They say that actions speak louder than words.
This is a nice aphorism. We’ve all seen examples of this on display in the people we know; instead of believing what people say, believe what they do.
Yet recently I have come to see this truth on a much deeper level. The behavior of any system — a person, business, social cause, political party, or economy — tells you much more about that system’s purpose than what it proclaims to be about.
In other words, if you want to understand the purpose of anything, look at its function, not its “mission,” “vision,” “core values,” “beliefs,” or any other mental construct. The behavior of systems is not always aligned with these constructs. At the end of the day, despite what people and organizations say, they must own the reality of what they do. That is their deeper purpose.
Towards a Politics of Pragmatism
I must admit that I am a pragmatist, if it wasn’t already obvious. I care about the functional impact of things because, well… what does it matter if you say you’re about helping underserved people but the results of your social/political group end up with the opposite result?
I think the shift to pragmatism in politics is crucial, especially at this moment in time as polarization threatens the stability of political systems worldwide.
The pragmatic approach focuses on what works. To do what works, we must be willing to go beyond identity and ideology. Identity and ideology serve just that: the survival of that very identity and ideology. Although it may not seem that way, the function or purpose of ideologically driven politics is to reinforce its very existence — not necessarily to serve the people/groups it claims to be targeting.
“Purposes [of systems] are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals,” writes the great systems thinker, Donella Meadows (1).
Sometimes the misalignment of behavior and stated purpose is conscious; companies or organizations knowingly spin a certain narrative to the public.
Oftentimes the incongruence between function and ideology is unconscious, as is the case, I believe, with most social and political groups.
Pragmatically, what is the purpose of a social safety net if, on the surface, it is meant to “help poor people,” but ends up maintaining the status quo of massive income inequality? (I’m not saying it does, or doesn’t, but we must honestly assess these questions).
Pragmatically, what is the purpose of having the right to bear arms in public if, on the surface, it is meant to “protect” and “keep people safe,” but ends up leading to more gun violence and deaths?
Pragmatically, what is the purpose of unconscious bias training and anti-racist pedagogy if, on the surface, it is meant to “dismantle racism” and bring people together, but ends up creating greater social divisions and the unintended consequence of “seeing race everywhere?”
Pragmatically, what is the purpose of the “pro life” movement if, on the surface, it is meant to protect the lives of unborn children, but ends up emboldening and motivating the “pro choice” movement (and therefore leads to more deaths, in effect)… and vice versa?
The point is: we must be willing to look beyond ideology to function, if we truly want to understand the purpose of any system.
Towards a Pragmatic Future
I believe pragmatism is crucial to the evolution of humanity.
Pragmatism forces us to constantly ask, does this work?, instead of, does this align with my beliefs? In this way, we create space for our beliefs to continuously adapt and change; we become flexible in our identity and ideologies. This is so badly needed at a time of heightened division and social animosity.
Systems stay resilient by continuously adapting. In order to adapt, they must continue to assess what works and do away with what doesn’t work.
The collective of humanity is no different. We are a giant, interconnected system that is facing the harsh realities of stale and rigid behaviors. To adapt, we must catch a glimpse of our interconnected nature, find the common humanity in one another, and establish a shared goal by asking, what behaviors will allow us to survive and thrive? Then we must be willing to do them.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Edited by Diana Wright, Sustainability Institute). Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, VT.
Smith, B. L. (2022). Regenerative vs actually regenerating: How a reality-based approach highlights the difference. Medium: https://medium.com/@blorrainesmith/regenerative-vs-actually-regenerating-f69e0bbe87c9.