The Flexible Human in the Rigid Society [1]

by Harvey Jackins

Thoughtful people express concern that the pressure for conformity presently being placed upon young intellectuals will dampen or prevent the emergence of the thoughtful innovations necessary for the self-renewal of society.

Sometimes discussions appearing in learned journals try to resolve the conflict the authors feel between anti-social behavior and the need for innovation by treating the problem as if it were one of degree, as if a little non-conformity is good but that too much is bad and dangerous.

The insights which our theory of human behavior afford us make it possible for us to say confidently that the difference is of kind, not degree. They also make it possible to see that this is not a problem of young intellectuals alone but is a manifestation of a general difficulty with which every human contends. The human’s essential nature is one of flexibility, but all present and past societies, even though they have been constructed by humans, are essentially rigid.

How do we account for this?


In the viewpoint from which I speak, the viewpoint of Re-evaluation Counseling, every human being is an essentially rational creature. We assume that a human being functioning on his or her inherent nature comes up with new, flexible, workable responses to each new situation which s/he confronts. S/he computes correctly when s/he has sufficient information; s/he actively seeks additional information to improve his or her accuracy. We are quite sure that the human being is inherently happy, zestful, loving and cooperative with other humans.

The unhappiness, irrationality, failures, and conflicting activities associated with humans as we know them are assumed to be acquired characteristics. These are residual effects of distress experiences which the human has suffered. These are effects which s/he has not succeeded in throwing off because the healing mechanisms which are available to him/her for recovery have not functioned. These recovery processes (characterized outwardly by tears, trembling, laughter, etc.) have not functioned because of conditioned social behavior which has compulsively interfered, continually and insistently, with the operation of these mechanisms.


Social organization inevitably must have emerged simply because of its survival value. Any manipulation and mastery of the environment past the most primitive level becomes easier with cooperation. (Two heads are better than one; four hands are better than two; many hands make light work; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; etc., etc.). The cooperation involved in care of the young has been with us since our evolution as mammals. The family group heightens the survival value of its members when it becomes a clan, and so for the clan when the clan becomes a tribe. Given the frightened, largely irrational humans that our early ancestors must have been, progress in human mastery of the environment would have been very difficult in any other way except through social cooperation.

Once established, however, a human society made up of partly irrational individuals had inevitably to become a super-organism with a life and continuity quite distinct from that of the individual lives of its members. The analogy has often been made of the individual humans comprising society in the way that the individual cells of the human body comprise the human. The analogy is valuable to the point that society is at least as different a type of organism from the individual human as the individual human is a different type of organism from his or her individual cells.

The organism of society has its own laws of existence and development, quite distinct from the laws for individual humans. This is a necessary result of its different character, of its different composition and organization.

Social rigidities must have become established as a necessary condition for dealing with the individual rigidity, the result of the individual distress patterns. These distress patterns are the results of individual distress experiences. The social rigidities are developed to counter, suppress and limit the problems arising for society out of individual irrationality.


A significant number of people in contact with each other have embarked on a consistent attempt to evade this conditioning social pressure, which interferes with their use of their mechanisms of recovery. They seek to revive and use fully these mechanisms of recovery. They seek to regain to the fullest possible degree the use of their inherent, rational abilities, their cooperative functioning, and their capacity for enjoyment. They assume, and by now have pretty well demonstrated, that they still possess these capacities once the inhibiting distress residues are removed.

The work which we call Re-evaluation Counseling is the rediscovery and application of means to accomplish these goals.


People moving very far in the direction of more rational behavior find themselves confronting certain aspects of the society in which they live which they have previously accepted and submitted to but which increasingly seem to them to be irrational and anti-survival. Serious practical conflicts occur and must be faced and solved. When these are discussed with others who are moving in the same direction, the whole role of society, of social rigidity, of social structures and customs, tends to be called in question. Over and over again, and in many forms, people ask the question: How can a rational human function in this society of today?

This question has been raised and discussed from other viewpoints many times. It will be in process of being answered from this viewpoint for a long time to come. We can usefully speculate in a limited way at present.


Society’s operation resembles in many ways that of a non-thinking organism such as a sponge or coral colony. The colony operates as a whole even though it is made up of large numbers of individual creatures. Society operates on rigid patterns of behavior similar to those of pre-human organisms. It evolves new rigid patterns of behavior only by a kind of evolutionary process analogous to the evolution by mutation and natural selection of pre-human organisms. More effective societies tend to conquer, destroy or absorb the less effective societies with which they compete for land, food, prestige, or markets.

A primitive cooperative society based on primitive production methods and on the scarcity of wealth that flows from them inevitably gives way internally or externally to a slaveowner- slave society. This happens when improved production makes enforced cooperation by the slave a more effective source of wealth than the production motivated by hunger and whim of the primitive cooperators. The slaveowner-slave society is supplanted in its turn by the more effective baron-serf society. The baron-serf society is overthrown, internally or externally, by the capitalist-wage earner mutation of the social organism.

For the working out of this spontaneous, unplanned kind of evolution, we have the agencies of political and economic conquest, we have wars, and we have revolutions. These agencies, vastly destructive of the human beings comprising the societies, have never destroyed all of the competing societies themselves (up to now) but have been agencies for the emergence of better organized and more powerful social structures which have at least the potential for better survival for their individual human members.


These blindly arising evolutionary changes in society have in the past functioned almost independently of individual human intelligence. In each particular case, they have always succeeded against the opposition of large numbers of individuals who fought to oppose change and to preserve the old order.

Typically, individual rationality has assisted or expedited these blind social evolutions, unaware of its own role and motivated by other considerations than the social changes it served. Individual intelligence has here served these social changes largely through creating political, religious, or social theories which have rationalized or expedited the spontaneous changes. We may think here of early Christianity as assisting the downfall of the Roman slave society, of Luther nailing his theses to the door at Wittenberg in unaware behalf of the rising merchant princes of Germany, of Commodore Perry forcing the ports of Japan open to world trade. There are many others.

Social functioning and social change have, until now, been almost entirely unguided by individual rational thinking, and they have severely circumscribed such rational thinking. The intelligent advertising man of today, for example, does not plan effective ads to induce people to smoke more cigarettes and thus bring lung cancer upon themselves because his individual welfare or that of his fellow men is served in any intelligent way. He does it because of a blind mechanism of his society called the market which requires that people be induced to smoke cigarettes so that tobacco can be grown, processed, transported and sold for the wages and profits which participants in the tobacco industries feel helpless to obtain in any other way.


Society’s controls over its individual members, being rigid, have been destructive in their effects upon the individual. Enforcement of individuals has never enhanced the broad rational survival of the individuals enforced. Neither has enforcement been very good for the individuals enforcing (though we might have to have a separate discussion to clarify and establish that point thoroughly). Punishment has never been effective in producing pro-survival behavior among humans, not once in the thousands of years of its repeated application. Wars have always been openly destructive of the individual humans involved, though only at this hydrogen bomb point has the complete destruction of society itself become a possibility. Yet enforcement, punishment and war have continued and continue in spite of their obvious irrationality from the standpoint of individual human intelligence. They have continued because the rigidities of the social organism have required them.

The conflict between human intelligence and social rigidity has, till now, been quite one-sided. Any individual who has persisted in an intelligent attitude in conflict with a social rigidity has always been labeled “officially unintelligent” (and subversive) and has been punished, forced into line or destroyed. The martyrs were thrown to the lions or crucified; Socrates was served hemlock; Billy Mitchell was forced out of the service; the Mississippi Freedom Workers were murdered and bulldozed over.

The individuals who have pitted their individual intelligences against social rigidities and have triumphed, surviving individually or at least in glorious posthumous legend, have been those whose efforts coincided closely enough with evolutionary upheavals and the mutation of society to a new form. Their intelligence served at that moment the blind needs of social change and was protected and honored by the new social creature it had served.

Society has been something like a great unthinking creature, even though its individual members have been human beings who sometimes think.


Is it possible at the present time that human intelligence can at long last deal successfully with social irrationality? The record of the past would seem to be one thousand percent against this possibility; but there are some new factors present and growing that in my judgment indicate precisely this is now on the agenda for humankind.

One of these factors is that society has already evolved through many stages and has, stage by stage, changed to permit increasingly larger numbers of its individual members to become informed and responsible. Hardly any slaves had access to much knowledge, few serfs could read or write, but almost all American wage workers are literate, and modern industry pays wages to thousands of engineers and PhDs.

Second, the technical progress which is almost the sole positive result of any society has now brought excellent communication facilities which carry with them the possibility of communication between large numbers of the individual humans who comprise society. (Television networks can not only sell cigarettes and beer, but they can also present such a position and person as that of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom delegation at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Telstar may very well actually communicate to large numbers of people, previously unreachable and afraid, that all humans are indeed one family.)

Third, for the very first time the survival of society itself is threatened by irrationality rather than, as up to now, the survival of individual members only. If very many hydrogen bombs go off in the old irrational way before rational procedures supersede, then it will be not just part of the human race but most or all of it that will be destroyed, and society itself will be destroyed in the process.

Finally, a special reason. Most clearly from the viewpoint of Re-evaluation Counseling, but to a considerable degree from many other viewpoints arising today in the world, the fundamental distinction between rational and irrational individual human behavior is finally being faced and procedures are being worked out for converting one to the other.

Can flexible human intelligence attain control and ride herd on this great irrational creature called Human Society? Can we make it perform to our intelligent collective will in a way analogous to the performance of the domesticated horse, dog or elephant? I have indicated that I think we can and, in fact, are on the historical verge of doing so.


Another question of even more immediate interest to each of us is whether it is possible for an intelligent individual to cope with the rigid society before it has been domesticated and tamed. Next week, next month, next year . . . can rational people who are in the process of becoming more rational find a workable way to live well among the rigidities of the society of which they are a part?

This issue has been posed in various forms by many thinking people. Present-day intellectual discussions often concern damage caused by social pressure for “conformity.”

Many of the young people who intuitively resist the rigid pressures to conform become caught in rigid rebellions instead. Avoiding conforming to Madison Avenue by becoming a dropout ends in another kind of conforming and is not a happy result.


Is it necessary to choose between conforming to the rigidities of society and succumbing to one’s own rigidities? Can we perhaps avoid or resist the enforcements of society without relying on the rigidities of our own individual painful emotion, without becoming prey to our own resentments, fears and despairs?

Can we “stand up to” society? Can we afford not to when society speaks for social rigidity? Do we have to resist unintelligently when we do resist? Are there other alternatives besides rigid conformity or rigid rebellion?

I think we can say with complete confidence, yes, there are other alternatives. The individual rational human can survive well and flexibly even within the existing rigidities of society. The more rational and flexible s/he becomes, the better s/he will survive. The requirement for good survival in this rigid society is precisely rational thinking as we define rational thinking, that is, the calculation of brand new, exactly accurate responses to all new situations.

How can we plan to survive well?


First of all, let us face the fact that the rigid society does exist. It will not go away simply because we cry out at its blindness or unfairness. That we discover its irrational nature and protest loudly against it has little or no effect upon its behavior or operation. Millions of people before us—almost every human in fact—have so discovered and so protested without the structure or operation of the society being altered to any appreciable degree. Protest often preceded and accompanied change, but change actually occurred only when society itself was ready to evolve to a new form. Let us face that society exists as it does—rigid and irrational—and when it changes it can only change to a new kind of irrationality (as in past changes) or, possibly, in a new kind of change become subservient to human intelligence.

Society will change, not when we feel outraged, but only when internal pressures require change or when human intelligence moves flexibly in a new way to accept control of society and to domesticate it. Irrational society is a fact at present, an important fact, and one of many facts which a flexible intelligence will not ignore, but will include in its evaluation of each situation.


A rigid society is not the sole fact in any situation. It is not an overwhelming fact. It does not need to dictate our responses. Rigid society is not an absolute truth, not a God-given permanent difficulty to prostrate ourselves before or adjust ourselves to.

Much social conditioning presents society to us in this way and cements and conditions this attitude by punishment. The rebels of the past who have defied a ruling monarch or other particular organ of society have suffered repression. They have been called traitors to God and Duty, betrayers of Faith, Honor and Patriotism. The free-thinker who would unskillfully call in question the strictures of his or her own society had best have a hide-out in the hills prepared.

Yet, having faced without distress the rigidity of society as a fact, then that fact deserves no different kind of treatment from the human intelligence than any other fact. Society deserves simply to be evaluated and understood for exactly what it is: a blind irrational creature not yet evolved to the intelligent behavior of its most rational members. It is not an all-powerful despot.

We need to face the reality of irrational society. We need to avoid accepting either surrender to its enforcement or irrational rebellion against it. We also need to adopt as our own long-range goal the conversion of society to intelligent behavior, i.e., taming it to be subservient to the intelligence of the individual humans who comprise it.

Society cannot require conformity. It can only require the appearance of conformity.


We need to use our own intelligence to foresee possible conflicts with the rigidities of society and to plan alternatives to either conforming or rebelling in a rigid way. It is always possible to do so.

It may be possible to steer clear of the conflicts completely. If your beloved residence is in the path of a freeway, you might get busy politically and acquire some influence toward re-routing the freeway. You might raise your sights and find yourself an even more charming and beloved residence and make the occasion one for moving up in the world. You do not have to choose between submitting unhappily to eviction or standing to defy the bulldozers with a shotgun.

A mad bull elephant may seem determined to charge down a particular path on which we stand. Yet we do not have to choose between panicky flight or sturdy defiance while being trampled. It is possible to turn the elephant’s charge in another direction or watch the charge from a safe tree, enjoying the unusual sight.


We need keep always in mind that the rigidities of society are carried out by individual human beings who are necessarily caught in individual distress patterns themselves in order to be able to act in such an irrational manner. We need remember further that even though caught in such a pattern, there is a flexible, rational human being behind each such distress pattern—a human who will rejoice to be able to be flexible and act in a rational manner if helped to do so. A smile and a friendly approach have interrupted the writing of more than one traffic ticket.

The techniques of Re-evaluation Counseling present more profound tools for reaching this flexible human consistently and for assisting her/him to be free to cooperate with you. When you reach the person whose distress pattern is acting as the agent for a social rigidity, you will circumvent any damage from the social rigidity.

We need to master the distinction between the human being and the parasitic pattern. We need to master the distinctly separate skills of dealing with human and of dealing with pattern.


Each of us needs to protect and extend his or her own rationality. This, of course, is the central purpose of Re-evaluation Counseling.

Doing this requires in part that we face clearly the distinction between acting logically and acting on feelings. (This distinction needs a separate and extended discussion.) Making this distinction allows us to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the logical course and will bring the discharge of old distress feelings when such feelings are consistently contradicted by logical behavior.

Accepting and facing total responsibility for our entire environment is a necessary part of acting fully rational, as is farsightedness and a long-range point of view.

In practice we will find we need to establish rational communication and cooperative relations with other humans who share or can be encouraged to share these viewpoints with us.


To withdraw from participation in the society of which we are a part is not an effective way of survival. If we attempt to resist playing a role in the concerns of being a citizen, if we attempt to resist participating in the processes of government, to not vote, to not campaign, to not run for office, to avoid jury duty, to refuse to join organizations, we will, of course, still be playing a role, but the most irrational role of all. We will be abandoning the attempt to exert rational influence within the rigid structures of our society. We will function as puppets made helpless by our own fears. We will become ants in the social anthill. The full irrationality of society in its presently extremely dangerous form will have free sway to operate against our individual survival.

The rational individual will participate in the social processes. One needs to operate as fully as possible at all levels of the social organism.


The increasingly rational human can not only survive amid the rigidities of today’s society but can do so zestfully and victoriously. S/he can survive well, on the highest level. S/he can operate in rigid society much as a hummingbird can fly flexible figure eights and double loops around a clumsily flying crow or vulture.

The rational human need not be a martyr to draw people’s attention to the need for social rationality. If this ever was needed to be done, it was extremely and completely done a long time ago.

The example of splendid survival and enjoyment is the needed communication for humans today. As the rational band of successful people grows in numbers, it will grow by recruiting to its ranks the liberated prisoners of the rigid society who no longer conform through fear nor rebel through resentment or despair.

Rational individuals will live an increasingly good life as they help other individuals take the road to rationality. They will guide society to evolve to the domesticated instrument of the rational humankind it was intended to serve.

[1] First published in 1964 as a pamphlet.


The ways of our society

Are not all as we’d have them be.


A new society could be

A new kind of rigidity.


Only distresses made us hate

And fear and not co-operate,


And, since each human rigid grew,

Society grew rigid, too.


As we emerge from old distress

To individual happiness


There’s time to think about the key

To taming our society.

Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00