Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Method: "Positive" vs "Negative" strategies

Global Strategies Project


In selecting strategies for this volume, it could easily be assumed that only "positive" strategies are worthy of inclusion. It might be hoped that only "positive" strategies are appropriate to remedying the many problems of society and bringing about a better world in the form of a "positive" future.

However, when it comes to identifying criteria for excluding "negative" and inappropriate strategies, it quickly becomes apparent that some candidates for exclusion are advocated by groups who believe that these strategies are vital to the solution of certain problems of society and to achieving a better world. Indeed, the proponents of such strategies may also consider that the strategies viewed as "positive" by others are precisely those which are having negative effects on social and environmental conditions.

As discussed in the note on the naming of strategies (Note 3.5), attitudes, circumstances, traditions and a vast number of other such factors can influence the way strategies are conceived, named and elaborated. It should not be forgotten that so-called "positive" or "negative" strategies very often reflect underlying value differences. To argue for or against a particular strategy is very often to reveal a position at one end of a value polarity. In its most simple form, this is to argue for black or white (rather than grey or mottled), an activity most usefully expressed in the terms "honourable challenge" or "loyal opposition". This notion is further developed in Section SP.

Some of the more familiar examples of differences of perspective over the positive and negative value of strategies can be referenced amongst the strategies advocated by the World Bank Group and pursued over several decades. These have been subject to strong criticism, whether from an environmental perspective (as in the case of major dam projects) or from a social perspective (as in the case of structural adjustment programmes). They are claimed by some to directly reinforce conditions of impoverishment and can thus be judged severely as "negative". The World Bank, of course, vigorously claims the opposite and deplores the misguided arguments used by its critics. Both perspectives are heavily supported by "facts".

More challenging are those strategies viewed by some groups as "positive" but which are perceived by ethnic or minority groups as insensitive to the point of being "negative". Feminist groups have been very successful in demonstrating the negative consequences to women of strategies insensitively conceived by men. Similarly, right-wing political movements have endeavoured to demonstrate the negative consequences of some strategies considered inherently positive by liberal constituencies. This points to a general tendency of right-wing movements to perceive left-wing strategies as negative, and vice versa. On a macro-economic scale, strategies advocated by the North may well be perceived as negative, or at least inappropriate, by constituencies in the South, and vice versa.

Even more challenging are those strategies advocated in extremis by liberation movements and by groups who perceive their livelihood, way of life, collective identity, or system of beliefs, to be under direct threat. That their preferred strategies may be a direct cause of loss of life is considered regrettable but necessary under the circumstances. Such are the strategies of guerilla movements, freedom fighters, animal liberationists, eco-saboteurs, and the like. The action of Islamic fundamentalists may be seen in this light. Anti-abortionists of fundamentalist Christian persuasion, who engage in the assassination of doctors, have provided another example.

Many regrettable strategies in times of peace are seen as important options for the oppressed or in times of war. Holy war, or jihad, is a traditional example. A fatwa requiring the death of individual blasphemers is important to a particular belief system. Excommunication of heretics may be used by another. The use of rape as a military strategy, as most recently in former Yugoslavia,clarifies the often tragic nature of the strategic options considered. These may be considered trivial compared to others considered in relation to nuclear and bio-chemical warfare, or even to those designed to ensure minimum military casualties, as demonstrated by carpet-bombing in Iraq.

Also challenging are those strategies which are pursued and admired because of the financial rewards that they offer, irrespective of the harm that they cause to others. Such strategies may be viewed quite uncritically by business and professional groups, although some efforts may be made to curtail them through ethical guidelines. The degree of harm may be considered debateable or temporary. Constraints on such strategies may be viewed with disfavour as a hindrance to business and a threat to job opportunities -- even by those who suffer most. Governments may be reluctant to lose tax revenues, and some governments may be willing to encourage such strategies or to "turn a blind eye". Disadvantaged countries may find themselves forced to offer a haven to those pursuing such strategies, as in the case of dangerously polluting industries.

Challenging also are cases where "positive" strategies are pursued as a matter of principle and at all costs. This is most easily recognized in the case of the pursuit of peace through appeasing brutal dictators; Bosnia is claimed to have provided a recent example. Such "positive" strategies can easily be considered dangerously "negative". Use of force under such conditions, readily assumed to be a "negative" strategy by many, is seen then to be "positive" by some. This is the dilemma for many religions of the "just war" and of "lawful killing". It is also the dilemma of capital punishment and euthanasia, easily rejected by some under every condition. More generally, ethical and moral dilemmas signal the existence of strategies that can be variously viewed as either "positive" or "negative".

For those sensitive to the perspective of future generations and the judgement of history on the strategies of this century, which of these will be viewed as clearly "positive" and which of the most cherished "positive" strategies will be judged as disastrously negative ? Worse still, which of the "negative" strategies will be considered "positive" ?

The approach in this volume is not to attempt vainly to resolve such continuing dilemmas. This would be more than presumptuous. Rather it is to give place to strategies of every extreme. Where information is to hand the structure of the text paragraphs offers the opportunity to clarify the dilemma, notably through the use of "claims" and "counter-claims". The pattern of cross-references, especially the "constrains" and "facilitates", also helps to place a given strategy in context.

The aspiration of this volume is to provide a context for all strategies so that their relative merits may be assessed other than in isolation. It may then become clearer when strategies readily perceived as "positive" carry the risk of being judged "negative" and when those frequently perceived as "negative" may serve some useful function.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential