Humanism, by default

But, you insist, what’s happening today are global crises for which we do not have deep knowledge or skills or better practices. Quite the opposite, you press: Exceptional circumstances give rise to extraordinary threats and thus to emergency measures which necessarily end up as precedents for first-ever policies.

–I suggest you might want to think more about the italicized terms, as each puts you (and us) at the very limits of human comprehension, infrastructure reliability and risk management, and the societal values driving policy, management and their regulation.

For any conclusion that these are unprecedented times in altogether uncharted waters is itself the artefact and by-product of having no default option when at the limits of thinking and comprehending the way we do. Existential threats call for all manner of response, some of which are well beyond those confined to analysis and management.

–One under-acknowledged response is appealing to the background condition for taking action when analysis and management are confronted by the incomprehensible or unpredictable. Humans have always been many-sided, and so must our responses be, where that background condition of having many sides inherently frames the action we take. The challenge is to disclose those other sides with which to make the issue more tractable to analysis and management (no guarantees here).

How would this appeal to the background condition of many-sidedness work? Take the crises around those massive migrations of people that have been occurring. Bad policy mess: a reported 11 million people are in the U.S. illegally. Good policy mess: If that huge number is anywhere close to accurate, then there must be thousands—hundreds of thousands? a million? more? —who are already acting, not as objects of exclusion, but as if they were good U.S. citizens.

In other words, labeling something a wicked intractable problem creates The Ultimate One-Sided Problem—it’s, well, intractable—for humans who are everything but one-sided. The one-siders of intractability took the generous notion of intractably human and scalped it.

–Conventional risk analysts and crisis managers are quick to counter: “What do you mean we are one-sided? Good managers and analysts are always looking at the many sides of an issue and, in fact, we pride ourselves in seeking to bridge incompatible positions—and never more so than when the prospect of disaster raises the stakes!”

But there is no “middle” to bridge or compromise over when you and we are at or beyond the limits of comprehension; you have to default to something other than analysis or management as usually understood, if only to recast the intractable into something more tractable so as to re-engage analyzing and managing.

Principal source: This is a revised section from my “Licking the sharp edge of the sword,” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2018) 27(1): 1–7.

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