May 19, 2001
RESPONSES TO UNCERTAINTY
IN A COMPLEX, CHANGING
By Charlie Notess
-- Persons respond in a variety of ways to uncertainty
and to the stresses that uncertainty causes in their lives.
This, in recent years, has led to polarization
in: legislative bodies of government, political parties, school
boards, religious congregations and denominations, and other social
and political organizations.
Frustration due to such polarization,
has increased mutual distrust and has led to difficulties in appreciating
and tolerating the responses of those with different worldviews
or views of reality.
The result has often been stagnation
and a loss of faith in the effectiveness of those organizations.
Much of the uncertainty and many of the frustrations are attributed
to effects modernism and the postmodern era have had on our way
of life: our expectations, our opportunities, our hopes and our
This paper presents several considerations
aimed at helping to explain why uncertainty has increased and
why responses to uncertainty can be so different among neighbors
and even among members of the same family. Some of us have lost
faith in modern (scientific) ways of thinking and in technology
as ways of responding to opportunities and to threats in the social
and human aspects of this postmodern age.
In the search for more effective ways
of responding, some place increased emphasis on traditional approaches
that they feel have worked for centuries.
Others see the world differently and create
other (innovate) new, more flexible approaches if they have the
freedom to do so. There are now many different ways of viewing
the political and social realm; many different realities.
These many realities add to the confusion.
People ask: "Whom shall we believe?" Increasingly we hear the
questions: "Who is right?" "Who is really telling the truth?"
Such questions are especially prevalent in a presidential election
The past presidential election has provided
much evidence that political parties and leaders, with help from
advertising agencies have created two different realities, a Republican
one and a Democratic one. Leaders of both sides have presented
too many half truths and appear to have been more interested in
winning the election than in honestly informing and educating
To a significant extent, answers to the
foregoing questions depend upon learning about the views of others
and communicating with the others sufficiently so that one can
understand the different perspectives upon which the different
realities and founded. This idea leads us to the field of developmental
The stages of psycho-social and moral
development that people pass throuth as they grow from babyhood
to adulthood influence how they respond to an increasing variety
of realities and the frustrations caused by variety. As one progresses
through these stages of development, they can better appreciate
the different perspectives that other persons and organizations
take toward important social and human issues.
If the upbringing of young people is
not adequate for handling this complexity, they surround themselves
with groups of people who they feel have a workable solution to
the problem of responding to complexity. What are these different
Sociologists have classified responses
to uncertainty in ways that differ slightly from those of the
developmental psychologist. David Reisman, in his classic book
"The Lonely Crowd" defined three social character types: tradition-directed,
inner-directed and other-directed persons.
There are limitations in our language
and discourse that restrict and distort our perceptions and our
thinking about the fair and just ways to respond to persons from
different social and/or cultural backgrounds.
Our thinking amd analyses are prone to
suffer from dualistic divisions wherein one is either right or
wrong and there is no in-between. Being aware of these limitations
and discussing differences in perception and reality construction
helps one understand the differences, and also helps one clarify
ones own perceptions and views.
This paper ends with an outline of seven
levels of perspective-taking that provide, in this writer's view,
a basis for explaining different standards of morality and commitment.
Understanding what are the predominant
levels used by different groups in contention over an issue, can
help development of negotiated agreements among social groups
which are engaged in seemingly unresolvable conflicts, such as
over use of the land, environmental concerns, political styles
and ideologies, or approaches to religious faith and values.