Mike Edwards | Tools for Unraveling the Emperor’s New Clothes, Pt II

In Part II of our interview with Mike Edwards, he talks about the importance of civil society reclaiming its wisdom and the great potential that lies in movements like Occupy Wall Street. 

XC: In your piece, “Know-How, Know-What,” you mention that knowledge is important as a force for social change. I was hoping you could say more about that, especially in regards to the US where folks are mostly ill-informed about what’s happening the country–in their own neighborhoods.

ME: Well, you know the old adage knowledge is power still has a basic truth, but obviously the answer is more subtle and complicated than that. [In the article] I distinguish between different forms of knowledge: First, we have data, the raw material, and that information, which is data, that’s being processed. Then we have opinion, which is what we think about the information. We have knowledge, which is opinion that is sort of more rigorously analyzed and includes self-knowledge. And last we have wisdom, meaning knowledge in action, which is the most important [kind of knowledge].

How do we use all of those types of knowledge in right action? Unfortunately, what’s happening in contemporary society is that we’ve reversed the order of things. So data and opinion are the most important kinds of knowledge and wisdom is largely lacking. Whereas what we really need are larger doses of wisdom and much less data and information, because we are simply drowning in it at the moment and we can’t interpret it properly. That’s another aspect of what we were talking about earlier, the rise of technocracy and bureaucracy and control and centralization and business thinking. It’s all wrapped up together in a way which relegates wisdom to the corners of society and raises up data as something that can solve problems in and of itself, which, of course, is never true. It’s just the raw material for a conversation.

The issue though is how we go about reversing that order. How do we develop wisdom in the population of the United States, which is basically the question that you asked me or what would be my answer to the question that you asked me. Of course, that takes in the nature of the education system, primary, secondary, and higher education. Higher education is no longer a place for forming the individual. It’s a place for bringing in the maximum number of students and a place for growing as much as possible as an individual. At the university level, you have a classic case of what happens when business principals hit the social sector and collide with a human endeavor like education.

We have a health system which is just basically an assembly line, you know, for health insurance and the need to make as much money as possible. The health of the population is quite secondary, as a goal.

We are going to re-tool all these core institutions of society so that they are wisdom producing, rather than dumbing down. That’s a colossal challenge. Where do you start? My view is it doesn’t matter as long as you start somewhere. You can start inside a nonprofit, a school, a college, a factory, a government department, a municipal council–any human institution can be analyzed according to its knowledge producing role. And different kinds of knowledge can be produced within an institution and connected in different ways. So it almost doesn’t matter where you start. You just need to start in as many places as possible and see where that takes you. From a very specific perspective there’s no such thing as an expert and a non-expert. There are only different people who are not involved in the conversation, people who are knowledge producers and consumers themselves.

We’ve become accustomed, in modern societies, to thinking that knowledge is the possession of a small elite in society that we’re supposed to trust to make decisions on our behalf. Of course, that leads us precisely in the wrong direction. So we need to spread knowledge, in knowledge producing capacities, as widely as possible so everyone becomes a knowledge producer. Then we can start to get somewhere. That requires a different take on knowledge and a much higher priority for, what I would call, a higher or more evolved form of knowledge. For which I mean wisdom and such higher forms of knowledge. Rather than thinner forms of knowledge, for which I mean data and information and opinion. And unfortunately, we’re starting from completely the wrong way around. Therefore, we’re constantly losing that battle.

XC: It seems with the Occupy Movement, there’s been a shake-up around the knowledge that people in certain positions hold. People, in areas of country that we might not expect, are waking up to the idea that the government doesn’t have the knowledge-power that many have assumed they’ve had. I think that’s an interesting thing to watch.

ME: I think not just Occupy. There used to be a lot more of what you call free spaces, public space. Places like the Highlander Institute in Tennessee, or the Coady Institute, where I’m affiliated, in Nova Scotia, or small civil society groups, or communities all over the place, which were a mix of debating clubs, political societies, and community caring.

The idea was that it was a free space. Anyone could enter; anyone could exit. No one was in charge. You didn’t follow anyone else’s lead. They were places where you could be free to co-create some sort of vision, which held you together as a group. And those spaces have declined precipitously over the last 50 years for the same reasons that we were talking about.

Occupy is a new version of that old idea. People who occupy the space co-create a vision which comes from all of them. Everyone’s in charge; everyone contributes as equally as possible; everyone has to cede territory to others; everyone has something of value to offer. It’s the reverse of the market, where everything is decided on by how much money you have. That’s why it’s so important. It’s the sort of ultimate alternative to the market system, and therefore absolutely vital to preserve and extend.

One of the problems, though, is that the places that used to function in that way–you could probably include public schools in the post-war era, parent-teacher associations, social clubs, all those kinds of things–were gradually strangled or eradicated and now there are very few left. So movements like Occupy, which recreates them, albeit in a slightly different form, maybe with a slightly different language, are recreating something very foundational to the process of transformation. Because the fewer free spaces you have in which people are free to be equal and free to co-create the future that they want, the more transformation will be defined and dominated by the same small groups that have controlled everything else. So we will have a transformation which is not a transformation. The signs of that are everywhere.

They’re in philanthropy and civil society and the nonprofit sector and foundations, in universities and schools. All of those places which used to function in some shape or form as free spaces have gradually been ground down or closed down, and that is incredibly damaging for the future of society.

We’re not going to get any meaningful democratic co-created transformations unless we solve this problem, unless we find ways of generating the free spaces of the future and occupying them with as many people as possible. So Occupy is a great example, on a small scale, of what is possible. But we need to do much, much more.

XC: So my last question is one that I ask everyone: Do you have an inner practice like meditation, centering or yoga? If so, what is it?

ME: My practice is built around meditation and quiet reflection.

I lived in an ashram in India with my wife for two years at the end of the ’80s. I was learning formal meditation and studying Sanskrit. I was following Gurumayi, who’s my Teacher.

I have sort of combined my practice with my earlier Christian upbringing– centering prayer and selfless service, yoga in action–that tradition is very strong with me, but it’s built around mediation and silence. And my practice has an enormous influence–although, I’m not a great mediator to be honest with you; I’m a lousy one. I’m constantly trying to become a better one and spend more time and be less cranky about it. That’s an ongoing struggle, but it’s already had tremendous benefits for me. I wouldn’t be talking to you now, I’m quite sure of that, if I hadn’t taken up mediation in 1984, which is when I started. The spell we spent in the ashram was tremendous.

It was like a two-year booster session, which moved me a huge way along the path, which I’m still traveling. I have a long way to go, but it gives me much more clarity, insight for the work that needs to be done. It’s gradually unraveling, you know, these layers of the ego, which have been accompanying me throughout all the work that I’ve been doing and all the positions that I’ve held, particularly in philanthropy, which is an ego-boosting profession. You feel that you are the center of the universe and, of course, you’re not. But that’s what everyone tells you, because they don’t want to upset you, because they might not get the grant that they need.

So with that, in particular, it’s a real struggle to maintain authenticity in the midst of all that ego boosting. Without meditation, and also what it brings, I would be a lost soul. I’m quite sure of that. I would say a good seventy-five percent of my insights, which I use in writing and speaking, come from mediation, spring from that silence. They become manifest or clear during that time, and I have to rush off and write them down.

So far I’ve filled eight notebooks with thoughts that have arisen from meditation. I’m on number nine at the moment and I’m not talking about thin notebooks. I’m talking about thick ones. I’ve numbered them all. Let me open my latest one and I’ll give you the right number. I’ve just written thought number 4,128.

XC: Oh, my goodness. So, you go back and look at the notebooks?

ME: Yes. They are all lined up in order of year, and they’re all numbered so I can go back and find them. Sometimes it takes me a while but I can usually find what I’m looking for. Then it eventually appears in something I’m going to write. Could be, of course, from fifteen years ago. But I just find those sorts of practices absolutely essential to any sort of insight. Without them I would be just be repeating common knowledge or repeating my prejudices, because they wouldn’t come from a place from which I could rely on.  So that’s why it’s so important to me.

Next year Mike Edwards plans to launch a Web magazine on transformation. Be sure to look for it. You can follow Michael on Twitter @edwarmi and visit his website at futurepositive.org.

Interview continued from Part I 

Learn More About Mike Edwards on Future Positive

Read Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World

Q&A | Why Business Won’t Save the World

Read Just Another Emperor

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