Values cards project – Order

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: In Art of Hosting, there’s an interesting model where we place order in-between chaos and control. You’ve actually got four ‘states’ that things can be in: there’s destruction, chaos, order and control. Most businesses like to operate somewhere between order and control, but creative organisations must find a way to work between chaos and order, without self-destroying. I find that the model explains a lot, about organisations, and about politics. If you look at the Yellow Vests in France, here’s a possible grid of interpretation. That democracy needs a minimal amount of order to work. If there’s not a proposal that makes sense in relation to some sort of order, then there is no politics. But with that movement, it’s not about creation, it’s not even about destroying something, it’s just pure shapelessness. And this shows – many people believe they’re doing politics, when they’re actually just flapping around.

B: I’ve always found that it’s a clear sign of stupidity when you say that you should destroy structures to be free. But then, it depends on your implicit model of what the world is. I see two categories of people: you believe that the world is essentially constraining, and so freedom is destroying that constraint. Or you think the world is chaotic, and freedom is about giving shape to something – the creative impulse is about creating order from chaos. I think that’s where my interest for China comes from, there you find the idea that chaos is more dreadful than too much order.

A: I think the distinction between order and control is an important one. And for the categories of people you spoke about, the first set would probably see control as a form of oppression.

B: Another thing I thought about is, when you say ‘order’, we have that expression, ‘to give an order to someone’. When there is order, it means some people can give orders, and we know that those orders will be executed. That’s what happens in a military organisation. And any type of strategic thinking, it’s about asking, what orders will be obeyed or not?

A: I’m looking at Wiktionary now, and there’s 26 different definitions for order. It’s a very polysemic word. Maybe we need to invent a new word for that meaning I spoke about, in Art of Hosting. A word that describes the type of structure where freedom is possible?

B: For people who think of order as a value, they must appreciate a measure of rigidity. They put that over freedom. What if it’s like that, order has to do with a certain organisation of meaning. And rigidity is… there are elements you can lean on. It’s like a skeleton, if you want to stand up, you need something to be rigid somewhere. Without a bone structure, you’re just a blob on the floor.

A: Then, there’s a set of people that seem to have this epidermic reaction to hierarchy, and they’re all about delegated or distributed leadership. I wonder if it has to do with what we’re saying?

B: I’m more interested in hierarchy as a way to get protected against abuse.

A: What about we see it like this? Structure is static, it’s about the way the parts are arranged. While order is dynamic, it’s about things moving in a predictable way, because people obey.

B: Well, if you look at something like ‘the order of doctors’, there’s a status quo there, so there is some rigidity.

A: Maybe it’s maintaining status quo is essential for a living organism to survive. Homeostasy. You need something to stay the same so that other things around it can change.

B: Looking back at those two categories I spoke about, maybe there’s a common way to see things, but different fears. Some are more afraid to be turned into stone, others are more afraid of falling apart.

A: It’s like, in zombie movies. They’re all about human society. All zombie films are about that, what makes our society hang together, and how fast can it be destroyed? And what are the primary instincts that come out when things start falling apart? I Think I would survive better in an environment where things are out of control, and everything need to be rebuilt, than one where there is so much control I could only just survive, but nothing more.

B: I think, my experience was, I grew up in a very chaotic family. So, I’ve got this belief that chaos is the fundamental structure of the world. I always expect chaos.

A: While I grew up in a very functional middle class family, but I experienced chaos when I lived in Africa and in South East Asia. There’s an exoticism to it, but when I’m in chaos, I can feel that I’m not in my natural environment.

B: That’s interesting, because I see the world as just equally chaotic everywhere.

A: While I sense a clear difference between chaotic places, and non-chaotic places.

Values cards project – structure

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I find it strange that structure is listed as a value. Something can be well structured, or badly structured, but structure in itself, how is it a value?

B: Well, when I think of structure, I think about a hippie share house, you know, where under cover of freedom, everyone can impose their desire on everyone else – and it’s just a matter of arbitrary power. If you want real freedom, you need a minimum of order.

A: That’s a basic principle in the art of hosting. You set up boundaries, and so the structure matters. There’s a hippie vibe to the movement, but it’s not chaos. I’m thinking of those political and social movements that are not structured, the Yellow Vests, Occupy. There’s commentators saying that this is the real voice of the people – but it’s only chaos. The guy with the strongest voice is heard, the guy with the best Facebook video is heard. It’s surprising, actually, how people do not understand the system around them, how democracy works, how it favors a caste of people who know the system, or have the resources to understand it more efficiently. And they believe that in total chaos something good and new can emerge.

B: That’s where I like to call myself a conservative. If something’s been around for a while, you know that you can live with it, or you would be dead already. There’s something like that about structures, a conservative wisdom: better the devil you know. That’s one of the points I think I have an attraction for Asia – the social structures – I see them as a façade, something that’s very good at protecting the individual.

A: I’ll agree with you on that one. It’s much more oppressive to pretend that something artificial is natural than to set a structure that is explicitly artificial, and ask everyone to follow. Foreign businesses in Japan are a good example of liberating the surface to control the essence of the work. By contrast, in traditional Japanese companies, there’s a lot of control over the ritual, but that’s a way to give staff members autonomy. If you’re happy to play the game, and if you don’t see it as useless, then you can get all sorts of things done. If you’re a western consultant, you think all these structures and rituals are not rational and you destroy them – but you miss their social function in the organisation of work – and everything falls apart.

B: There may be something there about human passion. Fear. I think we’re all terrified of chaos, and we can’t do things together without addressing this fear of chaos. That’s why we put structures in place. I’ve seen this in churches. The ones where the ritual is very structured, where there’s a stable form, they’re also the most open theologically. While the loose happy clappy ones have a much more dogmatic message. Same with the monarch. I think people need a symbol of cohesion that is not purely rational, this allows for greater freedom, and that’s exactly what the Queen does.

A: Well, you would see this in France, where the president is supposed to be above parties, but is actually supporting one party. This can be extremely dangerous.

And so yes, as we said, I think we have a sort of aversion for chaos. Apart from certain dysfunctional people who might like chaos, and seem dysfunctional because they are likely to create chaos. And that would be how structure becomes a value. Not in itself, but as a protection against chaos.