Chapter 5 excerpts [and flowchart] from the outstanding publication, The Paradigm Conspiracy: Why Our Social Systems Violate Human Potential — And How We Can Change Them | 1998
by Christopher Largent and Denise Breton
Breaking Through Paradigm Defenses
FROM PARADIGM FILTERS TO PARADIGM COVERS
Covering soul loss. Self-knowledge observes the paradigms we use to filter consciousness and focus our energies. But self-knowledge also observes the price we pay for filtering reality as we do. To focus on some energies, other energies get blocked. That’s natural and necessary, even a good idea.
What’s not such a good idea is to decide that soul energies are the ones we need to block. Yet that’s exactly what happens. To fit into a control-paradigm family, school, church, peer group, workplace, or profession, we factor out our inner self. Coping with the shame, humiliation, and trauma implanted by control-paradigm institutions takes precedence — and drives our souls into hiding; our inner being can endure only so much trampling.
When paradigm filters obscure our inner self to create an outer self that does the coping, the gap left inside grows into a chasm. Wang Yang-ming, the sixteenth-century neo-Confucian teacher, put it succinctly: “With the true self, one lives; without it, one dies.”
At first we ignore soul loss. When that doesn’t work, we keep problems a secret and pretend everything is okay. Since we’re not sure what’s wrong, we cover to get by. We devise stories — which we then live out — to shore up the outward image, while we search for something to fill the inner void.
Seeking without for what can only be found within, though, is the formula for compulsive behavior, since no amount of outward compensating can compensate. We don’t feel connected with what’s meaningful. Life seems empty, which, without our souls’ aliveness, it is.
Are we our filters? The trouble intensifies when we forget the gold we are and instead identify with our paradigm filters. We believe that to expose our filters is to expose ourselves; worse, to lose our filters is to lose ourselves. Our filters are how we’ve survived. We fuse with them, believing they’re all we’ve got.
Hindu philosophy describes our personality filters as vehicles for our souls. They give us the tools to learn and evolve, but they have the same status as the cars we purchase and resell after we’re done with them. Our paradigm-packaged, space-time-race-gender-culture personalities are vehicles, not who we are in our core.
Yet, given the traumas of coming into this world, we-our-souls forget this teensy distinction and come to identify with we-our-filters — the mask part of us that bears a name and carries a personal history filled with abuse and defenses. It’s as if we identify with our armor rather than with the living person that the armor protects.
In this light, the rigidity that makes paradigm shifts traumatic turns out to be a fear reaction — fear of the emptiness and vulnerability we’d face if we didn’t have paradigm filters to fill in and protect us. Treating our inner lives as having little value — a strategy we’ve acquired from control systems — we build our paradigm’s filters into forts of invulnerability.
ACCEPTABLE CLOAKING DEVICES
The best way to make our paradigm armor invulnerable is to make it invisible. The cloaking shield of invisibility is the most potent defense, as Klingon, Romulan, and American defense engineers know. What can’t be seen or detected can’t be shot down. Invisible, our paradigms avoid the risk of attack. We hide our paradigm’s filtering processes under acceptable cloaking devices — and many such covers will do the trick.
Staying within a group. For example, one way to make paradigm filters invisible is to surround ourselves with people who share our set. We align ourselves with groups that take the same paradigm for granted. Surrounded by filter-familiars, ours blend in. Paradigm filters stay invisible: “What filters?” “What’s a paradigm?”
As long as we remain within the group, our paradigm filters are safe. No one questions them, since everyone shares the agenda of keeping them unchanged. When paradigm issues do surface, it’s to reinforce how successful and right the group’s paradigm is. The official lines get repeated and the catchphrases and shibboleths echoed. To speak the language of a given paradigm isn’t to do paradigm reflection but to identify with a group whose strategy is to keep the paradigm in place. Those who question it are soon out.
Small wonder cliques permeate paradigm-rigid societies — with each group accusing the others of being cultish. The more researchers studied the religious cults that shocked everyone in the seventies, the more the paradigm-dogmatics — resembled what goes on in mainline churches, corporations, schools, universities, governments, labor unions, and nonprofits. The strategy of keeping filters invisible under the cover of a group-shared paradigm turns out to be not aberrational behavior but the required norm.
When groups support growth. Not that the support of a group-shared paradigm is all bad. If we’re shifting to a new paradigm and letting go of the damaging filters, group support is exactly what we need. Transitions of this magnitude aren’t easy. We’re on new ground — and usually in systems that work hard to keep us as we were.
We also need the support of a group-shared paradigm if we’re exploring its full potential, as happens in scientific, therapeutic, creative, artistic, and spiritual communities. Working with people of like mind takes us forward by leaps and bounds. As we work with others synergetically, developments emerge greater than any one person can produce.
We also need support if we restructuring social systems, since we’re bucking the collective commitment to a particular paradigm. Social change takes heavy lifting — more than one person can do alone. Gandhi needed the Indian people to join in his strategy of nonviolent noncooperation with British rule, a major paradigm shift, for his efforts to have effect.
Whether group involvement supports filter evolution or filter fixedness, therefore, is a matter of paradigm development: what phase are we in? As with the chick and eggshell, what supports paradigm evolution at one stage may stifle it at another. It all depends on where we are — and how relatedness to a group either supports or hinders our paradigm-evolving process.
Compartmentalized. Another way to keep paradigms invisible is to split our lives into compartments and to design paradigm filters for each box. We divide our lives into love relationships, family, school, work, social circles, and church. We divide our businesses into labor, management, staff, and customers. We divide our governments into powerful, celebrated leaders and powerless nameless citizens, into liberals, conservatives, and radicals on both ends, or into clout-carrying PACs (political action committees) and the cloutless masses. We divide our professions into experts and clients, doctors and patients, know-it-alls and know-nothings, perfect ones and sickies. We divide our minds into reason and emotions, money making and family values. We divide our culture into sciences and humanities — and within each a dizzying number of specialized fields. And we divide reality into spirit and matter, mind and body, positive and negative, God and humanity, inner and outer, spirituality and “the real world.”
By splitting our world into separate pieces, we protect the paradigm filters we use for each bit. Soul has nothing to do with economics. Spirituality has no relation to government. In a fixed area, certain paradigm filters apply, and we don’t mix them with filters we use for another box. That way, we never have to ask how it all adds up; it just doesn’t. No one expects it to.
We don’t ask, for example, whether the values we use at work are the values we’d like our children to live at home. If we’re management, we can’t be bothered with the filters of labor. If we’re scientists, we don’t have much time for humanities. If we’re doctors, we pay little heed to the self-healing powers of clients. Or if we adhere to one religion or political faction, we don’t want to hear about the views of another.
By putting walls between our filters, we protect our overall filter arrangement. We avoid filter comparisons, which invariably bring our paradigm out into the open and subject it to revision. As we mentioned in chapter 3, some of the greatest leaps in knowledge and art — cultural paradigms — occurred when two or more societies interacted. Box-category thinking, valuable as it is for developing specialized knowledge, prevents this fertile exchange. It forbids us even to attempt to integrate our filters with wider contexts, which paradigm evolution demands. There’s no overall paradigm, we tell ourselves, which means our cultural paradigm stays offstage, invisible.
Open and objective. Another way to keep paradigms hidden is to appear to be filter-free, as if we have no paradigm, no filters — and no covers for them either. For decades, scientists hid their filters behind claims of objectivity: they weren’t using filters; they were unbiased observers. Only when physicist Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” suggested that scientists’ perspectives influence and even determine what they observe did scientists begin to acknowledge their filters and examine how they affected their findings.
Being “open” and “skeptical” are other ways of hiding paradigms we’re not keen to question. Not that open-mindedness is the prime evil plaguing the globe. Rather, sometimes claiming to be open is used as a strategy to make us appear paradigm-free, which guarantees that neither we nor anyone else has a chance to look at our filters. By appearing to be oh-so big-minded, we keep our paradigm close to the chest and off-limits.
No matter how open we are, we’re not without paradigm equipment, nor is that desirable. As long as we have bodies, minds, and a space-time awareness, we have filters. As long as we live in control-paradigm systems, we have defenses. We need them for protection.
Suffocating. The trouble is, our paradigm covers work so effectively that they obscure our paradigm’s filters not only from others but from ourselves as well. If we’re to evolve, we need to know what paradigm we’re using, so we can change it. Defensive covers block this awareness.
How far will we go, though, to protect our paradigm? What cost are we willing to pay to keep it in place? Would we rather die than change it? That’s the danger. Like a chick trapped inside a shell it can’t break, we can suffocate inside an outgrown paradigm — and in the groups that share it, especially if they’ve raised us, paid our salaries, or promised love, security, prestige, meaning, and salvation as long as we stay committed to them. Taking chances and pecking through doesn’t sound attractive, even though we suspect the shell is what’s smothering us. The more afraid we get, the more fervently we try to make life in the shell work.
And why should pecking through sound attractive? Being inside the shell is what we know. We’ve learned how to adjust. Like the chick, we haven’t a clue about life outside. Our filters have shielded us. It’s hard to imagine that they may now be killing us.
Shifting paradigms is scary. No wonder our strategies for keeping paradigms in place are more developed than our strategies for changing them.
System filters. The same paradigm-protective dynamics occur in systems. Like individuals, systems need paradigm to do their jobs. Paradigms organize a shared activity, whether it’s education, spiritual pursuits, doing business, or running a town or nation. They coordinate the energies of everyone involved by giving them an overall view — a framework of ideas, concepts, and values. This framework then translates into specifics: methods, policies, roles, strategies, structures, and goals. The paradigm has a track record of working, at least by paradigm-defined standards.
If they’re serving us well, for instance, paradigm filters of religion screen out separateness and intolerance, so we can see our lives whole and connected; business filters screen out greed, so we can manage our human household wisely (the original meaning of economy); school filters screen out fears of inadequacy, so we can tap the treasures of our minds, and government filters out power-grabbing and exploitation, so we can build a just, fair, and free world together.
Off-limits and invisible. Somehow, though, our social paradigm filters aren’t working this way. To paraphrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans, they’re filtering out what they should let through and letting through what they should filter out.
Yet getting at our systems’ filtering paradigm and changing it is no small task. System filters, orchestrated by the control paradigm, have their ways of staying off-limits. Many of the most soul-damaging control filters — such as the win-lose competition filter that dominates school and business, or the power-over filter that creates heavy-handed hierarchies in families, religions, the military, law enforcement agencies, and corporations — go unquestioned, even by otherwise change-oriented people. We take the filters and the paradigm behind them for granted. We’ll fire people and hire new ones, spend money by the billions, conduct studies and form committees, yet not question the core paradigm creating our social structures.
Changing actors in bad plays won’t make the plays better; we have to rewrite the scripts. But that’s hard to do when the scripts are functionally invisible. How do the cloaking devices become so effective?
As with personal paradigms, system paradigms enjoy invisibility as their best defense against change. Systems use many covers to hide their paradigm filters, but one strategy beats all for blocking filter-awareness: taboos.
SILENCED BY TABOOS
Societies’ most potent cloaking devices for its paradigm are its taboos: the questions we dare not raise, the things we dare not do, and the ways we dare not think. Obeying taboos, we pretend that aspects of our lives don’t exist. Problems aren’t problems, and obvious sources of trouble remain off-limits; we never speak of them. We let our systems throw walls of silence around us, so neither we nor they are threatened by hearing the truth about what we’re experiencing.
Taboos about sex. From the Puritans’ version of Christianity, for example, we inherit taboos about sex. As H. L. Mencken observed, puritanism, is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Because we’re not as committed to perpetuating puritanism as we were several hundred years ago, we’re examining and changing these taboos.
For instance, even talking about sex (yes, we almost didn’t write this section, because there’s a taboo about that too) makes people uncomfortable, but the taboos go way beyond that. Everyone knows that sex is pleasurable, but no one’s supposed to experience it (except Mae West and Marilyn Monroe). Men are supposed to have sex only to satisfy their “drives,” while women are only supposed to do it to have children. Neither is really allowed to feel the pleasure of the experience (good women don’t enjoy it, and real men don’t have feelings).
Gender-specific taboos even invade our most private practices, though many of these are being changed: men aren’t supposed to get involved in intimacies (cuddling and all that); women aren’t supposed to be on top, men aren’t supposed to touch each other except for athletic slaps; women aren’t supposed to initiate sexual activity; neither men nor women are supposed to touch themselves, except for bathing, and you’d better be quick about that.
Significantly for a patriarchal society, more taboos exist for women than for men. Women aren’t supposed to have more than one partner, for example, even if they’re not married, while the opposite is encouraged in men, even if they are. Older men may team up with younger women, but older women aren’t supposed to go for younger men. It’s more okay for men to talk about sex — especially using specific language or slang — than it is for women.
And everyone who has a sexual experience is programmed to experience guilt and shame afterwards.
That’s the control paradigm in force — and invisible. We’re too absorbed in fulfilling gender roles or feeling guilty to reflect on the paradigm that sets us up to feel these things. We think it’s us, and taboos keep it that way. They make us controllable.
Taboos about feelings. Another paradigm-protective taboo makes our feelings off-limits in social systems. In family systems, for instance, we learn to stifle “unacceptable” feelings and feel guilty for having them. In school systems, we learn to get tough and hide how we feel, whether it’s fear of tests, shame in competition, or joy in learning. Blase’ cool is the way to survive school, with emotions tucked safely away. At work and in professions, feelings have no place. The most professional-looking expert is the one most “in control” of his or her emotions, therefore apparently least emotionally involved. Even the words emotion and emotional have negative connotations. To say someone is being emotional more or less discredits what the person says.
Factoring out our emotions is convenient for control-paradigm systems. If we’re cut off from how we feel when we’re being dominated or shamed, we’ll tolerate it more readily. And we’ll learn to disregard the pain we feel when we witness control-system abuse to others. We’ll flee into our heads, where the control paradigm feeds us with rationalizations, judgments, and ultimata — “Things must be done this way, or chaos follows.”
Science taboos. From science, we’ve inherited a host of taboos about what’s real and what’s not, what we can talk about “intelligently” and what’s superstitious or pseudoscience. In general, the rule is this: If you can measure something, manipulate it, predict its functionings, and then replicate it — i.e., control the outcome of experiments on it — it’s scientific and real; if not, it’s imagination or illusion.
We accept this approach to science because it gives us some measure of control over our environment. Yet there’s the rub. The strategy reduces knowledge to control. We think that knowing something means being able to control it — control-paradigm epistemology. Given the authority we grant science, we don’t question this strategy, even though it discounts mountains of observed but nonreproducible — therefore “anecdotal” — evidence.
Science taboos: Their wider impact. But defining knowledge in terms of control raises questions. To take some practical ones first, what kind of control does control science give us? Control-paradigm science inevitably disregards wider contexts, because wider contexts aren’t easily controlled. To gain control, scientists eliminate variables and constrict the field. In fact, early in their schooling, scientists learn to think in narrowly focused ways and to disregard broader contexts. The most defensible Ph.D. thesis is the most specialized one.
When we act on control knowledge, as we do in devising technologies, we act on highly focused information — information that has eliminated broader-context considerations. Using narrowed control-think to create all our modern goodies, we find ourselves faced with wider-context messes. Yes, aspirin can help with heart disease, but it can also cause bleeding stomach ulcers. Yes, combustion engines move us around, but hey pollute like crazy. Yes, we can invent super-poisons for pesticides, but we end up ingesting the stuff, while mutant bugs use it for seasoning.
As long as the immediate control objective is achieved, though, control-paradigm science doesn’t worry about the larger impact. No wonder we’re stuck with radioactive toxic waste that has a half-life of several million years and traveling clouds of acid raid that kill forests. As we discovered on a trip to eastern Canada, seeing trees — entire forests — sick and dying from the top down can ruin your whole vacation.
It’s no good using the dodge that science operates apart from technology — that the endeavor of science is unrelated to its technical, commercial applications. Who funds scientific research in universities? Who decides which projects receive grants and which don’t? It’s not the Good Fairy — or science in the public interest. If the same money went into researching alternative energy sources, for instance, as gushes into developing new oil fields, new uses for petroleum by-products. . .our economy wouldn’t be fossil-fuel dependent, our environment wouldn’t be choking with petroleum fumes and discarded plastics, and our knowledge of energy wouldn’t be stalled with burning things — caveman science.
Thanks to taboos protecting control science, though, we buy the dodge. Science is pure intellectual activity, unaffected by economic or political forces, and we’re the Easter Bunny. Fantasy for fantasy, ours is less dangerous.
Science taboos: Ethics and values. The taboos that insulate control science from its impact on society also hide its values. The directions that science and technology take involve decisions based on values — control values. Nonetheless, taboos place science above ethics. In other words, control-science taboos hide its decision-making processes and the values that guide them.
These values and decisions affect the course of science. The fact that some scientific research gets screened out while other research receives both funding and publication is attributed to the natural course of scientific development, as if there’s no paradigm-based filtering going on.
Our experience in several universities showed us exactly what Vine Deloria Jr. described earlier: the “experts” who dominate the field also dominate the direction and limits of research. They give their positions at conferences, where reputations may be made or broken, and they edit the journals. If someone steps outside the experts’ prevailing paradigm, the step had better not be too great — or his or her reputation and publishing career (a “must” for tenure) is at stake.
Even more telling, though, is the funding of research by industry. Because the college and the science department as well as the researcher get money, there’s an unspoken but real incentive to present projects that support the agenda of work being done in various industries. Historian of science Robert Proctor documents this process in Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Can and Can’t Know About Cancer. Proctor details how combinations of industrial, academic, and political interests influence — even control — what should otherwise be open scientific research to save lives.
Science taboos: Accepted practices. Control-science decisions affect not only the direction of research but also how knowledge is applied. As long as some practice is labelled “scientific,” we’re hesitant to ask whether it’s wise or cruel. The status of “accepted scientific opinion” is often enough to put a the theory along with its applications beyond moral question.
Example: Babies and birth. Accepted scientific opinion has long held, for instance, that babies have primitively developed nervous systems and can’t register pain. Accordingly, doctors routinely perform painful tests and surgery on screaming infants without anesthesia. “They’re just screaming to exercise their lungs,” we’re supposed to believe, not because the needles are going into them — and fresh out of that warm, safe, mostly needle-free womb.
Through hypnosis we now know the pain and anger such “scientific” practices produced. If we walked up to someone on the street and lopped off a body part, we’d land in jail. If an obstetrician does it to a baby boy — again without anesthesia — he gets paid. What message does this send to baby boys about the world they’re entering? How safe and protected are they going to feel when this experience meets them right off the bat?
In Babies Remember Birth — a fascinating book exploring the consciousness that babies bring into the world — psychologist and hypnotherapist David Chamberlain discovered that babies are most annoyed at being treated like objects to be poked and prodded rather than as intelligent, conscious beings. Chamberlain writes:
A ringing declaration of infant intelligence ends the report [of the birth experience], as Deborah compares her knowledge with that of the hospital staff. Saying that she was more aware of being a mind than a person, she speaks of feeling intelligent and explains why. She decided she was more intelligent than those caring for her, because she knew the real situation inside while they seemed to know only the outside. She was also superior in being able to receive their messages while they were unable to receive hers…
In Deborah’s own words:
I felt I knew a lot — I really did. I thought I was pretty intelligent. I never thought about being a person, just a mind. I thought I was an intelligent mind…
They seemed to ignore me. They were doing things to me — to the inside of me. But they acted like that’s all there was. When I tried to tell them things, they just wouldn’t listen, like that noise [her crying] wasn’t really anything. It didn’t sound to impressive, but it was all I had.
I just really felt like I was more intelligent than they were.”
Science taboos: Philosophy and consciousness. But consciousness, certainly infant consciousness, has no place in the official worldview of science, and taboos keep it that way. Taboos hide how control-paradigm science affects our overall philosophy. Because of taboos, we don’t ask whether physical observation, quantification, and control under laboratory conditions are adequate for understanding the universe, including ourselves — or babies.
Yet questions persist: If we can’t measure or control something, does that mean we can’t know it? Does it give us grounds to act as if it doesn’t exist? Even if we seem to control something, do we know all there is to know about it?
By making noncontrollable aspects of life off-limits — outside the domain of scientific inquiry — the taboos of science ignore many realities, but most of all, consciousness. Only when scientists figure out a way to reduce consciousness to observable, measurable, and controllable behavior are they allowed to study it. By that time, though, what they study is boring and sheds no light on the complexities that conscious beings face. We have to wonder why we buy a paradigm of knowledge that’s incapable of dealing with the most significant aspect of human life.
Consciousness isn’t exactly peripheral to us. Yet the dominant paradigm of knowledge places consciousness research off-limits. Intuition, inner advisors, synchronicity, spiritual seeking, the quest for meaning, healing, transformation, near-death experiences, soul work, mythic consciousness, microcosm/macrocosm connectedness and the symbol systems, such as astrology or the I Ching, that explore it are called hokum and nonsense. No self-respecting scientist would be caught dead investigating them, certainly not if he or she taught at a university and were up for tenure.
Science taboos: The nonordinary. One of the most powerful ways taboos shut down open inquiry is to ridicule those who step outside the official scientific-opinion. If something doesn’t fit control-paradigm science, the phenomenon is dismissed as nonexistent, and the people who persist in speaking about it are dismissed as crackpots….
There are a few taboos of science — taboos that protect the dominant paradigm we use to gain knowledge.
Taboos at work. [W]ork life is fraught with taboos — and for the clear purpose of keeping the control paradigm invisible and unchanged. Employees dare not speak out when their company acts illegally, exploits the community, or damages the environment. Neither may they discuss ways in which the workplace functions abusively. On policy, procedure, scheduling, and operations, people aren’t free to speak their minds to “superiors” — not without risking a lower performance rating, cut in salary, or loss of job. As Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel show in The Addictive Organization, to air concerns is to be disloyal.
Yet taboos cripple business effectiveness. The more information flows freely, the more people base business decisions on a big picture of what’s going on. When taboos shut down this flow of communication, managers are in the position of a barge captain trying to negotiate the shoals of the Mississippi with no dials working. It’s astonishing how out of touch managers can be with the people they manage. Yet it’s logical within a control paradigm of management: in a control hierarchy, information flows down, not up. Even when the control model is failing, taboos prevent people from saying so.
Taboos about addictions and abuse. As the recovery literature documents, heavy taboos surround addictions and abuse — again, for paradigm-defense reasons. If we admit that the paradigm behind our social systems is driving us to self-destructive behavior, we’d be forced to question it. It’s easier to pretend nothing is wrong with our social systems or their paradigm; it’s just a few people who can’t cut it. No, addiction is not a global epidemic — or, as Shakespeare put it, “This is not my nose neither.”
Studies indicate that 88 million Americans are chemically dependent or in a relationship with someone who is, 50 million smoke, 12 million chew tobacco, and 37 million have a food addiction. One out of every four families suffer from alcohol- or drug-related problems. That doesn’t count people suffering from the emotional trauma of dysfunctional families. Yet taboos forbid us to deal with these experiences openly or to consider how they’re affecting our adult behavior, from intimacy to parenting to professional conduct to national policy.
In the case of President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, Johnson’s mother wanted him to excel where her husband did not. When young Lyndon got A’s at school, she praised and rewarded him, even by inviting him to sleep in her bed. When he misbehaved or got less than A’s, she refused even to acknowledge his presence and would talk about him as if he weren’t there — even as if he were dead. The message was clear: if you don’t excel, you don’t exist. Decades later, President Johnson couldn’t admit that Vietnam was a no-win war, even when his advisors told him. He said he refused to be the first American president to lose a war. His decision reflected not political realities but childhood programming.
Taboos against having problems. In fact, having problems at all is taboo, because it suggests failure — “real men don’t have problems,” or if they do, they certainly don’t talk about them. When we’re in systems, we’re expected to pretend everything is okay. If problems do arise, they’re ours, not the system’s, certainly not the paradigm’s. Again, if we’re in pain as a result of living in systems, something must be wrong with us.
In other words, taboos present system paradigms, but they don’t protect the people within the systems. They don’t help us cope with the realities of our own lives.
“Defensive routines.” An excellent analysis of both how paradigm defenses work and how to disarm them comes from the two team-learning consultants in business management, Harvard’s Chris Argyris and MIT’s Peter Senge, who describe “defensive routines” as major obstacles to learning in corporate and business systems. “We trap ourselves,” say Argyris and his colleagues, “in ‘defensive routines’ that insulate our mental models [paradigms] from examination.” In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge explains:
Defensive routines…are entrenched habits we use to protect ourselves from the embarrassment and threats that come with exposing our thinking. Defensive routines form a sort of protective shell around our deepest assumptions, defending us against pain, but also keeping us from learning about the causes of pain. The source of defensive routines, according to Argyris, is…fear of exposing the thinking that lies behind our views…. For most of us, exposing our reasoning is threatening because we are afraid that people will find error in it. The perceived threat from exposing our thinking starts early in life and, for most of us, is steadily reinforced in school — remember the trauma of being called on and not having the “right answer” — and later in work.
Defensive routines block transformation. Since defensive routines don’t let us inside our paradigm’s castle, we can’t get to the paradigm filters where change is most needed. As a result, defensive routines block learning — and real solutions. “‘The paradox,’ writes Argyris, ‘is that when [defensive routines] succeed in preventing immediate pain, they also prevent us from learning how to reduce what causes the pain in the first place.'” We stay within pain-making structures, trying to avoid the pain those very structures create.
Defensive routines also block communication. We develop rapport when we share which paradigm filters we’re using. Our filters don’t have to be the same; we just need to know the filters at work in a relationship. Then mutual understanding grows. But when one person hides his or her paradigm, other parties do it too. Defensive routines are contagious. Once defensive postures start, they spread. Up goes the armor.
Trickiest of all, defensive routines are “self-sealing,” to use Argyris’s term. Not only do they hide paradigms, but they hide their own existence as well — the invisibility trick again. To both hide our paradigm and be psychologically correct, we fall back on the openness cover. We want to seem open and candid, so we work hard at appearing that way. But this simply pushes paradigm defenses deeper, as we pretend that neither our paradigms nor covers for them exist. If we subjected either to examination, we’d risk having to restructure them — exactly what a paradigm shift requires.
TRAPPED IN OUR OWN DEFENSES
Lies, secrets, and cover-ups. By hiding the paradigm that lies at the root of problems, defensive routines allow situations to get worse. They don’t let concerns or confusions surface, even though these may be the key to a breakthrough. Instead of helping us deal with realities, defensive covers divert our energies into preserving masks and images.
By so doing, defensive routines force us to live a lie — not to be honest about what’s happening. It’s not that we’re intentionally dishonest; it’s rather that, as long as we’re participating in a control system, we’re simply not at liberty to speak openly about what we’re experiencing.
When taboos forbid us to speak our truth, our lives alone and together get “zippered shut with secrecy,” to use journalist Jonathan Vankin’s phrase, leaving us vulnerable to “secrecy’s chief weapon, propaganda.” At home and at work, at school and on the news, we’re lobbied into believing the official line that justifies control-paradigm systems. Our family, educational, economic, social, political, and religious institutions are basically fine. All we need to do is get rid of the bad people — lock them up, kill them, or drug them until they fit the norm. Then our systems would work.
But our systems don’t work, no matter how many people we drug, lock up, or kill. Instead, a chasm of silence comes between us and system realities. That’s not good. “The more taboos there are in the empire,” the Tao Te Ching says, “the poorer the people.” If the recovery movement did nothing more than show how destructive lies, secrets, and covers are, its service would be immeasurable.
In Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw says, “Families are as sick as their secrets” — a truth that applies to any social system. Defensive covers obstruct our quest to find what’s real about ourselves and our systems, while defenses hide our paradigms so well that not even we can get at them. What we can’t discuss, we can’t change. Or as John Bradshaw puts it, “We cannot heal what we cannot feel.”
The toll of the defenses. Whereas lying was one filter among many in the last chapter, it’s the one to tackle here. Lying is how we get trapped in our own defenses. Whenever we invent a story to cover, we make matters worse — in many ways.
For one thing, lies obscure self-knowledge. Screening what others know of us, we end up screening what we know of ourselves. Defensive shields come between us and our own reality as we start believing the half-truths we put out.
Lack of self-knowledge is as devastating for companies, churches, schools, and nations as it is for us personally. Within systems, we need to know where we are — what’s working and what isn’t, what we’re feeling and what others are feeling as well — in order to plan the next step. We can’t pretend things are okay if they’re not. As we’ve found with the national debt and the crisis in health care, hidden problems are the most dangerous. They grow in silence, until they’re so overwhelming we don’t know where to begin to solve them.
Lie defenses are also harmful because they consume our energies, diverting them from where we need them most. Whether we’re in business or in a marriage, we need to focus on what’s real in the relationship: a real product or service or a real self that’s present with the other. Defensive covers make this difficult. Unaware of our filters, we put energy into preserving covers rather than into dealing with real issues. We create a life that’s more role than intimacy, more image than substance.
In the Exxon Valdez oil spill, for instance, energies poured into damage control for corporate images but trickled into damage control for Prince William Sound. In the first few critical hours, little energy was spent on actually plugging the leak in the tanker’s hull or containing the spill. Salvaging government and oil-conglomerate images by using lies and half-truths took precedence. As with President Johnson’s inability to admit that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won, the compulsion to maintain an on-top-of-it image eclipsed his ability to cope with reality in a situation that was causing more death and suffering day by day.
Paradigm defenses act like guard dogs at the door of our paradigm’s castle. Their assignment is to protect the model-in-charge at all costs. Until we disarm the defenses, we can’t get inside. We can’t explore our paradigm or what it’s doing to us and our systems. The roots of addictive personal behavior and of soul-violating social structures stay off-limits — as does our real being.
“SELF-DISCLOSURE” CUTS THROUGH DEFENSIVE ROUTINES
Facing the worst-case scenario makes covers superfluous. Recovery breaks through defenses, and in a simple, straightforward way. We create a space to hear the truth about ourselves, our systems, and the paradigms that shape both.
AA’s Fifth Step does this by admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Admitting wrongs pushes defensive covers way back, because it tackles the worst-case scenario — what we most fear — namely, being exposed for our mistakes.
If it’s okay to be wrong, we don’t have to hide or cover. Openly admitting the abusive patterns that a paradigm creates — patterns we’ve participated in and perpetuated ourselves — we no longer need to mount a defense. We can disclose our paradigm filters and get on with evolving them.
With this strategy shift, we’re out of the defense business and free to focus on the realities at hand. By facing our worst fears about being exposed, dealing with our paradigm openly, and being up-front about what’s happening, we dispense with energy-draining covers and attend to the real job: transformation.
Accessing our paradigm-shifting powers. By so doing, we tap hidden resources of knowledge and growth. Our willingness to confront what’s wrong opens us to our paradigm-shifting powers. We see how wrongs get started on a paradigm level, and this insight gets us going on the path of changing paradigms.
Tarthang Tulku explains: “Because our problems are often painful and disturbing, our natural tendency is to try to avoid them; we seek ways to get out of difficult situations, or to go around the obstacles we encounter. But our problems are like clouds: though they appear to disturb the serenity of a clear sky, they contain life-giving moisture that nourishes growth. When we face our problems directly and go through them, we discover new ways of being.”
Breaking through defensive routines: self-disclosure. Argyris and Senge agree. The remedy for paradigm covers is self-disclosure: admitting what’s bothering us, discussing our defenses, and bringing both our paradigms and their defenses out into the open. As Senge notes, “To retain their power, defensive routines must remain undiscussable. Teams stay stuck in their defensive routines only when they pretend that they don’t have any defensive routines, that everything is all right, and that they can say ‘anything.'”
Self-disclosure breaks the hold that defensive covers have on us. When we admit our defensive habits, they no longer block our growth. Breaking the rule of secrecy and paradigm-protective taboos, we allow our paradigms to surface and our covers to dissipate. Issues start bubbling up that carry us forward in confronting what’s really going on. In addition, we have the energy — liberated from the enervating job of maintaining covers — to go forward.
Learning from defensive patterns. With a strategy of self-disclosure, we expose our defenses and find out why they’re there. We can’t get rid of our protective armor all at once. We have defenses because we need them now, or we needed them in the past, or we think we need them even if we don’t. Through self-disclosure, we begin to sort this out. We admit exactly what our defenses are doing for us.
In most cases, identifying defensive covers takes us to the heart of what’s obstructing paradigm evolution. We’ve stumbled on a mother lode of blocked energy and potential awareness. What we’re most defensive about is often what we’re most quickly outgrowing. However, we may not realize it or perhaps we’re not ready to face the consequences of such a shift. Even so, the same defenses that block us can direct us to our deepest insights — the very idea-shifts that we’re most primed to make. Again from Senge:
Defensive routines can become a surprising ally…by providing a signal when learning is not occurring. Most of us know when we are being defensive, even if we cannot fully identify the source or pattern of our defensiveness…. When we are feeling defensive, seeking to avoid an issue, thinking we need to protect someone or ourselves — these are tangible signals that can be used to reestablish a climate of learning…. Often, the stronger the defensiveness, the more important the issue around which people are defending or protecting their views.
In the body, sore points indicate where physical energy is blocked. In the psyche, defensive covers indicate sore points where soul energy is trapped. In social systems, defensive patterns indicate where human energy is dammed up.
Self-disclosure unbottles the energy. Naming defenses as such and looking behind them to the dynamics of our inner growth loosens blocked awareness and lets this awareness operate as a force for transformation. Core issues surface, and we start working through them.
HEARING THE TRUTH
Commitment to truth. A commitment to self-disclosure is a commitment to hearing the truth, which is by nature transforming. Whereas lies, covers, and taboos limit us to existing paradigm filters, admitting what’s going on opens us to learning about reality and to evolving the paradigms we use to move with it. Senge describes this commitment in practice:
Commitment to the truth…means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are they way they are. It means continually broadening our awareness, just as the great athlete with extraordinary peripheral vision keeps trying to “see more of the playing field.” It also means continually deepening our understanding of the structures underlying current events.
Initiating self-disclosure. When it comes to breaking through paradigm defenses, a strategy of self-disclosure starts with individuals and spreads out. If we’re caught in defenses together — if our paradigm filters are so hidden that we can’t find out why our systems are behaving abusively — the way to break through the barriers is shared self-disclosure.
To start, we ask ourselves why we’re defending our systems as they now function, which relates to why we’re part of them in the first place. We admit how we behave when we’re in a family or school system, for instance, and how we feel about how the paradigms behind systems lead us to think, feel, and act. That’s the beginning — the strategy that gets the momentum of self-disclosure going.
Where else can we start? Accusing others in the name of self-disclosure doesn’t work. Charging others with being defensive brings their defenses out in force. By contrast, admitting our feelings, confusions, fears, and defenses breaks the pattern. By relaxing our defensive boundaries, we create space for others to join in and explore what’s going on.
Our story is one telling of our system’s story. It’s also one telling of a culturally pervasive paradigm. We’re a microcosm of the macrocosm. As we share our stories, the system and paradigm no longer remain hidden.
We exchange our stories not to undermine systems but to evolve the paradigms behind them, so that our systems become better servants to human needs. That’s why we have social systems in the first place. If we’re not functioning happily in systems, systems can’t function optimally either. We’re like canaries taken down into coal mines; if we’re not thriving, our systems can’t be either. The more we’re honest about how we’re experiencing systems — the more we provide the feedback they need — the more our paradigms and systems evolve.
Gandhi: An open experiment with Truth. Gandhi was a master of removing defenses as a strategy for transforming social systems. To start, he used the strategy on himself. Much of his force as a spiritual and political leader came from his commitment to self-disclosure. British spies could learn nothing that he would not openly admit. Even his most personal wrestlings with “brahmacharya,” or purifying self-discipline, we made public. He called his life “an experiment with Truth” — an experiment he conducted in the open.
But he also encouraged the Indian people to let down their defenses and to admit their wrongs as well. As Gandhi saw it, self-government is inseparable from self-purification. Otherwise, we’re ruled by our shortcomings. Self-purification starts with self-disclosure — admitting exactly what needs correction. Gandhi wrote:
I have always been loathe to hide…the weak points of the community, or to press for its rights without having purged it of its blemishes…I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing India from any yoke whatsoever…. Hence for me the movement of Swaraj [self-rule] is a movement of self-purification. It is we ourselves with our inertia, apathy and social abuse that more than England or anybody else block our way to freedom. And if we cleanse ourselves of our shortcomings and faults, no power on earth can even for a moment withhold Swaraj from us.
Lincoln: Admitting America’s wrongs. Hearing the truth about collective wrongs is liberating. We can’t stop soul-violation until we stop defending it. In his famous second inaugural address, for instance, Abraham Lincoln openly admitted the “offence” of “American slavery” and acknowledged the inevitability of paying the price for such an inhuman, institutionalized evil.
Defending the indefensible, Lincoln reasoned, locks us on the same level as the offense. Withdrawing our defenses, admitting wrongs, and hearing the truth liberates us to move beyond both a soul-violating paradigm and the soul-violating systems it creates.
Lincoln and Gandhi did for their nations what system recovery suggests we do for ours today: face abusive paradigms, name how they build abuse into our social structures, and end the defenses, lies, and cover-ups. With paradigm defenses out in the open, we’re free to evaluate the paradigm behind our systems and get on with a paradigm shift.
“A comprehensive survey of the changing paradigm and the need to increase the rate of change. We can only hope that we will find ourselves on the positive side of the tidal wave that now confronts us. There is a synthesis here that we need to understand — and support — if we are to survive.” ~ Vino Deloria, Jr., professor of history, religious studies, and law, University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto and Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact
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