19 October 2011

Structuring the humanist community. Or not.

There was a bit of a fuss on twitter today (19 October) about the kind of organizational structure that the humanist community should have.  Unfortunately I was teaching and so missed it, but I did catch a few of the later tweets.  I'll pitch out a few thoughts of my own, coming from a design background.

The basic argument seemed to involve not so much what structure one should expect for a functional humanist community, but rather whether there should be a structure at all.  This part of the discussion is well summarized by Leah Libresco.  PZ Myers tweeted and blogged about it a lot.  He was rather vocal, if I read him correctly, that no structure based on a hierarchy of positions that provide its holders with power is acceptable.  This a-structural approach flies in the face, as PZ himself notes, of religious hierarchies, but also of pretty much every other social organization - government, business, NGOs,....

There's two thoughts that come to mind.

Thought #1.

This one is rather obvious.  The real conversation is about institutionalizing positions in a hierarchy, and not whether any one person should "lead" any particular activity for any length of time.  What I suggest is that PZ is right on this point - if the humanist community is to learn from the mistakes of the past, it should seek are structures that do not institutionalize power.

I think Leah may have one very good idea in her references to the scientific community, in that leadership in science is generally based on merit, which in turn is based on performance, and that the positions themselves are fluid, responding to the needs of the moment, rather than being fixed by fiat based on the intentions of some relatively arbitrary group of "founders."  The structure needed, in this view, is not a structure of positions and power, but rather one of process.  That is, what's needed here is a process structure that defines how issues are identified, how temporary/local leadership is allocated, how projects start and end to address those issues, and how to rank the merit of individuals based on their records.  Such a system could be entirely fluid, yet support sufficient structure for any specific purpose to keep things organized.

My second thought is that some of the friction that occurred in the twitter discussion exists because there is an underlying, tacit disagreement on why a structure is needed.

This is where I get design-y.  You don't design something if you don't know what it's for.  Clearly, from the discussion - even just the teeny bit of it that I saw on twitter - it is evident to me that not enough discussion has been had about the purpose(s) an organizational structure would serve.  Too many things have been designed without purpose (my favorite example is the Apple Lisa).  Considering how much is at stake in defining any kind of structure for humanist communities, it rather behooves us to try to get it right the first time.

So I'd suggest that some effort should be expended to define, as crisply as possible, why some kind of structure is needed for humanist communities.  There's ways to do this.  I happen to know about those ways.  And though I may regret doing this, I would be happy to help with such an exercise, if there's enough interest.

Final thought: I find this whole discussion very interesting in that it is, as far as I can tell, something new and suggestive of a positive change in the humanist/atheist community.  Yay team!

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