Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Organizational Culture, Improvisation, Success, and Failure

 
"Turner, The Battle of Trafalgar (1822)" by J. M. W. Turner - Downloaded from http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/images/700/BHC0565_700.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Battle of Trafalgar (1822)” by J. M. W. Turner

Maggie’s Farm reminds us that October 21 was the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which — in turn — reminds me of a thoughtful document written in 1797 by a Spanish naval official, Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, on the subject of “why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?” His thoughts were inspired by his observations of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, a significant defeat for Spain, and addressed a question very relevant to us today. Specifically: What attributes of an organization make it possible for that organization to accomplish its mission in an environment of uncertainty, rapid change, and high stress? Here are his key findings, quoted from Adam Nicholson’s Seize the Fire:

An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support. Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…

De Grandallana continues:

Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

The various kinds of organizational behavior that de Grandallana identifies are still very much with us. In some organizations, people are “preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals.” In others, they “fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgment upon the spur of the moment.” And in a few organizations, they act with the aforesaid zeal and judgment while also knowing that they will be supported by colleagues who are “bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.”

One could simply say “for best results, combine individual entrepreneurship with a high degree of teamwork,” but I think de Grandallana says it much better.

By the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), de Grandallana had become head of Spain’s naval secretariat. Imagine his feelings when reading the reports of that battle’s catastrophic results for the combined Spanish and French fleets. He had accurately diagnosed the key problems of his side, but had been unable to bring about the sweeping changes necessary to address them. Cassandra, in real life.

Shortly after hurricances Katrina and Rita, The Washington Post featured an article on the increasing propensity of Americans to be driven by rules and procedures, rather than doing what makes sense. There are certainly trends in our society which, if not reversed, will make us increasingly similar to the Spanish situation in 1805, rather than that Nelson’s victorious fleet. And in case it’s not obvious, I’m not talking about just the military, but all aspects of our society, including education, business, government, and nonprofits.

For another example of this malign trend, see my post about bureaucratic obstacles to fighting a wildfire on my own blog. I think Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana would feel a sad sense of recognition.

 

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  1. Arahant Member

    david foster: I think Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana would feel a sad sense of recognition.

    Without doubt. One of my areas of expertise is process management. Far too many companies are focusing on consistency rather than adaptability in process design.

    • #1
    • October 26, 2015, at 10:19 AM PDT
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  2. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Arahant:

    david foster: I think Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana would feel a sad sense of recognition.

    Without doubt. One of my areas of expertise is process management. Far too many companies are focusing on consistency rather than adaptability in process design.

    In my experience in large organizations, the more rules-driven ones are characterized by a lack of accountability. People in those organizations would rather not have flexibility and responsibility because they would rather not be accountable for results.

    • #2
    • October 26, 2015, at 10:23 AM PDT
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  3. Arahant Member

    Son of Spengler: In my experience in large organizations, the more rules-driven ones are characterized by a lack of accountability. People in those organizations would rather not have flexibility and responsibility because they would rather not be accountable for results.

    Bing! Bing! Bing! The man wins the prize.

    • #3
    • October 26, 2015, at 10:31 AM PDT
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  4. Titus Techera Contributor

    I think I’m stuck somewhere. What’s the problem with having ten to four superiority here & them having ten to four superiority there? How are they any better!

    • #4
    • October 27, 2015, at 2:38 AM PDT
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  5. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera:I think I’m stuck somewhere. What’s the problem with having ten to four superiority here & them having ten to four superiority there? How are they any better!

    The problem is the lack of flexibility and mutual support, because while your (Spanish and French) ten are still trying to subdue their (English) four, which they will not cooperate with, they will have whipped your four and suddenly you’ll be ten against fourteen…if they don’t cut your line and isolate another four off and then another four. And once your admiral’s ship is taken or isolated, your other ships, no longer receiving orders, might very well run, losing the chance at even taking the originally isolated four of the enemy.

    In other words, it is not the odds alone, it is what the command culture causes to happen with those odds. Those four English ships are going to be fighting on until they can’t anymore. None of their captains or admirals want to end up like John Byng. That is also part of the culture. The Royal Navy believed that sins of commission, doing too much, was better than the sins of omission, doing too little. The French and Spanish fleets were the opposite. This made the English more likely to fight harder. It’s all about the culture.

    • #5
    • October 27, 2015, at 3:31 AM PDT
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  6. Titus Techera Contributor

    Arahant:

    Titus Techera:I think I’m stuck somewhere. What’s the problem with having ten to four superiority here & them having ten to four superiority there? How are they any better!

    The problem is the lack of flexibility and mutual support, because while your (Spanish and French) ten are still trying to subdue their (English) four, which they will not cooperate with, they will have whipped your four and suddenly you’ll be ten against fourteen…if they don’t cut your line and isolate another four off and then another four. And once your admiral’s ship is taken or isolated, your other ships, no longer receiving orders, might very well run, losing the chance at even taking the originally isolated four of the enemy.

    I cannot believe that you think about war in such terms that you would believe ten ships cannot obliterate four, if the ten are French-Spanish & the four British. Arguing however that the British are just a little faster in doing the same thing seems reasonable, but changes the point. Cooperation starts to look like sacrifice…

    You have to be able to put aside your fantasies from the fantasies of the writer quoted, who makes no mention of the English being more ferocious fighters or less likely to surrender themselves.

    • #6
    • October 27, 2015, at 4:05 AM PDT
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  7. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: You have to be able to put aside your fantasies from the fantasies of the writer quoted, who makes no mention of the English being more ferocious fighters or less likely to surrender themselves.

    Perhaps “suppositions” might be a better word than “fantasies” here, although the latter is technically correct, it has some other meanings that would render your statement a bit more insulting.

    If you look again at what Don Domingo was saying, you will see that I was only glossing on what he had said.

    Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies…

    None of the French or Spanish officers would have held the telescope to their blind eye in order to ignore a signal to retreat and to attack instead, as Lord Nelson did four years after Don Domingo’s report.

    • #7
    • October 27, 2015, at 4:33 AM PDT
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  8. Arahant Member

    It really comes down to a matter of carrots and sticks: rewards and punishments. The Royal Navy rewarded for getting the job done and taking enemy ships. Likewise, the punishment for “not doing their utmost” was to be shot.

    The French and Spanish navies of the time rewarded obedience more heavily, even among the officers, and punished disobedience.

    • #8
    • October 27, 2015, at 4:41 AM PDT
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  9. Titus Techera Contributor

    I think it’s better to think of these things as fantasies, lest we become certain we know what was without any experience of what was. That’s not insulting, is it?

    Now, as to the distinction between the daring & the obedient, I do not deny it makes sense to describe the warring navies this way, but I laugh at the notion that that’s what did it, what made the difference.

    I think we’re agreed that the naval battles of the time were conducted within limits of smoke & air. You cannot control the winds; & it is hard to see anything anymore after battle is joined. I believe you should show more respect for the strict obedience–it, too, is an answer to the limits of communications & self-control.

    Lord Nelson had his captains talk about maneuvers for dinner, I read somewhere–he was encouraging them to fantasize, too–to figure out what might work & what might prove useful. Perhaps this is a good school for daring.

    But the fantasy about incentives is ultimately really ugly: Nelson was not at all necessary to victory in a system of incentives & constraints. There is no mind unifying action there.

    I believe that if you consider the importance of the admiral, you have to ask yourself, does it matter more than the incentives or not? Could not a great admiral have done better for the French-Spanish fleet with their habits to do with imposing control on such uncontrollable, unpredictable circumstances?

    • #9
    • October 27, 2015, at 5:02 AM PDT
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  10. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: I believe that if you consider the importance of the admiral, you have to ask yourself, does it matter more than the incentives or not? Could not a great admiral have done better for the French-Spanish fleet with their habits to do with imposing control on such uncontrollable, unpredictable circumstances?

    You seem to be missing the point. The culture that one is raised in shapes the officer, and many of these officers started in their respective navies as pre-teens or early teens. The incentives helped shape Nelson into the man and admiral he was. Likewise, the French naval culture (and Knights Hospitaller) also shaped admirals like Suffren. The culture also determines, to a certain extent, who rises to the top. Nelson-as-he-was might have been tossed out of the French or Spanish navies. (Even though at least one incident where he disagreed with his superior was when he was reading a law literally.)

    In the United States, general officers and flag rank naval officers are approved by Congress. This has been true since the Revolutionary War. It tends to mean that more political officers rise higher faster, especially in peace time. Even in wartime, it can be difficult to get the politicos out of the way and the real warriors in charge of large enough contingents and rewarded properly. That’s part of why the War of Northern Aggression took so long. Little Mac was a politician. The culture determines who rises.

    • #10
    • October 27, 2015, at 5:30 AM PDT
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  11. Arahant Member

    Also, Horatio Nelson wasn’t alone out there. The captains serving under him, his band of brothers, had grown up in that same culture that rewarded initiative and independent action. When he was discussing strategies and tactics at dinner, and so forth, it was because being knowledgeable of what to do in each situation was encouraged in the Royal Navy. That way, they didn’t have to wait for orders.

    Maybe that is the point, the Royal Navy’s idea of discipline and order for officers was for them to know how to act independently in every situation. Their discipline was the mutual support. It was a culture of aggressive entrepreneurialism. The obedience was also in accepting what the job was that had to get done, but from there how to get it done was a bit more independently determined.

    The French and Spanish emphasized step-by-step obedience rather than obedience to achieving the goal. “The admiral ordered me to wear the ship, so I ordered my men to wear the ship.”

    This is also not a discrete choice of “this” or “that.” It was a continuum. But the Royal Navy’s culture favored the more goal-oriented end and the other navies were much more, follow the rules and every order to the letter.

    • #11
    • October 27, 2015, at 5:46 AM PDT
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  12. Titus Techera Contributor

    I dislike this talk of culture. If the culture shapes the officer, than no man ultimately is his own man. He will think British culture, but no other. So with strangers.

    That is patently untrue. There are men who have acted in what you would call different cultures, at the top.

    You need to rethink also the contradiction between culture & economics. Incentives & constraints cannot be bent around culture, so as to be different everywhere–different in every culture. That kind of thinking about economics supposes itself to be free of cultural constraints. Similarly, there is no reason to believe most cultures have any respect for economic thinking of the kind you find ready for your use in your circumstances.

    I agree that the political regime determines, so far as it can, the military. But that is not a matter of culture. That is politics.

    If you want to give an adequate account of any first rate captain, are not you forced to say not only what in him is typical of the regime, but also what is atypical?

    • #12
    • October 27, 2015, at 5:48 AM PDT
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  13. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Titus Techera: I dislike this talk of culture. If the culture shapes the officer, than no man ultimately is his own man. He will think British culture, but no other. So with strangers. That is patently untrue. There are men who have acted in what you would call different cultures, at the top.

    That’s a superficial understanding of culture. In groups of people, some behavior is rewarded (socially or otherwise) and other behavior is discouraged. If an individual’s own choices and values are congruent with the culture, he or she will thrive and be promoted. Conversely, an individual whose values go against the prevailing consensus will ultimately not succeed, and is likely to leave the group one way or the other — thus refining and reinforcing the cultural trend.

    To give a small example, I’ve worked in two organizations — equally effective — with very different approaches to communication. One had a “voice mail” culture. If you wanted action, you left a voicemail message. You might even prerecord one for distribution. People let email sit, it was not considered urgent. In the other organization, no one checked voicemail. And if email went unanswered for 15 minutes, there would be follow-up.

    Everyone in these organizations was “his own man”. But the two organizations rewarded different behavior, so people adapted or left.

    • #13
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:02 AM PDT
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  14. Titus Techera Contributor

    By this logic, culture is simply indestructible & impervious to change!

    • #14
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:15 AM PDT
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  15. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: If you want to give an adequate account of any first rate captain, are not you forced to say not only what in him is typical of the regime, but also what is atypical?

    Yes.

    The point you are missing or ignoring is that the captains who made a good fit in the British Royal Navy would not have made a good fit in the marine française and vice versa. They would not have flourished as much in the other system. There were officers like Nelson in the marine française who were not getting promotions because their admirals considered them loose cannons.

    Dry sandy soil is great for growing potatoes, but not so great for sphagnum or cranberries, which need more moisture. That is the difference of the two environments.

    The same is true with commercial organizations, the culture determines who stays, who leaves, and who rises to the top. You want much more creativity in a marketing firm than an accounting firm. You want more precision and following of the rules in the accounting firm. The accounting firm needs marketing people, and the marketing firm needs accountants. But you shouldn’t find a marketing man in charge of the accounting firm. If accountants get creative and stop following the rules, there is going to be a problem. Culture matters.

    • #15
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:17 AM PDT
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  16. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Titus Techera:By this logic, culture is simply indestructible & impervious to change!

    No, it evolves slowly over time. Or at times it is dominated and supplanted by a more effective culture.

    • #16
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:21 AM PDT
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  17. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera:By this logic, culture is simply indestructible & impervious to change!

    It can be very difficult to change a culture. Look at Russian history. Peter I did change things, but he had a tough time of it, and wound up with his son dead for siding with the people who wanted the old culture back. It can be done. The British Royal Navy changed its culture to be more adaptable and aggressive. Sure, they shot an admiral to do it, but they made the changes. If the guy at the top is willing to make a few hard examples, he might change the culture…if he stays alive long enough.

    In a commercial organization, it is usually not necessary to literally kill anyone to change the culture, but it is not unusual for the executive management team to turn over quickly and totally to bring about results.

    • #17
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:23 AM PDT
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  18. Arahant Member

    The French Revolution changed the culture of France. It eliminated many of the structural issues that had plagued the monarchy for generations. Of course, it eliminated those who stood in the way of change by cutting off heads, but the culture changed.

    • #18
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:26 AM PDT
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  19. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Arahant: If the guy at the top is willing to make a few hard examples, he might change the culture…if he stays alive long enough.

    In large organizations, it usually requires changing not just the guy at the top but also a large group of managers. If it’s only a CEO, everyone just waits for the new guy to burn out. If the group of managers changes, then people lower down have to adapt in consistent ways to meet the new expectations.

    • #19
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:28 AM PDT
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  20. Titus Techera Contributor

    Look at Spengler over there saying there are effectiveness standards! It turns out, he has a super-culture beyond all cultures, in which he can judge effectiveness.

    Well, effectiveness is a judgment about means, not ends. What is the judgment about ends? If there is a judgment about ends, then that is superior to all the talk about culture–otherwise, how could he judge between cultures as to effectiveness?

    All this is not to neglect the other thing he has to admit: Cultures change. If cultures reinforce themselves by the way they praise & blame, reward & punish, honor & dishonor–how could they change? There has got to be an element of change within.

    That’s one reason I prefer to think through politics rather than deal with these newfangled theories of culture. Politics is driven by the conflict between the few & the many. It does not assume it can be solved, by the way.

    I do not want to abandon the quarrels that started us on this path however–captains & princes do matter, because they judge just like Spengler over there: They make up their own minds, at least some do, about what is worth effecting, not merely about what means are effective to ends they hold as unquestionable! The easiest way to get to question the laws & the habits of mind is to see people believe impossible things–that is why we start our doubts from effectiveness, from the means, rather than the ends, which seems the more reasonable way…

    • #20
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:31 AM PDT
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  21. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Titus Techera: Well, effectiveness is a judgment about means, not ends.

    Not at all. If a company is designed to make a profit, and it fails to make a profit, then it is ineffective. It will go bankrupt or be acquired or subjected to new management. If an army is ineffective at winning wars, it will be overtaken by people who know how to win wars. People with different values, people who reward different behavior, people with a different — and more effective — culture. Effectiveness is not my judgment at all.

    • #21
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:36 AM PDT
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  22. Profile Photo Member

    “No, it evolves slowly over time. Or at times it is dominated and supplanted by a more effective culture.”

    I suspect that is usually true, but our current American culture has rapidly changed to one that is less effective in recent times.

    • #22
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:40 AM PDT
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  23. Arahant Member

    This article on prize money contrasts the English and French distribution systems. A British captain got two-eighths of the value of the prize. All of the common sailors split the same amount with officers and NCOs taking three-eighths and the admiral taking an eighth. If the ship was on a cruise with orders direct from the admiralty, the captain also got the admiral’s eighth. So, a captain took between a fourth and three-eighths the value.

    In France, the captain got twelve-shares, meaning twelve times as much as the common sailor.

    Guess which country’s captains and admirals had a good chance of retiring wealthy beyond dreams of avarice?

    • #23
    • October 27, 2015, at 6:41 AM PDT
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  24. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: Well, effectiveness is a judgment about means, not ends.

    No, effectiveness is purely a judgement of whether the end was met. Efficiency measures that against resources. One may measure the efficiency in resources of one means against another. But effectiveness comes down to one question: Did it achieve the goal(s).

    One can also measure whether a particular method achieves the goal every time under different conditions, of course. This is a question of adaptibility.

    What the original post was about though, is degree of prescriptiveness. Is it very regimented top-down information flow? Or is it looser and less-prescriptive? To have the highly-prescriptive plan to work, one must have every contingency worked out in advance like the phone scripts some companies use for tech-support. That was the French and Spanish way. The alternative was to have someone on tech support who just knows the system inside and out, a true expert who could make his own decisions. That was the British method. The British method tended to be more adaptable in unexpected circumstances. This method also costs more.

    Of course, most tech support companies use a hybrid form where you go through the script with some lightly-trained person, until certain conditions are met, and then you are transferred to the expert. Once the expert figures out the never-before-seen problem, the script is reviewed to determine if something needs to be added or changed. That’s the modern way.

    • #24
    • October 27, 2015, at 7:02 AM PDT
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  25. Arahant Member

    Matt White: I suspect that is usually true, but our current American culture has rapidly changed to one that is less effective in recent times.

    The nature of the beast. Or as Ben Franklin supposedly said, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

    • #25
    • October 27, 2015, at 7:04 AM PDT
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  26. Titus Techera Contributor

    Son of Spengler:

    Titus Techera: Well, effectiveness is a judgment about means, not ends.

    Not at all. If a company is designed to make a profit, and it fails to make a profit, then it is ineffective. It will go bankrupt or be acquired or subjected to new management.

    Do you wish to say that profit is infinitely variable? That any company can define it for itself & some might define profit as self-destruction for example? Or is profit a way to figure out what’s worth getting that reaches beyond culture?

    Surely, there are some basic things that have nothing to do with culture: The requirements of surviving in an association that is specifically human.

    If an army is ineffective at winning wars, it will be overtaken by people who know how to win wars. People with different values, people who reward different behavior, people with a different — and more effective — culture. Effectiveness is not my judgment at all.

    I would say that war also points to something beyond any culture: No culture & no values can overcome necessity, can they? Unless you think the goodness of life for living human beings is a matter of valuation by cultures-

    • #26
    • October 27, 2015, at 7:21 AM PDT
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  27. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: Unless you think the goodness of life for living human beings is a matter of valuation by cultures-

    Actually, it is. There are several factors that can come into the valuing or devaluing of human life. Just one cultural belief as an example is reincarnation. A “reward in Heaven” is another.

    • #27
    • October 27, 2015, at 7:26 AM PDT
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  28. Titus Techera Contributor

    Arahant:

    Titus Techera: Unless you think the goodness of life for living human beings is a matter of valuation by cultures-

    Actually, it is. There are several factors that can come into the valuing or devaluing of human life. Just one cultural belief as an example is reincarnation. A “reward in Heaven” is another.

    Well, I do not play around with the Nietzschean language of valuation unless I’m studying Nietzsche. But I am told that Buddhists, for example, also eat & fight wars & love women. I have received no report of massive suicides or a reluctance to reproduce or lack of interest in administering to suffering. I have seen with my own eyes that Christians do all these things. I am not sure what variation there is between cultures on these matters…

    • #28
    • October 27, 2015, at 7:44 AM PDT
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  29. Arahant Member

    Titus Techera: I have received no report of massive suicides or a reluctance to reproduce or lack of interest in administering to suffering.

    No? Ever hear of Jonestown? How about Heaven’s Gate? How about Muslim suicide bombers? Sometimes mass suicide is a cultural value under certain circumstances.

    • #29
    • October 27, 2015, at 7:50 AM PDT
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  30. Titus Techera Contributor

    What happened in Jonestown is weird enough without you pretending it says something about culture. The other case pales in comparison. A bunch of crazy Americans with weird New Age ideas do not qualify.

    Unless you think it is not possible for human beings to be insane–in fact, you might believe there is no such thing as sanity. Just a bunch of cultures.

    The matter with suicide bombers, Muslim, Japanese or otherwise, however, is not even as serious. If you think Muslims are a culture or several culture, then it should not be a few suicide bombers, whatever moves them, but millions!

    • #30
    • October 27, 2015, at 8:14 AM PDT
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