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Beyond the Culture of Contest:

From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence

by Michael Karlberg
We live in a culture of contest. In western-liberal societies our economic,
political, and legal systems, as well as many of our other social institutions and practices,
are competitive and conflictual. Surrounding this culture of contest is a culture of protest.
In response to the social and ecological problems engendered by our culture of contest,
we engage in protests, demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, partisan organizing,
litigation, strikes and other oppositional strategies of social advocacy and change.
These competitive and conflictual social norms have become so ubiquitous that
they appear natural and inevitable to many people. Indeed, conventional wisdom
suggests that these social norms are an inevitable expression of an essentially selfish and
aggressive human nature...But is a culture of contest and protest really an inevitable
reflection of human nature? Or is it possible that that human beings have the
developmental potential for either adversarial or mutualistic behavior? Is it possible that
human culture, rather than human nature, determines which of these potentials is more
fully expressed?
...The analysis in this book suggests that the culture and protest is not an
inevitable expression of human nature and that it is proving to be socially unjust and
ecologically unsustainable in an age of increasing interdependence.
power almost always thought of as power over, domination, coercion, oppression.
However, if power is thought of as capacity, this is only 1/4 of the picture.

Question: What are examples of power relations that fall into each quadrant?
normative adversarialism the assumption that contests are normal and necessary
models of social organization.

three core institutions of society: economics, politics and the legal system. Each is
structured as a contest, all three institutions are based on the notion of self-interest as the
primary motivation.
Question: In what ways is academia also based on normative adversarialism?
nature vs. nurture
Question: Are human beings really essentially selfish and competitive, or does society
make them that way?
Adversarialism has never been the sole characteristic of any culture.
mutualism have been present in all human cultures...

Strands of

a proper accounting should reveal that while oppositional strategies have reached a point
of diminishing returns, non-adversarial strategies are emerging as the most effective
methods for lasting social change in an age of heightened social and ecological
-feminism, while broad and varied, tends to critique normative adversarialism
-adversarialism, competition seen as masculine traits culture of contest favors men
-men tend to dominate women, masculine qualities tend to dominate feminine qualities
-nurturing work done by women is devalued
ecology / environmentalism
-holism and interdependence are central concepts
-transboundary nature of many modern environmental issues (e.g. ozone depletion,
global warming, acid rain, water pollution, the management of migratory species), signals
the need for unprecedented levels of global cooperation and coordination.

The worldwide Bah' community as a case-study in mutualism

[T]he Bah' electoral system embodies neither a contest nor the pursuit of power, he
writes. In contrast to partisan electoral systems the process is unifying rather than
divisive. Since no one seeks election, there is no concept of winning.' At the same time,
the electoral process remains eminently democratic.
Consultation is the non-adversarial decision-making system that is used by all

Bah' institutions. In part, consultation is an inclusive model of collective decisionmaking that involves all segments of society in conceptualizing, designing,
implementing, and evaluating the policies and programs that affect them, he writes. It
also seeks to transcend the adversarial posturing and partisanship and patterns of
negotiation and compromise that mark traditional adversarial decision-making.
from the Bah Writings
Say: O people of God! Adorn your temples with the adornment of trustworthiness and
piety. Help, then, your Lord with the hosts of goodly deeds and a praiseworthy character.
We have forbidden you dissension and conflict in My Books, and My Scriptures, and My
Scrolls, and My Tablets, and have wished thereby naught else save your exaltation and
advancement. - Bahullh
O ye beloved of the Lord! In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no
wise permitted. Every aggressor deprives himself of Gods grace. - `Abdul-Bah
The supreme need of humanity is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of
fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness
and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity. Without cooperation and
reciprocal attitude the individual member of human society remains self-centered,
uninspired by altruistic purposes, limited and solitary in development like the animal and
plant organisms of the lower kingdoms. -`Abdul-Bah
Because our reproductive and technological success as a species has led to conditions of
unprecedented interdependence, no social group on the planet is any longer isolated,
writes Dr. Karlberg. Under these new conditions, new strategies are not only becoming
possible, they have become essential. An interdependent social body cannot coordinate its
collective actions as long as its component members are locked in adversarial