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Recurring pit in stomach!
Even good ideas have unintended consequences.
Since Donald J. Trump became president I have had a recurring pit in my stomach.
Probably not for a reason you would imagine.
For some time the “pit” related to a sinking feeling I had about Trump having some kind of mixed-up relationship with Spiral Dynamics [SD]. I’ll check back in on this. First, some foundation work, my quick-take on a recent Integral Life podcast entitled: “Power, Privilege, and Fragility: Leveling Up Our Conversations About Race and Racism.”
I say “quick-take” mainly because my remarks are mostly limited to something that was said in the first three minutes of a two hour and forty minute topic-discussion video. Two hours and forty minutes! OK, so that’s just how much I love you, my (three, sometimes four) readers!
So, at 2:04 of the intro, the host, Corey DeVos, says, speaking to co-host, Diane Musho Hamilton, regarding a previous conversation she had with philosopher, Ken Wilber [kw],
“When you had your talk with Ken about your book “Compassionate Conversations,” I think Ken really nailed it when you were talking about the problem with the phrase ‘systemic racism.’ What Ken said was that the people who say it doesn’t exist, and the people who say it is absolutely everywhere, they are both right.”
Again, regarding “the problem with the phrase, ‘systemic racism‘,”… “the people who say it doesn’t exist, and the people who say it is absolutely everywhere, they are both right.”
So, once more, “it doesn’t exist” and “it is absolutely everywhere, …are both right”!
What (the flying French toast are) you talkin’ ’bout Willis!?!
For those “In The Gnosis (Know)”
OK, so, do I know what the host means when he relates the kw “both right” story? Yes, I sure do. In a phrase, ‘integral quadrants‘ makes the “both right” claim possible. Sort of.
OK. Yet, I still say, “what the flying frick?” So, why?
Well, these “quadrants” are abstract rational constructions that describe a theoretical point of view. Now, one positive purpose this rational abstraction serves is to create a space for holistic framing (and a holism mnemonic). However, the problem here is that the unnuanced, nakedly-made “both right” claim also removes us from any practicality and life on the ground where real people try to relate to each other about “real” things. So, while technically correct from a Wilberian integral perspective, “the people who say it doesn’t exist, and the people who say it is absolutely everywhere, they are both right” is really messed up, and is now proving existentially dangerous in a post-truth culture. “Messed up,” how, why?
First, it’s plainly bullshit. With regard to systemic White supremacy, it is simply not accurate or correct to say that, “it doesn’t exist” is “right.” Granted, it’s abstractly correct when the quadrant model shows that some people are unable to perceive ‘systems’ happening in the lower left quadrant. It’s also true that in real life, in actual practical terms, some people really don’t appear to perceive systems. Neither instance indicates that systems do not exist. Just because one can’t see the embedded image in magic-eye computer art, that doesn’t mean the image is not there to be seen. Again, positively, the model does help theoretically explain how people are able to stand within their exclusive focus on a particular quadrant’s view and talk right past others who are focused on the issue from within their (different) particular quadrant’s viewpoint. So, beyond it being bullshit, what’s the problem?
Second, apparently when we pair up the “both right” notion with, for instance, a “no hierarchies” late-ER naïveté, it’s a recipe for creating dogma and the endless generation of false equivalencies and whataboutisms.
Most importantly, while affirming mutually exclusive statements may be marginally correct in the abstract integral framework, only a small minority of folks are sufficiently in the know to be able to work with that helpfully [safely?]. To the vast majority of people, naked, unnuanced, mutually exclusive statements are absurd nonsense, and tend to put an abrupt end to good faith discourse.
So, why do I say “what the flying frick?”
Because now we’re finding out the hard way how mainstreaming “absurd nonsense” can also, beyond provocation to drive engagement, be tremendously dangerous and consequential in a post-truth saturated culture. It’s dangerous bullshit. When done intentionally (as Trump continually does), it becomes what Peter Pomerantsev has described as “political technology.”
Frightening thought experiment
Imagine Stephen Miller, or another Trump advisor, saying, “Hey Boss, listen to this really smart guy talk about ‘the problem with the phrase, ‘systemic racism.‘ Boss, he says the people who say it doesn’t exist are right, he says in any conflict people on ‘both sides are right!'”
You know full well that Trump isn’t going to watch the whole nearly three hour video to learn the nuance behind the bizarre claim. His advisors are not going to bother him with details. No, they know that all Trump needs and wants is just the little [political technology] piece at two minutes saying systemic racism “doesn’t exist” and “both sides are right” in any conflict.
Then, the next thing we know the POTUS is declaring “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville—as now, even though Trump couldn’t name it, he has a Wilberian “integral” brain trust for that claim.
How naïveté shows up in the Wilberian integral model
So, while the (2 hr. 40 min.) nuanced, rational, up-the-ladder abstractions and arguments that allow some grain of truth to the “both are right” claim do not support any kind of equivalency, for those who are White supremacists and White nationalists in Trump’s MAGA crowd, it’s enough. Enough that they can feel heard, affirmed, and empowered as fine (mostly not-consciously racist) people! Trump’s ignorant moral ambivalence opens the door wide to dark possibilities.
So, for instance, the nuance in John McWhorter’s fine-grain argument frequently cited by the conservative side in the racism debate (e.g., systemic racism can/does exist and yet we can question and criticize the overreach of some anti-racism efforts) is lost as only cherry-picked political technology is gleaned by Trump’s agents. In general, McWhorter’s voice fades into the noise made by elites. Other black voices, like Glenn Loury, also often appropriated by conservative whites, are even less subtle in their argumentation that White supremacist racism claims are being hysterically presented. All these are available as a brain trust for harvest by Trump’s cynical machine as political technology to be even further oversimplified for distribution by the election campaign.
If anyone should have known!
So, I feel as though ‘writing‘ itself is an act of oversimplification, it’s just a matter of degree. The limited space/time available to a blogger demands a rather robust practice of oversimplification. The oversimplification I am about to indulge regarding Gnosticism is of a particular form. This form reflects a general, overall summary of a topic that may not be reflected directly in the literature, per se, but does capture a low-res (broad stroke) picture of a consensus reading.
At 57:57 (of 2:40:00) we get another mutually exclusive pairing, again from the host, “We can be anti-racist and anti—anti-racist at the same time.” [McWhorter’s 15 minute argument reduced to a mutually-exclusive seeming sound bite.]
Again, do I know what that means and how that could possibly be correct?
Yes, I sure do know how that rational abstraction works in the realm of integral theory.
That’s really the problem right there. Because I also have a rough idea of how many people there are who have no idea at all what the heck is going on there. So, in the first two minutes we get what appear for all the world to be two mutually exclusive truths (one of which isn’t even true), before an hour is up we get another mutually exclusive statement. In between, no clear and direct unpacking of how that works.
Wilber’s AQAL model is a heuristic, so calculus-like claims from Wilberians are a grand overreach anyway—or merely expressions of a dogmatic understanding. The argument that perspectives of two different quadrants are simply talking past each other may well have theoretical validity and (darkly) justify the “both are right” claim, but it has very little veracity on the ground in real life. Most people see such claims as absurd. Let’s unpack the problem a bit more.
Source of non-congruence with SD
A key tenet of Wilberian integral is that every perspective has some validity. For Wilberians, this is tantamount to internalized code. This can present as an absolutist relationship with both/and. I’d suggest “both/and” is a healthy (if sometimes a bit naïve) expression of the Green [FS] priority code, e.g., including all stories. I say “a bit naïve” because while the intuition is good, any actual incarnation of it requires self-awareness, adjustment, and fine tuning. For instance, a both/and overreach: “We can be anti-racist and anti—anti-racist at the same time.” The pretzel-logic required to work that out serves as a distraction from the actual problems of racism that most Black people struggle with at some point nearly every day.
“Gnosticism” is a religious form that is seen in many expressions from East to West. In its many expressions, Gnosticism of most every kind shares the common feature of being a narrative regarding human existence as a school of graduated-levels, e.g., spiritual developmental system. Another common point, Gnostic forms are generally self-aware that they are esoteric. This is wisdom to the philosophy’s credit. —I note, it is a heresy in Christian tradition because it invariably leads to disembodiment.
I have no idea what kw was thinking, the guy is a frigging genius as near as I can tell, at least in pattern recognition and integrating narratives. I’m reasonably confident that kw‘s integral system works out like Swiss clock-work, in kw‘s mind. I imagine the problems arise in the reliable transfer of kw‘s clear vision to the Wilberian “narrative” and ultimately to individual Wilberries.
In any event, looking at it from a Wilberian integral standpoint, kw‘s system is Gnostic, so I reckon what with SD being a human development map, surely an integral and SD mash-up must have made some kind of obvious sense. The willingness of kw to do the mash-up with integral and SD was not a friendly amendment to SD. They don’t mix well, imhv.
Wilberian integral is esoteric
I feel if anyone ought to have known the wisdom of nearly all Gnostic forms, e.g., the self-awareness to realize that much of Gnostic knowledge (including integral) is esoteric material, even dangerously so, that it would be kw. As I said, in kw‘s mind, integral works like a Swiss watch. The way integral‘s “everyone is right” abstraction plays out in Wilberian interaction with society is quite troublesome. Integral, as Gnosticism in general, is esoteric and we would do well if it were handled as such.
Graves/SD is exoteric [designed to be]
To its credit, Graves SD does not pretend to apply to Spirit. SD knows it has absolutely nothing to say to Spirit. This is a wise position to keep. This frees SD from the Wilberian integral error, e.g., a need to rely on esoteric grounding in exoteric contexts. I sometimes wonder if Wilberians perhaps use bald integral “both sides are right” claims as attention-getting provocation in our algorithmic zeitgeist.
This esoteric problem with integral makes me unhappy in the era of Trump, and so I write this piece that will no-doubt make other people unhappy, too.
The Trump-based “recurring pit in my stomach” is my body’s reaction to things like “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, and is a function of the administration’s very ham-handed display of it’s jaundiced integral aspirations, and not a result of any SD complicity. I feel SD understands the truth of “everyone is right” has a very limited and specific place in the dynamics—e.g., as a helpful aide in the accounting for situational ethics in first tier.
Related post: “Jaundiced?”
Next week: Why Wilberian integral was not a friendly amendment to SD. Title: “Well, who asked you?”
[this post approx. 2,100 words (9 min. read)]
[Note: I’ve refreshed this post with inclusion of the initial heading and the new non-stadial graphics. Beyond the new graphics (below), no rectification of “stages” done on this piece, the post appears as it did when first published in July 2020 (I had no editor then).]
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?