What Comes After “Post-Truth”?
The role of Action Inquiry in the development of meaning-making-culture
The Oxford Dictionary for the Year 2016 announced the word post-truth, so familiar, even trivial to post-Soviet societies, but new and yet uncomfortable to the Western world. Uncomfortable, because this word refers to the new character of postmodern society, only recently obvious in the West in the context of the UK Brexit referendum from the EU, and of the election of Trump as president in the United States and the first eight months of his chaotic, post-truth administration.
The post-truth concept derives from Orwell’s 1984 world of “double-speak” and used to be the mundane “water” for “fish” like me, a Russian-speaking Lithuanian and an inhabitant of the Soviet regime, prior to its demise. Today we observe and discuss with people from different parts of the world post-truth as a global state of mind, that is deeply touching conscious and unconscious aspects of current life, cultures, political or personal drama. Language and Meaning are main actors in this conflict, where Language plays an on-stage role, Meaning is an unseen back-stage prompter, and the main story is emerging in the gaps between Language and Meaning.
During the Soviet regime from childhood I and many other ordinary children were taught to “read between the lines”, to discover hidden truth behind the public facts, to know and employ social rituals, including language rituals, and be very cautious not to put full heart into them. Scratches and gaps of history formed our life stories. I remember myself being 6 years old with my grandfather, a respectful and prominent representative of the Communist party, a teacher of Russian Literature, and a regular attender of Communist party meetings in the daytime. In the evening, he read hand-made copies of Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” sometimes sharing pieces with me. I also remember him showing me a sign that was a reminder “I see that you see, but be silent about that to others.”
We, little children, knew how to give answers to perilous questions, like “Is your family celebrating Christmas this year?” We learned to read signs of trust/distrust and understand the complexity of contexts we were acting in. With my friends I could share stories of Christmas and Easter – we exchanged coloured eggs – but the moment we opened the school door we acted the “right” way. Today I estimate that constant inquiry-in-the-midst-of-action into personal intentions, thoughts and feelings, inquiry into our relationships with others, and inquiry into collective rules, gave us a certain freedom and a certain training in what Bill Torbert has named Action Inquiry. The dangers and limitations motivated us to practice on ourselves something close to what Torbert calls Liberating Disciplines.
Action Inquiry Practice During the Soviet Regime
A schizophrenic balance between representational-public-life and private-life-with-meaning created a spacious gap for many people to live rich and complicated lives in a kind of paranoid imitation of Action Inquiry alertness. (This social schizophrenia and paranoia is also characteristic today of Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Turkey, as well as the failed states of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Venezuela, and others).
The 1st-person inquiry in such cases is around boundaries: how and how much I can act and how much I can/can’t think; what themes I can/can’t explore and what I can/can’t experience. The 2nd-person inquiry is around: how do we understand each other, who is truly to be trusted, and what languages or forms of action and expression shall we, who trust one another enough, use and create in order to have open and meaningful conversations? The 3rd-person inquiry is around how we can protect ourselves from the unilateral, exploitative power of the state or local terrorist group, without altogether losing our freedom to express ourselves and to develop meaningful identity and social connections within the wider rigid framework of ideological norms and rituals, or the framelessness of social chaos. The only way to live a meaningful social life is the ability to constantly be in action inquiry, now interweaving – now separating – subjective, intersubjective and objective contexts, ready to self-correct in any given moment of action.
Life “in between the lines” and a persistent experience of incongruities – between the data from the past, the patterns, strategies and performances in the present, as well as possible visions, strategies and goals for the future – developed among a large part of Soviet society a life-practice like Action Inquiry. Even if the purpose of Action Inquiry practice was contradictory and double-minded – to protect my-self and to express my-self – it supported the transformational process of perestroika. And, as social and anthropological studies show, a large part of the society was mentally ready for the paradigm shift when it happened.
Following Boyer & Yurchak (2010) and other scientists studying social trans-formations, there is an uncanny kinship between the schizophrenia and paranoia that organized late socialism and the patterns of late liberalism, most vividly expressed in recent US media and political discourse. Socialism teaches you not so much to recognize the liberties of Western civil life, but, rather, to pay greater attention to the West’s internal tensions and crisis points.
In Search for Istina
I observe how the nature of conversations within our community shifted from just after the end of Soviet regime, to the outbreath of the war in the Ukraine, to now. Today we notice that there is no need to discover or reveal something. Everything is obvious and we just share the news, rush to some action planning, and sometimes burst the space with refreshing jokes, that remind us about our capacity to inquire and unlock the meaning, as we say “to catch the thought” (pojmat mysl). And the leading mood or emotion of our conversations is the longing. The longing for meaning.
I remember very different conversations, in the realms of War or No-(clear)- Future. They were filled with silent inquiry and much less word-full intellectualization. The meaning had to be discovered, the meaning was hidden away from the public, the meaning that was unspeakable and un-announced. Only our eye-to-eye contact, almost invisible changes in posture, showing signs of dignity, a run-away smile, a deep breath locked in the chest, and the moment of energy-spark that ran through everyone in the group simultaneously, as through an electrical line connected us, bonding us into a sense of momentary unity, of truth-in-action being revealed for this particular moment.
And this is a moment when The Truth is experienced by everyone present, and this truth is not in pluralis, it is singularis, meaning something like the higher truth. In Russian there are two words for truth, “Pravda” (the title of the leading communist daily) and the word – “Istina” (meaning the higher truth that is not created; it just is and can only be revealed through “listening into the dark” (another Torbert phrase) and the kind of energy-spark experience I just described). It seems the great writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, delicately foresaw and grasped the world we live today, turbulent, multifaced and shady, yet full of tacit and light meaning, promising a life-long road of inquiry.
“There is something at the bottom of every new human thought, every thought of genius, or even every earnest thought that springs up in any brain, which can never be communicated to others, even if one were to write volumes about it and were explaining one’s idea for thirty-five years; there’s something left which cannot be induced to emerge from your brain, and remains with you forever; and with it you will die, without communicating to anyone perhaps the most important of your ideas.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
The Secular Bible of Meaning-Making-in-Action
I would call Bill Torbert’s book Action Inquiry a Secular Bible/ Spiritual Manual of meaning-making-in-action. This book gives a set of keys, frameworks, guidelines, and daily practices that is a survival kit in the uncertain post-truth world for the ongoing discovery of the truth (istina) for this time and place for me, for us, and for the broader evolving global culture. The practices and quality of awareness of Action Inquiry help to develop and integrate consciousness, personal effectiveness, trust-building, and organizational transformation. They also open deep and intimate resources and build lines between uncanny ideas and outrageous perspectives.
The traditional logical mind is frightened and frozen by the idea of post-truth and by factual observations of “a bad joke“ becoming a reality, where incongruitites between intentions and words are not a deviation but a new norm. Looking from a developmental perspective and engaging in Action Inquiry practice, this dissonance turns into a rich context for personal growth and transformative meaning-making. In the frequent case of experiencing dissonance, there are four choices: 1) to deny or externalize the dissonance (by far our most common minute-to-minute, day-to-day procedure as individuals, communities and institutions); 2) to treat the dissonance as single-loop feedback (leading to a change in practice if the intended result is not being achieved); 3) to treat the dissonance as double-loop feedback (leading to a transformation of both strategy and behavior); or, finally, 4) to treat the dissonance as triple-loop feedback (leading to a change in quality of attention, strategy, and behavior). The experience of triple-loop feedback and the experience of “istina” are one and the same. (See more on these distinctive types of feedback in Chapter 1 and in Torbert & Taylor, 2008).
If an increasingly large number of people consciously practice Action Inquiry and engage with the culture of dissonance that is currently emerging around the world, they can transform the dissonance into a wide variety of different narratives, helping to form new “meaning-making” cultures, based on experiences of “istina.” All children continue to come to awareness in an adult world that appears to be a “meaning-already-given” culture. Adolescents and young adults struggle with what appear to be “dissonance-primary” cultures. And only if enough mature adults and organizational systems in that person’s life have developed to what Torbert calls the late developmental action-logics in this book, will the developing adults, through their interactive experiences, come to participate in “meaning-making” cultures.
I deeply believe that the complex and colourful Russian-speaking world will take a significant role here. The strong need for meaning, accompanied with a historical capacity for meaning-making in hostile conditions, seems to need only a little spark to light the fire of timely experiences of post-truth “istina.” In my own experiences in the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, the UK, and the US over the past five years, I see how themes of transformational vertical development, the integral approach, and Collaborative Developmental Action Inquiry are becoming a central intellectual context for organizational leadership, consulting, research, and the way conferences and workshops are designed, as well as how networks that attract large numbers of participants and stakeholders are formed.
My own faith in Action Inquiry has come from my good fortune in finding my way into the Action Inquiry Fellowship, a group of some forty men and women from all parts of the world who meet twice a year for a total of six days, not to talk about Action Inquiry, but to practice it and experience istina. I urge you not only to read this book and apply it to your daily practices as best you can, but also to convene a small group of colleagues and friends to practice Action Inquiry together.