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An essay donated by James B. Gray

Will the Frog Jump?
An essay about alternative future societies

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Whether or not it has scientific merit, there is a frog story that has relevance for the essay that follows.

The story I have in mind is of a frog placed in a pan of water, the pan then being placed on a stove over low heat. As the water’s temperature slowly rises, the frog’s body will adapt to the increasing heat, but this process of adaptation will not continue indefinitely. At some point the temperature will become so high that the frog’s body can no longer adapt—and the frog will die if it remains in the pan. Before that point is reached, however, the frog will sense that a danger point is being reached, and will attempt to jump from the pan. Unfortunately, by the time that “realization” is achieved, the frog has been rendered incapable of jumping from the pan—and thereby perishes in short order.

What’s the relevance of this story? Our society, I would suggest, can be usefully compared to the frog in the story:

Income disparities have increased in our society to the extent that our income distribution has come to resemble that of a “third-world” country: we are fast approaching a two-class society consisting of the very rich and “everybody else.”

More and more of us are seeing our incomes increase but slightly over time—or even flatten.

If that’s not bad enough, most of us are finding our “real” incomes decreasing because incomes have increased little, if at all, while expenses have been rising—for gasoline, for food, for medical care, etc.

Also, many of us are feeling very insecure—not because we have a fear of terrorist attacks, however, but because we are ill-employed, under-employed, or even unemployed.

Not only has it become increasingly difficult to maintain a “decent” standard of living; we look into the future with the fear that we won’t be able to send our children to college/university.

Our fear for the future is compounded by the fact that we see our leaders doing little to address the problem of environmental degradation—including (and perhaps especially) the threat posed by “global warming.” What kind of a future—if any—are we handing down to our children, many of us are wondering; with some of us being so burdened with a sense of responsibility over this matter that we are on the verge of regretting that we had children.

I’m sure that my list of current concerns is not complete, and that any reader would be able to add to the list. My point here, however, is not to see how complete a list I can create but to identify some of the major concerns that are on the minds of Americans currently. I write these words on the day after (October 16, 2008) the last debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, thus am fully aware of the fact that many in our society tacitly assume that if change is to come to our society, it must come via a change in the political administration. There will, of course, be a change in administration, given that George W. Bush is a “lame duck.” Still, the next administration will be either a Republican one (as the current one is) or a Democratic one; and in either case drastic change is not likely to be associated with the next administration—whether it is Democratic (which seems most likely) or Republican.

I wish that more Americans were able to think of alternatives beyond just the two alternatives of “Republican administration” and “Democratic administration.” I wish that more Americans knew more about the history of their country, and in particular were aware of the fact that especially during the 19th century a great diversity of societal ideas were being discussed by the educated—and even not-so-educated—public. There were discussions of Socialism, Anarchism, Syndicalism, and a great number of societal philosophies. Ideas regarding how our future society might “look” were presented in dozens of “utopian” novels—Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward being just the most well-known of these. Prior to the Civil War a New York City newspaper was popularizing the communitarian ideas of French writer Charles Fourier, and thousands of readers were paying attention. In short, the idea of societal system change was being given serious attention—and not just by a few “intellectuals”—and a great variety of ideas were being presented and discussed.

No more, however. Indeed, it almost seems that thinking people today are reluctant to bring up the subject for fear that they will be accused of being “subversives.” Our tolerance for “deviant” ideas seems to have declined—perhaps because the elite has obtained an increasing grip on our society, and has fostered such a mindset. But whether or not that explanation “holds water,” the fact of the matter is that discussion of “change” these days tends to occur within a very narrow band: most of us think that the only two avenues open to us are Republican administration, on the one hand, or Democratic administration, on the other. This is an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless—and, therefore, a fact that must be “worked around.”

Fortunately, that fact can be worked around, and the frog analogy that I used above gives us the clue we need for doing so. The key here is to recognize that the analogy that I made between a frog in a pan being warmed and our society in its present situation is a flawed one. It’s true that the analogy holds in the sense that both the frog and our society consist of individual parts. But the parts of which a frog consists are physically connected whereas such is not the case of the basic parts that comprise our society—individual people. The members of our society are connected, of course, but they are not physically connected. As a consequence, those “parts” are able to act independently. Not only are they able to act independently; because they differ in knowledge, intelligence, beliefs, values, experiences, etc. they are inclined to act differently. And although it’s true that, generally speaking, societal thinking tends to occur within a very narrow band today (as I noted above), it’s also true that some variation exists.

Enough variation, I will add, to be of significance; enough variation to give our society a chance that our goose will not be cooked. Or, to keep our analogy pure, to ensure (so far as possible) that our frog will not be killed by the rising heat.

Given that the parts of our society, unlike those of a frog, are capable of acting independently, and that at least some in our society are able to escape the conformist pressures that exist in our society, there is the possibility that some of those in the latter category will perceive the need of jumping from the pan—and proceed to do so. What might “jumping from the pan” mean in concrete terms? My earlier discussion above suggests that there is a “crying need” today for societal system change, so that the “jumping” to which I am referring here would involve actions designed to contribute to that end.

But what sorts of actions? The most obvious sort of action would be to follow the lead of the Amish and in effect make an exit from the Larger Society in favor of a basically self-sufficient sort of existence. And if not literal self-sufficiency (e.g., becoming a modern “homesteader”), then community-sufficiency. That is, just as the Amish don’t go out and establish isolated farms but, rather, establish settlements/congregations, so could moderns establish communities that strive to be relatively “community-sufficient.” Although most Americans are not aware of it, the fact is that already a number of such communities exist in the United States and Canada, and a few organizations exist that connect such communities. Granted that this sort of “jumping” does not have much appeal for most Americans; still, it is an option.

Likely there are many other ways of “jumping,” however, and I would like to propose an institution that might (for one thing) aid in the generation of ideas along that line. Elsewhere (see my Worship essay) I have proposed the creation of New Word Fellowships (NeWFs), thus I will not in this essay elaborate on that institution—except to say that it addresses one of the major problems that I perceive in our society. What is that problem? The lack of “interactional institutions” that foster healthy interactional patterns. So much of the interaction that occurs in our society is one-way: lecturers speaking to students or others; ministers/priests “sermonizing” at congregants; individuals on television speaking to an audience sitting in their homes; etc. That is, we have certain formalities regarding communication, but those formalities tend to involve one person speaking and others merely listening (except that in some contexts people can ask questions).

When it comes to two-way communication, we generally lack any institutionalized ways of engaging in the communication. Those of us who have seen Dances With Wolves were exposed to a council meeting participated in by a small group of Native Americans, and were thereby made aware of a non-typical way of communicating with others. (The NeWF (that I describe in my “Worship essay”) was, in fact, in part inspired by this Native American practice.) Basically, however, we are unaware of alternatives for the simple reason that they don’t exist to any significant extent!
Two-way communication in our society usually takes the form of conversations—and this is not surprising: after all, this mode of communication is very “natural.” From that fact it does not follow, however, that it would not be wise to introduce some institutionalized modes of two-way communication. For if two-way communication is restricted to conversations, certain negative consequences can (and do) occur:

Individuals tend to become rigid in their thinking. They tend to gain a psychological investment in certain beliefs and values, and resist changing either.

A group consisting of rigid-thinking individuals is likely to experience conflict among its members—such that the group’s existence may become tenuous, perhaps resulting in a splitting off of certain individuals from the group. If splitting off is not possible for whatever reasons, group tensions may flare up in violence—with injuries, and even deaths.

The presence of conflict implies that members of the group will tend to restrict their contact with other members of the group as much as possible—meaning that they will not get to know each other well. Nor will they develop much trust in one another—and certainly will not develop a liking one for another, or even respect, for that matter.

The lack of harmonious relationships within the group will also hinder learning (from one another) by individual members of the group. And also hinder the development of new ideas—i.e., will hinder creativity.

Recognizing the fact that if two-way communication is limited to conversations a number of negative effects are likely to arise, I have proposed the NeWF—and in “Worship” list a number of positive consequences that can result from NeWF participation. I earlier referred to the possibility of some individuals jumping from the pan, and engaging in activities that might result in our collective “salvation” (defined in the broadest possible terms). I would hope that some of those “jumpers” would perceive the possibilities that lie with NeWFs, and would begin initiating some—and working for their proliferation. I will grant that we need different kinds of “jumpers,” but surely among them are those who perceive the potentials that lie with NeWFs. Whether such individuals are attached to existing religions or not is not at issue here; for “salvation” is a concept that transcends the religion realm. Indeed—and ironically—it is perhaps more realistic to look for “salvation” today among the secularists in our society than the religious!


The following information sources was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The frog story appears to be a myth. See "Boiled Beef," Snopes.com, at: http://www.snopes.com/

Original posting: 2008-OCT-17
James B. Gray

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