heretics…positively negative, or, negatively positive?

In reading a bit of old and a bit of new I had one of those synchronous moments that one shouldn’t really ignore. It’s not a blinding, flashing lights and thundering noise type of synchronicity – just a small ‘hey-that’s-kind-of-curious’ type synchronicity.

It came around the term ‘heretics’. An online dictionary suggests that a heretic is: “a dissenter from established religious dogma.”

Yeah, I get that. It’s a term that most of us are somewhat familiar with – burning at the stake, heads cut-off, thrown to arenas of hungry lions and the like.

Now in in this particular case I came across Edward de Bono discussing heretics; as well as Seth Godin – both writers and thinkers that I have mentioned in previous postings. de Bono’s reference came in his 1987 book Letters to Thinkers: Further thoughts on Lateral Thinking. Godin’s reference came from one his most recent books Tribes: We need you to lead us.

Godin’s book, like most of his books, is a quick easy read with no shortage of good, fun ideas. As he suggests, the book’s premise is: “that leadership is the best marketing tactic to any organization–a company, a school, a church, a job seeker…. Our role today is to find, connect and lead tribes in order to make change happen.”

Early in his book Godin brings up ‘heretics’:

…By challenging the status-quo, a cadre of heretics is discovering that one person, just one, can make a huge difference.

Heretics are the new leaders. The ones who challenge the status quo, who get out in front of the their tribes, who create movements.

The marketplace now rewards (and embraces) the heretics. It’s clearly more fun to make the rules than to follow them, and for the first time, it’s also profitable, powerful, and productive to do just that.

This shift might be bigger than you think. Suddenly, heretics, troublemakers, and change agents aren’t merely thorns in our side — they are the keys to our success.”

Now keep this in mind, as I attempt to work in de Bono’s pondering on heretics. (And please bear with me as we slog through this essay-like posting…)

If we believe in a sort of Darwinian evolution of ideas, then being negative has a strong place. Negativity would provide the hostile environment in which only the fittest of ideas would survive. It would follow that these ideas were best fitted to the environment just as surviving animals are best fitted to their environment. Here we come to an interesting point. To what environment are the surviving ideas best fitted? If it is the hostile environment of negativity then only the most bland of ideas is likely to survive… If negativity is directed against change then the surviving ideas will best fit the existing framework. By definition such ideas will be unlikely to change frameworks.

This is an approximate reproduction of de Bono’s hand drawn image in the book illustrating his thoughts that the “fittest” ideas that pass through the ‘negativity’ mine field are generally the most bland and likely to change nothing.

So the purpose of negativity could be to provide the hostile environment that might ensure the Darwinian evolution of the best ideas. There is another purpose for negativity. This is the positive purpose of seeking to improve the idea by removing its weaknesses, or at least focusing upon them so that the designer of the idea can improve these aspects. It is not often that negativity has this constructive intention. It does not, however, matter what the intention might be, provided the person receiving the negativity chooses to treat it as constructive. I have always felt that negativity of this sort is a vote of confidence in the thinker…

de Bono goes on to ponder the philosophy of Hegel that suggests in the clash of thesis and antithesis comes a great idea – or synthesis. As de Bono rightfully points out, one cannot be so sure that the ‘synthesis’ is necessarily a combining of the best of the both, or an entirely new idea that follows the clash of the two. And really, the clash of the two often  just  results in deeper polarization and simply entrenches the opposing ideas instead.

Moving along…:

It has long been the aim of education to promote critical intelligence. Debate and argument are much encouraged. Scoring points and claiming victory is the aim of the debate. It is claimed that the triumphant view is the correct view. This is because it is logically more consistent with both feelings and knowledge. It is also hoped that that the triumphing view will lay before the audience those insights that allow them to apply their ready-to-be-applied emotions. So the suspicion must remain that debating is a skill (rather than an intellectual exercise) if the outcome is to be determined by the listeners. The attraction we feel for the debating mode is partly historical. In the Middle Ages the thinkers of the world were thinkers of the Church. All educated men were educated by the Church, and the best of them became thinkers for the Church. The purpose of Church thinking was – quite correctly – to preserve the doctrine and theology of the Church in the face of innovators who were usually called heretics.

To prove a heretic wrong was to prove the Church right… It says much for the cleverness of the heretics that they forced through some radical changes in the Church thinking. [there was also a bunch of folks burnt at the stake or met other nasty demises]. It could also be said that in such cases the heretics forced an insight by focusing on areas not yet subject to focused thinking. As in so many other instances, we see here negativity in defence of the status quo. ‘If you wish me to change, prove to me that what I am doing needs changing.’

This is an adaptation of de Bono’s second illustration:

In practice these intellectual justifications for negativity tend to be less important than the emotional justifications. To prove someone wrong means that you are superior to that other person [or a periodic asshole]. To agree with another person makes your individuality superfluous [or protects your ass – i.e. think married life].  It also makes you a follower. Being negative gives an intellectual sense of achievement that cannot be equaled by more constructive attitudes. If you succeed in proving someone wrong there is an immediate and complete achievement. Contrast this with the putting forward of a constructive idea. With a constructive idea there are two possibilities. The first is that you must show that the offered idea does work. Instant proof is usually only possible in mathematics, occasionally, with insight. In other cases it may take weeks or years before the suggested idea can be shown to work. If the value of the idea cannot be demonstrated instantly then a person offering the idea has to hope that the listener will like it. It is rather like telling a joke: if the listener does not think it funny then no joke has been told. That is a weak position to find oneself in.

Outside the world of business, defence is the most consistent survival strategy. In religion, science, politics and art, it may be enough to defend an existing point of view against all attack. In the world of business the reality of the market place makes defence an inadequate intellectual strategy.

There are virtues in negativity, but most of them can be achieved in other ways..

So how many heretics does it take to change a light bulb at the offices where wild salmon are apparently ‘managed’?

What if the individuals responsible for looking after salmon runs were in an organization run like a business? You know the type of business where remuneration is dependent on performance.

Truly, as de Bono points out, in science and politics it’s simply enough to defend an existing point of view – maybe throw in a government union that makes it a little tougher to fire due to incompetence or terrible performance – and presto we’re looking at a real live cod (I mean salmon) (I mean cod) population collapse.

Why? well it’s easier for scientists (and politicians) to debate the complexities of climate change, decadal oscillations in the North Pacific, shifting feed patterns, which way the Aleutian Low is circulating, and whatever the complex-factor-of-the-day is – as opposed to simply admitting that the ‘science’ behind fish management is guesswork at best (come on, we’re not out there actually counting every spawning salmon, so how can we really know how many are there and how many we can catch?).

If we’re guessing – then let’s maybe be a bit more cautious. And rather than hiding behind a curtain of ‘science’; go and truly sit down with the individuals that know individual runs of salmon in specific streams and areas.

One would think that after this many years of screwing it up – that maybe someone would seek assistance… not to mention a few solid wrist slappings from judicial inquiries and Auditor Generals.

If I was in a business that forecast $10 million in profits (i.e. 10 million sockeye salmon forecast to return to the Fraser – 1 million actually showed up) and I only produced $1 million in profits — I think I’d be in deep shit. I think my shareholders would have my head.

Unfortunately, when it comes to wild salmon there is no TARP program, as there is for US banks that are apparently “too big to fail”.

Are there some heretics that will change the game – troublemakers, change agents, thorns in side, as Godin suggests – the keys to success?

2 thoughts on “heretics…positively negative, or, negatively positive?

  1. salmonguy

    maybe… and thank ghad we’re not getting burned at the stake anymore.

    here’s a thought from Seth Godin’s book Tribes: We need you to lead us as it relates to “positive deviants”:

    As a general rule, managers don’t like deviants. By definition, deviance from established standards is a failure for a manager working to deliver on spec. So, most of the time, most managers work hard to stamp out deviance (and deviants who create it).

    Managers stamp out deviants. That’s what they do.

    Leaders understand a different calculus. Leaders understand that change is not only omnipresent, but the key to success.

    And it turns out that employees who are committed to change and engaged in making things happen are happier and more productive.

    Putting these two facts together it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that you desperately need more leaders, more deviants – more agents of change, not fewer.

    Godin highlights this concept by telling the story of aid workers who have learned the hard way that going into a community and trying to stamp out nonstandard behavior doesn’t work – or bringing in concepts, tools, and ideas from the outside. The better strategy has been to find the families or individuals who are not experiencing starvation, or whatever the issue has been and then find a way to promote this throughout an area.

    Some of this would be parallel with the idea of fair trade as opposed to foreign aid – such as coffee and other crops.

    find leaders (the heretics who are doing things differently and making change), and then amplify their work, give them a platform, and help them find followers – and things get better. They always get better…

    It’s simple but it works….This seems obvious, but it’s heretical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *