Why Contradiction is “the” Key to Healthy Democracy and Systems Change

A Commentary from the World of Philanthropy

Image from “Digging Deep into Philanthropy”

Lately I’ve been on the lookout for contradictions in peoples’ thinking — my own included — because a contradiction usually signals one of two things: myopic thinking that holds us back and takes us down; or, a first-rate intelligence holding two opposing ideas in mind and moving us forward.

Last month, I spotted a contradiction while attending a program of The Commonwealth Club of California featuring David Callahan, founder of Demos and Insidephilanthropy.com, and Emmett Carson, President of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). The event, “Digging Deep into Philanthropy,” was a leg on Callahan’s tour to promote his new book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. The contradiction was Carson’s.

Thirty minutes into the program, moderator Nick Tedesco of J.P. Morgan Private Bank Philanthropy Centre posed a question central to Callahan’s investigation in The Givers. Does philanthropy threaten civic equality and democracy?

Callahan replied yes, citing philanthropy, particularly the new generation of mega-givers, as emblematic of a broader trend of rising economic inequality translating into civic and political inequality. Carson countered, “philanthropy is an expression of our democracy” and we should embrace the fact that “democracy is messy” rather than pursue the “slippery slope” of discerning which expressions are and aren’t okay.

The exchange went another round, with Callahan coining Carson’s defense of big philanthropy “the pluralism defense” and problematizing it because “the people who are deciding which options are on the table are different from the population writ large.”

“This would all be a fine system,” Callahan remarked, “if in fact the wealthy were a perfect mirror of the rest of the country.”

In turn, Carson doubled down on freedom of expression and cautioned against the idea that “philanthropy should no longer engage in the public square.”

There was no contradiction here, only two people wrestling with the perennial question of the role of philanthropy in democratic societies, a question animated by the tension between capitalism and democracy and the subject of recent vigorous debate, dialogue, and scholarship (e.g., Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, The Future of Philanthropy, and Philanthropy 3D). (Disclosure: I organized the Philanthropy 3D event in collaboration with my colleagues at Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy.)

The contradiction came later, when Carson responded to an audience member’s question: Given that this is a new Gilded Age, what are the chances that philanthropy will and can address social, racial, and economic inequality?

Carson voiced his doubts in philanthropy, with sadness and regret. His reasoning? In a word, diversity, or lack thereof. “We’re not a diverse industry,” Carson said, “in terms of board members… staffing… where our money goes today. And so, to ask a group that doesn’t reflect diversity to be the champion of diversity in a national debate…”

You get the picture. But notice, here lies the contradiction.

If, as Carson suggests, diversity in philanthropy is crucial to philanthropy addressing inequality, then it’s logical to take the position that mega-givers, whom are powerful but not diverse, threaten civic equality and democracy. And yet, when Callahan made this claim, Carson refuted it. Additionally, Carson based his refutation on, of all things, diversity, as he made what Callahan called “the pluralism defense of big philanthropy.”

These inconsistencies became apparent to me on my ride home to Oakland after the event. Ever since, I’ve been mulling them over. Was this a classic case of myopic thinking? Or, was it a precious example of integrative thinking (i.e., simultaneously holding two opposing ideas in mind)?

Carson does appeal to two opposing ideas (which are dimensions) of pluralism, but on separate occasions. One is liberty. Carson bases his defense of big philanthropy on pluralism as freedom of expression — the freedom to choose how and where each of us directs our philanthropic resources. For Carson, individual choice is democratic; it should be expanded not restricted; and it permits a diverse philanthropy ecosystem. The other is equality. When Carson espouses his belief that philanthropy is ill suited to address inequality because the industry lacks diversity, he does so from this egalitarian view of pluralism — diversity as a proxy for, or conduit of, equity and inclusion.

If this is the logic behind Carson’s positions, it isn’t integrative thinking. A true measure of integrative thinking is holding two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, applying both to a single question or situation. Liberty and equality comprise one of democracy’s eternal polarities of interdependent values. Rights and responsibilities — of the individual and to the common good, respectively — is another. Like the inhale and exhale of breathing, more of one means less of the other; finding the right balance and rhythm between the two is a marker of good health in the system (whether the system is democracy, philanthropy, capitalism, an organization, or a self-system); too much of one and too little of the other, the system becomes dysfunctional and can fail.

Carson’s defense of big philanthropy in democratic society exhibits the generic structure of myopic thinking that can suck the air out of a system. More tellingly, his thinking represents the specific, hegemonic configuration of modern thought that has pushed our systems — social, political, economic, and ecological — to the brink of failure. Upholding only liberty and the rights of individuals, with no corresponding regard for equality and our responsibility to one another and the planet, Carson is doubly one-sided in conjuring a political ideology of libertarianism allied with laissez-faire capitalism. This ideology, for all of its contributions to humanity over the last several centuries (e.g., wealth creation, transformative innovation, standard of living increases), has had a major hand in producing the multiple intersecting crises we’re now facing (e.g., transgressing critical planetary boundaries, financialization of the economy, inverted totalitarianism).

You’ll notice that my critique of Carson’s ideology doesn’t take the “I’m right, you’re wrong” form so common across the political spectrum and in our culture. Were I to adopt this approach, the effect would be to reproduce the competitive, divisive, zero-sum culture and politics we must outgrow. A way forward is the progressive (read: political left) vision of a world centered on inclusion and cooperation. Almost by definition, however, bringing this vision to life requires going beyond thought (and action) that’s merely or intentionally partisan, politically or otherwise. It requires something like the integrative approach I’m taking. Notice, I’m not making Carson wrong. I’m saying his ideological worldview and value system is partial. A libertarian-capitalist framework has its dignities, and it is downright disastrous when taken to excess and extremes.

(As an important aside, in this piece I’m giving integrative thinking a narrow definition and limiting its application to values polarities and competing ideologies. This, in itself, is no minor thing, as the ability to embrace and negotiate contradiction in these domains is hard-won and is vital to healing divides, managing complexity, inclusive democracy, and systems change. Nonetheless, the point I want to get across is that integrative thinking, as I’m defining and applying it here, is only one very small window into an integrative philosophy and vision of human civilization.)

That Carson was never going to abandon the capitalist part of his worldview makes perfect sense to me. After all, SVCF’s clients by and large are elite philanthropists, and philanthropy is, as Carson put it, “a product of capital.” We shouldn’t expect Carson to be stoking the post-capitalist imagination any time soon, let alone leading the charge for a commons-oriented economy and society. (See, for example, Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm.)

But I cannot understand why Carson would abandon his libertarian values, as he did when the context shifted to inequality and he proceeded to doubt philanthropy’s prospects for tackling it.

According to Carson, elite philanthropists should be free to make “big bets” around solving complex societal problems, and more generally to effect dramatic changes in our communities and lives. Which begs the question of Carson, when inequality is put on the table: Where has this bold spirit gone? What has become of the unfettered impulse to change the world? When the question is asked and the time has come to stand in solidarity with justice funders against the harsh and dehumanizing realities of social, racial, and economic inequality, why do you fixate on diversity in philanthropy and make it a proviso for effective action? All of the sudden, have you lost your breath for liberation?

Perhaps the explanation for Carson’s switcheroo is simple, and once again is, self-preservation. For, liberating human beings from inequality-producing regimes portends a world in which capitalism is no longer hegemonic and institutional philanthropy no longer exists. I dare say, what a wonderful world this could be.

Another world is possible, and to this end I resonated with Callahan when he stated that the villain of his story in The Givers is the system, not wealthy donors. The only caveat I would add is: people create systems. This doesn’t mean that we have license to “other” or demonize anyone. Rather, it means that everyone can and should take responsibility for the systems we have. Collectively, we have the power to reimagine and recreate them.

Those familiar with Donella Meadows’s seminal work on places to intervene in a system will recognize that my commentary targets the penultimate leverage point for systems change: “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.” Which is to say, my commentary isn’t about Emmett Carson (except on the surface). It’s about changing the world system by exposing parochial mindsets and embracing new ideas, values, and frameworks that help us transform our systems from extractive to regenerative (economy), competitive to cooperative (culture), partisan to transpartisan (politics).

Put differently, this piece is about the possibility and necessity of an integrative alternative to the varieties of myopic thinking that get externalized and multiplied “a million” times over in daily interactions — like Carson’s performance with Callahan at the Commonwealth Club — structuring the world system in ways that no longer serve humanity and are insufficient to secure our future.

We can secure our future. Though there are no silver-bullet answers to the loaded question of what it will take, I suggest that we invest deeply in social movements, especially a movement of movements that unites progressive political orientation with integrative philosophical vision. This marriage would be a contradiction if ever there was one, but one with enough creative tension, I believe, to break free of the prevailing world system and recreate the world.