Our Social Matrix

March 27, 2019

I was trained as a scientist-practitioner to contribute to the liberation movement for people with developmental disabilities. This group of citizens had been institutionalized across the US as part of the eugenics social movement. They were subject to unimaginable atrocities and abandoned in sub-human conditions. The premise of the eugenic theory was that such people should be removed from society or else they might threaten the survival of the human species.

We, teachers, abandoned the eugenics school of thought. We were not being trained to tinker with the system as one might imagine- bringing new therapy into the institutions, or, perhaps planting bright flowers along walkways. We were prepared to change the entire system – one person at a time.  So we used a person-centered approach and proved that the most vulnerable in Oregon institutions could become productive citizens. I did this, in collaboration with many others, by opening a tiny electronic assembly business and hiring folks whose lives were at risk in the back wards of Oregon’s two institutions.

Shopping with Cecilia

One of our employees was Cecilia, a middle age woman. When she was happy, she sang out in a beautiful singsong – “la ti da.” When she was not happy, she let out a piercing scream that I swear could shatter glass. We tried to keep her happy. Folks living in institutions obviously had no freedom. They were pushed around, beaten if they were slow to respond and made to do horrible things to themselves.  We could not walk up to someone who was living in that intense pain and suffering and say, “You’re hired.”and expect them to happily oblige us.

We taught them that work would lead to independence, so as they learned new tasks, we paid them. After they accumulated enough money, we sat down with them in our break room and leafed through a Sears catalog. Inevitably, they would excitedly point to an item they wanted and out we would go on a shopping excursion in beautiful downtown Bend.

Like many of our employees, Cecilia communicated non-verbally. Sitting beside me and browsing the catalog, she stopped on a page featuring women’s brassieres. Pointing to them with great excitement it was obvious that she wanted a new bra, “la ti da!”. I used a simple rule of positive behavior change. For a reward to be adequate, it needed to follow the desired behavior immediately. In this case, the desired behavior was Cecilia’s newly learned electronic assembly skills, so we put on our winter coats and off we went to go shopping at a local dress shop.

Once in the shop and to my surprise, Cecilia began to undress and started grabbing bras. I panicked until a young saleswoman walked up to her and respectfully asked if she would like to try on one the many bras she held tightly to.  “Very wise.”I thought knowing that if the saleswoman tried to pry the bras from Cecilia’s hands, the small shop would be the scene of an uprising the likes of which it had never known. She asked Cecilia if she could help her and gently ushered her into a dressing room. Soon Cecilia came out of the dressing room dressed, smiling and tapping on her blouse as if to proudly show me her new bra.

Back at work, Cecilia had learned the “reinforcement” lesson and was becoming an excellent electronics assembler. Her money began to stack up quickly. Soon we were back in the break room and to the catalog, and, the page on bras. I asked our Production Manager if she might want to escort Cecilia, “No, I think I’ll pass. But you have a good time”, she said with the tiniest sinister smile. She knew the story of our first trip.

This time I thought I’d call ahead and ask the saleswoman if she remembered Cecilia and I. “Yes,” of course she did. In the short time it took us to walk back to the dress shop, the saleswoman laid out a half dozen bras, all in Cecilia’s size on the front counter. When we arrived, Cecilia went straight to the bras and headed back to the dressing room with the support of this loving saleswoman. I was trained to recognize high-quality person-centered services, and the saleswoman’s support was among the best. She had arranged her shop so Cecilia could not help but flow into a sequence of finding where the bras were displayed, selecting a bra from many that fit her and being appropriately fitted. As a result, Cecilia enjoyed an experience whereby she was treated with respect and dignity.

Out from the dressing room they came with Cecilia in the lead. With a big grin, she was tapping on the front of her blouse with that beautiful singsong vocalization that only she knew the words to. “How wonderful! You have a new bra”, I replied as we walked to the cash register so she could pay. Back to the shop we walked. Now we were both feeling happy and well- “la ti da!”.

This encounter was not trivial to me at all. Yes, I joke about me dealing with it, and it really was fun and joyful. The reason why it wasn’t trivial is revealed in the same answer to many questions.

Who told the saleswoman to do this?

         Who paid the woman to do this?

         Whose theory guided the saleswoman’s actions?

         Who contracted with the saleswoman to provide Cecilia’s services?

         Who demanded the saleswoman’s services be of such quality?

         Who evaluated the saleswoman’s services social impact?

         Who planned for the encounter to happen?

That’s right, the one answer to them all is “No one.” If asked about me, and my treatment of Cecilia the answers would be entirely different. I would name agencies, managers, employees and the University of Oregon.

The saleswoman was acting in coherence with her preferences for relating to others in her daily living. She showed her preferences for supporting Cecilia by showing welcome and assistance in a respectful and loving way. Cecilia showed her preferences as well. Cecilia lived well when she could go shopping with the money she earned, receive the support she needed, and have the freedom to purchase the product she desired and put it to use. And for my part? My wellbeing expanded in watching the liberation movement in action. We were all living well in our daily living – this was our social wellbeing.

Later I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflections upon another group of citizens liberation movement:

“True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.” (King Jr, 1963)

Living in language

Human beings are mammals that live in language and through our language we coordinate our actions. Language happens in the present moment as we follow the path of our desires whether they lead us to a path of social actions such as collaboration, competition, or caring for others. These social actions happen in the constantly changing present, guided by our inner feelings and emotions.

We follow the path of our collective desires when we collaborate. This comes naturally to us in our desire to conserve our preferences for living together. Collaboration is a flow of conversations in a network of networks of relational behaviors that conserve our preferences for living well together. Our collaborating generates listening and from our listening understanding emerges. Understanding is not an experience of the listener. Understanding is a feeling another person has about being listened to and of being seen, heard and felt. When a listener has generated this understanding, their explanation of what is understood is valid. Validity is the criterion for social and behavioral sciences. When understanding occurs, trust emerges and conserves and expands collaboration in a continuous recursive cycle of living well together.

Collaboration happens in an ethical social network when everyone in the network cares for everyone else in the network including themselves. Mutual caring for the wellbeing of others in the ethical social network arises from our collective emotions of love as everyone in our network of collaborative doings is accepted by everyone else in the network as a legitimate contributor to the wellbeing of others and themselves.

This is our natural preference – to collaborate and conserve our preferences for living well together, and this forms a network of networks of conversations I call social systems. Social systems are embedded in a social matrix that nurtures our collaborative social relations formed in the conservation of our preferences to love, care and collaborate.

Perhaps a metaphor will help visualize what I describe as a social matrix. Imagine you are a gardener. In the late Fall- early Spring, you prepare your garden soil for planting vegetables. You’ve covered your garden with compost and dig the compost deep into the soil when the Spring sun warms the soil. Later in the Spring you’re so delighted to see how healthy your vegetables you can’t wait for harvest so you can enjoy them. Now think of the soil as the matrix that brings forth the systems of vegetable plants. The soil embeds each vegetable plant in a system of interrelated systems. To say that the vegetable plants each individually grow in the soil is not valid. This is a mistake we make when we analyze the plants in our garden. Everything in the soil is interconnected through thermal bio-chemical relations. The matrix, a system; brings forth vegetable plants, each a unique system in a system of interdependent relations.

In the dress shop, the saleswoman, me and Cecilia trusted the social matrix of the conservation of the preferences of our daily living in social systems that included the relational behaviors of love, mutual respect, freedom, social support and joy in the purchase of a new brassiere by Cecilia.


King Jr, M. L. (1963). Strength to Love. New York: Harper & Row.

« Previous post Next post »