Op-Ed: From abolishment to co-creation

The elephant head statue that adorns the entrance to Dowling Hall, home of the Career Center, is pictured on Aug 20, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archive

I’ve been watching the unfolding drama on Pro Row during my undergrad career at Tufts, and I think it’s almost as good as Games of Thrones (2011–). You have the Establishment vs the Rebel, engaging in a lengthy attritional war. Since last year, the Rebel launched a massive attack that devastated the Establishment. It’s unclear whether the latter is defeated or now plotting a counterattack. What an epic story; it makes my walk along the Row on a Friday night even better than a Broadway show.

“Wait. Maybe this war metaphor doesn’t seem quite right.” My inner nerd speaks up after digging on the Hegelian master-servant dialectic: the master needs the slave so that he can be recognized as master. Roles only exist in relation to another. Greek Life needs Anti-Greek Life. As such, we don’t want to completely abolish anything either, lest we ourselves become the tyrant. Framing conflict as war and winning and losing rarely helps.

Which is why I don’t watch debates: I’m not interested in winning an argument against an opponent. If I disagree with someone, I am still operating at the same level as that person. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, you cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it. It is still crucial to disagree, but it’s not about making a point to win. It’s about drawing a line to see clearly what is happening. Then we will instinctively know what needs to be done.

There lies the gap in any abolishing attempt: We cannot just destroy. Why? First, when institutions dismantle without proper post-dismantling care, things are swept under the rug and soon begin to fester. Doing fishy stuff in the basement is still doing fishy stuff in the basement, regardless of what or whose basement it is (By the way, I’m all in for real fish). Second and much more importantly, while it’s good to find out what we don’t want, it is more important to strive for what we want. In product design, removing defects may not lead to a desirable product. In engineering, improving the parts doesn’t necessarily produce a better whole. And in one’s personal life, stopping doing what makes you unhappy doesn’t automatically bring about happiness. There is a vast but subtle white space in the middle, and what we do there makes all the difference.

In that white space, we have to create. In the context of social life at Tufts, we need a positive vision, a re-imagination of what social life can look like, one that makes people from both sides of the Row as well as everybody else go “Wow. That seems wonderful. Let’s make it happen!”

Before we get to the how, let’s play with another metaphor first. Imagine Greek life (or, if you wish, capitalism) as an aging grandma with a terminal disease, currently kept alive with a bunch of oxygen tubes. She has had a long and rewarding life of creating a family for her three children.

The first is a loyal reformer. He is well aware that the system is not working too well, and thus starts from the inside trying to fix what may not be fixable. In our metaphor, he tries to cure the dying grandma with the latest fanciest medicine, which unintentionally produces more suffering instead. But the reformer doesn’t know that; he tries harder next time.

The second is a disgruntled revolutionary. He cries for change and keeps pointing out the holes in the system until everyone starts noticing. In our metaphor, he will radically unplug the oxygen tubes. Some might even poison the food. As the grandma struggles towards the last breath, the revolutionary will either look away or enjoy watching his death-accelerating effort coming into fruition.

The third is a seemingly non-sequitur disruptor. She brings in her newborn child to enliven the passing away grandma, so that the latter can feel like her last moments on Earth are joyous and meaningful, and that she will live on in the memories of the child. In a brief moment, grandma closes her eyes and passes away in peace. The disruptor creates something new within the old, and extends the old into the new.

Why am I making up this story? Because we all need each other. Disruptors alone are way too messy. Revolutionaries often end up in martyrdom. Reformers burn out from trying to fix the impossible. And without the uninvolved rest, there is no background, no audience watching this great drama of social change unfolding.

To go further with this metaphor, ask yourself this: What do you do after grandma passes away? Do you want to bury and memorialize her, or do you want to compost and turn the decaying body into fertilizer for the new generation of trees? I don’t know. I’m putting it on the table so we can to collectively decide.

In philosophy of science, paradigm shift happens when people start noticing anomaly, the observable phenomenon that current theories fail to account for. Then people start pointing out those holes until it becomes clear that the old paradigm is no longer adequate. Then there is a period of confusion, when the old map stops working and the new map hasn’t been drawn. This, as you can imagine, is the most exciting and fertile period of creative experimentation from which several new models will emerge. After a while, the new becomes old again, and then the cycle continues.

Some people have said that our millennial generation is similar to the Greatest Generation of post World War II. Both are in a period of profound social upheaval and institutions falling apart. As a result, both become the institution builders, creating a new social reality that better serves the collective whole. I think they are right. It’s time to move from abolishment to co-creation.

PS: What do you think of the metaphors I used? Where are they useful, and what do they overlook? Also, if you are interested in this conversation of creating something new from the white space, many people are working on this. Check out one such initiative, JumboLife.