Trees & Nets

Adapted from a Submission to InterLoc November 2004

The original Mensa Constitution included as one of three purposes, “Research in psychology and the social sciences.” The vision Victor Serebriakoff articulated when he led the internationalization of Mensa was, a round table society of the intelligent communicating directly “above the heads of the politicians.” These are, of course, verbal abstractions, metaphors in our heads, in the realm of psychology. If a metaphor is ill-chosen, we fall into cognitive dissonance and generate conflict in the society (the social science part of the constitutional purpose) as the mental concept conflicts with observed behavior. We have a choice among living with an escalating conflict, conforming behavior with someone's private metaphor, or seeking a new metaphor that can be shared.

The “trees” of the title refer to way we analogize relationships to a schematic structure of roots and branches arranged in a hierarchy, in turn a metaphor for a botanical organism. Because most minds seek certainty and have difficulty with change, we tend, unconsciously, to think of a tree as a fixed structure and suppress its dynamic nature. Real trees go through both cyclic changes and growth. And other biological entities are not structured as schematic trees at all,.but as networks. We may adopt the tree-metaphor because it is simpler than the net- but blind ourselves to more realistic or pregnant metaphors.

These thoughts come to mind because many members have imposed the metaphor of hierarchy, the pyramid or inverted-tree of authority, on Mensa, clearly in conflict with the vision that made it so attractive in its formative years. That is not to say that the hierarchy metaphor is “wrong”, merely unsuitable in the Mensa context. Hierarchy serves well in corporate and military structures, but it isn't Mensa although it has been misapplied — both explicitly and implicitly — many times (most recently in InterLoc[Nov/Dec p. 19]). Hierarchy can be a useful tool and is often ingrained in our heads to the point of crowding out alternatives. It's not good enough to criticize others' formulations. Honest discourse requires that a specific alternative be put on the table.

So in dealing with the organization of societies (such as Mensa) I find it helpful to reject the hierarchical view so beloved of corporations and the military. In part, this is because such organizations strive for particular ends — economic profit or territorial or behavioral control, as contrasted with Mensa. These (more or less) well-defined objectives appeal to people's desire for closure and stability, and lead to conceptual tools like hierarchy and prescriptive rules. So I try not to rely on precise verbal definitions and derive my semantics from conceptual, metaphorical models.

I would think of Mensa (and some other organizations) as dynamic organisms composed of a collection of organs (not dissimilar from biological organisms). The biological metaphor is — in my mind — far more realistic than the industrial one. The organs of Mensa are not limited to “official” bodies. The organs begin with individual members and include all kinds of groups and committees, both “official” and ad hoc. I understand the satisfaction that people get from clearer definition and other ways of simulating certainty in a chaotic world, but things work much better when one accepts the nature of the world and doesn't press for certainty beyond realistic limits.

So one can try on the following ideas while thinking of biological metaphors:

Mensa is a network of organs, not a hierarchy.[Mensa as a Network Organization]

Mensa has an “inside” (relations among organs) and an “outside” (relations to the public and governments).

Organs have functions, some of them persistent, others transitory depending on exigent needs.

Again, it's not good enough to leave everything in terns of abstractions; examples are needed. Taking AMC as an example, its functions include;

  1. Overseeing the paid staff.
  2. Budgeting among the various claims on Mensa's resources.
  3. Dealing with the “outside” entities (legal and PR, primarily)
  4. Maintaining records (with assignment of tasks to others).
  5. Accumulating capital resources (primarily communications at the moment) that serve the whole society and are shared by many members.
  6. Dealing with other organs (MIL and National Committees with respect to matters of shared concern.
  7. Preserving the integrity of Mensa (within the US and in relation to MIL).

These functions do not include making rules for others except as they may pertain to coordinating actions and resolving exigent (not speculative) conflicts. A similar functional synthesis can (should) be made for each organ. The structure of organs is held together not by rule but by the manner in which they exchange services with one another.

I would also point out that the shibboleths of “elections” and “majority rule” run counter to the original nature of Mensa as a society of peers. The ethical underpinnings of Mensa — consistent with its collective intentions — requires “leaders” who are trustees for others, servants not self-servers. Also, the majority does not rule (which leads to the oppression of minorities) but must not be offended. How one finds the desired kind of leader depends on member involvement and media which encourage and disseminate critical thinking.

Despite our desires, there is no ultimate closure or panacea. We have to keep working on it.

A Perverse Trajectory <>
Choice and Chance in an Open Society <>

Created: 17 Jan 05
Revised: 13 Mar 05