If you travel to places in Europe with castles and history and like to head off the beaten path to smaller, out-of-the-way places you are likely to come face-to-face with some rusty old iron stuff complete with pictures and explanations hanging in the doorway of a little museum dedicated to torture.

Turns out that once upon a not so long ago, torture was a management tool used by lords, emperors, kings, queens, anyone really in the privileged, titled or religious ruling class who had law and order to maintain, or land, business or beliefs to protect. Torture was also the chief means by which people were punished and information and confessions extracted from heretics, spies and witches and other people who were out of favour for one reason or another.

Torture was perfectly legal in Europe until the mid-1700s when countries began to outlaw it and by the 1780s torture was no longer an acceptable thing to do to citizens, at least out in the open.

I knew..sort of .. about torture in a historic context, that it has been a sordid practice as old as civilization, if you can use torture and civilization in the same sentence. And that all stuff about torture jumped off the page when I was in London, England looking around the Tower of London, an infamous place of torture.

It was while visiting a medieval city in Italy where G_Mac snapped this image of a torture device. The description was so matter of fact and head-shakingly shocking that I had to put the brakes on the thought train of gruesomeness. Instead my thoughts jumped to wonder about the people whose job it was to torture other people.

Why did my thoughts go there, you ask?

Well, the lifecycle of jobs had been on my mind, so it wasn’t a complete leap of logic to wonder about the job and industries built upon torture or to wonder what transferrable skill set torturers might have highlighted on their resumé to move into other fields and what those fields could be.

As well, I’d been looking at historic labour market patterns and in passing noticed the census on the Tinker trade in 1900. The trade vanished from the census in two generations.

Reading about a trade no longer practiced had twigged another bit of information sitting in my brain: a few years earlier I had reviewed and catalogued some archived films from the late 1970s that talked about potential and significant social shifts that would result from technology and its use in business and in daily life.

As I sat far away from home, considering the changes that led to the drop in demand for state-sanctioned torture, and the torturers who went through job change, something clicked into place.

Whirlwind Wondering

As much as some things remain constant, not everything stays the same. Think of food:  our need for it is constant, yet WHAT we eat and how we prepare it changes. Think trade: once upon a time people traded beads, and cloth for food, then used money, and for a while used credit, now we’re back to money. Trade is the constant, the items traded are what changes.

While history does not repeat exactly, some patterns do emerge. What is acceptable behaviour in one era changes by the next. No leader is powerful forever. As much as change management consultants talk about change, the only thing that’s changed is the pace and mania about it and putting the word MANAGE to it.

It’s possible that state sanctioned torture fell out of favour in the 1700s because much of the western world that we see today — politically, economically, financially and socially — grew out of concepts and values seeded over the centuries that came to fruition in 17th century thought and ideas: freedom and rights, a move toward reason, science, separation of church and state, capitalism, and industrialism to name a few.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations published in 1776 was to some extent counterpointed (not in the musical way) by Marx’s Communist Manifesto in the 1800s, and here we are some hundreds of years later still debating which of the ideas and approaches is better. Smith did not question class structure, Marx, born to the middle class, not only questioned it,but had a lot to say about it too.

Shall I be blunt? The concepts put forth in their books have not exactly worked to the ideal in the real world. Debating which is better is moot: neither perspective can be proven unless the perfect and time-consuming process is in place to make it happen.  It also means stopping the world and getting off the ride for a while, and in one case, finding that invisible hand. Thats not going to happen. Instead, ideologies arm wrestle each other, people get confused and some hurt.

I thought this a flight of fancy until I was at a meeting. I asked a question about dying industries and vanishing jobs of an academic/research who had made a brilliant presentation that didn’t answer the pragmatic question he’d been asked to present on. He said in all earnestness, “why not ship ALL of our backbreaking, monotonous manufacturing work overseas? Frees us up to do other things.”

Now I get that research is pure, and objective, but I had to mentally shake my ears. He was serious. Was it only me who saw the huge flashing sign of LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES flashing…? Was it Einstein who said that the level of thinking to get out of a situation is not the same level of thinking that got us into it in the first place?

I wondered if, like the 1700s, our world is currently experiencing a transition deeper and wider than what we can see. Shifting of social, economic, political tectonic plates so to speak. I wondered about all the political and economic debates raging and remembered the Push-Me Pull You. The ride might look like fun, but the reality…not so much.

It seems to me that what has guided us and all that we do for the past 250 years isn’t really serving us very well today.

I have now come to believe that we are in one of those as-yet unnamed periods of history that future historians will bookend as starting sometime around the first year of the First World War and ending sometime around 2274(ish). Goodness only knows what they’ll call it, but it won’t be the Information Age.

This is a wild-assed guess of course. No-one can really predict the future, what with Black Swans, butterfly wings, a changing climate profile, men with ideas of world domination and religious intolerance on all sides.

I am inclined to think that the values and organizing concepts we need to take us out of transition have not yet landed on anyone’s desk: we don’t have that equivalent — yet — of an earth shaking good idea that will propel us from this time into the next major period of human history. So much is invested in holding the status quo. And it is possible that we do not — yet — have the kind of thinking or leadership and involved citizenship to facilitate it either. Not yet.

As I thought about all this, I did note that no matter what, whatever and whomever seeks to constrain the human spirit has not really ever been successful for long.


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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  1. letempspasse says:

    Ooooh ! I love it ! Another new word for my vocabulary: Merliorism. Or is it Meliorism? or can we say both? (I’ve seen both spellings)
    Just looked it up a bit. I do love new words. (I can see you’re gonna be an infinite source of those…;-))

    I don’t know about meliorism: “It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one.” (Wikipedia). Sometimes, I wonder if humans are not trying too hard. There is some value in trusting the natural process (sometimes), which, albeit slower and less efficient, may actually produce a better ultimate outcome for our physical and spiritual health. I can think of a few environmental examples, regarding our interference with the natural order of things, that have actually backfired… Let’s face it, we’re just not that great at improving upon Nature. The lady tend to find her balance quite well without our interference. What we do usually does have apparent short term benefit, but long term? I am not so sure.
    Anyway, I’m with you. Middle ground is always a good place to be.

    Contrarian to Harvard Business Review readers? No worry. No risk I’d ever read that (insert gagging sound here).

    Might get in trouble talking about health care? You and I both !
    If we ever do, I’ll tell you what: I’ll watch your back if you watch mine ? 😉
    ’til then, you might want to add that subject to our list…

    Time to go. Sweet dreams my friend !

    PS: If I ever get attacked by a swarm of BHCM (Brainless Health Care Manager) zombies, will you come and rescue me?

    • FS says:

      I was just heading off and saw your comment and am chagrined to have made a sloppy keying error it should be ameliorate, ameliorist, ameliorism… please forgive me. In a nutshell, as a position for me between optimism and pessimism — distilled from the dictionary, the philosophy, is about seeing the situation in front of you, where you are and as needed making it better without falling into the thinking/belief traps over optimism or pessimism. (What can we do to make this better, ameliorate the situation, when the roof is leaking and add to that, how to prevent it from happening again to the best of our ability.) Maybe I need to rethink this: I will check my hard copy OED… since the meaning of words can be warped over time. Ameliorate as I understand it is simply..to make a bad situation better.

      Gawd, the list is getting long: I might have to do an abstraction of it all! Or one post that connects them all. I promise to proofread my responses.

      I am a slayer of zombies. Happy to help :-).

      • letempspasse says:

        Up late were we?
        Ameliorism, or Meliorism. I’m sure it’s suppose to be the same basic concept. From the Latin “Melior”. “Meilleur” en français. Improved. I understand the point. Looking at a bad situation and not expect it to get better by itself (i.e. simple and passive optimism) nor expect it to stay like that or even get worse (i.e pessimism), but become proactive in trying to make it better. In a nutshell, it’s taking that step of going from “As your desire is, so is your will” to “As your will is, so is your deed”, right? Which, hopefully, is a more effective way to get to the ultimate goal of “as your deed is, so is your destiny”.

        On the whole, I like this position. I do. Humans are incredibly resourceful and creative beings. Our forefathers have improved our quality of life and our life expectancy tremendously over a couple millennia, more so in the last few hundred years. I just wonder if there shouldn’t be an amendment to meliorism, one that recognizes that sometimes, it’s best to just let go, no out of optimism or pessimism, but just because its best to leave well enough alone to take its course, even if there is some suffering involved, even if we feel compelled to act and do something to fix the situation, recognizing that even with the best of intentions, some good deeds make things worst. Perhaps i can call this “Relinquishism”? I’m not talking abandon or abdication, as in hopelessness. I’m thinking more in terms of trust. In a higher organizing power. Maybe meliorism with a healthy dose of the principle of economy of effort?

        Don’t worry about proof reading your responses to 100% pure perfection. I’m sure that even with the best of intentions mine are always full of mistakes.

        Talking about proofreading, I read a funny post about that yesterday, which you might have read already. If you haven’t you might get a chuckle out of those. http://saxtonstudio.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/why-bother-to-proofread/

        Have a great day !

      • FS says:

        I have long given up trying to key perfectly … tis just not in me: if I slow down and take my time, however, keying errors are greatly reduced.

        Hmm… a higher organizing power. Let me ponder that one, too.

        I did get a chuckle… what’s astonishing is that there are errors in book and newspapers. Once upon a time, there were people who made sure that never happened.

  2. letempspasse says:

    Geesh, I’m going to have trouble concentrating on my job today with so much thinking still to do…
    I’m kind of hoping that the generation of my daughter and the young adults of today will somehow give birth to the leaders we need to move us into a brighter and wiser future.
    I really agree with you.
    We spend way too much time protecting the stability and integrity of systems in place (be it political, religious, economic, medical, etc.), sometimes, to such an extent that it seems completely absurd. Recognizing what doesn’t serve us and letting it go. Not an easy process.
    It’s as if the “system” (let’s take the concept of free market for example) had a life of its own, and that this life was more important that human life, than human considerations.
    I truly AM hoping that in this transition, whatever we transition to, we will not got back to thinking that torture should be a valuable and sought after management skill (at least not in a large scale and out in the open, because, as we all know, there are still torture and abominable acts being committed everywhere even as we speak).
    I’m going to concentrate on happy thoughts now…

    • FS says:

      That process of getting from here to there is always a tricky one, isn’t it? It’s impossible to look at what’s happening in the world and not be blinded and bound by whatever beliefs we hold. I want to believe that experience, evidence and history shows that tyranny does not last for long, recognizing that if you’re in that tyranny, a moment is forever. Torture is a deep dark secret, and it is used in various forms even in the ‘advanced’ first world.

      Allow me to be serious a moment? I wrote that post a long time ago, and it was mostly out of frustration with yet another academic…You ready for this?

      You’re right that there’s a lot of time, resources and energy directed toward protecting the status quo but in a way, that makes sense: a thing created does not inherently seek its own destruction, its own end: a thing created sets about building a network to support its existence, and counters in every way it can, things that do not support its continued existence.

      To my mind, the world — its people and its leaders — are in entirely uncharted territory, and when I think about it the image that comes to mind is one of a web … so much interdependence at levels we have not seen before, so we don’t actually know what it means, and for all the stuff of chaos theory, systems theory, biomimicry, process theory, theory ad nauseum, it is absolutely impossible to predict anything except that there’s change and change and more change, and the pace of change has accelerated since the 1860s to the point where technology has now outpaced the social and organizational capacity to adapt to it. Our infrastructure can’t adapt fast enough, policy levers take about 5 years to trickle down..and that’s just too long for the pace of change, and we don’t yet understand what it is that is constant in human nature and what is evolving. We live in fascinating, interesting challenging times. And I agree with you, it seems as if everything is designed for the market: we are viewed as consumers, not as individual human beings, in spite of what micro-marketers would have us believe.

      Another day I will riff on that. 😉

      That said, there is this little thing — the irrespressible human spirit — that has this drive in it. Perhaps it’s a drive toward fairness. Perhaps it’s a drive toward freedom of expression. Perhaps it’s just a drive for something different. But there’s a drive toward something that is generally not tolerant or accepting of oppression. I think it’s a bit of a worrying time right now — we do not know what to do — however, I think in time, all other things being equal, that humanity will work it through. I also think there’s lots to be happy about, and lots of good things going on in the world: apparently we don’t want those things on the news. Or good is not profitable..?

      I do have an abiding faith that while it might be a dark walk in the forest at times, there is ALWAYS a way through and a way out.

      • letempspasse says:

        I love your optimism.

        So you get bouts of frustrations with academics? I get mine from managers, management lingo and management models that become an end rather than the means to an end, completely forgetting in the process that the whole point was to organize people and services to improve human outcomes. Oooooh I could riff on that big time!

        You are right. We are in unchartered territory, wading in troubled waters, all the way to our necks, with everything interconnecting with everything else. Everything anybody does has the potential to affect so many other things….

        It’s a good thing I’m not a politician. I would have a splitting headache everyday single day, from thinking about things that are just too complicated.

        Let us have faith that the human spirit will prevail. Shall we drink to that?

        Have a lovely evening !

      • FS says:

        Hmmm… I claim the space between optimism and pessimism — that space known as merliorism. There are some psych studies that say too much optimism might be dangerous. 😉 Wouldn’t wanna test the theory.

        So at the risk of being a contrarian for those who might read Harvard Business Review, etc., I think there are very few good leaders, good managers or good administrators to be found who can strike that balance between competing needs and interests. The business and organizational world doesn’t want them and isn’t hiring them. Good managers care too much for process and people, and process and people are overhead which is not good for business or organizations in today’s environment. Most leaders, executives and managers are so overwhelmed with all of the stuff they have to do that they do not have time to think…and so they don’t, ergo, brainless management..

        And we thought the zombies were the ones in books, movies and the Thriller video 😉

        I might get into trouble if I talk too much about health care.

        Perhaps we complicate things because of the enormous implications of our actions which result in ripples and waves in places we can’t see. In one way it’s fascinating, and in another, kind of scary. We are not in control of anything external to us.

        Cin-cin and bonne nuit.

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