On institutions – part 3 (and last)

Their vision is always grander than that of the leaders; their vision always includes more of the world in its embrace. But then we take this vital passion and institutionalize it. We create an organization. The people who loved the purpose grow to disdain the institution that was created to fulfill it…. [Institutions] insist on their own imperatives. They forget we are self-organizing. Sometimes, so do we.

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, A Simpler Way

I once challenged my Dad on the topic of Western medicine. He had made some off-the-cuff comment in which he’d asserted the superiority of Western medicine, and the vast need justifying its use in developing countries. I ventured to disagree with the premise, and it drew him up short – literally, as at the time he’d just been passing through the room where I sat, and he hadn’t expected his remark to be up for grabs; he assumed that what he’d said was self-evident. He got a little upset, actually: exasperated, as though I were wilfully ignorant and stubbornly refusing to concede the obvious. I tried to make my case but he didn’t really want to hear it. He gave me a few minutes, reasserted the positive value of medical science, and then made his excuses out of the room and back to his desk.

What I had argued was that Western medicine has positive and negative value – it is not a uniformly beneficial practice. And that non-Western medicine too has positive and negative value. They are not opposites: one good and the other bad; one real and the other sham; one superior and the other inferior. I suppose it boiled down to a disagreement about the definition of medicine. I saw it as a cultural practice, whereas Dad, I think, saw it an unassailable product of rational thought (“can’t argue with science.”) I also disagreed with the idea of ‘developing’ and got nowhere with it. He didn’t want to, or perhaps just couldn’t, step outside a worldview in which Western civilisation’s values and paradigms were the template to which all others should aspire.

And perhaps it had also to do with the idea of institutions. In my family we were raised to respect institutions: church, school, the workplace, the family, the community, the law, and yes, medicine – all these were imbued with an authority in respect to ourselves that we never thought to question. Institutions were human constructions, true, and they were limited and flawed accordingly: much of good human work was toward their reformation and improvement. In that respect, my family were (and still are) progressives and left-leaning in the American political spectrum.  But the role of institutions as the foundation of civil society – and the essential superiority of civil society – this was never a point of examination.

Nor indeed was the institution of the human race ever questioned. As Catholics, we abided by the Christian theology which places humanity in a unique position within God’s creation, recipients of grace and subjects of divine intention. Genesis summed it up: creation culminated in humans and we were given stewardship over everything else. It never occurred to us that we might be in the same category as a tapeworm, or an arctic fox, or a tree, or the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.  Yet we all reside in the category of living thing and we are all of us dependent upon the functioning of our ecosystems in order to remain alive.

[The] traditional two-kingdom system and the attitude it embodies endure because shifting from the belief in “man, the highest animal” to a more egalitarian view of the world that respects and empowers all life is too drastic a mental move. To admit that our ancestors are bacteria is humbling. It has disturbing implications. Besides impugning human sovereignty over the rest of nature, it challenges our assumptions of individuality, uniqueness, and independence. It even violates our view of ourselves as discrete physical beings separate from the rest of nature and – still more unsettling – questions the alleged uniqueness of human intelligent consciousness.

“Power to the Protoctists” in Dazzle Gradually, Lynn Margulis

So we humans continue in our stewardship: gobbling up coal and oil, chopping down trees, eating up fish, laying down roads, spraying pesticides, dumping waste…. And meanwhile we accept record droughts, storms and floods, melting icecaps, ocean acidification, industrial pollution and nuclear accidents as, well, just part of the price we must pay to uphold our institutions.

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