about is knowing as well as possible what we're uncertain about in getting from here to there, and then using that feedback as we go, informed by those uncertainties, to adjust our process of going from here to there.

MISHLOVE: It seems today the new heroes of our age have become the young entrepreneurs who have, against great odds, forged their way, because they seemed to know where they were going, and have had brilliant success. And then, if their businesses take a downturn, we forget about that.

MICHAEL: Exactly. The entrepreneur is the flash in the pan. It's not that entrepreneurs are not valuable; they are, as introducers of new possibilities and new products or ideas, because you have entrepreneurs of ideas as well. But that isn't enough, and the fascination with entrepreneurs today is really a retreat to the old way -- you know, just do something, and that's all we need to worry about, rather than worrying about the future, being concerned about the future.

MISHLOVE: In a sense it seems that there's a conflict between the can-do people, the people of action, and the people of thought. Ever since Hamlet, the notion has been that we get paralyzed by thinking things out too much.

MICHAEL: Yes, there is that conflict, there is that tension, and I expect that to continue. What we're talking about now in this conversation is moving some of that balance away from the can-do into more thoughtful appreciation of what is it that we're trying to do: Are we getting there? How do we get there? And that means recognizing we really don't know very well how to do it.

MISHLOVE: I liked your word reperception. It has rich connotations. But when we talk about, say in the political arena, the reperception of our leaders as being people who are going to admit their uncertainties, I have a hard time envisioning any politician running for office on a platform of uncertainty, because they would be afraid of the competition.

MICHAEL: Sure. You're quite right. I don't expect this to happen all at once, if it happens at all. I'm simply talking about what I believe needs to happen, and about ideas which some people in government and corporations subscribe to as well. But let's stay with your political leader for a moment. You're quite right. No leader could get up and say, "We really don't know how to get from here to there" that bluntly. But what I think will be politically possible in some situations, even beginning now, is for a leader to say, "My opponent claims to know the answer. Either my opponent is a fool, or is trying to deceive you, because we don't have this information, this information, this information, which we would need to know that that answer was right." So you begin to open up the possibilities for moving toward a learning society in which, instead of inviting the followership to come along because the leader knows what to do, you invite the followership to participate in a discovery process of getting from here to there around important issues. Understand when I say acknowledging uncertainty, that one needs to be specific about what one is uncertain about, and that honesty opens up possibilities for creativity. Being uncertain in that way opens up options. It's when leaders or decision makers act as if they were certain, they close off options, and in a complex world like this that we hardly understand at all, we need more options rather than fewer.

MISHLOVE: One gets the sense that this attitude of certainty is associated with a very masculine world view, and that to show uncertainty is equivalent to being weak or feminine somehow -- you know, in the male mythology it's one of the most fearful things of all.

MICHAEL: Well, yes. It's partly that male effort to control, which had positive virtues for a long, long time. It's the success of that masculine model of performance that has brought us to the richness and complexity of society now which makes it a faulty way of operating. That isn't to say that it's never advisable to act that way, or useful, or that everybody should or shouldn't, but that it becomes only one way of performing in the world. And indeed there are more men -- some of the executives and senior administrators I've worked with, not all by any means but some -- who recognize that they can no longer claim to be in control in that macho way. They've got to find another way to lead effectively -- more of a white-water rafting way.

MISHLOVE: Let me try and push a metaphor on you. Perhaps it's an analogy rather than a metaphor. In physics, normally thought of as the most hard-core, the most disciplined, solid, masculine, if you will, of all sciences, physicists have come up against the principle of uncertainty, and have to admit that at the base of things, if we look at the fundamental constituents of the physical world, we are uncertain about where they are, how fast they're moving, and so on. Is there any application of the principle of uncertainty, as being implicit in the bedrock of sciences, to your looking at uncertainty in the social environment?

MICHAEL: No, no, that's a very special kind of uncertainty in physics. It only applies in certain kinds of situations, and it's an uncertainty where you're precisely sure what you're uncertain about. That is, the more precisely you measure momentum, let's say, of a subatomic particle, the less precisely you can measure position. But that is a peculiarity -- you can call it by other names as well -- that's a peculiarity of that level of reality. It is not in physics a peculiarity of this level of reality, where people contend in organizations and deal with everyday kinds of life. They're at the Newtonian level of reality, which is just as real as the quantum level of reality. They apply to different phenonema.

MISHLOVE: I'm sure we could spend an entire other interview looking at how far one can stretch the metaphors of physics.

MICHAEL: Not very.

MISHLOVE: There are those who would disagree with you.

MICHAEL: I know, I know.

MISHLOVE: But let's stick with this topic then, and look a little more at uncertainty as it affects us politically.

MICHAEL: As human beings at this level.

MISHLOVE: In our culture right now, we're faced with awesome issues -- the threat of global nuclear destruction, the threat of overpopulation, the threat of irreversible pollution. These are the reasons, I think, that you've stated that we need to have long-range social planning to ward these things off. We've been warned by U Thant of the United Nations that we have a short period of time to do this globally, or it will be too late. And yet at the same time, what you're saying is we can't really plan because we are uncertain about so many things.

MICHAEL: There's a difference between planning where you have to assume you really know, and planning that you use as a guide for moving ahead to accomplish certain goals. So we can in that sense of planning -- where we acknowledge the uncertainties and use them in designing the plan and in adjusting the plan as we go -- we can deal with things, or attempt to deal with things, like pollution over the long run, or education, or the like.

MISHLOVE: But these uncertainties in many instances are very profound. There's an uncertainty, for example, of whether we should have a nuclear policy of deterrence or one of disarmament. How do you plan around that?

MICHAEL: Some of those you can't deal with at that level.

MISHLOVE: That's a big one.

MICHAEL: That's a big one, but you can't resolve that conceptual uncertainty at that level. You're going to have to, in that case, try to set up, as we are -- we in principle meaning a lot of people here and elsewhere in the world -- other ways to conduct activities which make it less and less worthwhile, depending on that kind of a policy pro or con, so that we build up trade relationships or cultural relationships. After all, the Hundred Years' War was a religious war, and it finally petered out not because the problem was resolved, but because industry and other activities began to come in and change the context that was relevant. That's what I think we need to do in cases like this.

MISHLOVE: In other words, by changing the context we can somehow manipulate or work around some of these uncertainties.

MICHAEL: Sure. Or we work with the uncertainties. You see, the uncertainties become the basis for discovering options.

MISHLOVE: If we can acknowledge them.

MICHAEL: If we can acknowledge them, that's right. If we don't acknowledge them -- and to my mind, in a way it's almost a greater threat than the threat of nuclear war, because I think nuclear war isn't terribly likely, to my way of evaluating it -- but a pile-up of other disruptive consequences, education and the like, and pollution, because we don't acknowledge uncertainty -- that threat is the greater, and makes it harder and harder for governments or organizations to do anything constructive, because they keep getting caught in this swamp of backlogged problems.

MISHLOVE: One of the things that you write about when you discuss uncertainty is that in this uncertain environment, if a manager or an organization, a governmental unit, attempts to intervene, attempts to affect a particular variable that's of interest to that organization, they really don't know what the ultimate outcome will be -- that is, what other variables are going to be affected by them.

MICHAEL: That's right. That's part of the change, that reperception, that becomes important. It's part of why leaders have to give up the idea of being in control. They've got to be resilient rather than in control, because we really can't know the consequences of our actions with the best of intentions, or the worst of intentions, because the interaction of those consequences with a more and more complex world is simply unpredictable.

MISHLOVE: In other words, the variables -- the complexity of the world, the social environment in which we live -- are so complex that they are absolutely unfathomable to human beings, and probably to any computer we will ever build. Therefore one never knows, if one engages in a peace movement, if that's not going to further some other variable that will lead to war.

MICHAEL: That's right in abstract. But that doesn't mean you don't act. You still have to act, and given the choice of acting for peace or against peace, you act for peace. However, given what we've just been saying, it becomes imperative that those acting for peace in a peace movement have to be as sophisticated as they can be about the various ways things might go, and then make their choices among those various ways and stay alert to what else is happening, as a way of adjusting the development of the process over time.

MISHLOVE: One of the concepts that you've written about is the notion of compassion -- its value as a way of operating, as a way of managing, as a way of governance.

MICHAEL: Well, it goes along with what we've been saying. To my mind there are three aspects we have to recognize, that every person and every organization faces, whether they know it or not, or every government or whatever entity. One is that you really don't know the outcome of your actions. Even if you think you've got them pinned down, you really can't know in any way for sure. Second, that we live in a storytelling life, we create our reality. Everybody does, and all cultures do, and they're alternative realities. So that's an arbitrary, problematic way of being in the world. And thirdly, everybody is struggling with the meaning of life, with living, and with dying. And if you accept that that's the condition in this turbulent and uncertain world that everybody's in, whether they know it or not, including oneself, it means that you really have to support one another in including self, using all the knowledge one can bring to bear, recognizing all the ignorance one lives in, in the face of that knowledge. The only choice under those circumstances is a compassionate state of being toward self and toward others, that we live in that problematicalness. And we have to respond to that. Now, there are an awful lot of people that aren't prepared to be that way, but I think it's a necessary way, and I think there are increasing numbers of people who are prepared to be that way.

MISHLOVE: What you seem to be suggesting, then, Donald, is that when one really comes to grips with the actual state of the world -- the existential reality, the uncertainties, the necessity of coping with loneliness and death, the myths in which we're all surrounded -- that compassion is a natural outcome of that understanding.

MICHAEL: It should be natural, to the extent that we can let ourself recognize the condition you just so vividly described. To the extent we can let ourself recognize that, compassion then is the natural outcome. The problem is that an awful lot of people are very good at not allowing themselves to recognize our condition, and that's one of the problems of dealing with this world in a constructive way.

MISHLOVE: In your world -- you've been very extensively involved as a policy analyst and as a consultant in government and in business and academia -- you seem to be, I gather, encountering more and more highly placed individuals who are coming to this kind of a compassionate perception.

MICHAEL: Well, I don't know what more and more means, because I'm very much aware that the people I'm in touch with are people who are resonant with what I'm saying. So I don't know about the ones I'm not in touch with. There are surely people around -- and my guess is that given the circumstances we're talking about, there are probably more people around. It doesn't follow from that for a moment that they're going to take over. Whatever happens there's going to be a dialectic between other ways of thinking and being, and these ways of thinking and being.

MISHLOVE: I wouldn't want to fall into the trap of being an Aquarian thinker in this regard.

MICHAEL: There's simply no way to conclude that somehow one particular way of seeing the world is going to capture the world. It never has, and people have very different psychological needs, and they're in very different places in a society.

MISHLOVE: But as a policy analyst and a planning consultant, I should think it would be a very admirable goal if we could develop a world which was governed by compassion.

MICHAEL: It would be an admirable world, and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I didn't think so. That is the kind of writing and consulting I do, and encouraging that state of mind. I see the task as seeding these ideas -- seeding them, and hoping they'll sprout, and never really knowing, in keeping with what I'm saying, whether they will, and if they do, whether that will have a desirable outcome. But I do what I think, after a lot of deliberation, is in what I hope is the right direction. Yes, it would be a wonderful world that way. I don't expect it in any complete sense in any foreseeable time, but I hope there will be pieces of the world operating that way.

MISHLOVE: There's almost a little paradox here. It's as if, if you could be completely certain that we could live in a compassionate world, then your very reason for being compassionate might vanish.

MICHAEL: Yes. In fact that's happened with many religious traditions, where what originally started as a high spiritual commitment then became dogmatized and mixed up with power, and by God that's the way things are going to be. Yes, I think that's quite right. In the insisting on moving toward a compassionate world, the compassion could very well go out of it. It's like that old grafitti remark, "Stamp out mental illness or I'll kill you." That sort of thing.

MISHLOVE: In learning to learn, in planning to learn, this openness, this vulnerability and willingness to acknowledge our vulnerability that you suggest is really essential for long-range planning -- it seems to me that this is also the basic ingredient of compassion. In other words, long-range planning itself in our society, if it's going to occur, would have to occur out of compassion.

MICHAEL: Yes. Let me state it just a little differently. You're headed in the right direction. Planning becomes the pedagogy for a learning society. It's the way that a society discovers where it's going and what it can be. But to be a learning society -- learning is inherently a vulnerable way of being, because you're open to new questions. It isn't learning the answers, it's learning what are the questions to ask. Learning is a discovery process, an exploration process. It's a vulnerable place to be. Being vulnerable, then, if that's acceptable in self and in others, requires compassion to sustain and respect and nurture that vulnerability. So that's the way I would put those relationships together. So you really can't have a learning society unless one can be compassionate toward self and toward others. If we can't have a learning society we're not going to discover our way out of the mess. It's just going to get deeper.

MISHLOVE: So in other words, you seem to be saying that given these awesome problems that we're faced with, we have a responsibility which is at least twofold, and that is to solve the problems intellectually, think them through, but to do so with heart, with compassion.

MICHAEL: To do so with heart, yes, because it's risky

-- that thinking through and the acting on that thinking, which at any time won't be complete. It's painful to do this. It's hard work, it's risk taking. Anybody doing it, or any organization doing it, deserves all the respect and support and nurturing it can get, and that's what compassion is about -- passion too, in that sense, yes. So I think you're quite right on that. And as I say, I think one of the exciting things that's happening is there are more males, and there are certainly women, who are prepared to move in these directions, are trying to move in these directions. See, women have lived this way for the most part, most of their lives, in this culture and in most cultures -- in a learning mode, in a compassionate mode, nurturing their families.

MISHLOVE: We're out of time now, Donald. It's a pleasure to have you with me, Donald Michael.

MICHAEL: Great to be here.

MISHLOVE: Thank you very much.

MICHAEL: Thank you. You're welcome indeed.

END 


Index of Transcripts    Top of  this Web Page    Intuition Network Home Page    Thinking Allowed Productions Home Page