Commitment and the infinite game

One of the frustrating truths about life is that you cannot simply decide who you want to be and then systematically work towards becoming that person. I am not talking about the practical obstacles or deficits in your skills or abilities that will invariably stand in your way. More fundamentally it is because taking on a habit or orientation to the world requires commitment and commitment is always backed by grace – the persistent sense that this way of being is worth it.  

I, for example, am committed to my children. I’ve made an overflowing landfill’s worth of mistakes with them – overlooked their talents, failed to provide them with stable routines or chores (“Other people in my class have chores, Mum, why don’t we?”), and many other things too embarrassing to mention.  But once my sluggish brain realises that they need something, if I can, I give it to them. I am similarly committed to my graduate class on Psychology and Sustainability. For the semester each year that it runs, it has me on a short thread. I mull over the last session we had together, fine tune the coming session, respond promptly to emails from students, and mark assignments with agonising attention to detail. My underpinning assumption in both cases seems to be something like: these people and I are in a lifeboat together whether I, or they, like it or not. And we matter. I’d better do my bit to keep us afloat.

Commitments in this sense, are different from either obligations or yearnings. Obligations stem from our respect for others or the power they hold over us. They carry with them a heavy heart born of their secondary nature – I don’t really want to go to that meeting or do a submission on that proposed bill, but I guess I should. Yearnings on the other hand are as light as feathers. How lovely to be fluent in Māori or knit a Fair Isle cardigan – one day, I swear! Obligations are part of the infinite game, as we must sometimes drag ourselves to someone else’s party just as we hope they will drag themselves to ours when needed. Yearnings too have their place, they promote admiration for those who really do speak Māori or knit Fair Isle cardigans, and where would we be if we couldn’t dream? But the pulse of the infinite game, the momentum that moves it from play to play and keeps it turning back towards life is commitments.

Commitments ferret out something real in us and our relationship to the world. If you were to take the words people use to describe things of infinite value and allow them to float around you, commitments are the ones that hover close; be it family, birds, delicious food, art, equality, sharing, rivers, or peace. These are the things that animate your life, that keep you in life. They may be local and specific with faces, names or places attached as with my children and students; or they may be activities or orientations that you find yourself constantly turning towards. Some people can’t shake music, some obsessively follow and commentate on politics or a sport, and others are compelled to protect natural landscapes or lobby for climate change legislation.

When you are committed it is as if you and the subject of your commitment are in tandem and the tasks involved are real, purposeful and compelling. As Robert Pirsig describes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.” When we really care about something then, we merge with our subject and grow both it and ourselves. When we are simply following the rules of a finite game on the other hand, there is a barrier between us and deep play that means our efforts will be only a partial fit – good enough for now perhaps, but if viewed closely, somehow a little off.

Back to that irritating little truth – that commitment can’t be forced. You can yearn to be an artist, but this doesn’t make you an artist. Even practice doesn’t really make you an artist, you become an artist when you care enough to practice. And the realisation that you care, that this or that matters so much you will nourish it as best you can, is grace. We can try and draw grace to us but ultimately she comes and goes as she pleases. In his book This Life, Martin Hägglund talks of Christian thinkers who lose their child (Martin Luther) or their spouse (C.S. Lewis) and who cannot help but grieve the lost person with a depth of suffering that is not relieved in the slightest by the story that they are now in the arms of God. And in her book Radical Hospitality, Lonni Collins Pratt discusses how you cannot do radical hospitality by aiming directly at it, you must instead be concerned for the actual person or people in front of you. This refusal of abstract entities (God, hospitality) to provide rules that can be reliably applied to all relevant situations, means we never forget our humanity – that what we care for is gifted to us from our nature and history as people in the world.

Still, the importance of grace to forming commitments does not mean we must sit back and wait for her to strike. We can move into promising spaces, try out activities, attend to the people around us, practice as if we care, and recognise when something has us in its grip. And seeking commitments is important I think, not just for ourselves, but for keeping our games in touch with core human values and the changing world in which we live. Or to come at it from the other side: when we give ourselves to finite games that don’t compel us to improve ourselves and the game, we risk perpetuating practices that pull us all a little further from life. You can’t choose who to be, but you can be alert to and nurture that which matters to you and to others. And that, surely, helps keep the infinite game in play.

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The power of ‘what if’ – leaping ahead of the game by imagining ourselves in a sustainable future

Late last year, Stephen Woroniecki and I (Niki) posed a provocative question:

What would it mean to act as if we are already living in the world we hope to create?

Some of the responses we got were sceptical –That is denial! We have to face the truth about what we are doing wrong before we can look to solutions! Fair enough, there is a kind of complacent hope that leads to inaction. Some see ‘climate delay’ as a form of complacent hope that functions as the new climate denial. She’ll be right mate, as we say in New Zealand. The rapidly growing Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike movement have called out such complacency in the face of the doom they see impending from every direction.

But we also received another kind of response; thoughts about what it might mean to step into a space of trust and hope that, just sometimes, side lines the problems and instead acts in the spirit of prefiguration: leaping ahead of the game and thereby helping to change it.

In this blog we outline four possibilities of such thinking that we have crafted from the ideas we received and our own thoughts. These are a kind of edgework that sees cracks in current modes of practice and tries to prise them open. We see the possibilities below as aligned with a renewed interest in speculative fiction and the promise of artistic and performative methods for reimagining sustainability. We’d love to hear your reactions.

 1.       Assume that those you encounter want a world that promotes wellbeing for all.

Much of our current political discourse inherits a dedication to polemic and polarisation. There is no shortage of commentators decrying attempts at bipartisan solutions as ineffective, slow, or centrist (as if that were a dirty word). In its determination to keep alive old paradigms and caricatures of the ‘right’ and the ‘left’; such discourse prevents us from rising above the game, even for a second, to see its effects and how we contribute to its dysfunctions. I (Niki) subscribed to the Guardian Weekly for six months, but in the end grew tired of the plethora of articles that demonised Trump. Such articles can be riveting to read and create a sordid sense of self-righteous solidarity with other Trump-bashers, but they can seduce us into thinking ‘they’ are all bad, and ‘we’ are all good.   

What if, instead, we were to imagine that beneath the hotly contested debates were people trying to develop sustainability solutions? That Trump or the local equivalent that we love-to-hate was doing what they felt was best? That people we label as ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ have a contribution to make and perhaps they talk as they do because they are locked in the same us/them game that we are? An immediate effect of thinking in this way is to assume that everyone has a role to play in solutions and can be brought into the game. We are not the only people with a monopoly on visions for the good life, and what’s more there will always be politics – people who slow the pace of change, those who want to speed things up, and those who want to go fast in what (we think) is the wrong direction.

In a small way I (Niki) tried to do this in my former role as the leader of a sustainability network at my university. I talked as if sustainability is a problem we are all trying to solve and so, I think, our network has avoided creating a sense that we have friends and enemies. Yes, some of us are more central to making change in this domain, but we do not see our task as constructing and then beating opponents – instead we are trying to realign the finite games we are all caught in.

It is hard to take sides on an issue that isn’t framed as a debate. And when everyone is on the same side, conversations rather than boxing matches, become possible.

 2.       Act as a guardian to your land, among other guardians.

What if, instead of striving to be the next hero of the hour, we were to uncover and highlight existing place-based commitments to restorative work that cast a legacy of collective worth?

Many – probably all – cultures have concepts that encourage people to be guardians or stewards of the natural environment. For Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand, one such concept is kaitiakitanga. As described by Daniel Hikuroa, kaitiakitanga is a complex system of knowledge and practices that result in careful observation and care for the mauri, or life force, of natural entities – be they mountains, forests, rivers, animals or the ocean. Such entities are assumed to have intrinsic value and talked of as ancestors to the people of that land.

Even within Western models – which are often described as exploitative and soulless – we have a strong ethic of conservation. There are 29 national parks in Sweden and in New Zealand 32% of the land is within protected areas. The Antarctic Treaty system is a comprehensive international agreement that acknowledges the inherent value of Antarctica and our need to protect it. We could go on: for each example of how we are destroying the planet is another example of how we are attempting, often successfully, to preserve or restore it.

Often such guardianship emerges out of long histories of interrelationship, contemplative action and ingrained wisdom which develops connections between a place and its people. These are deep relationships that by necessity are also slow moving. Rather than being interactions capable of instantaneous accounting, like Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections, place-making and place-shaping happens on timescales that may dwarf the lifespan of any particular individual.

When we talk as if we alone are fighting the tide of Western destruction and we alone are facing catastrophic threat to our natural environment, we ignore our history as guardians. When we position ourselves as keepers of a single bright idea or game-changing sustainability solution, we centre ourselves – casting a long shadow egocentrism into the future, rather than committing to a collective. This may blind us to the wisdom of those who – often quietly – get on with doing what needs to be done to nurture life. We too can act as guardians of the ecosystems and communities that are our home, rather than feel we must solve it all, right now, or we are done for. Nurturing guardianship in ourselves and others might, in the end, be more effective than scrambling for the Big Solution to the Big Problem.

 3.       Act as if we have time.

A recent framing of climate change declares that we have 12 years left to bring about major changes to our entire global system or we are doomed. As Niki has previously discussed, such rhetoric has two problematic components: it ignites a combination of fear and shame that often makes us withdraw, and it gives most people who encounter it no viable way to act on the information provided. The temptation is to argue over whether or not the information cited is correct, polarising readers into those who buy its message and those who don’t. As argued in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Michael E. Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles, such frenzied rhetoric may prevent us from moving forward with ‘confidence’.

But what if we had time? If we had time, we might listen to each other more carefully and construct arguments and plans that pull together our various perspectives. We might care for the other – their knowledge, their experience and their right to dissent. As in a recent blog by Stephen, we might live with, and in, the diversity that characterises real human experience and exchange, and not just heed the mathematics of climate data.

We might too, feel what is happening around us and gain a better sense of what we want to preserve and what we want to give up in the reshaping of society. Remember that emergency action is rarely radical. It attempts to solve an immediate problem rather than to set up new systems that will be viable into the future.

The recent Brexit debate has shown the malfunctioning of leaders who do not take the time to get grassroots support for their top-down policy changes. In relation to climate, the Gilet Jaunes movement was triggered by a too-quick, top-down intervention in fuel prices. For all the talk of transformative action like the Green New Deal, and even the consensus emerging that climate change must be countered by structural change, there is precious little attention given to representation. Extinction Rebellion is calling for Citizen’s Assemblies that might help to build the legitimacy for such far-reaching transitions.

If then, we acted as if we had time to respond to the major issues we face, we might have far reaching conversations about the society we want to live in. Imagine the power we would hand to the politicians who care deeply about these issues if we were able to say to them: ‘I’ve worked alongside those in my school, business, organisation and community and this is what we care about.’  Conversations such as these take time and patience – which we would have if we weren’t always pushing to get change right this minute.

 4.       As best you can practice the future you imagine.

What if sustainability was not a promised land but a journey into unknown territory?

Sustainability is not a state it is a process. We will both never be sustainable and already are sustainable – depending on how you look at it. There may have been a time in human history when we were so well adapted to our natural environment that we could act without awareness of the consequences of our actions. But that horse has bolted. Instead, there will always be issues, and there will always be people in various stages of response to those issues. We can talk about ‘denial’, ‘the attitude-behaviour gap’, ‘addiction to oil’ and the various other frailties of our species, or we can recognise ourselves as beings that have created a world in which we do not, and never will, quite fit. Our task, from this perspective, is to try and act a little more consistently with reality (as we understand it) and avoid practices we consider harmful. This isn’t just about so-called personal actions – like riding a bike or avoiding plastic bags – it is also about political actions – like contributing to movements for the common good. Action for a better world isn’t the act of people in an unsustainable world, it is the act of people trying to create a sustainable world: which is as sustainable as we will ever be.


In writing this, we are not trying to claim there are no problems or that these problems will simply fade away if we are all positive. But we are trying to claim that endorsing rhetoric which frames us as on the brink of environmental catastrophe is not the only way to ‘man up’ and face ‘the truth’. We can also get on with it by treating sustainability as a game with no end and in which trust and hope are a vital part of the play.

See here for Stephen Woroniecki’s blog.

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Fear or hopepunk?

Last month I did a talk in central Auckland to the Now Crowd, a group of young professionals interested in forwarding sustainability. It was a dual act, with Andy Kenworthy speaking about his long experience as an environmental advocate. Andy and I got a number of challenging questions – these were people trying to figure out how to be in an era filled with complex problems. The questions were stimulating, and as the evening wore on the room felt increasingly full of hope - as if a better world just might be possible. Then came the question that always stops me in my tracks. It was well thought out, detailed and persuasive. The core of the question was something like this: “The science of climate change tells us that we only have 12 years to turn things around. The issues we are facing are urgent and we are in a crisis. Isn’t optimism misleading when the situation is in fact extremely dire?”  

It’s strange – I’ve been told many times that the situation is urgent and we are in a crisis that renders optimism a dangerous form of denial. Yet whenever someone suggests that we are headed towards Climate Armageddon, I become flooded with fear, as if it is a bolt from the blue. I am teleported back to my 14-year-old self, aware that powerful men in the northern hemisphere control nuclear weapons that could wipe out everything, most importantly me. I am utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless and have nothing to say. I did say something in response to the question that night, but in truth I was acting a part – my real voice was silent.  

Like all emotions, fear is a complex of bodily sensations, thoughts and action tendencies. It floods us with awareness of the problem at hand and blocks out extraneous information. In this sense, fear makes us rigid and able to run only along the lines it demands. We can no longer assess a situation in its full depth or make choices in any meaningful sense. As I have discussed in Psychology for a Better World, fear is valuable when the problem is clear and the person concerned believes they have the means to solve, or at least alleviate, the situation. So for example, if we learn we are ill, the shock of this knowledge is useful in pushing us towards the recommended treatment. We undergo surgery and take medication even if it is inconvenient, uncomfortable and expensive. At the political level, the problem and solution may also sometimes come together in a way that demands a certain type of action. For example, during the 1970s while I was a worried teenager in Napier New Zealand, people with similar fears in Europe and the USA were able to attend massive protest rallies against the nuclear arms race.  

When the problem and solution are widely contested and no clear path lies before us, fear confuses both our body and our mind. Our body now alert to a problem wants to respond – to do something. Failing any better alternative, it freezes, closing down into a self-protective state that gives out as little as it can. Our mind struggles to make sense of what is happening – searching for the right approach but finding nothing convincing enough to act upon. Fear, as Krishnamurti has discussed, isolates us from each other and prompts fragmentary, incoherent acts that cover a deep sense of disorientation. Shame sneaks in too – shame that we are not altruistic, brave or determined enough to rise above ourselves and get out there and do what is needed. But, hang on, when it comes to the 12-year window to limit climate change catastrophe what exactly is needed from me? Should I give up my day job to be a climate activist? Join the Extinction Rebellion? Write letters to my local Members of Parliament? Concentrate on enabling young people to get active?  

So how should I, or any of us, respond when knocked off our perch by fear? Well perhaps we should recognise and name the fear, and our incoherence in the face of it. I could have said to my questioner, “When I hear that we only have 12 years left to create radical, political transformation, I freeze. If I have any thoughts, they are to wonder if and how I can save my children from the worst of it. Your question is entirely reasonable, but I don’t have an answer and if I try to search for one, it will just be blabber designed to cover my confusion. Perhaps someone who has found a way to manage this information and see the path it offers can respond.” (Andy, by the way, did respond in a far more coherent manner than me on that occasion!)

We are, after all, biological creatures and emotions quite literally, push us around. Some people may be more able to deal in fear than me, or see it as an unfortunate by-product of the change process. In the end, perhaps they will turn out to be right – we told people it was deadly serious and that galvanised the action that saved the world.

But for me, optimism feels like the more compelling way to invite people into the game - and the surest truth I hold is that bringing people into the game is the game. To anyone who cares about the future of our planet, I always want to say: yes, there are worthwhile moves you can make, and in doing so you will be joining the vast number of others who also care. Together, we just might get there.

It’s a kind of hopepunk, as Now Crowders might say.

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What if we are already there?

On October 31 this year, Stephen Woroniecki, a doctoral researcher at the University of Lund in Sweden posted a blog called Doing Sustainability as if the World Wasn’t Going to Shit. An updated version of the blog appears below. I love Stephen’s challenge – let’s pretend we are already living in the world we hope for and see what happens. He ended his blog with a request for people to share their thoughts. If you have a response, please send Stephen or me an email, and we’ll compile what we get for a future blog on our respective websites.

The double whammy of the Mass Extinction and Climate Crisis news reports could prompt us to act in certain ways, or even not act at all.

I think, as shitty as the state of the world appears to be, it’s worth remembering that good things are happening all around us. People are creating meaningful change, are finding new ways to relate, or are rejecting received ‘wisdom’, to name just a few examples. Perhaps we are further towards what many of us have been fighting for, if I can take the liberty to frame it thus: a transformation in human consciousness to recognise our ecological being.

As Fred Peace argues in this article, it’s even possible that the systemic and structural dimensions of our economics and societies are starting to shift to reflect this.

I’m curious what you think it means for our mind-sets and behaviours if, instead of waiting in frustration for sustainability transformations to begin, we are actually already witnessing (or even missing) the unfolding transformation.

These seem to me to be significantly different mental frames under which to go about our day as sustainability workers. What does taking one frame or the other mean for people like ourselves who make sustainability an explicit part of our lives and work? Does it change how we see ourselves?

Personally I like to think that it means we can be a bit more agile, fun, innovative, and able to relate to people in different ways. Not bound up in panic, stress, grief and apathy. Instead of frantically fighting fires left, right and centre, perhaps it means we can be a bit more careful – choosing where to put our efforts, taking time to develop the most effective partnerships, and being even more conscientious about the need for a ‘just transition’.

It may sound pretentious, but I see people as drops in a fast-flowing river, teeming with life. And that river can shift, quickly, to a new course. How does our awareness of the direction of the river affect the ways in which we try to steer it’s course? Does it help us to be a little bit more aware of what we’re capable of?

So what would you do if the world was already sustainable? Please send us your thoughts.

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Thursday's Child - by Amy Mansfield

In this guest blog, Amy Mansfield questions whether we should be celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, when, as she puts in, we still live in a ‘he-state’. Amy describes the finite games of the ‘cultural sector’, in which artists compete with each other for funding and children are trained to produce ‘cookie-cutter’ works. Why do we so often crush the creativity at the centre of culture? Why do we overlook the play of women – as artists, nurturers, teachers, and volunteers? Has women’s suffrage really transformed our nation into one in which the talents and offerings of women and men are equally valued?

125 years of suffrage is a good time to come together to commiserate about the he-state of our nation.

Just as access to the voting booth does not presuppose access to justice, nor does it grant access to the arts, which continue to be the realm of the private-lessons privileged on the one hand, and the impoverished, art-for-arts-sake margins on the other.

We might have a political democracy, but a cultural democracy we do not.

The leaders of our cultural institutions – organisations charged with protecting and growing our culture (note: singular), whatever that may be – are mostly male, mostly unrepresentative, mostly programming the old and new masters. We get so used to their taste, we don’t stop often enough to question why their menu tastes the same as last year’s, or where the mighty mistresses are.  Fearless leaders aren’t usually in their positions for as long as ours typically hold theirs. We have an oligarchy of ageing top-dogs who have no place to go in the stasis of our cultural sector – no well-paid directorships or consultancies like those their corporate sector counterparts enjoy.

To the extent Money talks – and by some measures, measures we are forced to take, it’s the only one talking – the money our democracy, via its funding bodies, pays its artists is arguably dirty: it’s the takings from gamblers and addicts, pokey-machine peoples hoping for a windfall despite the odds stacked so against them. It props up our lottery-dependent institutions, their ‘high’-culture-plus-mandatory-outreach programmes, their not-as-fair and fearful salarymen leaders. It gets packaged up into grants and residencies we make our artists scrap for like Spanish bulls in an unlevel arena actually called a round, and it goes round and round. We don’t talk very much about where it comes from.

The fringes of our democracy are peopled by un-salarywomen. Contractors, part-timers, volunteers. People who are more likely to be on a ‘contributions holiday’ from our democratic product, Kiwisaver, and will be worse off in the long run as well as the short, people who are looking after children and elders and other fringe-dwellers in between ‘gigs’, chasing payment of their meagre invoices late into the night.  If they have a voice, more often than not it’s a part-time voice, and they have to shout harder to be heard in the centre. They womansplain things in terms of #metoo to deniers, who populate the comments section of just about every article reporting a female success or a programme of positive discrimination. They have to pretend they believe in a meritocracy when the stats show the modus operandi is to reward the masculine regardless. 

Everyone’s a guy these days. It’s hey guys, you guys, those guys. What about the dolls? The talk of diversity – in which more than half the population is defined as ‘the other’, lumped together with every other ‘identity’ interest group – is invoked left, right and centre within our cultural institutions, but the walk ain’t walked. If it were, they would be truly flexible for those (mostly) dolls with care responsibilities; they would have space, or make space, for diverse needs to be played over, not out, within their buildings, so these dolls and their charges were visible, audible and constant, not remote and ephemeral.

A cultural democracy would produce an education system that was flowering, not floundering. What use is the idea of universal when universities, which should be about everything in the universe, are increasingly interested in nothing, when one tertiary institution after another, led by austere, appointed men, decimates its arts faculty, citing their own neglect and a failure to look like other faculties, missing the point that not doing so is, and should of course be, the point? Advocates for these withering faculties desperately talk about the revenue the creative industries contribute because they can’t penetrate the glazed looks penny-pinching bureaucrats adopt when they talk of other measures, other currencies, other ways of conceiving of an economy. It’s all about the numbers: What’s the bottom line?

Our underpaid, mostly female teachers, charged with indoctrinating our children with our his-tory, our democracy, are given a pittance of training on the arts, then we are surprised when the best our underfunded schools can do is once a year present an offering of cookie-cutter children’s art which PTAs, peopled mostly by volunteering women, expect parents to fork out for at auctions. Nobody questions the message this gives our children, namely that we manufacture art-product inside the lines and then we commodify it, and that is the only way we do it, and we celebrate that with an event. Even these limited attempts at promoting creative expression within the educational setting are more an exercise in oppression.

Our education system, bleating on about the 3Rs plus technology, is designed to churn out coders and yes-men, not critics and naysayers. Why nurture a critic anyway? The space for them is squeezed like the lemons they are. It’s New Zealand, so you have to be nice (if you’re a woman), or funny (if you’re a man), or both (but then whaddarya?). It’s a small country, and people have long memories.

But we should be grateful we’ve got the vote, eh? Remember that.

Yeah, right. We have far to go.

Amy Mansfield is an independent producer and writer with a background in law, literature and music. She has worked in a variety of roles across the art forms in the New Zealand arts sector. She can be contacted on

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The norm of self-interest

A core doctrine of the current era is that people are inherently self-interested and that self-interest is a moral act, which benefits the collective. I’ve recently read a fascinating article by the social psychologist Dale Miller that shows just how deeply this doctrine has worked its way into the social life of Western societies. The result is very strange – people trying their best not to benefit others in the belief that such acts are an embarrassing breech of proper behaviour.

Before getting into Miller’s argument, it’s important to remember that the evidence for people being primarily driven by self-interest is weak. In fact, as I’ve argued at length in The Infinite Game, most people are strongly inclined to share with, and help, others. We feel empathy towards people in need, an emotion that pushes us to try to improve their situation. We also have an almost irresistible desire to share our interests, skills and knowledge. ‘Talent,’ as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, ‘is always conscious of its own abundance and does not object to sharing.’ In fact, unshared talent is a sad and lonely thing: think of the artist whose work is not recognised and who eventually succumbs to despair. So cooperation and generosity are easy for most of us most of the time, and it takes self-restraint to ‘look after number one’ through ignoring the plight of others and guarding our assets.

Nevertheless, according to Miller we feel obliged to show such restraint and act consistently with our ‘short term, material self-interest’. Self-interest, he argues, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we are trained to believe that self-interest is the natural human condition. This is helped by the popular version of the theory of evolution, in which we are assumed to be in a constant race for survival. We are also told that self-interest is good for the collective. If we each focus on our own needs the system will function efficiently and provide good outcomes for all. Our responsibility under this ‘natural’ and ‘socially beneficial’ system is simple: accumulate wealth and other personal resources and use them to enhance life for ourselves and our families. In an effort to conform, we act and talk as if we are self-interested, providing further evidence that self-interest is the right and normal way to behave.

A study Miller discusses involved students from three university courses. One course was in economics and based on game theory, a theory that assumes people are out to maximise their material gain. The second course was on the economics of Maoist China. The third course was on astronomy. Prior to receiving any teaching and again at the end of their course, students were asked a series of questions designed to measure their level of material self-interest. One question, for example, was, ‘Would you return a lost envelope with $100 in it?’  Those who did the game theory course showed a significant shift towards self-interest after the course, so, in the case of the sample question, they became less likely to indicate that they would return the $100. Those who did the astronomy course showed no such shift. The students taught about the economics of Maoist China scored somewhere in between the two. Miller suggests that the students who were taught from the perspective of game theory learnt that self-interest was ‘the rational and appropriate action to take no matter how guilty one feels doing so.’ Note: the students may have been intellectually persuaded in favour of self-interest, but they still experienced the emotional signal (guilt) that something wasn’t right.

The norm of self-interest may also lead people to hide their compassionate motives. Miller discusses how volunteers in one study described their motivation to volunteer primarily in terms of the benefit to themselves, as if it was inappropriate to be motivated by concern for others. It’s easy to find other examples of people hiding other-focused motives.  Even the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and a writer whose work oozes compassion from every pore, claims she writes for herself in her book on creativity. She implies that wanting to write ‘to help other people’ is pretentious or misguided – an act of self-deceit that places a burden on others and will not produce work of value. ‘Enlightened self-interest’ is a mantra taken up by the business world to describe acts that benefit the collective such as carbon offsetting, ethical investing or working with suppliers who provide reasonable conditions for their workers. It’s OK to promote the common good, this framing tells us, because you will benefit in the end!

Miller claims that acts which can be seen as self-interest are also favoured in the political domain. If you are a woman, you can fight for gender equality. If you are a nurse, you can take industrial action to get better pay for nurses. If you are from an ethnic minority, you can stand up for the rights of your people. It is much harder for those outside the relevant identity to take up the cause, even if they feel just as strongly about the issues concerned. The most commonly touted explanation for this is that it is only insiders who care enough to put in the time and effort. However, an alternative explanation is that it is only insiders who feel entitled to put in the time and effort. The claim that ‘we’ are suffering and deserve better is compatible with self-interest, the claim that ‘they’ are suffering and deserve better is not. Viewed through the normative lens, the latter claim seems odd, incoherent and downright suspicious. The pressure to only stand up for what benefits you or your group results then, in an unwillingness to take action for the common good – or to be caught doing so.

A passage in the autobiography of Richard Randerson, who was a minister in the New Zealand Anglican church for several decades, vividly illustrates this pressure in action. It was 1968 and he was at the annual meeting in which the church traditionally endorsed a pay rise for clergy. ‘I suggested we should live sacrificially by not taking an increase, saying that Jackie [my wife] and I were able to live comfortably on the existing stipend. The Herald leapt on to this as a big story: turning down a wage increase was unheard of. A reporter was sent to interview Jackie on our food menu and budget, with details published in an article the next day. But [my suggestion] unsurprisingly, was not well received. We [had no children] and I was speaking to family men supporting a family on a single income. A trade unionist sent a copy of my photo from the Herald with a bullet-hole marked in my forehead. My statement was naïve and foolish, and I remember driving home to Papakura wishing the earth would open and swallow me up.’

Whoa – let’s think this through. Randerson got a death-threat for suggesting that he and other church employees relinquish their pay rise. Instead experiencing the threat as bullying designed to quash his compassionate impulse and send a message to anyone else thinking along the same lines, he experienced it as a sign of his naivety. And in a sense, he was naïve – he attempted to publically break the rule of self-interest. Had he donated his pay rise back to the church that would have been easier to manage – a private act and an aberration, not a plea to change the norm that the interests of one’s own group must come first.

By helping to suppress acts aimed to enhance the wellbeing of others, the norm of self-interest fragments our efforts to keep what we value in play. Social change becomes a series of campaigns in which those disadvantaged by the current rules fight for their patch. The civil rights movement in the USA is one example. It is now told as a successful battle for black rights, when many of Martin Luther King’s speeches called for improved conditions for all people experiencing poverty and oppression. Women are assumed to want equal representation in positions of power, with the implication that once the gender numbers are balanced, feminism will have achieved its goals. Again, this version of feminism is a far cry from a much more inclusive possibility – that women already do vital work and learning from ‘women’s ways’ could be of great value to society as a whole.

As always, however, it takes more than a mere norm to keep people in check. Yes, the norm of self-interest is powerful in pulling us toward some behaviours and away from others. The accompanying doctrine also strips us of ready language to talk about impulses that go against the rules. But the telling signs that people do care – like the guilt experienced by the self-interested students of game theory – don’t go away. And there are alternatives everywhere if you just notice them – the relational plays of many women (and men) are just one example.

So if you feel awkward admitting you want to help others, realise that isn’t because helping others is an unnatural and misguided act. It is because you have been trained to think it is an unnatural and misguided act. Why not feel the fear and do it anyway?

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Damaging games of love: Reflections on Centrepoint

Last month Kim Hill interviewed Angie Meiklejohn on her experiences at Centrepoint, a therapeutic community on the northern outskirts of Auckland city that flourished in the 1980s and is now notorious for encouraging sexual activity between men and young women or girls. In the early 1990s Bert Potter, Centrepoint’s founder, and five other men were convicted on several charges of indecent or sexual assault on minors.

Angie Meiklejohn was one of the young women who lived at Centrepoint and became caught up in the sexual climate. As well as agreeing to sexual invitations from Bert Potter she was involved in a sexual relationship with Henry Stonex, a much older man who was simultaneously her ‘surrogate father’. In the interview with Kim Hill, she said that while she was living in the community she told outsiders that Bert Potter was a ‘really, really nice man’ but she actually thought he was ‘old and fat and disgusting’ and certainly did not want to have sex with him. Yet for several years after leaving Centrepoint she refused to criticise its philosophy and practices.

Through today’s lens the Centrepoint story is often told as if it was a conspiracy-to-abuse with paedophiles at its centre. In this version of the story those who knew about the sexual practices with children and teenagers were criminally negligent. ‘Parents,’ says the current Wikipedia entry, ‘either neglect[ed] to protect their children from the assaults, or actively abet[ed] them.’

Having been on the edge of Centrepoint myself, I doubt that most of the adults who knew what was going on believed they were doing harm (see here for a related research report). I now suspect that a fundamental flaw with Centrepoint’s doctrine, or at least the one that messed with my head, was that it demanded love from people. Those demands were backed with the implication that the failure to give of oneself, physically and emotionally, was to fail as a human being.

I did not actually visit Centrepoint until 1987, but I was a psychology student in Auckland from 1979 – 1983 when Centrepoint was very much in vogue. In my third year at university I volunteered for a counselling organisation where most of the more experienced counsellors had done residential courses at Centrepoint.(1) It was my experience at this organisation that convinced me I did not want to be a clinical psychologist. At group training sessions, I felt sluggish and weighed down by poorly articulated emotions, mistrust and large bodies that were always too close. I was constantly told I was ‘intellectualising’, an accusation that I found both distressing and confusing. I couldn’t figure out (ha!) what intellectualising was exactly but I knew it was bad. Although I do not recall any sexual pressure, I was certainly being trained in how to ignore my feelings. I felt dreadful but it seemed out of the question to say that. Instead, it seems to me now, the group expected me to feel the warmth and trust that signifies love is in play. When I did not feel love, I covered it up with what they rightly detected was waffle.  

In 1987 I visited Centrepoint with my partner, now my husband, on a couples retreat. The weekend was not our idea but we thought we may as well give it a go. Centrepoint felt to me like unfinished business, a mecca right on my backdoor step that I had not visited. I was cautious but curious. As with the group training sessions I’d experienced several years earlier, I found the atmosphere stifling, and the other bodies weighty and oppressive. I survived the stuffiness and claustrophobia by breaking the rules and taking paracetamol at regular intervals. The woman who ran the retreat told us that Bert Potter often said, ‘Centrepoint is paradise, you can get anything you want here.’(2) While she was referring in part to sex, she was also referring to intimacy and affection – in other words, love. I distinctly remember the hesitation in her voice, revealing perhaps, that she knew love is not something you can ‘get’ when you want it.

This time I was not taken in. I was able, perhaps because I was older or with someone I trusted, to listen without my mind running in confused, self-blaming circles. We can desire the love of others with every fibre of our being but their love is never ours by right. Love is only love when it is a spontaneous feeling of warmth towards others.

Communities can, and must, make demands of their members. Parents can reasonably expect their children to do housework, refrain from hitting their siblings and visit their grandparents. Schools, religious institutions and work places can expect a whole range of specific behaviours in line with the finite games that ensure the organisation continues to function appropriately. But love is different. To try and bully it out of another or pull it out of ourselves is to cause a wound that is hard to heal.

It is easy to call out Bert Potter as someone who played profoundly damaging games with love. But, as is usually the case when we feel we have identified ‘evil’ and can now stamp it out (the trickster’s fourth move), we miss the opportunity to also look at ourselves. Who hasn’t tried to drag love out of someone else? I certainly have. When I think of those times, every one of them was based on fear that I would be overlooked. Such fear is not unreasonable, I often am overlooked! But that does not mean I can make demands of others’ emotions and force them to care for me.

Paradise isn’t being able to get love on tap, paradise is being able to give love well. And giving love well comes from noticing how it is received. When a child flinches from your touch, it is time to back away. Perhaps the child requires a different approach or none at all. When people do not warm to your philosophy, it is time to back away. Perhaps it is your turn to listen and try to understand their truth.

I don’t mean to make love sound picky or elusive. I actually think most of us are quite good at it most of the time. We want to give love and we want to receive it too. But when love is absent, it must be left to be so. Otherwise we risk damaging the sacred core from which it springs. 

(1). As I recall, a residential workshop at Centrepoint was required to move up in the organisation. I am fairly sure that all the counsellors who trained us had done at least one Centrepoint workshop.

(2). These may not have been her exact words.

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A manifesto for the relational university

Love is the essence of the infinite game, and the essence of love is relationship – the myriad ways in which we reach out to and touch others. Through this connection comes learning, creativity, novelty and growth – core features of the thriving university.

The proposal here is simple. It is that a) we return to 1980 levels of relationship within the university and b) every time we replace a real world encounter with an online tool we create an alternative real world encounter in its place. While I am relying heavily on a comparison between my own university – the University of Auckland – as it was in 1980 and as it is now, I intend this manifesto to apply more generally.

I admit that 1980 is a somewhat arbitrary benchmark. It was my second year at university. It was also prior to personal computers, cell phones, and the Internet; and so most transactions had to be face to face. To aid my memory I have consulted my university’s calendar for that year, a massive document that I and other students actually read – or at least flicked through. I have also received helpful information from colleagues on past and current practices, and been inspired by work investigating the values and perspectives Māori and Pacific students bring to academic institutions.

In 1980, according to the calendar, ‘every internal student shall enrol at the university in person before the beginning of the first term in accordance with the detailed enrolment timetable published in this Calendar’. So we turned up on the day assigned to our degree and place in the alphabet, and stood in long lines waiting to enrol in courses, sign up for tutorials or laboratories and get our library card. If we needed concessions we saw Deans or Temporary Acting Deputy Deans, told them our story and they decided our fate on the spot. Those queues were full of the possibility of a new year. We had nothing else to do but chat, laugh and complain about the wait with the people around us, and so that is what we did.

Lectures were essentially talks interspersed with writing on the blackboard and questions from the class. Handouts of any sort were rare. Occasionally lecturers would show us slides – by which I mean the small cardboard mounted slides that are inserted into a carousel and projected onto a screen. You had to turn up or get notes from a friend. Tutorials or laboratories were almost every week during a one-year course. You got to know people. In first year psychology, you also got to know a rat that you were required to train in order to demonstrate the principles of operant learning.

Then there were the small things that brought us face to face with other people. These included handing in and getting back paper copies of assignments, requesting extensions, asking questions of the lecturer, going to the library to get out books and consult journals, and attending movies and talks which you either saw when they were scheduled or missed out on.

In 2018 the enrolment queues are gone – everything except getting your ID card is done online. Most undergraduate lectures are recorded and posted on Canvas, our online ‘Learning Management System’. While some research has suggested that lecture attendance is not affected by making recordings available to students, other research suggests it is. In discussion with my colleagues and students, it is clear that recordings do reduce attendance. Let’s face it, if you live an hour’s bus ride from university and have just a single 8am or 5pm lecture on a particular day, it would take massive willpower to show up week after week. And there is no requirement to buddy up to classmates to get the lecture notes. You can obtain what you need without leaving home – gosh, you can obtain what you need without getting out of bed. More and more online ‘learning tools’ have replaced in-person teaching sessions. Psychology students now train Sniffy the virtual rat; the live rats are long gone.

As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, the drift away from a university that operates through physical human-to-human interactions has happened gradually, and it’s a worldwide trend. Each move in this direction is quite reasonably proposed on the grounds of efficiency, cost, equity, ‘what students expect’, and sometimes even sustainability – an online process means less paper, less travel and fewer carbon emissions. What is more it isn’t (yet) possible to clearly show that these moves are detrimental to the rich learning possible on a campus filled with actual people. Online learning tools often ‘work’ to achieve the educational goals set. Research on social media has also produced mixed outcomes. While a recent study found that heavy Facebook use is associated with negative wellbeing, other studies have found social networking can enhance people’s assessment of their lives. So while it is unequivocal that people need people, the extent to which full-bodied exchanges can be replaced with screens and audio files is unclear. 

However, just as it is absurd to suggest people could flourish on Mars – no matter what our skills in creating an artificial environment – it is absurd to suggest people can learn, grow, exchange and help each other thrive without embodied encounters. University teachers and researchers certainly don’t believe this – we travel constantly, especially to conferences. And the Internet is awash with articles advising graduate students and young academics of how important and beneficial such conferences are.

We probably can’t (and shouldn’t) go back to alphabetically-organised enrolment queues, trips to the library to consult journals and knocking on a lecturer’s door to get an extension. I suspect the writing is also on the wall for paper-based assignments. So returning to 1980 levels of relationship in the university will take a bit of creativity. Here are ten suggestions for how we could do it:

1.       Offer weekly tutorials or laboratories for every course, unless the course involves fieldwork or other intensive, interactive teaching blocks.

2.       Require that all courses have a 20% group work component and allow at least half an hour per tutorial or laboratory for working on this component over the first few weeks of the course.

3.       Revive ‘office hours’ when lecturers are available for questions – and encourage students to attend these, using online discussion boards as back up only.

4.       Identify cohorts of students who are on a similar path and provide events, mentors and spaces that encourage them to gather and feel as if they are on an important journey together.

5.       Include questions on ‘the opportunity for interaction’ and ‘the ability to form quality relationships’ as part of student course evaluations.

6.       Support university clubs and societies – these are still hotbeds of everything students have always got up to when in each other’s company.

7.       Increase the number of student kitchen facilities on campus and provide low cost meals to encourage students to eat on campus together.

8.       Encourage lecturers not to travel during teaching semesters so they are more available for in-person interactions with students. The money saved could be spent on suggestion #1.

9.       Create multiple beautiful areas on campus using plants, artwork and seating arrangements that encourage staff and students to meet and talk.

10.   Whenever a new ‘online tool’ is proposed that eliminates or reduces the need for a real world encounter, an alternative real world encounter must also be proposed.

Universities have the people, spaces and social mandate to deeply ponder and demonstrate the good life. Relationships are pivotal to that life: investigate a little patch of human happiness and you’ll find some kind of connection at its core. Let’s bring back the vibrancy and possibility that infuses a university in which people experience each other walking, talking, eating and laughing – often.

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Do we need heirarchies?

A conversation between a daughter (D) and her mother (M).

D: What do people mean when they say ‘women these days want it all’?

M: They mean that women want to have careers and have babies.

D. Oh. But they say it like it’s a bad thing.  Like when you say, ‘How many times do I have to tell you to put your cup in the dishwasher!’ Is it bad to want a career and babies? What is a career anyway?

M: A career is a like a job, or one job after another. If you have a career you get to do harder work as you get older and you get paid more. And you might get to be the boss of other people and help them do their jobs. So Mr Jacobs [the principal at the daughter’s school] has a career as a teacher. He started out teaching a class and now he is the boss of the other teachers and helps them do their jobs.

D: So Mrs Elliot [her classroom teacher] doesn’t have a career as a teacher?

M: Well, she does too. Some people like teaching a class so much, they just keep doing that.

D: So if Mrs Elliot had a baby she’d ‘want it all’?

M: In a way. But usually when people say ‘women want it all’ they don’t just mean a job like teaching one class, they mean a job like Mr Jacobs, where you get to be especially important. They mean that to want to have children and to want to be an important person at work is a bit greedy. Well, if you are a woman.

D: How do you get to be an important person at work?

M: It is different for different kinds of work. You have to do whatever it is that is most important for that kind of work. What do you think is most important for teachers?

D: Helping children. I know, I know! It is helping children develop their full potential and grow to be contributing citizens!

M: Where did you hear that?

D: It is written on our website. It says that is the mission of our school. But I don’t think Mr Jacobs really helps children. The children are scared of him. Mrs Elliot helps children though. But she isn’t as important as Mr Jacobs is she?

M: Well she is just as important, but her job isn’t as important.

D: I don’t think Mrs Elliot is going to a have a baby. She is really old.

M: I don’t think she is going to have a baby either.

D: So she can have an important career then and people won’t say she is greedy.

M: That’s right. But she might just like helping children. The school needs lots of teachers who want to help children, but it only needs one principal. So it is good some people don’t want to be the principal or else all the teachers would be competing with each other to try to be the principal and they might forget to help the children and they would feel sad because most of them wouldn’t be the principal. Like when you go to a birthday party and play pass the parcel and only one person gets the prize.

D: When I got the prize at Kim’s birthday Kim cried.

M: Yes Kim did.

D: But Mrs Elliot doesn’t just like helping children, she likes planting trees too. She is the teacher in charge when we go to plant trees at Kauri Park. She tells all the other teachers what to do. So why isn’t her job as important as Mr Jacobs?

M: Well it’s because organising things like planting trees is not as hard as the things Mr Jacobs has to organise.

D:  Oh. What kind of things does he have to organise?

M: Like who to give the job to when the school needs a new teacher and how to spend the money the school gets to teach you, things like that.

D. Are those things harder than teaching a class and planting trees?

M: I’m not sure. But only one person at the school can be the principal, so maybe that is why it is the most important job.

D: Oh. So important jobs are the jobs that most people can’t have and that is why they are important?

M: Sort of.

D: And people who do important jobs get given more money, right?

M: Yes.

D:  Do you think it is greedy for women to want to have babies and get important jobs?

M: No. Well maybe it is a little bit greedy for anyone to want to have an important job. Because you want something that not everyone can have, a bit like wanting to win pass the parcel.

D: But when we started to play pass the parcel Kim’s brother goes, ‘Who wants to win the prize?’ and everyone went, ‘Me!’ and he smiled like that was good. 

M: Yes, it’s quite confusing…

D: [Interrupting] … and someone’s got to do the important jobs. If Mr Jacobs wasn’t there we wouldn’t be able to buy stuff or get new teachers, right? Like when Ms Samuels left, her class would just play all day, because they wouldn’t have got Ms Wong to be their teacher.

M: I guess that is right. And it is okay if only a few people want the important jobs. It only wouldn’t work if everyone wanted those jobs, because they would stop doing other things – like if Mrs Elliot wanted to be principal she might stop helping you so much with your reading or stop organising tree planting because she would want to show she knew how to spend money and the things you have to do when you are principal.

D: I don’t want her to stop helping me with my reading.

M: No, I don’t either.

D: So I am glad Mrs Elliot doesn’t want an important job.


D: I think I agree that it is bad for women to want it all.

M: Really? Why is that?

D: Well, because if they don’t want it all, then they will still help children and stuff like that which isn’t important.

M: But they won’t get paid as much money as men or get to be the boss, do you think that is fair?

D: I don’t know. I guess it isn’t fair. But hardly anyone gets to be the boss. So it isn’t going to be fair anyway.

M: Well yes. Do you think there is a way to make it fair?

D: Can’t it be that they say the stuff teachers do is just as important as the stuff the principal does?

M: They could. But then it would be hard to pick a boss and to pay that person more money.

D: Oh.


D: Can I have a hot chocolate? I promise I’ll put my cup in the dishwasher.


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Let’s keep the dice rolling

I recently listened with increasing horror to an interview by Kim Hill on RNZ National with Julian Savulescu. Savulescu is a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, and he was advocating for the genetic testing of embryos to allow parents to select for a wide variety of traits. This was way beyond eliminating severe, early onset conditions such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It was about selecting for ‘intelligence’, perfect musical pitch, physical coordination and so on.

Take note people: if this is the society we create, gone will be the roll of the dice which means each child is a delicious combination of quirky traits that throws something new into the ring. Instead, it will be a world of Barbie and Ken dolls, perfectly dull, and without movement, growth or vitality. The swirl of life will freeze into a form imagined by the men and women who sit in their labs designing the human species. 

It will also be the end of sex. Think about it – if we can harvest a woman’s eggs, match these with a man’s sperm, and then select from and modify the embryos that result, why would you throw the dice? My goodness, you might have a child who struggles to read or do their taxes, or who doesn’t sleep well and gets depressed from time to time. Bad outcomes that you could have avoided if you’d been halfway responsible and gone down the IVF-select-your-baby route.

OK I know that 99.9% of sex isn’t about producing a baby, and people will still jump into bed with each other. But sex as we know it is being undermined through other technologies too. A recent Adbuster’s magazine offers the following vingette: ‘On the third floor of a sex shop in Akihabara, a shy young guy told me that pornography and sex toys are now so fantastic in Japan that you don’t need to bother with real sex.’ Can this really be true? Are young people starting to believe that images and sex toys can replace courtship, human contact, and the oscillation of emotions that accompanies the real deal? Maybe. We are certainly creating a myriad of technological substitutes for human interaction. Medicine, education, encounters with nature – the push is to get everything online until we drift into Matrix-like existences and life has ceased to exist.

In university teaching, the world I know best, more and more is done with the help of computers. Some of this just replaces paper with a screen, which (as far as I can tell) is innocuous. But increasingly, computers replace group based learning. Students can now watch recorded lectures at home, submit assignments via a website and ask their teachers questions through online discussion boards. This may all sound fine to you – as each element was introduced I thought it was fine too. But it all adds up. We are now only a whisker way from a world in which each student sits in their bedroom all day long interacting with a screen. What happens to their bodies as they no longer move through the city to their place of learning, walk between classes and find somewhere to have lunch? And what happens to their minds as they encounter only the thin audio-visual channels produced by computers and the sights, smells, sounds and feel of their bedroom?

As we seek perfection – the ideal baby, the ‘fantastic’ sexual experience, education delivered to your home – we kill life. Life is a mess. A glorious, tragic, frustrating, random, uncontrollable mess. Let’s keep the dice rolling.

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The shame of finite games

In his book Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse wrote: “There is a humiliating memory at the bottom of all serious conflicts.” Our progress through competitive finite games – from one attempted victory to the next – is, as he describes it, a constant effort to resurface old wounds and show the world that we do not deserve the shame they carry. “We feel the need… to prove to [our audience] that we are not what we think they think we are.” In other words, as I read it, Carse is claiming that our struggle up the social hierarchy – or even our waging of war against each other – is at its core, about our desire to be fully recognised and appreciated.

But, as Carse also points out, there is a contradiction implicit to this effort. In order to have the desire to win and show our audience that we are worthy of the title we seek, we must accept that we “actually are the losers the audience sees us to be.” Imagine, for example, we are aiming to be promoted at work. The university promotion ladder is a particularly good example, because the award of a new title – senior lecturer, associate professor, professor – does not bring with it a new role. The primary function of a university title is to indicate that the recipient is worthy of it. In this sense it is a rather pure finite game.

To be in with a chance, the academic who is say, a lecturer, must study the criteria for a senior lecturer and provide a written narrative that argues they already are a senior lecturer, it is just that the university has not yet caught up with this fact. If we understand the applicant to be driven by the desire to be fully recognised and appreciated, what they are really wanting is affirmation from the university that their contribution has been seen and given the stamp of approval. Now, unless they are the archetype academic as defined by their university, their narrative will have required considerable distortion in order to fit the narrative they feel is needed to succeed. Lucky breaks will have been talked up as if they were brilliantly executed manoeuvres, years of hard work on elusive topics will have been ignored as they did not result in recognised outputs, the role of others in their achievements will have been underplayed, and so on (see here for more on this).

So, if they are awarded the title, there is the pleasure of being noticed, but an accompanying suspicion that it was not them that was noticed. If they are not awarded the title, there is the double blow of not being noticed, and having shown interest in winning a game which they subsequently lost. The temptation for losers is to point out the absurdity of the game – except, of course, for fear that if they do so they will forfeit their right to play again or greatly damage their chances of winning. Also, having played and lost, they sense that whatever they say will be unintelligible to their audience. Hillary Clinton said there were times when she wanted to “never to leave the house again” after her defeat in the US presidential elections. What could she say that would not simply affirm her humiliation was deserved?

In the promotion scenario, both winners and losers are also, rather quickly, repositioned as losers of the new game that appears before them. To play it – and attempt to gain an even grander title – is to acknowledge that you are, at that moment, a loser. This is what I think Carse means by needing to accept our role as losers in order to take competitive finite games seriously. We must, at the beginning of each stage and during moments of defeat, acknowledge that our audience – those who grant the title we are seeking, is right to withhold the title from us.

And so, competitive finite games carry an undercurrent of shame. We are forced to simultaneously position ourselves as worthy and unworthy, and give an audience the right to decide our fate. If they judge us unfavourably we asked for it and if they judge us favourably that was only because they did not really see us.

When we are overwhelmed with shame we, like Hillary Clinton, want to hide from view – swamped with a suffering that cannot be articulated. But eventually, our shame may morph into an energy that propels us forward. It is either a renewed sense of vigour for the game or shame’s counterweight: anger – I’ll show them! There is an extraordinary scene in the BBC series The Honourable Woman, in which the Israeli business woman at the centre of the series is face to face with the Palestinian leader of a terrorist group. Both have suffered enormous harm at the hands of the other’s people. In her case, the most personal of these harms were ordered by the man before her. He describes the injustices he has suffered with self-righteous fury. He then asks her why she does not pick up the knife on the table between them and kill him. She replies that whenever she experiences yet another loss or humiliation she thinks, “I deserve it.”

She is locked in a shame that prevents her playing the game being offered, he is locked in an anger that gives him no other choice. Her shame is on one level shocking and undeserved – just as was Hillary Clinton’s – but on another level it serves to break the cycle of destruction. It is as if she chooses to own those humiliating memories and carry their unbearable pain as her offering to the world.  She does not, as in the opening quotation from Carse, constantly revive those memories in service of further conflict.

Is there a way out? That is, can we transcend both shame and anger, thereby avoiding the suffering hidden inside finite games? I am not sure if that is either possible or desirable. But, an infinite game perspective can throw a new, and perhaps helpful, light on these emotions. What it suggests is that shame is fundamental to competitive finite play, like a secret vein that runs through it. When we feel shame, we may do well to celebrate it for what it is – the recognition of our complicity in a social drama that is both serious and absurd. Shame is, if you like, the truth-teller, the route back to our humanity and vulnerability. Anger, on the other hand, projects our pain on to others. This too has truth – especially when we have been another’s pawn – but when it demands vengeance, it sets up an internal battle. We must now pretend to overlook the absurdity of the game itself in order to maintain our passion for playing.

Shame is very unfashionable. It is however, very human. It resonates with the first time we learnt that there were rules we needed to follow if we wanted to be accepted. We only learnt this when we violated those rules – rules we did not know existed – and were rejected for doing so. No matter how gently we were redirected, the message was clear – to get by in this world you will need to change who you are. To lose shame therefore, at least when reflecting on your victories and defeats, is to lose the sense that you exist, over and above whatever society has taught you to be.  It is also to turn your back on the knowledge that we are actually only fully recognised and appreciated in the spaces between finite games – when we and others let down our guards and the warmth of being together and feeling free floods over us.

Note: All Carse’s quotations are from p. 73 of the 1986 Free Press edition of Finite and Infinite Games

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In praise of Christmas carols

Today I listened, for at least the 15th time over the past three weeks, to The Seekers compilation of Christmas music, Morningtown Ride to Christmas.  I usually skip over the non-religious songs. They feel all wrong to me; and this year I decided to try and figure out why Silent Night, A Child is Born, Once in Royal David’s City and almost every other carol move me so, and why Santa Claus is Coming to Town makes me cringe.

I think it is partly the music itself – Silent Night, for example, has an exquisite, haunting quality that somehow resonates compassion. Santa Claus is Coming to Town on the other hand, is upbeat and cheery. Now there is nothing wrong with upbeat and cheery per se, but there is something forced about it in the context of Christmas – as if it is your duty to exist in a happy frenzy, or at least pretend that life is essentially a jolly affair. If nothing else, such merry little ditties are a lost opportunity to convey the Christmas spirit; a spirit which suggests that people are just people – no matter how rich, poor, successful, cruel, ill, self-defeating or strong. For once, we don’t have to pretend that we are on top of the world, because being on top of the world is not the point.

Then there are the lyrics. I am not Christian, but I find the story of the birth of a child and the stillness, love and generosity this inspires in people extraordinarily reassuring. That grown men (three kings no less!) could stop what they are doing and be humbled by a child born in poverty carries enormous hope. Poor children are, after all, the absolute bottom of the human power chain. If we could only build a world that revered them, what a world it would be.

The lyrics of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, promise good children, those who are “nice” rather than “naughty”, presents. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” If it wasn’t so awful, this song could almost be admired for how it manages to cram in so many of the necessary lessons for being a good citizen under our current regime. Do not show emotion, conform, and most of all, replace your desire for love and creativity with a craving for new stuff. 

When did we decide that children were unable to understand notions such as grace? Or that we all have feelings and dreams and can learn to honour those in ourselves and others? Or that being nice to someone is about recognising in another the same capacity for joy and pain that you experience, not about being materially rewarded for your efforts? Or that you receive presents because those who love you want to show their love – and how “good” you’ve been is irrelevant to their desire for you to flourish?

May the spirit of Christmas be with you and those around you.

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Trump, self-interest and collective hope

Probably like most of you, I spent yesterday evening listening to the US presidential election results with increasing disbelief. It was as if they were happening not just in a different country, but in a different dimension. 

When Trump’s acceptance speech came on the radio I listened, and was mildly reassured. He seemed to be saying that the grisly tournament was over and now the serious business of running a nation must begin. But one snippet disturbed me greatly. Not because of what it said about Trump, but because of what it said about how one is supposed to galvanise people in today’s world. This was when he referred to working with other nations, but prefaced his comment with, “While we will always put America’s interests first...”

What does it mean to offer relationship, while stating that you intend to put yourself first within that relationship? The message is something like: “Be wary of me. You are ‘other’ to me at all times. I will never allow myself to listen deeply to your needs and for us to agree on what is fair and right in this situation regardless of who it appears to benefit in the short-term.” What is doubly extraordinary about this statement is that Trump probably felt it was a needed caveat to keep Americans happy, as if Americans truly believe the world works best when everyone is out for number one. I am not saying Americans (and New Zealanders for that matter) have not bought into this claim at some level, but in reality they will have experienced over and over again that genuine cooperation is what makes the social world go around.

Research consistently shows that the majority of people choose cooperative strategies most of the time – even when it goes against their immediate self-interest and even when they do not have an ongoing relationship with the other people involved. However, research also shows that when people do not trust others to cooperate, they retreat into self-interest.

So in a subtle, but important way, rhetoric that reinforces self-interest as a reasonable strategy – the only reasonable strategy in the case of Trump’s statement - undermines the trust essential to cooperation. It turns us from the generous, open, and creative people we are at our best; into guarded, fearful people who feel it is our duty to get as much as we can from the collective. Sure, the idea of our group dominating the world (a.k.a. patriotism) can generate a certain feverish excitement and unity at times, but it has always got a nasty edge. It is an excitement based on someone else’s loss or at the very least on turning our back on those who are not ‘one of us’. And that hyped-up, competitive state - no matter what the dominant rhetoric tries to tell us – is not the natural human condition. It is not how the great majority of us behave in our daily lives, it is not what brings personal happiness and it is certainly not how societies maintain the collective hope needed to become more sustainable and just.

We maintain collective hope by constantly appealing to people’s desire to work together. Telling the world I (or we) are, or should aim to be, “better than” or “the leading” or “great” – sounds both exhausting and hollow the morning after. (What you mean me? No mate, that’s for those people that go on those TV shows.) Telling people that they are cared for, and will continue to be cared for no matter what life brings their way – well, there is liberation in that.

Knowing that you will look after me, if and when I need it, is what allows me to look after you.  

Oh what the hell. I am going to do my best to look after you anyway.

Now it’s your turn.

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The value of temporary objects

There are three types of things: durable, temporary and junk. The culture of consumption specialises in junk. We all know what junk is – it doesn’t last and when it is no longer useful or desirable, it refuses to turn back into the components from which it was derived. Cheap plastic toys are junk by this definition, so is fast fashion and so are smartphones.  

The solution to junk is often argued to be objects that are durable.  A tee shirt that is still wearable after a few years is better than one that looks terrible after a few washes. A house built of sturdy materials is better than one built of flimsy materials. And a child’s toy that does not fall apart when someone trips over it is better than one that does so.

I do not disagree – objects that are durable (and repairable) are better than junk. But we should perhaps give more thought to the value of temporary objects. These – like junk – are not designed to last, but – unlike junk – can be gracefully retired once they break or we are tired of them. They ease back into Earth and allow people to keep creating, rather than be tied to the objects that already exist.

Some ideal temporary things include: flax baskets, murals on the side of buildings, pottery bowls, glassware, colouring books, knitted and wooden toys, paperback books, homemade greeting cards, pencils,  and gardens. I heard once that it was a tradition among Romany Gypsies to burn the caravan and all the possessions of someone who died. This strikes me as a rather good idea: the next generation does not have to deal with all that stuff – even if it is lovely and well made – but can start again.  

We all know the pleasure of making things and making temporary things is an excellent, low-impact way to pass the time. Imagine a world full of such things – it would have so much more creative possibility and beauty than the world we live in now.  

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No women CEOs in NZ's top fifty companies - tragedy or hope?

It’s 2016, and the number of female CEOs in New Zealand’s top fifty companies has finally reached… zero.

So began a story this month in The Pantograph Punch.

It is true, it is extraordinary and when I thought it through for a minute it is also exhilarating.

Now, exhilaration is not the reaction one is supposed to have to men ruling all our mega-companies from Fletcher Building through to Air New Zealand and The Warehouse. But here is why I reacted in this way.

Ruling a mega-company is taking the reins of an enormous finite game that is knitted into the status quo from almost every angle. You can’t move without people jumping up and down and screaming at you to make sure they are protected. Imagine how it feels to be Theo Spierings, the CEO of Fonterra (a dairy cooperative, which is by far the biggest supplier of NZ milk and also operates in Australia). Milk prices go down, and farmers say they are “the victims of ‘immoral’ cuts to milk pay outs.” One of your plants leaks wastewater into groundwater systems and an Environment Court judge accuses you of being a “laggard” in relation to “the adoption of appropriate technology” and “putting productivity ahead of the environment.” Consumers are shocked to learn that you are “allowing GM stock feed to be fed to our cows,” and you are advised to stop this practice or risk “consumer backlash.” You must work all day alongside the other big boys, under the relentless pressure to make sure your organisation doesn’t fall behind. The bigger your business, the further there is to fall and the greater the pressure.

It doesn’t sound like much fun to me, even for $4.49 million dollars a year (which, yes, is an absurd salary). So maybe it is good news that something about who we are as women means we are not at this particular table. Isabelle Stengers, the Belgian philosopher has said that she “never accepts answering the question ‘power’ people always ask… What would you do if you were in our place?” as she went on to say, “I am not in your place! And it is not by chance. A society where I would occupy any kind of power position and still think and feel as I do would be a completely different society.”

Of course there will be some direct sexism behind the latest news about our mono-gendered CEO scene, and women do (on average) spend more time caring for their families and doing housework than men do. But surely it is also in part a refusal amongst women who could, to play the game required to get into these positions. It may not be a conscious refusal, but just a stubborn clinging to the ways of women – in which you look out for others, do not assume you have the best answer, and are less attracted to large scale wheeling and dealing than men are. It would be far more tragic to have women running these companies and then find nothing has changed, than to find them absent. At least while women have not simply done “what it takes” to gain power, we still have a strong feminine archetype in play.

So when I consider our country’s increasing glorification of competitive finite games in which winners are rewarded and losers left behind, I am exhilarated by the hope that maybe women are saying, “Nah, not my gig”.  

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Developing deep trust: My talk to the Theories of Change hui

This blog is based on an edited version of my talk to the Theories of Change hui held in Auckland on February 19. 

Human society is a complex system. To simplify, it revolves around two key elements: imagination and practice.

Imagination is what we hold in our minds, conversations, stories and theories about how the world works. When each of us woke up this morning we knew what we needed to do to make our day happen. That is, we held the day “in mind” and went about creating it in keeping with our mental image. We got up at a particular time, ate breakfast (or not), checked email (or not), and made our way to the hui using whatever transport we knew to be available.

Collectively we also hold ideas that shape our practices. If we tell each other that “it’s a dog eat dog world” and “survival of the fittest” is a natural law, then it follows that we will put considerable effort into getting a secure job, accumulating personal wealth; and if we have children trying to make sure they have a head start.

So, imagination effects practice, but the reverse is also true. If we are in social circles where everyone is working long hours, getting promoted at work and making their way up the property ladder, then these practices cement the story that survival of the fittest is the natural order. This in turn fuels our desire to win (or at least not to be the biggest loser) and so we put even more time into nailing that promotion.

However, no society is completely stable. Again, to simplify, it is unstable to the extent it misunderstands or ignores the physical world, and thwarts human flourishing.

In relation to the physical world, as we continue to ignore the evidence for climate change and carry on as usual, we destabilise society. Assuming that climate scientists have more or less got the picture right, if we continue with our current practices, change will happen, simply because the physical world will rewrite the rules. Sometimes this happens overnight, as for example with the devastating hurricane in Fiji last week.

Society is also unstable if it ignores the human drive toward flourishing. People crave to be “people like” – that is to express their creativity, to feel control over their lives, and above all, to be part of warm and trusting relationships. If society does not provide the conditions under which people can be people, there will be an underlying restlessness, as well as pockets of extreme anger and social agitation. Of course power structures can act to keep people confused and even complicit in their own oppression. But this takes a lot of effort and it never works completely. Think, for example, of the enormous effort that goes into re-creating the consumer society every day – advertising, shopping malls, a pervasive social narrative that consuming (for the sake of consuming) is fun, natural and so on; and yet many of us know consumption is a hollow substitute for something deeper and more expressive. Furthermore, once you are aware of the human suffering and ecological damage that consumption causes, the glittery surface seems even more bizarre – like an aging rock star who has had too many face-lifts.

Just as the physical world can abruptly show us that we have moved beyond the boundaries of what is possible and an adjustment is needed, the human world can do this too. The graph below shows how US laws, many of which better aligned society with the principles of human flourishing, happened all of a sudden. This is not to overlook the decades of preparatory work that preceded them – gradually shaping people’s imaginations towards the possibility that, for example, to restrict marriage to same-race, different-sex partners, thwarts many people’s deep desire for a partner with whom they feel at home.



Hope, therefore, rests in knowing that to the extent society is ignoring the physical world and keeping people from flourishing, it has fault lines. And when we work to produce a society with ecological systems and people at its heart, we are working with nature. Can there be a better ally?

Increasingly, I am interested in working on an imaginative/practice cycle that builds trust between people. I do not mean a shallow trust – I will pay back the money you have loaned me or take one for the team on the sports field. I mean deep trust – together we will ensure that everyone has access to a home and some land, as well as good food and clean water. We will also ensure universal access to the fruits of our big, cooperative endeavours – education, medicine, political processes and so on. This is in part because we acknowledge that these are social products in which it is meaningless to tease out who “deserves” what, and in part because they are the route by which we can co-create the society we want to live in. You can trust me to really mean it. That is, I am not trying to win a war, sell a product or even leave a legacy. I really mean that I want to live in a society based on radical inclusion and I am prepared – in fact I would be delighted – to swap my excess wealth for this.

So how I am attempting to live by this “theory of change”? First, I seek out and attempt to create networks aimed at promoting human and ecological flourishing. Most recently, I have been appointed to a sustainability leadership role in the Faculty of Science at my university, and I have focused on setting up a network. The network is open to all staff. Members propose projects and work with interested others on these. While I am involved in several of the network’s projects, what I am actually trying to do is provide the setting for a sustainability culture to emerge – a sense that we can work together to sort out the various problems we face. Key to this is feeling that we can trust other members of the network to hold sustainability close – that we really mean it. There are many facets to this which I won’t go into here. Just one is that I have put the extra salary offered as part of my role into an account that we can draw on for our projects. To be clear, I didn’t do this in order to signal that I can be trusted; I did it because it genuinely felt super-weird to get extra money for taking on a role that is all about our collective good, especially when I earn an associate professor’s base salary. I have found it incredibly heartening to subsequently hear of others who have similarly refused to take extra pay – because it “just didn’t feel right”.

There is a delicacy in such networks – we must co-exist with the “survival of the fittest” narrative and all its related practices, and the power behind that is huge. But there is also strength to them, because, as I’ve said before, we crave deep, trusting relationship at the very core of our being. My fantasy is this: if we can learn to trust each other, trust that we really mean it, we have a chance at creating a society that is “good enough”. That, I think, is at the core of all social movements. It is when individuals let go of the struggle to win within the system as it stands and drop back into a collective spirit of trust.

What is wrong with my theory? Well, my theory is based on what I know: as a university lecturer, resident of a suburb in central Auckland, psychologist, woman, mother (and much more besides). It is as much about what I am eager to do, and how I want to live right here and now, as about what I believe “works” in an objective sense. If you wish to say it does not apply to people or situations that are different to mine, then you may be right. I will, however, continue to argue that all people crave to flourish and that includes yearning for creative expression, self-determination and to be embedded in warm, trusting relationships.

My theory is also a slow one. I don’t have a solution to impeding climate doom for example, because developing a trust-narrative will take time as we act, discuss, make mistakes, act again, discuss again and so on. If you have a way of getting international agreements that protect people and the planet through some other means, then I will absolutely come on your march or sign your petition. But I still think, to really get the platform we need for a good-enough society, one that is deeply inclusive and responsive to new problems as they arise, it is going to be slow work and deep trust is critical. 

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When the Earth is so thin a man becomes a kangaroo

Two weeks ago I watched a man become a kangaroo. I was in Kurri Kurri, New South Wales, Australia; an area that was once occupied by the Awabakal and Wonnarua people. I was in Kurri Kurri for an Environmental Education conference on land that is now occupied by Hunter TAFE, a technical institute.

When I had arrived at the campus late the previous evening I was beside myself with excitement on seeing several kangaroos within 10 metres of the car park. The next morning it was apparent they were everywhere – wondering in from the bush in order to feed on the grass. It was an extraordinary sight to see large wild mammals among classrooms, grape vines, construction sheds and machinery.

On the second night of the conference we experienced an Aboriginal smoking ceremony, led by four men, in which we each had a turn at being enveloped in the smoke of a smouldering eucalyptus branch. The men then performed a series of dances, and that is when it happened. Almost all the dances involved the men moving like particular birds and animals. Then, in one dance, suddenly, one of the men was no longer a man – instead we were in the presence of a kangaroo, a magnificent animal of extraordinary grace and alertness. His arms became short front legs that allowed him to balance on the ground as his powerful back legs propelled him forward with seemingly no effort. When he stood up, he looked around with the relaxed intensity I’d seen in the kangaroos around campus – I am taking it the world in, he seemed to say, but it does not surprise me.

Of course you had to be there – and maybe you had to have recently watched and been enchanted by kangaroos as I had been. But what I felt, in that moment, was that I was in the presence of a “thin place” on Earth. Thin places were described to me by the wonderful and wise Rod Oram as a place “where the boundary between Earth and heaven seems particularly, well, thin… a place where one can sense the divine more readily.” Rod talked about experiencing thin places in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (northwest Spain) and in Amritsar, the spiritual centre for Sikhs.

Well, for that minute in Kurri Kurri, I felt as if I was in the presence of the divine. The divine I experienced was a glimpse into the temporality, almost arbitrariness that defines us a person or an animal or a tree or the wind. I saw the world as fundamentally all of the same stuff, and our being – as people or animals or whatever – as merely manifestations of that stuff; manifestations that can, in certain intersections of place, time and mind transform into a different shape. It was as if those of us watching the dancers had been offered the chance to “slip through” on the coat tails of people who had learnt from their elders how to observe the land and its life forms then somehow resonate them through their own, human, bodies.

The next morning, I tried to run back up to the circle where the dances had taken place, but there was a large, male kangaroo lying in the middle of the path that did not move away as I approached. This was the first time in three days I had seen a kangaroo that held its ground. A signal I thought, that this thin place was not mine to re-capture without the grace of the people who had created it. 

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The TTPA competition

In finite games the object is to win, and Western societies are riddled with the ideology of competition. Competition, we are told, will bring about all good things: survival of the fittest, the incentive to work hard, economic growth, a cure for cancer and environmental salvation. Of course pure competition is an illusion as there are always rules, and these rules function to promote certain outcomes. Ronald Regan, for example, required solar energy to “compete” with oil for market share, at a time when the entire infrastructure of the USA supported the oil industry (as it largely still does). These days we talk of free trade agreements as if the removal of tariffs and other barriers to “free” trade provide a “level playing field” that promotes “genuine” competition across nations, producing greater efficiency and that magical elixir: increased material wealth for all.

Earlier this month, New Zealand signed the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement with 11 other Asian or Pacific Rim countries. According to John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister, the removal of tariffs will earn us “at least $2.7 billion a year by 2030… that’s more jobs, higher incomes and a better standard of living for New Zealanders.” The official position of the US government is that it will increase “Made in America exports” and “support well-paying American jobs”; and Australia’s Minister of Trade is quoted as saying it will be of “enormous benefit to Australia,” making “Australia’s mining-driven economy more competitive, create jobs and boost living standards.” 

One might be excused for wondering how a more competitive structure turns every player into a winner, but there you go. When an idol has got a hold, as competition has on us, rationality, or even common sense, do not follow in its wake.

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Can infinite values be a substitute for divine love and the economy?

This week I attended a Living Wage meeting. It was part of an ongoing campaign to encourage a retirement village in my suburb of Pt Chevalier, Auckland to pay caregivers a “living wage” which is currently $19.25 an hour. A living wage is distinct from the minimum wage (currently $14.75), as it is set to allow a reasonable level of participation in society. The retirement village in question, Selwyn Village, is run by the Selwyn Foundation which is associated with the Anglican Church. The meeting was extremely well attended and included people from several trade unions, churches and a number of community and social justice groups. 

There are two speeches in particular I want to discuss here. The first was from Jeremy Younger, a resident of Selwyn Village and an Anglican priest. His plea for the living wage revolved around the meaning of Christian love. In essence, he claimed, paying people below the living wage is in breach of this. He along with others, pointed out the poignant, even shameful, irony in paying those who look after other people’s family members too little to comfortably provide for their own.

The second was from the Equal Opportunities Employment Commissioner Jackie Blue, who is also a former member of parliament from New Zealand’s right-of-centre National Party. The part of Jackie Blue’s speech that leapt out at me was a claim that the living wage is good for business and the economy. The rationale for this seemed to mostly concern the capacity to attract and retain good staff. This claim sat somewhat awkwardly with earlier speeches that spoke of the exemplary work being done by the caregivers despite their low pay.

Anyway, what struck me about both these approaches is that these speakers were able to draw on a higher authority to make their case – God for one, and business/the economy for the other.

God, it seems to me as an atheist who often suffers from God-envy, allows those who are comfortable with “Him” to articulate the importance of love without needing to simultaneously claim that they, personally, are particularly loving or compassionate. It positions the “good” as above and beyond any one of us. The fact of the good is unquestionable, regardless of how well we are doing with regard to it.

Now when Jackie Blue talked about the living wage as being good for business and the economy, it sent a dagger into my heart as these institutions do not resonate for me as “good” in and of themselves. They are merely social arrangements or finite games. Nevertheless, she, like Jeremy, was able to refer to something above and beyond any one of us.

We secular types who crave a more loving, compassionate and free world sometimes struggle to draw on a higher authority. We can’t call on God and many of us don’t want to call on the economy. But without a touchstone or reference point that is above and beyond us, we lack a key component essential to collective progress. Can infinite values be used in this way? I think so. What it would take is collective confidence that there is such a thing as a human notion of the good and that it has some core elements including love, compassion, and freedom. It would also mean shaking off our fears that everything is relative and that these values are just cultural illusions. The higher authority would not be God, but it would be ourselves – our collective selves. Imagine that: “I speak to you today, based on what people across time and space know to be at the heart of life…”

To come back to the living wage meeting – I left totally uplifted by the spirit of caring that lay behind it and thrilled to have added to the power of the event by my presence. The symbols we speak are crucial, but at an even deeper level, I felt I was touching the real. In front of me a teenager kept leaning on her mother’s shoulder and playing with her mother’s hair. In the end it is love that matters.

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The revolution will not be funded

The Revolution Will Not be Funded is the title of a book by Incite!, a USA based collective against violence. It is an interesting book (find out more here), but this blog concerns the title, which wormed its way into my mind when I first heard it two years ago and has not left since.

What does it mean that the revolution will not be funded? Well, let’s first assume “the revolution” stands for alternative ways of living that challenge the dominant narrative. Let’s also assume that the dominant narrative is something about capitalism being the best we can do, and that competition between technologies and social structures will eventually produce increased freedom and material wealth for all. Core to this narrative is the assumption that money is essential to flourishing. It’s a complex narrative (oversimplified here) and one that cannot be attributed purely to the political right. The left plays too, with one measure of success being the acquisition of money for groups who previously had less than others (the poor, women, ethnic minorities and so on). This money is wrestled out of the system, often using the competitive structures offered by the system itself.

So one sense in which the revolution will not be funded, is that every time we attract money, we have, to at least some extent, played the dominant game. Another way of putting this is if something is funded, it is probably not the revolution. For example, when a university funds extra places for indigenous people, this does not, in itself, change the narrative and the system it is linked to. The entire process of securing those places tends to assume that the problem is not the current power structures per se but that some categories of people are denied equal access to them. But getting more indigenous people inside elite institutions only changes the narrative if those institutions listen to the voices of indigenous people and adjust to fit their insights. That is (closer to) the revolution. Money is nowhere to be seen. In New Zealand, for example, listening to the voices of Maori at a university might include rethinking our model of individualised learning, and not just for Maori students, but for all students.  

Another sense in which the revolution will not be funded, is that if you act to change the narrative, or simply ignore it and do what you feel is right, the powers that be are very unlikely to reward you for it. This is terribly tricky to get your head around if you acting with integrity. I have had many conversations with academics who work hard on the less visible parts of our job - like student welfare, and who find it difficult to accept that this work barely counts towards being promoted at their university. In fact, it may decrease their chances of promotion because it takes time away from performance criteria that are more easily measured and of higher status - such as research output.

The desire to be noticed and rewarded with money and status by "the system" for doing work that you feel is important is utterly human. Most of us (including me) want approval, and approval from those in power is especially delicious. When you are not noticed or even chastised for doing what you feel is right, the effect can be insidious, making you feel out of kilter; as if you are somehow bad, unworthy or misguided. However, it is simply not the case that doing what is right will eventually lead to success in conventional terms. If you see problems in a system, and refuse to perpetuate these problems (as best you can), then you will not do as well within that system as those who do what it demands. It is a bit like playing Monopoly without buying strategic properties and being surprised when you don’t win.

It is crucial we think about the risks of funding  – what narratives we keep alive by seeking it and when it detracts from creating systems that work better for people and the planet. As Andre Lorde said: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."

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