22 October 2011

A few more thoughts on humanist community

While the twitter furor over the possible structures for a humanist community have settled down, my brain is still churning - because I see this as a design problem.  So whether you want them or not, here are some more thoughts on the matter.

I read with interest PZ Myer's post of 19 October, What #HumanistCommunity, and that got me thinking even more about the perceived and real mismatches between the (apparently) three camps - no structure, some structure, chaplaincy structure.

Off the top let me say that I'm with PZ on two specific points: the notion of atheist chaplains is absurd, and, as attributed to PZ in a comment "No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests."

Let's start with some comments.

PZ identifies some of Epstein's complaints.

  1. Other organizations, like SSA, are "loose knit."  PZ rightly questions why that is necessarily a bad thing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a loose knit organization, so long as it's functional.
  2. The SSA apparently has no official format for minutes of meetings.  Again, so what, so long as the organization gets things done?  The question here revolves around the purpose of keeping standardized minutes.  If that purpose serves the overall goals of the organization, then there should be a standardized format.  Otherwise, it's absolutely unnecessarily (and probably harmful).
  3. While some SSA events are noted as "service projects," Epstein identifies others as "atheist proms."  This implies that service projects are more important than other events.  The question is, again, why?
  4. The SSA apparently retains no institutional memory, because, according to Epstein, "their membership turns over every four years." I will agree here that maintaining an institutional memory is important.  As Santayana put it, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.  But the membership turning over every four years is a stretching the facts a bit too far.  It may be true that most students will only spend four years in SSA, every senior student that graduates and leaves the Alliance can be replaced by a new freshman.  With a little mentoring, a very significant continuity can be maintained.
PZ then argues that a "[m]aybe a 'carefully thought out infrastructure' would be exactly the thing to crush the spirit of the movement."  This could very well be.  But what if the infrastructure were malleable?  What if it were fluid, emergent, and constantly evolving?  Couldn't such an infrastructure allow the efficiencies that all organizations need without crushing the spirit of the movement?

There's many types of organizational structures.  Why is that?

The flippant answer is: because we've not yet found the best structure.  Ha ha.  The problem is in defining "best" here, because what's best in one context isn't necessarily what's best in another.  A richer answer is this: each organizational structure is based on certain assumptions regarding the context in which the structure is to be used.  Different contexts will be best treated by different organizational structures.

One common feature of most organizational structures is that they implement a hierarchy of responsibility and control.  The problem, as I see it, with these conventional structures is that power (i.e. responsibility and control) is attached to a position in the hierarchy rather than the people who occupy those positions.  This enables the appointment or election of complete putzes to positions of significant power (think: George W. Bush).

If the humanist community is looking to do something new and meaningful, its members should attribute power where it best belongs: to individuals, not positions, based on the capabilities and expertise of those people.

PZ can advocate as strongly as he likes for no "masters," but masters do exist.  Few would argue, for example, with Stephen Hawking's leadership role among cosmologists, or with Frank Gehry's leadership in architecture, or Jerry Coyne's leadership in evolutionary biology, Or Muhammad Yunus's leadership in social business, or....  You get the picture.  A hierarchy does exist in science, in technology, and in the humanities.  But this hierarchy is not fixed by articles of incorporation or statutes of law.  This hierarchy is based on the merits of the individuals, and it changes - it evolves - in a very natural way that for the most part is driven by the work that individuals do.

Let's also consider the biomimetic notion that a well-functioning humanist community could be rather like an ecosystem, constituted of individuals that exist in a complex, fluid, and responsive structure - a structure that changes based on the needs of the moment.

So, while I'm with PZ that the rigid structure for which Epstein seems to advocate is very probably the worst structure that the humanist community could adopt, I can't exclude some other type of structure.

You'll note an underlying theme here; that an organizational structure is good when it is well-balanced with the environment in which the organization exists.  Its constitution and how it manifests is secondary to the purposes it is intended to achieve for the organization's members.  And since the environment changes, the structure must be able to respond and change with it.

So I still think that if the humanist community is to have a beneficial structure to it, it must be designed to achieve goals and to be responsive to environmental changes.

The first step in this process would be to identify and reach consensus on what those goals are.  I don't know what they are.  I have an idea of what I would think would be good goals, but I'm not right.  I know I'm not right because I know that others will have different goals.  We need to reach consensus on those goals before any resolution to the matter of organizational structure can be achieved.

One word of warning: it will likely be impossible to find a non-trivial set of goals that can be agreed to universally.  I would therefore expect the generation of criteria by which good goals can be identified based on local needs.  The goals of humanists living in the southern US states would likely be quite, though not entirely, different from the goals of Canadian humanists, or European humanists, or Japanese humanists.  The structure should be able to accommodate that localization of goals; in so doing, it would not only accommodate geographic and cultural differences, but also differences over time.

I personally find this enterprise fascinating and exciting.  It's a design problem - so I'm definitely "there" - but it's also a matter that I think could very dramatically improve the state of the world when we finally achieve it.

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