There is an apparent “war” of cultures in American politics. The so-called Red/Blue divide that seems unbridgeable. Red struggles to overcome Blue. Blue struggles to overcome Red. Each side believes fervently that it is the defender of “Truth.” Each side attempts to eke out a victory so that it might impose its view of truth on the nation as a whole. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett, in their recent book The Upswing, describe this struggle in a way that suggests a cycle. They describe one turn of the apparent cycle. The first leg of the current cycle began in the late 19th century when Blue began an ascendance and imposed its views on society. The cycle peaked around 1971 and began its second leg, which is where we are currently positioned. During the past 50 years, Red has been in ascendance and has been reversing Blue’s accomplishments and has been imposing its views on society. In discussing what needs to be done, the authors propose that the answer is to restore Blue’s programs to a dominant position. I think this is a mistake made by not taking into account the significant portion of the population that sides with Red. In my view, the only thing suppression will accomplish is to initiate a new cycle, which is not a solution at all. Both viewpoints need to be transcended.
On a longer-term basis, Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, discusses a back and forth tug-a-war between the left and right brain functions. He thinks the tug-a-war has its origins in the ancient Greeks and has been operating throughout history. He spends a considerable amount of effort to document this process. McGilchrist, a neuro-psychiatrist, discusses the underlying reason for our split brain. He says that the right brain is responsible for relating and integrating our understanding of the world. Because of its relational nature, the right brain provides a dynamic and holistic view of the world and is the source of meaning in our lives. The left brain on the other hand is responsible for separating out of our perception of the world isolated pieces, which are rendered static and then divided further into pieces for examination.
According to McGilchrist, there should be cooperation between these functions. The left brain should inform the right brain about its understanding of examined pieces of the world and then the right brain should integrate this understanding into a dynamic and holistic view of the world. In short, the left brain evolved to be a tool of the right brain, which should have the overall responsibility for our understanding of the world. McGilchrist argues that currently the left brain has gained dominance over the right brain, which evolved to be the dominant partner.
Human beings can skew the intent of evolution through their ability to form concepts and abstractions that model the world. Concepts, abstractions and models are left brain functions grounded in language. The left brain has in effect “hijacked” the functions of the right brain through the use of concepts and abstractions. Unfortunately, the left brain approach leads to fragmentation rather than the needed holistic view. Ken Wilber, discussed below, would probably agree with the essence of McGilchrist’s analysis. I think this is because Wilber argues that most of our current problems are due to an extreme emphasis on quadrant three of his model (see Table in the section about Wilber), which he thinks is dominated by scientific materialism with its emphasis on the senses of perception and an objectifying and externalizing of everything to the exclusion of humanity’s inner life and resources.
The political cycle described by Putnam and Garrett and possibly the tug-a-war described by McGilchrist seems likely to be linked to how we form identities and worldviews. Before proceeding, it is necessary to provide some background. I will attempt to describe identity formation through the lens of psychological development. I will begin by mentioning the French developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who sequenced cognitive development into a four-tiered structure. The first tier was sensorimotor, then preoperational, then concrete operational and finally the formal operational tier. While there have been criticisms of the model and suggestions for one or more additional stages the original model, in practice, has held up robustly.
For example, the Harvard psychologist, Lawarence Kohlberg, adapted Piaget’s scheme to his study of moral reasoning. He structured moral reasoning into a three-tiered sequence. The first tier was pre-conventional, then conventional and finally post-conventional. Each tier was divided into two stages for a total of six stages. The sixth stage is often omitted from the developmental sequence. This omission occurs because its achievement is so rare that there are not enough examples of it available to study and give it a firm empirical basis (see Addendum I at the end).
Kohlberg’s developmental model for moral reasoning has been widely studied and validated in cultures around the world, including both developed and emerging societies. The structure and stages have held up across cultures. The primary differences found between cultures has been the rate of development through the stages and the stage that emerges as the dominant typical stage in any given culture.
Further, studies have confirmed a relationship between moral reasoning and behavior, though it is a complex relationship. Studies have found deficits in moral reasoning in psychopaths as compared to neurotics. Research also shows a significant difference in moral reasoning between delinquents and non-delinquent adolescents. A common finding in these studies was an association of preconventional reasoning with antisocial behavior. Development of moral reasoning has also been found to be slower and more variable in troubled children relative to typical children.
Research has also supported structured, developmental discussions of moral issues as a method for stimulating development of moral reasoning. This has been shown to be supported in programs with public school students, emotionally disturbed adolescents, college students, delinquents and prisoners. In a study to see if public school teachers could implement a moral education program, teachers successfully conducted the program and produced significant changes, which upon a two-year follow-up were either maintained or continued to progress. One caveat is that research found that moral reasoning in a natural context with real life content was lower than moral reasoning in an educational setting with hypothetical content.
The primary criticism levied against Kohlberg’s model was from a former student of Kohlberg’s, Carol Gilligan. Her criticism was not about the model structure but of the assessment content used to place individuals in the scheme. Her criticism was that the assessment material was male-centric. Her argument, which was shown to have merit, was that moral reasoning in men tends to be best assessed through issues related to rights and justice, while moral reasoning in women tends to be best assessed through issues related to care and responsibility. She would rename some of the stages in Kohlberg’s model when applied to women using names related to care and responsibility.
Here it is worth mentioning another example. A student of Kohlberg’s, Robert Selman, developed a model of social reasoning. At the end of this essay, Addendum I provides an outline of Kohlberg and Selman’s models based on material in a textbook that I wrote in 1989.
The psychologist/philosopher, Ken Wilber, suggests that about 40% of the U.S. population is at stage four and has an ethnocentric personal identity. This stage marks the transition from preoperational to concrete operational thinking. Ethnocentrists identify with others from similar backgrounds and with similar attributes. People at this stage can take a second person perspective. This stage is often described as being populated by “true believers” and conformist. They are literal thinkers that view the world through narratives (a.k.a. myths). Moral behavior is governed by internalized rules, which are rigidly held and enforced.
Wilber indicates that about 50% of the U.S. population is at stage five, which is based in thinking at the formal operations level and is associated with a worldcentric personal identity. Persons at this stage can take a third person perspective. One identifies with an integrated and unified view rooted in a concern for the wellbeing of the whole. Whereas stage four might be called an “us” stage, stage five could be called an “all of us” stage. It is an orientation that views the world as rational. Moral behavior is governed by strongly held principles or ideals. This stage did not start to take root in the west until about 300 years ago.
The third relevant stage to this discussion is stage six. This stage did not begin taking root until the middle of the twentieth century. It was first evident in the revolutionary youth movement and counterculture of the 1960s. The ability to take a fourth person perspective at this stage led to criticism of and deconstruction of third person perspectives that arose out of stage five. This stage led to an emphasis on egalitarianism, cultural relativism and multiculturalism. Wilber suggests that this group represents about 25% of the U.S. population. While the percentages for the stages discussed add up to more than 100%, it must be taken into account that due to transitions some people are double counted. The above configuration sets up a perfect situation for a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.
Wilber’s model is more complex than the simple and brief description above. Wilber’s full analysis is detailed and quite complex. If you’re interested in the detailed analysis, I suggest that you read it for yourself. Probably the most comprehensive presentation is his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. If you are put off by the word spiritual, I don’t think Wilber would mind if you simply substitute the term “consciousness,” where the term has a much broader meaning than merely being the opposite of unconscious. I have included a brief description of all eight stages in Wilber’s model below as Addendum Two.
Back to the “war” of political cultures. The bad news is that the research indicates that in American society, the majority of adults function at either stage four or stage five. This means that most Americans will have either a conformist attitude toward life or an individualist attitude. These two groups are supported by value systems that clash — traditional versus rational. The conformists depend upon mythologies or stories about the nature of the world, how it operates, what is necessary and so on. These narratives provide their blueprint for understanding the world, which can be a fairly simplistic such as “my country right or wrong.” The individualist depend on logic and rational analysis, which can be fairly complex such as scientific materialism, which assumes that everything arises from matter and that everything can be understood by objectifying it, isolating it, reducing it to its constituent parts and examining the relationship of the parts to one another. The important point here is that these beliefs or assumptions, if you prefer, are a product of an attained pattern of thinking. One does not change such patterns of thinking by persuasion or by coercion. One must develop or evolve beyond them.
If one thinks that they can be changed otherwise, I would ask you to consider the ethnic conflicts that erupted in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR had largely suppressed ethnic conflicts for many decades through its coercive domination of eastern Europe. However, as soon as the external inhibition was removed, the conflicts soon bubbled to the surface because the patterns of thinking of the involved populations had not evolved but had only been suppressed. They may have even regressed under authoritarian domination. On the other hand, let’s look at scientific materialism as an example of the failure of persuasion. For over a century evidence has been accumulating that scientific materialism cannot account for all the phenomena being documented. I have two large volumes in my personal library cataloging evidence that can’t be explained by scientific materialism, persuasive evidence developed through the methods advocated by science and meeting and exceeding the criteria established for judging such data. The response has largely been to ignore the data, discount the data, attack the researchers producing the data and so on. It is no wonder that it has been said that science progresses one funeral at a time. It almost seems that death is the only way to overcome the resistance to different ways of thinking.
Which brings us back to the American culture war. What we have here is a conflict grounded in various conflicting identities. The difficulty of ending this conflict is evident in the observation of the French philosopher Francis Jacques, who noted that participants in such identity-based conflicts usually see only two options. Either they can assimilate the worldview of the opponent or they can impose their world-view on the opponent. We see very little if any migration of members of the Red tribe to the Blue tribe or the converse. So, the exercise of the first option doesn’t seem very likely. What we do see are attempts to implement option two. Both tribes strive to attain the political power necessary to impose their worldview upon the other tribe. Even if one of them succeeds it will be a temporary victory. There will not have been a fundamental change in the pattern of thinking in the “suppressed,” nor will they cease seeking a way to regain the upper hand.
So, is there a way out of this dilemma? There may be but it isn’t a quick and easy fix. The way out is to evolve out of current patterns of conventional thinking. I mentioned research that suggested that evolution of thinking can be stimulated by educational programs. Broad-based education efforts with children is one strategy. Targeted educational programs for adolescents and adults is another strategy. The late and renowned physicist and philosopher David Bohm attempted to address this problem in his book On Dialogue. This book discusses a format for large group dialogue intended to alter patterns of thinking. His is not an educational or a persuasive approach but rather an exposure and assimilation approach. The main thing that he thinks must be overcome is thinking that one’s opinions or assumptions are necessary and therefore justify anything in their defense. He finds that sitting in a large diverse group and listening to but not challenging the freely expressed assumptions of group members will in time bring the members of the group to a level of understanding of one another and a softening of the certainty of their assumptions. Once one becomes less dogmatic about and less identified with one’s assumptions then the path toward evolution in one’s pattern of thinking becomes a possibility. It is mentioned that this careful examination of one’s assumptions can be done individually but lacks the breadth and diversity of a group process. As Bohm says, “[a] problem is insoluble as long as you keep producing it all the time by your thought.”
Ken Wilber has also suggested that on an individual level an effective strategy for changing one’s pattern of thinking is meditation. He says this because meditation is an introspective observation of the arising and dissolving of one’s thoughts. Such observation leads to a clearer understanding of the nature of thought and its influence over you. One of the principle experiential insights that meditation can produce is the recognition that at root you are not your thoughts. Another is that your core identity is non-conceptual. The operative word is experiential. This recognition is not an idea, concept or belief but an experience. You might think that skydiving would be exhilarating but until you actually have the experience it is just an idea. The meditation strategy is associated with quadrant one in Wilber’s map of human knowledge and experience shown below in a simplified format.
1. Interior-Individual-Intentional (I)
3. Exterior-Individual-Behavioral (It)
2. Interior-Collective-Culture (We)
4. Exterior-Collective-Social (Its)
Wilber suggests that part of the problem we face is an overemphasis on exteriorized products of thinking, especially objective knowledge. He doesn’t think objective knowledge is bad, just that it has been emphasized to the point of crowding out other equally important aspects of being human. His meditation strategy belongs in quadrant one, representing individual interiority. As the ancient Greek aphorism says, “Know thyself.”
Any attempt to implement programs like those mentioned above are certain to be met by resistance, especially large-scale educational programs imposed on the unwilling. Voluntary programs are more likely to be accepted. If such programs produce positive results, then more people are likely to be open to participation. Probably the easiest group program to implement would be a group dialogue program such as proposed by Bohm. These should be community-based to ensure that sufficient diversity of views are represented. Of course, the suggestion by Wilber to undertake a systematic observation of one’s own thought processes through a meditation program has only one person’s opposition to overcome – yours. Should you be interested in a solo exploration, I recommend his book Integral Mindfulness.
It appears to me that the only way to resolve the dilemma that we face is to evolve our way out of it. This may be a difficult solution and perhaps we lack the foresight and long-term perspective needed to succeed. All other tactics, even when they appear to be successful, will in the end prove to be temporary and we will find ourselves cycling through the same struggle again and again. How long this can be sustained without imploding our civilization is difficult to say but that is the probable price of failure.
If this post has stimulated your interest, I recommend you to read the books mentioned and draw your own conclusions. I also suggest that you take a look at the two addenda below, especially Addendum II.