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The Hows of Making Sense


Co-her-ence

  1. The quality of being logical and consistent.

  2. The quality of forming a unified whole.

  3. Making sense.

Change theory talks a lot about coherence. The usual argument suggests that change is stimulated by a lack of coherence which manifests itself as misunderstanding, dissonance, irrationality, or incomprehensibility. Forms of governance such as democracy are often thought of as coherent systems until some threat or event introduces conflict or undermines structural integrity, resulting in change.

Notwithstanding the problems with determining how coherence might be measured and from whose perspective, this version of change theory is flawed by the assumption that complex systems can be in a state of balance at all, that the balance can be disrupted, and that an appropriate response is likely or able to return the system to a coherent state. Systems are often described as “evolving,” as if new forms of knowledge or new approaches to its distribution will result in a more reliable template for adaptation and “success.”

While it is certainly not impossible that coherence can be achieved by parts of a system for some portion of participants, or even that coherence might interplay with a broad set of values for judging the viability of a system, it is perhaps more interesting and even instructive to think instead in terms of the constantly moving parts of fluid systems where any coherence is temporary, at best, and unlikely to be distributed equitably. This is particularly true of systems founded and “made coherent” by extraction, exploitation, and corruption. Otherwise, with coherence as a goal, deep systemic pressures are ignored in favor of surface fixes in the name of legibility or commonality.

From this perspective, change becomes not a strategy for returning to some fantasy balance or for reaching a goal but a state of constant being, one that values the transitional and practices coherence instead of trying to pre-define it, much like we might practice listening to better inform decision-making. Rather than seeing change as a process of transforming one type of static state into another “more evolved” static state, a biocultural frame of reference for change sees “movements” as their own forms not just of advocacy but governance.

Political and social movements act as forms of governance via the same disruptive and subversive practices that are often seen to actually threaten governmental bodies and existing power structures: protest and resistance. Forms of protest and resistance contain within their practices the elements of change, i.e. their own forms of coherence. Forms are often seen as vessels, containment with a clear outline. Once again, this viewpoint assumes a rigidity to political structures that are more likely to make them immune to change than as any vehicle for it. Instead, we might more effectively see forms as questions asked to expose the weaknesses of the status quo, actions that not only evoke but embody desired change.

A common response to social or political grievance is protest, sometimes combined with some form of persuasion. Forms of protest are often chosen for utility i.e. what will “work” to produce a particular goal or desired effect and can, in that way, become more symbolic of change than an enactment of it. A march, a petition, a pamphlet – all of these can act as protest, symbolic unless that change is incorporated into the practice and in danger of confining coherency to participants unless intentional consideration is taken to choose an otherwise form. In order to be change and not just representative of it, these forms of protest need to be organized as subversive to existing power structures (multi-gender inclusive, multi-racial leadership, free), model intersectional governance and decision-making, include non-commercial, non-extractive, and non-coercive cultural and artistic expression, encourage deep intellectual engagement and support for emerging institutions, and reframe dominant narratives, for example. In other words, change is performed by both the intentions of the action and the implications of the “knowledge” that arises from it.

Other forms of protest involve non-cooperation, acts such as boycotts, civil disobedience, sit-ins, or strikes, which symbolically or literally refuse to participate in objectionable practices. Once again, while these acts of obstruction are effective at bringing attention to inequities, it is difficult to deepen discourse when the terms of communication are agreed upon among established conventions or default forms of political or civic participation and when no new forms of communication are intentionally made coherent. The forms of protest cannot function in direct reaction to norms without reinforcing them through partisanship, binarism, or backlash. Systemic coherence is equivalent to majority rule which, by definition, fails to consider the needs of the minority. Imposed coherence is the tool of autocratic power dynamics whereas subversive coherence is arrived upon through the process of worldbuilding.

Thus, change is dependent on establishing fully alternative forms that do more than question existing models and, instead, replace them. The concept of resources must go beyond the economic and physical to include practiced relational forms of exchange. New forms of institution must function autonomously from traditional power structures of authority and legitimacy. Communication and education must involve non-extractive and non-coercive models of leadership and pedagogy. Public values must be reframed in ecological/geographical/ethical/methodological terms.

It is not coherence of whole systems that results in or preserves positive change. We require fluid, responsive, and reflexive coherence of transformational forms that address how change will happen.