Wrestling with Institutions

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Institutions, whether we like them or not, affect our daily lives in many ways. Derived from the Latin word institutum for ‘something designed’, or ‘precept’, the institution is a very fluid term. For example,  Jonathan Turner proposes the following definition:  “a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.”  Whew. Trying wrapping your head around that one.

Perhaps it is easier to think of an institution as – always designed, always a mechanism and always based on a precept or guiding principle. It is usually, but not always, accompanied by a structural form; we can imagine hospitals, schools or prisons just as we can iterate and understand the military/government/political/economic/legal/family/religious institution. You can clearly see that we create and interact with our world through institutions.

Our society is diverse and we all act from a subjective view of our environment; a view shaped by experience, schooling, thought, etc. It might hold that an objective view, or an absolute truth does not exist and for that matter, we tend to disagree –  a lot. Spend an hour following the spectacle that is our modern media and you will get the impression that all that we do, is disagree and argue. Let us look briefly at the political life of our democracy, where contradictions and conflict are ever-present. We might argue over “what we shall do when the will of the majority infringes on the rights of the minority? what the proper balance of unrestrained personal and economic activity and government regulation is if both freedom and justice matter?; whether our national interest is more likely to be secured through quiet diplomacy or saber-rattling; or whether we best influence behaviour through education, incentives or legal sanction” (P.Palmer). We never seem to find a ‘solution’ to any of these questions and what emerges is a dynamic, endless argument that made an early impression on Alex de Tocqueville as he explored the emerging America “No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult. A confused clamor rises up on all sides, and a thousand voices reach your ears, each expressing some social need”. Out of this confusion, Parker Palmer asks “how, exactly, do we resolve dilemmas that tempt us to chose either this or that and instead hold the tension long enough to let a ‘third thing’, a ‘both-and’ response emerge?”

When we design our institutions, big or small, we have a responsibility, and that responsibility comes from an imperative to

include all world views, as divergent or different as they might be and

realize the truth of ‘the endless argument’

The task requires us to learn to hold our own tensions creatively and to design institutions that in themselves allow for a dynamic, fluid, creative, ever transforming process. What does that mean, you ask. A trip down memory lane might help. In Healing the Heart of Democracy, P. Palmer writes that: America’s founders, wanting to improve on the repressive governments of Old Europe, needed to create political structures strong enough to hold the tension of divergent problems. The democratic institutions that they invented were designed to function like a loom, holding the tension of our political disagreements to keep us talking with each other and giving us chance after chance to reweave the fabric of our common life. What the founders created is a form of government that maintains tension over time rather than rushing to resolve it prematurely and falsely, thus provoking a supply of human creativity that is never achieved when problems are resolved by fiat”. The political institution was thus not about providing answers as much as it was a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated (J. Ellis). Again, to expand on Parker, the political institution was based on the notion that forced resolution or repression drives dissent underground, where sooner or later it explodes; violence? Whether it frustrates, maddens, exhausts or appalls, the institution was designed to keep us talking to one another as we wrestle with the daily tensions, for tension is a sign of life and the end of tension is a sign of death.

You might ask – what political institution is being discussed here – and I would answer – the Constitution of the United States. Yes, it is widely known, frequently called upon and remains a poetic legacy that “enshrines an argumentative process in which no such thing as a last word would ever be uttered” (P. Palmer). During the civil rights struggle, America was facing a contradiction – immense and pervasive societal racism and yet strong constitutional support for “all men are created equal”. Palmer writes that “step by painful step, we left slavery behind, granted full status to those whom our Constitution had counted as three-fifths of a human being and became a nation capable of electing an African American president”. Granted, the process was slow and unquestionably, injustice remains even today. Yet the civil rights movement inexhaustibly called upon, and continues to do so today, the rights enshrined in the Constitution during the long struggle, for:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

Yes, it is arguable to what extend the political institution, embodied by the Constitution, affected the struggle and you might point to authoritarian regimes, also theoretically guided by a progressive Constitution, that brutally suppress popular uprisings and I have to agree. But, let us not forget that any institution, even a seemingly overarching one such as the Constitution, is merely one amongst many influencing our daily lifes and perhaps we can agree that, at least on paper, the political system, with its division of power, the checks and balances, its legal structures and its aspirational precept, designed by America’s founders, facilitated rather than suppressed the type of dialogue, change and transformation that took place during the civil rights movement.

What can we take away from this? For one, we are all imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Our voice is one amongst many and our different world views create tensions in life. We design institutions that are meant to guide our social interactions – from family life to government – and are immensely affected by them. It then becomes of utmost importance to take the challenge serious and to shoulder our responsibility as interconnected citizens with creativity, humility and openness. Institutions that are to last must enshrine flexibility, creativity, dialogue, self-reflection, and transformation. As individuals but more so as a collective, our lives are too vast, our stories too rich and our hearts too enduring for institutions of rigidity, narrow-mindedness or exclusion to reign into perpetuity – they all must come down; there simply is no room for such sentiments; they are not sustainable practices, will rot from within or burst open to new life. So, we must start, now, to engage with our institutions and to build and design for a future worthy of our collective ideals, dreams and aspirations; for – aspirations are possibilities that “have not yet gone through the formality of taking place” ~Daniel Boorstein.

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