Sea Change or Trump Wave

Many Americans are exulting in the wake of Election 2016. Others are badly shaken. Alarmingly, some of the exultant have taken to expressing their delight with Nazi salutes, exuberant displays of the Confederate battle flag, and even acts of intimidation and violence. What happened? And where is the vaunted “Sea Change,” the accelerating progressive values-shift about which I and others at Common Ground have been speaking and writing for several years?
In 2010, I published Thriving in the Crosscurrent—Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change. My argument was fairly straightforward. We’re living in a time of “sea change” – a critical transformative period – a shift from a declining older wave to a rising newer wave – characterized by a steady decline in influence of some of our most familiar assumptions, values, and models for understanding. We’ve come increasingly to question and challenge patriarchy, the legitimacy of war, ecological exploitation and pollution, racially-based policies, injustice, religious exclusivism, and imperialism. At the same time, we’ve begun to explore and even to give our somteimes-hesitant assent to newer or rediscovered values including human rights, social justice, ecological sustainability, care for the Earth, non-violence, and interreligious harmony.
But, I argued, it’s not all roses. I introduced the concept of turbulent “eddies” of backlash – whirlpools of resistance to change. We’re living through an intense eddy right now. So, it’s hardly surprising that people familiar with the basic outlines of the argument for cultural evolution are wondering if the forces of devolution haven’t Trumped the evolutionary wave.
My view is unchanged. The rise of resistance to the cultural values-shifts that have already taken place is dangerous and destabilizing; but it constitutes an eddy in an unrelenting flow toward the future. There will be no return to patriarchy, culture-wide racism, or unchallenged eco-abuse. Blithe acceptance of social injustice and unconcern for the needs of others will never again be normative. The forces of resentful anger – the voices of once-dominant power groups who “want it back” cannot overcome the louder cries of the clear planetary majority.
In the usual course of events, resistance to change takes form in a stubborn but relatively benign attachment to familiar ways. But when the change is pronounced, more striking forms of reaction and resistance emerge. When the threatened social transformation seems as dramatic and far-reaching as it does in our time, the old-wave opposition can lose touch with its own older values, like tolerance and civility, and become rootless, enraged, and dangerous.
The degree of cultural opposition to change increases in direct proportion to the cultural disruption produced by a values shift. Uncertainty, insecurity, alienation, identity crisis, humiliation, and power anxiety determine the force of a cultural whirlpool.
As tempting as it is to see disturbing cultural phenomena, ranging from road rage to identity politics to nationalism and terrorism, as indicators of the likely future course of the world, many of the signature problems of our age need to be understood instead as phenomena of the crossing. These are not manifestations of the declining older value “wave” or unfortunate features of the newer. They are temporary but dangerous reactive counterflows – eddies – that can slow but never stem the new Sea Change.
Jim Kenney
Executive Director, Common Ground

Sea Change — Clarity and Hope in a Chaotic Time

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts on the key elements of the animating idea of this blog — Cultural Evolution. Watch for posts with the "Sea Change" heading.

The following 7 points summarize the hypothesis.

It's the slow but inexorable movement of our dominant values toward a closer fit with our ever-evolving understanding of the real world...toward a closer fit with reality.

Our world is indeed changing progressively...
Today, we are witnessing dramatically accelerated cultural evolution on a scale seldom seen. And most people don’t realize it’s going on. It’s easy to miss if you attempt to track global dynamics by means of the news media. There, the news tends to be mostly bad.

From the latest senseless act of violence to the violence of war…from the callousness of unfairness to the poor, the hungry, the jobless, the homeless to the systematic denial of universal human rights...and from the denial of anthropogenic climate change to the steady degradation of our eco-systems...

The apparent story of our times seems all too often to be utterly disheartening.

But the real story is much more complex and more hopeful. In a nutshell...
Our dominant values are moving toward a closer fit with Reality, and the evolutionary values-shift is most evident along three lines: Peace, Justice, and Sustainability (or, as often abbreviated these days, P, J, S).

A bit of elaboration:
  • P: Peace and non-violent conflict resolution
  • J: Social and economic justice and universal human right
  • S: Ecological sustainability.

Two Waves
We need to understand the phenomenon of Cultural Evolution in terms of Two Waves:
  • A declining wave representing older “top-down” cultural values, assumptions, predispositions, ways of seeing, and behaviors.
  • A rising wave, representing a new, emerging, “bottom up” values, ways of seeing, and behaviors.

How can we identify and understand genuine “new wave” value-shifts? Those who come to the idea of accelerated cultural-evolutionary value shift (“Sea Change”) for the first time often have difficulty distinguishing between real new wave patterns and other phenomena, including declining older wave dynamics and backlash. One typical question is, “if the new wave is so promising, how do you explain fundamentalism (or increasing social incivility, or confusion about what it means to be an American, or terrorism...or Trumpism)? These questions represent misunderstandings of the two-wave model, to be sure. But they are reasonable concerns and they need to be addressed.
The following sections offer hints for recognizing the evolutionary “real thing” and examples that help to distinguish the good from the bad or the merely inconsequential.

A cultural evolutionary value shift offers at least three clear benefits.
  • Second, the new wave brings increased Awareness of Interdependence. As society grows more complex at the local, regional, and global levels, real cultural progress is inexorably linked to understanding that every system is interdependent with every other. Most modern advances in science, medicine, geopolitics, ecology, education, and city planning – to name but a few interesting areas – are directly related to deepening understanding of interdependence. Just reflect on the fact that not so many years ago, most educated people were relatively unconcerned about any possible mind-body connection. And how many of us knew even twenty-five years ago, that the tropical rain forest was intimately bound up with the world’s weather patterns? The author predicts that future generations will remember the 20th and 21st centuries as the period of the re-discovery of the complex web of existence celebrated by the ancients.
  • Finally, a sea change brings a dramatic increase in Integral Knowing, that is, the reconnection of the four most important domains of human understanding: the personal, the cultural, the scientific, and the social scientific. Again, not so many years ago, these approaches to knowledge were exclusive, uncooperative, and even dismissive of one another. Today, huge impediments to real integration remain, legacies of the older wave; but the movement toward interdisciplinary understanding is apparent on every side. Gradually we’re starting to understand that to address any of the major issues of our age – from peace, to justice, to ecological sustainability – demands the profound engagement of every major mode of knowing with every other.
It can be argued that eddies emerge, persist, and dissipate in the course of cultural transitions of every sort and scale. However, the energy and complexity of cultural resistance to change increases in direct proportion to the human uncertainty, insecurity, alienation, humiliation, and anxiety over power that is produced by a particular cultural shift. The greater the cultural disruption resulting from declining older patterns and ascending newer ones, the stronger the eddies will be, and the more dangerous.

When the rhythm of a smoothly flowing stream is disturbed, eddies can emerge. These are temporary whirlpools that roil the water in their immediate vicinity without really affecting the prevailing flow.
In a time of major evolutionary culture change, when prevailing patterns are challenged and disrupted, the life experience of individuals and groups is disturbed in a deeply felt “emptying” of the familiar and “filling” with the new. If the perturbation affects a sufficient number of persons or groups or challenges significant concentrations of power, a major counterflow – an eddy – can form. In culture, as in nature, there is no change without resistance.

One of the most fascinating of Thriving’s many original motifs is the contrast between two groups with very strong reactions to the idea that ours is a time of major cultural advance: the Yeasayers and the Naysayers.

  • The Yeas include activists, spiritual seekers, cutting-edge thinkers, and change agents.
  •  The Nays comprise many who are culturally confused or apathetic, others who are angry about perceived threats to their identities, and still others (more insidious) who lash out when changing values threaten their wealth and/or power.
One could almost argue that one mark of a genuine evolutionary step is that the Yeas embrace it and the Nays reject it. That’s perhaps a bit simplistic, but it’s a fact that the Yeasayers tend to recognize genuine new wave shifts, while Naysayers tend to react strongly against them. E.g., changing attitudes toward race, class, gender, sexual preference, the Earth, social and economic justice, universal human rights, non-violent conflict resolution.

Note the difference between those who celebrate the notion that we’re living through something of an “enlightenment” and those who either never notice or reject the idea out of hand.
Today, nothing could be clearer than the array of Older values vs. Newer.. Remember that the Newer is almost always the child of the older. Cultural Evolution does not mean throwing away older values. It means realizing them more fully, at a deeper level, in a manner consistent with our better and better understanding of reality.
But because there’s always a lag, it’s possible to miss the tectonic shift. First we see more clearly, then we reorder our priorities, and, finally, we reshape our institutional structures.
Philosophers tell us that some people ground their ethical decisions in the pursuit of “the Good,” while others try to cleave to the well-defined and unchanging principles of “the Right.”
·      It’s worth nothing that evolutionary thinkers tend to base their positions on gradually changing views of what is Good – intentions, courses of action, outcomes, etc., while reactionaries are more likely to argue from notions what is Right, with a strong appeal to religious, philosophical, or cultural absolutes.
·      It’s hardly surprising that as cultures evolve, ideas about the Good change much more quickly than certainties about the Right.

Take these four markers of the cultural evolutionary process to heart. They capture the essential dynamic.
  • The Flux
    Life goes on as usual, changing, evolving, and turbulent. We tend not to notice that there is a prevailing flow. (Things are "tending," and if we look carefully, we notice that the flow is progressive.
  • Anomalies
    More and more often we notice patterns that don't fit with our prevailing expectations. Our prejudices are not supported by our experiences. We are surprised by outcomes we hadn't anticipated. Anomalies highlight the inadequacies of old models, old biases, and old stupidities. And their multiplication is the essential harbinger of an age of change.
  • Sea Change
    Gradually, we begin to realize that our dominant assumptions are changing, that our prevailing values seem inadequate to our times, and that we are, astonishingly enough, evolving.
  • Eddies
    And then the backlash arises. Those whose worldviews are challenged or even shattered by newer notions, values, and behaviors fight back. Confusion, identity crisis, and manipulation by the powers that are...all these contribute to a virulent backlash. It's a counter-cultural whirlpool that I call an "eddy." And it is an ultimately pointless protest against the dynamic stream of cultural evolution.

Trumpism — What is It?

Martin Luther King (paraphrasing Theodore Parker, Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810 who called for the abolition of slavery) used to say (and Barack Obama has often paraphrased him):

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
That nicely frames the question I want to pose:
Here, at the opening of the Trump Era, is American culture (and the culture of the world) evolving or devolving?
If you know me, you know my answer. Look above for the Sea Change thread.
But here's a quick summary for late bloomers.
Sea Change: Cultural Evolution in the Early 21st Century
We’re living in a critical transformative period characterized by a steady decline in influence of some of our most familiar assumptions, values, and models for understanding. We’ve come increasingly to question and challenge patriarchy, the legitimacy of war, ecological exploitation and pollution, racially-based policies, injustice, religious exclusivism, and imperialism. At the same time, we’ve begun to explore and even to give our hesitant allegiance to newer or rediscovered values including human rights, social justice, ecological sustainability, care for the Earth, non-violence, and interreligious harmony. What’s it like to live at a time when the influence of the declining values is roughly equal to that of ascending, emergent values? Well, it’s a lot like now.
It’s what I call a “Sea Change” and I’ve already spoken a bit in other presentations this week about the implications its implications for tomorrow’s world. Its an extraordinary and promising dynamic in 21st-century cultural evolution. But it’s not all roses. It brings in its wake the turbulent phenomenon of resistance to change – the backlash whirlpool or what I call “the eddies.” We’re living through that now.
I promised to talk about what Trumpism could do to the U.S. and the world. I want to apply a big picture analysis to this question. I'll list the areas that concern me most deeply, but rather than drill down into the specifics of each one, I'll try to show how they fit into a larger pattern, which we can analyze.

The cultural-evolutionary Sea Change which I so strongly affirm has three essential core dynamics, each one gradually (and sometimes, like now, rapidly) emerging as critical to basic human values. I have long abbreviated them as “P, J, S,” and I’m happy to say that that short form is catching on all over. They are:
P: Peace and non-violent conflict resolution.
J: Social and economic justice and universal human rights.
S: Ecological sustainability.
Now, let’s consider Trumpism as Resistance to Cultural Evolution, and ask what it could do to P, J, and S here and around the world.
Countering Peace and Non-Violent Conflict Resolution
  • Straining Ties with Allies and Rivals as well
  •  Dangerous Flirtation with Putin
  • Widening the Divide with World Islam
  • Undoing the Iran Nuclear Deal
  • Waging Preemptive War (on N. Korea and / or Iran) 
Undermining Social and Economic Justice and Universal Human Rights
  •  Feeding the Fires of Racism, Islamophobia, and Cultural Intolerance...the Dalliance with the Alt-Right
  • Encouraging Misogyny and Violence Against Women
  • Exacerbating the Wealth Gap (lifting the 1%)
  • Energizing the Religious Far-Right...Dominionism and Traditionalism
  • Playing to White Nationalist Minorities (here and Around the world)
  • Empowering Neo-Fascism
  • Moving Toward a Police State
Subverting Ecological Sustainability
  • Weakening the Struggle Against Climate Change
  • Furthering Environmental Degradation
  • Catering to the Oil and Coal Industries, ignoring the Cultivation of Alternative Energy Sources
These are all real possibilities. You’re right. They are terrifying.
But in complex situations like these, counter-evolutionary eddies can and do energize what I call “emergents,” maturations of the progressive evolutionary movements that triggered the backlash in the first place.
So, let’s move on to the latest chapter in the story of cultural evolution and its adversaries.

Trumpism as a Strange Attractor
In Chaos (or Complexity) Theory, a dynamic kind-of-equilibrium is called a Strange Attractor, an equation or fractal set representing a complex pattern of behavior in a chaotic system. The difference between an Attractor and a Strange Attractor is that an Attractor represents a state to which a system finally settles (imagine a rolling marble finally coming to rest the bottom of a bowl), while a Strange Attractor represents some kind of trajectory upon which a system runs from situation to situation without ever settling down. The key is that the dynamically changing system displays complex repeating patterns, although no particular state of the system is predictable. We can, however, speak confidently about states the system will never occupy. (The Attractor describes a static situation; the Strange Attractor describes a dynamic one.)

But we’re searching here for a useful metaphor rather than an accurate mathematical formulation. In a metaphorical sense, a strange attractor in a dynamic system (seemingly chaotic and apparently randomly changing) marks the transition from chaos to complexity.

So, is Trumpism – at least metaphorically – like a strange attractor? I’m arguing that, yes, Trump’s chaotic behavior ultimately discloses a fairly coherent value-structure (abhorrent as it is to many). Values can be understood metaphorically as strange attractors, which “attract” complex clusters or patterns of behavior. Each act is unpredictable and seemingly random; but each falls within a complex zone of “possibility” defined by the attractor, the animating value or value-complex.
  • Trumpist Islamophobia “attracts” anti-Muslim rhetoric and acts of physical violence
  • Trumpist dishonest Tweeting and egregiously false public statements by the president and his surrogates “attracts” new exponents of fake news, anti-science, and pseudo-history.
  • And on and on…
So, the republic is doomed, right? Trumpist “Proto-Fascism” will become full-blown Fascism and the result will the realization of the world sketched by George Orwell in 1984.
Not so fast….
It may just be (it certainly appears to be) that Trumpism, its devolutionary value complex, and the behaviors it generates together give rise to a far more powerful strange attractor, one from which a far more creative – and evolutionary – complexity emerges.
Here’s my proposition:

1.     Trumpist values are devolutionary.

2.     They attract those who have already rejected or would never even consider the possibility of cultural evolution (the Naysayers).

3.     But, conversely,  they energize those who embrace progressive values-shift, exponents of P, J, S principles, values, and behaviors.

4.     The Neo-Reactionaries energize the reborn Progressives.

5.     Where should we look for signs of a Sea Change?
         a) To the Oval Office?

         b)  Or to the growing movement? To groups like Indivisible (Google “the Indivisible Guide”!)

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
The Cure at Troy (excerpt)
Human beings suffer, 
They torture one another, 
They get hurt and get hard. 
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave. 
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up, 
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge. 
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here. 
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.


The Anti-Intellectual Folly

·      Scientific theories are just “educated guesses.”
       — This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific enterprise. A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation. Science does not move from theory to fact; it’s just the reverse. (Fact: water boils, at sea level, at 212° Fahrenheit. Theory: the Kinetic Theory of Matter explains how the process works.)
·      Climate change is a liberal “hoax.”
       — No. Global Anthropogenic Climate Change is scientifically well-established. 97% of climatologists agree. There is broad civilizational agreement!
·      Evolution is an anti-Christian “hoax.”
       — Biological evolution is an extremely well-tested and well-supported theory, and the foundation of most of the life sciences.
·      Human nature is violent.
       — No. The civilizing process means that violence declines steadily (cf., Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature).                                                 

·      Social and economic justice is an unachievable, socialist utopian goal. There are no universal human rights.
       — Concern, action, and accomplishment in these areas grows steadily in most regions of the world. Cultural evolution is the civilizing process.
·      Women are inferior (sexism, anti-feminism, misogyny).
       — The civilizing process and cultural evolution mean that Patriarchy is in decline; gender equity is ascending (in virtually every society); the backlash, however, is virulent.
·      The other/outsider (racial, religious, gender) is a danger (xenophobia).  
       — The civilizing process means: strangers becoming neighbors and neighbors becoming friends.
·      Honor “trumps” the rule of law.
       — Honor reigns only where there is no rule of law. Law is at the heart of the civilizing process.
·      “Political correctness” is un-American.
       — “Political correctness is the (adversarially-named) resistance to hate speech and socially-destructive rhetoric. It is civilizing. “Political incorrectness” is resistance to cultural evolution.
·      Populism is the voice of the people.
       — Nope. Populist nationalism (mostly right-wing and anti-civilizing) is tailored for the anti-intellectuals, for the willful denialists, and for the politicians of pretense.
·      Human culture is a “zero-sum” game (i.e., a contest with clear winners and losers).
       — Research demonstrates that human culture has steadily evolved toward greater non-zero-sumness (social cooperation and interdependence). 

Living With the Eddies

As you may have noticed, I’m returning these days to the theme of cultural evolution, the subject of my 2010 book, Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change. Cultural evolution is the slow, steady advance of humanity’s most essential cultural values (e.g, peace, justice, and ecological sustainability) toward a closer fit with reality. Thus, for example, “the arc of human history” bends toward peace, justice, and ecological sustainability and away from racism, sexism, hateful nationalism, and violent response to personal and societal identity crisis.
Hold it! (I can almost hear the chorus.) How can we hold out any hope for values-evolution, in the face of so much apparent evidence (these days) to the contrary? Well, the answer is to be found in the eddies of resistance to the cultural-evolutionary dynamic.
Eddies are counter-clockwise whirlpools of resistance in a flowing stream. One could almost say that they desperately try to reverse the prevailing flow. Cultural eddies (you’ll see how well the metaphor works) are counter-cultural vortices that struggle against the flow of cultural evolution. Here’s one example: “No, women should not rise to positions of authority over men!”
Cultural evolution, however, arrives in waves, cultural “value waves,” one on the way up and one on the way down. The up wave brings the promise of cultural evolution. Things get better, people get wiser, and the convergenge is toward cooperation. But then there’s the down wave, the backlash. Things seem worse, people get angrier, and there is only divergence.
The question of our age is simple. Will the falling wave swamp the rising wave? Or will the rising wave overcome? The older value set has inertia on its side; the newer packs momentum. I’ll always bet on momentum against inertia.
So, here’s a final thought for now.
Ours today is a continent divided not so much by a geographical, altitudinal watershed as by a seemingly unbridgeable cultural and attitudinal barrier. It does matter that certain regions of our land align with particular values-complexes. And it is significant that one can, with some success, predict the racial, social, gender, and even scientific (or anti-scientific) leanings of people from here as opposed to there.
But America is not really divided between the good and the bad, the bright and the dull, or the generous and the selfish. Our current dilemma is to be found in the eternal tension between hope and fear. Often it may seem that fear is winning; but it never truly can, for it springs from uncertainty and ignorance. Hope is always grounded in a clear vision of what is and what can yet be. And there’s the hope in hope.

Values and Culture

Does culture evolve? Or does it merely change? Culture is the organic matrix within which we make our choices and are in turn shaped by them. The culture of a particular society comprises the beliefs, knowledge, practices, and institutions that structure its life and are transmitted to its next generation. As important as values are, they are only part of the cultural whole.

Changing values drive cultural change; but just think about the relationship between these two dynamics. The benchmarks of a progressive values shift are increasing creative complexity, greater awareness of interdependence, and the further integration of ways of knowing. As these values evolve, what happens to the way people in a culture think and behave? 

My good friend Ron Miller once asked me, “How many people do you think lived through the Renaissance?” I’ve never forgotten his question. He wasn’t asking about population figures, but about the atmosphere of the time. How many people knew then that they were witnessing the rediscovery of the human being in relation to the world? How many knew that theirs was an age of revolution? How many woke each morning eager to find out what the next promising development might be or where the next challenge would arise? How many went about their daily tasks simply unaware of the new world taking shape around them? Who responded to new ideas and opportunities? Who exulted? Who simply denied the rich new  complexities of an age of change?

Who glimpsed the truth, but – frightened of its implications – lied?

The situation that confronts us today is similar in many ways. We live in an era in which evolving values are reshaping culture, yet we are often so preoccupied with simply “coping” that we overlook dramatic, positive changes. Instead, we fixate on the seemingly intractable problems that confront us and are drawn into the naysayers’ camp. And the naysayers simply deny.

To grasp what is changing for the better all around us, we need to focus on the relationship between changing values and evolving cultures. With this understanding, we’ll be better able to develop strategies for life in a renaissance that’s not always apparent.