About Wealth Distribution, Social Activism, Journalism, Paradigm Innovation and Money: Questions around Diffusion of Uncomfortable Knowledge

Here I am again with my endless trans-disciplinary quest to understand our World.

In my quest, yesterday, I bounced by chance upon two articles. And it appeared to me they were related to a recent encounter and a paradigm changing theory that I feel should be given a chance to emerge in the open.

The subject of this post is to combine learning, with a view of discovering new possibilities for action for achieving sustainability and betterment and well-being for all living beings to come.

1. The first article is by James Fallows in “The Atlantic” entitled “More on the Wealthy Poor and “Fair” Society”. This article , backed up by serious academic research, states the following:

The top 20% of US wealth distribution controls nearly 85% of total wealth in 2004, people think the top 20% controls under 60%, and they think they should control just under 30%.”

My question: Is this not a time Bomb?

The supporting articles are here:



2. The second article is by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, entitled “SMALL CHANGE: Why the Revolution will Not be Tweeted”. Gladwell counters the “mainstream ideas” that tend to consider that the new tools of social media have reinvented social activism (like in the case of the Tehran or Moldova student protests). He cites a number of sources indicating that activism that challenges the status quo – that attack deep rooted problems – cannot be associated with social media, since these are built around weak ties. On the contrary, disruptive, courageous protests require “strong tie” relationships, strict planning and formal, almost military organization patterns.

My question: Should profound change come through severe disruptions or can they occur gradually, smoothly, and in this case how?

 The supporting article is here:


3. An encounter at “PICNIC” in Amsterdam. This event was unimaginable for me: three days of interaction across every possible boundary. From world-renowned public speakers and experts to geeks and students. Designers meet business developers. Hackers collaborate with artists. Architects, academics, researchers, businessmen, entrepreneurs, teachers, inventors… from all over the World, 5.000 of them, I was told. An amazing event that I am still digesting, and on which I’ll come back in a few days with a post on this blog.

At PICNIC I wanted to follow a full day section organized by the “European Journalist Centre”, around the theme “The Future of Journalism”. Jeff Jarvis was the first of a series of 9 speakers to present his views on the subject.

I choose to join this program because since long I am playing with the question: How can journalism in the future become again a balancing power between all the constituencies of a society, a trigger for change, and an information and education tool for “ordinary people”, a counter power to retrenched vested interests?

I asked this question publicly to Jeff Jarvis, after his talk. His answer: he had just been appointed director of the New Center of Entrepreneurial Journalism and he saw his role mainly as educating journalists to become entrepreneurs and succeed in the social media… making money! He didn’t seem, at least so I understood, too preoccupied with my question about what I consider the “Higher Purpose” of journalism. I was really disappointed. A quick glance at the program convinced me I would not have answers to my questions, and I went on “PICNICing” elsewhere, seeking more rewarding encounters.

So I am still left with my question, reformulated slightly differently : Can a different form of “Journalism”, or a “new form of press”, independent from any vested interests, intellectually honest, multifocal, plural, critical, educational, bring about the necessary change that the overwhelming majority of people (according to my belief) want to see in the World?

 4. Finally, what to learn from the paradigm changing theory? It appeared in my intellectual life at a complexity workshop at the LSE in London, where Michael Thompson was a speaker. An incredible man, an atypical man, a courageous, daring man, who stands up for his ideas: You have to be daring when you are badly shaking the very foundations of the so-called “Social Sciences”. Michael has indeed further developed the Grid-Group analysis of Mary Douglas, and turned them into a fully fledged theory. “Cultural Theory” – a theory defining the existence, in every social system, of multiple perceptions of reality. They are called “social solidarities”, profoundly held beliefs about how to look at nature and ways of organizing, perceiving, and justifying social relations. There are five and only five of such “solidarities”, of which 3 are actively and dynamically competing with each other – a necessary condition for any social system to remain viable.

This theory introduces a paradigm shift in probably all the sub-fields of social sciences. As happens so often, the social sciences ignores it, and poor Michael has been gently pushed aside, in a position “from where his voice could not been heard”. It’s perhaps therefore that we became friends. I love unconventional thinkers, and I hate people who are closed to new approaches. The words of Machiavelli, albeit addressed to “the Prince”, apply very well indeed to Michael Thompson’s fate:

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Nicolo Machiavelli (The Prince)

Where do I want to get at with Michael Thomson and Cultural Theory? As stated earlier, Cultural Theory concludes that healthy and sustainable social systems are characterized by their providing an equal influence in decision-making to the different “social solidarities” of a society. Each of these solidarities should be able to voice their concerns, they should be listened to by the other, and their concerns should be taken into account in decision making. Each solidarity should thus recognize (understand and respect) the worldview of the other; despite the fact that they happen to be, necessarily according to the theory, diametrically and incompatibly opposed to each other…

Michael Thompson is also a prominent action researcher. He has tried his theory in numerous real-life cases, addressing so-called wicked problems, to which he provided solutions. Obtaining them through patient empathic listening, organizing dialogues between solidarities, providing solutions that always appear “clumsy” (because they never quite satisfy anyone). But as Michael demonstrates so well, these solutions are superior to and more sustainable than any solution “neglecting” the other voices… For example solutions designed by closed hegemonies, or by colluding dyads (The kinds of solutions Governments and Big Business – High Finance – are concocting today)

For those interested in this subject, I can refer to many books, but I would suggest as first entry a breathtaking book by Marco Verweij and Michael Thompson, entitled “Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: Governance, Politics and Plural Perceptions”. For an appetizer you might willing to read an article introducing this book: https://mercury.smu.edu.sg/rsrchpubupload/3224/SMUPreprint.pdf

I have studied this theory and its applications quite thoroughly, and hence I have loads of other articles, and books. Please let me know your sphere of interest.

The question that comes up when considering Cultural Theory is as follows:

Cultural Theory states that all the voices should be heard and accounted for. It also states that one of the characteristics of unsustainable systems is that “uncomfortable” or “inconvenient” knowledge is hidden, prohibited, set on the sidelines… What conclusions are there to be drawn from that, with respect to democratic governance? 

Now it is time to wrapping up the whole thing. Combining the four experiences above, and the questions they raise, leads me to reformulate my questions as follows:

1. First a question on Technology. Mind you, I understand technology in its broadest sense, including organizational technology, social governance technology – in the sense that Brian Arthur covers so well in his groundbreaking book : “The Nature of Technology” The question:

How can we develop technology that would allow the wide diffusion of uncomfortable knowledge, that would educate people in every “solidarity”, allowing them to understand and accept that multiple and contradictory perceptions of reality is unavoidable, and positive, and prepare them for fruitful dialogue across solidarities?

2. Then questions on the people using the technology:

Who are the people who will be introducing this technology? How can we ensure they remain honest, respectful, responsible, independent, critical, constructive, and educational? How can we ensure that they make the best use of the technology above to bring about upgrade in consciousness and learning for all?

3. Third a question on independence, responsibility and intellectual honesty

In what context the people in 2 above should operate so as to avoid all conflicts of interest?

4. Fourth a question about rewards

Does our present money system allow rewarding such fiercely independent people, ensuring them a decent living, whilst they convey “uncomfortable knowledge” and give voice to an active and a silent majority of the people who have, up to now, remained unheard and uninformed (misinformed?)?

Whilst writing this I already discover many drawbacks in me structuring my thoughts. In starting my blog I’ve undertook to think publicly (see heading “about”). So this is thinking in progress, triggered by two recent readings, a disappointing experience at PICNIC and a way to bring to this public thinking enterprise Michael Thomson’s theory of plural rationalities, or Cultural Theory.

Please provide feed-back. Who enters into the dialogue?




About charlesvanderhaegen

I am a grandfather of an immensely inspiring family, thanks to the most incredible wife. To satisfy my family's needs, I was for 30 years business entrepreneur, roller coasting between success and failure. 14 years ago I was forced to stop and reflect. I dug into theory and discovered the World out there, that my involvement in Business had kept hidden to me. I feared that I will not escape remaining amidst my trans-disciplinary quest forever, bouncing back and forth from action to theory, always puzzled by Europe's apparent incapacity to free itself from its Institutional/Technological Lock-ins. My horizon opened up when Gunter Pauly, my intimate friend of 35 years, asked me to join him and take charge ZERI's development in Europe.
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One Response to About Wealth Distribution, Social Activism, Journalism, Paradigm Innovation and Money: Questions around Diffusion of Uncomfortable Knowledge

  1. Chris Dymond says:

    I will enter the dialog, Charles.

    Although I have no answers, and I need time to digest the references. But I do understand your questions, and will share my thoughts when my brain has settled from it’s current confusion.

    I would though like to tell you of something that has been bothering since we met in the ‘Dream School’ workshop at Picnic: you mentioned Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall project and how it affected you. I must have seemed quite underwhelmed in my response, but that was a fake reaction caused by time – I first saw Mitra speak about it roughly 15 months ago and it affected me deeply, in fact I was in tears. In the intervening time his story has become a familiar touchpoint in my mind and the emotion has dulled, I wanted to explain but other conversations were going on and afterwards I was left feeling that instead of adding anything, I had merely dampened your enthusiasm for something that should continue to inspire. I apologise.

    Returning to your concerns at hand, just to say: I respect what you are doing and the way you are doing it, and wouldn’t wish for this interjection to distract others from the questions you raise in your post.

    Yours, Chris D.

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