Resistance is futile

Are you trekkies? No? In the Star Trek series, the Borg are notorious enemies of the Federation of United Planets. Somewhere far into the future, when we have settled all our inter-planet quarrels, they are the new external enemy. the Borg are a super efficient race that solves differences of opinion in a very special way: every new ‘member’ of the group is fully assimilated and can no longer think independently. The group and its survival is literally always more important to the Borg than the individual interest.

Over the past few weeks, I have increasingly argued that we, as human beings, are also secretly some kind of Borg. Our default solution to problems? Form a group and give them a common goal. I do it myself. I have been teaching cooperation for years. Neighbourhood teams, managers and professionals come to my classes and are taught how to work better with others. What I actually teach them is assimilation. Find a higher goal that you all agree on, be strong together against your external enemy and above all: don’t be too solitary, but feel part of the group. Group interest before everything, wrapped up as a motto that no one can ever be against: ‘Every child counts’ or ‘No youngster should be homeless’.

Actually, as a ‘cooperation expert’, I’m cheating pretty badly. After all, what is the most difficult thing about cooperation? Working together with people who do not agree with you. Working with people who have different goals, different interests. Who see the world differently than you see it. And with famous tricks from sociology and psychology I avoid these difficulties. Aren’t the interests equal? Look where they do overlap. Is someone’s interest at odds with yours? Find a mutually important contact with an intermediate interest and form a broader cooperation. All the tricks I teach are aimed at one simple principle in sociology: people are incredibly good at forming groups, and incredibly loyal to groups of which they are a part of.

This way of working together has worked quite well so far. It’s true
that you end up with people who have to be your enemies: those who don’t (yet) belong to the group. But that’s an acceptable cost in a fairly stable environment, where you can choose your enemies and your friends wisely. Where relationships are fairly constant and durable.

In 2019, however, we are well on our way to a network society: a society with ever broader, more volatile, changing collaborations. More and more often, we have to cooperate with ad hoc parties, with varying partners, in occasional cooperatives. It is no wonder that the members of the neighbourhood team that I train are increasingly frustrated with what I teach: once they have finally built up a good relationship with someone or something, their function or the working relationship will likely be changing again. Where are the stable relationships when you need them?

In this new constellation, we need new ways of working together. Ways that continue to work robustly, even when you don’t have a shared goal. Enabling cooperation between people with different points of view and interests. Which are not mainly based on the mechanisms of group formation. But they also do not rely on the mechanisms of economic negotiation alone: back to cards-on-the-chest, ‘I win so you lose’, zero-sum negotiations. Because that is all we seem to have at the moment when forming a group fails: distrust, a culture of negotiations and trying to win.

There’s gotta be something in between, right? Something between ‘we’re friends’ and ‘I’m a rat’? Something between marriage and a one night stand? A lat-relationship or something?

That’s what I’ve been looking for lately: what are the mechanisms of collaboration in a network society? How do we arrive at an honest and open discussion about interests and points of view, without having to agree? How do we get past the polarisation that we are currently seeing in, for example, the climate debate? How do we tackle the major dilemmas of our time, for which we really need each other, but for which we also know that we will never be able to agree?

I don’t have a definite answer yet, but I think we should build that answer together. I already have a start: gentleness and doubt. Words that are currently classified as ‘soft’ and ‘naive’, but I don’t think they are. Rather ‘powerful’ and ‘solving’.

Doubt is so incredibly important when working together in a network society. If we have more doubts about the correctness of our own views, if we leave a little more room in our heads for other points of view, we give ourselves the space to look for solutions in a more flexible way. And what about that mildness? I don’t mean it only in the sense that we should be mild in regard to the opinion of others. As essential as it is to be milder towards others, mildness begins with yourself: allow yourself to be unsure. To not always be right. To not always see it right. We are not perfect, which is normal and logical. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can start practicing working together in a durable way.

Everything changes, everything stays the same

There is a list of topics from my research waiting to be described in this blog. About theories and trainings, about beautiful encounters and brilliant plans. But in the context of spring, I will stay personal for a while longer. Because spring makes it so clear that everything changes. And at the same time, everything always remains the same.

Yesterday I went to Black Memories by AYA dance company. A crazy performance, beautiful dancing and a very solid and beautiful theme: history and the present from the perspective of black people. It was abrasive and raw, visitors left the room during the unparalleled depiction of slavery time (beautiful visual dance, very clear texts, it was palpable in your capillaries). The audience – predominantly white – felt addressed, uncomfortable and at the same time involved.

Black Memories, by Aya dance company

At the end of the performance and during the discussion, the theme ‘why do we still have to do this’ was very clearly set out. Why is white privilege still so omnipresent in our society? Why is it still difficult to say that ‘black pete’ is no longer possible? Why is a black youngster still being watched in a supermarket ‘in case he steals something’? Why is that? Why?

I thought it was a beautiful and true performance, but especially in the follow-up interview I found it difficult. Because I keep finding it so hard to see how we get out of this. Everything changes, but everything remains the same. The Dutch discriminate – but I don’t. Of course ‘black pete’ can’t remain the same anymore – but I can’t tell that to my tennis friends with small children. The deeper issue is often left unspoken in the conversation: how can I see what I don’t see? Because as a white and wealthy woman I have so many advantages in this life, I don’t see them. They are ‘water’ to me (this comparison is taken from a very beautiful movie I’m posting below, just because it belongs to this blog).

How can we help each other to feel each other’s perspective? How can we achieve change together? How do we talk about the fact that it will really cost us something, hurt us, to make this change happen? I don’t know, I just see that even on such an evening, in a room with people who have bought a ticket to experience this, it’s hard to really see each other’s reality. In the foyer afterwards, I heard two older people say to each other: ‘Yes, I don’t know, but I really don’t think that I would feel discriminated against if I was black’. And later in the same conversation: ‘I don’t really understand why they always want to link ‘black pete’ to race. He’s black because he’s coming through the chimney, isn’t he?’.

Bearing in mind my own motto, to find the perspective of the other person and from there try to create space for my own perspective, I went to the people who were saying these things. Not to lecture them, but because I was really curious why they came to the show. And because I wanted to feel what they had taken with them from seeing the show. And of course, because I also wanted to try to make my perspective visible to them. Did I succeed? I hope so. It was nice to see how openings were created and reflections were created. Also between the two people themselves. Especially when we were talking about the shoplifting suspicion. At first they told me it wasn’t discrimination, because a small group really ruined it for them (quote: young Turks and Moroccans do steal, and ruin it for the group). But when I asked if that wasn’t the case for us as well: wasn’t there also a small group of white people who steal and so should ruin it for us?) I saw some confusion arise. Maybe wishful thinking from me, but it was beautiful.

At the same time, a day later in my office, it also remains evident how these people always tried to narrow the discussion down to the point: I don’t discriminate myself. They both sincerely believed that, and I also felt their intention to look beyond the skin colour in everyone’s eyes. Good. But at the same time it was a protection, an externalisation: I do not discriminate, so for me nothing has to change. The discussion was thus set aside as academic, outside their own lives. As a result, there is a life-threatening risk that in twenty years’ time we will still need these kinds of performances. Everything changes, but will everything remain the same?

The Time traveler

Disclaimer: This blog has nothing at all to do with my research into changing my mind. This is a very personal blog, which is about me. And about changing time and the universe.

I really like science fiction and fantasy stories. Time travelers like Doctor Who, the Ender series by Orson Scott Card: stories about other worlds, about time and space travel, about unlimited adventures and possibilities. The most beautiful fantasy world I know.

Teylers museum in Haarlem

But is it really a fantasy world? When I recently took the Lorentz formula at Teyler’s museum, a theatrical tour of Lorentz’s laboratory, I began to doubt it. The tour begins with an explanation of the relativity of time. Time, according to Einstein, is not a constant given. Under the influence of gravity, for example, time can shrink or expand. Years can fly by in a matter of seconds, while minutes can go by as slowly as if they were days. This is true in physics, the actors say, and also in stories. But is this also the case in daily life? Can gravity influence time in such a way that an individual travels through time? I think so. I will explain.

Fifteen years ago, the four days we are experiencing today – 29 April to 2 May – were four of the most bizarre days of my life. They enfold a schism, a rift in my life. April 29 and 30, 2004 are among the last two days that I have lived in a parallel universe, I call this universe ‘World 0’. In World 0 there was nothing special, everything was as it should be. The grass was green, time passed and I was expecting our first child. I lived my life, worked in my garden and celebrated the Queen’s birthday.

May 1, 2004 was the start of ‘World 1’. The world I have been living in since 2004, which looks so much like my original world, but is so clearly different on important points. That morning I didn’t feel my baby move anymore. In the hospital it was confirmed that he had died. A day later, Sunday 2 May, he was born: 57 centimetres, 3900 grams and beautiful. But without heartbeat.

These four days are now fifteen years ago. And yet: every year they ‘come back to me’. The days of that time seem to be bleeding through the days of today. I carry garden plants again. I walk around the flea market on the Queens birthday. For the first time, I am holding my son in my arms. The events of years ago pass with absolute precision, as you can expect from time. While the time between those four days then and these four days now melts away, these four days of 15 years ago remain the same size and presence even today. I am here and there at the same time these days. I am a time traveller.

And that is actually quite normal. Because time bends under the influence of gravity, right? And there are no days with a greater heaviness in my life, with a deeper and more intense weight, than those four days. Days that have given me the most intense experiences of my life – both terrible and beautiful. Days that have shaped not only me, but my whole world. Is it strange, then, that time bends in the face of these days? It seems perfectly logical to me.