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Navigating the Storm of Global Change
Part 4: A Creative Way Forward (Installment 3)
This is Installment 3 of my final essay, A Creative Way Forward, in my 4-part series Navigating the Storm of Global Change. (It’s a bit complicated, I know!) If you’re new to this series, I suggest you at least go back and read the first two installments of this essay, available here: Installment 1; Installment 2. You can access the other essays in this series on my archive page.
In the last installment, I wrote at the end: “I think it’s necessary at times to own our opinions and to take a stand on certain issues even if the effects are polarizing. It can be refreshingly honest to do so. But I wouldn’t feel true to the deepest part of me if I settled for long on any one partisan perspective. Thus when analyzing various issues in today’s culture wars, I often find myself wondering what higher order integral pattern might be trying to emerge that would incorporate the deeper evolutionary impulses of both sides.”
As a clue to understanding the nature of this integral pattern, I want to draw again from astrology by considering how the archetype of Aquarius is likely to shape the coming era. As I've mentioned in previous essays, Aquarius is associated with the principle of individual sovereignty and genuine equality for all. Aquarius honors the unique truth of each individual while supporting the emergence of collective forms of intelligence that serve humanitarian purposes. Aquarius is notoriously anti-hierarchical and anti-elitist — power to the people.
It follows that the great equalizing impulse that has arisen in the modern West over the past several centuries (arguably as a forerunner to the dawning Aquarian Age) will continue to spread throughout human civilization in the coming era. Structures, policies, or attitudes that confer privilege to certain groups over others are likely to be seen as increasingly out of step with the spirit of the times. This certainly means that old-school attitudes of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so on, will face even greater scrutiny and further loss of popular support. But it means too that the reverse hierarchy of legitimacy commonly advanced on the left today — whereby the perspectives of members of historically marginalized groups are automatically afforded more credence than those of members of historically dominant groups — is also likely to lose ground. In the Age of Aquarius, hierarchies of any kind will seem offensive to the zeitgeist. The inherent equality, dignity, and worth of every individual will increasingly come to seem self-evident. In today’s culture wars, it could be said that the left is primarily an advocate for the dignity of the historically marginalized, while the right is defending the dignity of the historically dominant. Both perspectives need to be honored in a more profound negotiation that creates a path for everyone to enter a new planetary era as fundamentally equal, sovereign beings.
Of course, for equality to be real, there has to be some way to address the wounds and inequities of the past. At the dawn of the Aquarian Age, the collective traumas that have separated us from each other and the Earth are surfacing for healing. Healing these wounds together can be seen as an integral part of our initiation into the world-centric or Gaian consciousness that is likely to characterize the coming era (perhaps alongside a revitalized regionalism).
The problem is that when this process takes place primarily in the political domain, it attracts forces that seek to exploit these wounds to gain power. As I mentioned in parts 3a and b in this series, from an energetic or metaphysical perspective, ‘dark’ or ‘anti-evolutionary’ forces tend to be innately drawn to our wounds and traumas, through which they entice us to act out our worst impulses to advance their agenda to maximize human suffering. This principle applies to collective traumas as well as personal ones. Many movements that start out with noble intentions to address historical wounds and advance justice can easily become hijacked by self-serving forces that exploit the pain in ways that only further division. Then the trauma is simply acted out in society, which serves no one — least of all those most directly burdened by the trauma, who are deprived an opportunity for genuine healing.
This is what I mostly see taking place today through the ‘woke’ ideology of the left, which espouses diversity yet displays a militant intolerance toward anyone who does not share their worldview. It is not that today’s social justice orthodoxy does not possess a valid understanding of the shadow side of Western colonialism and the Enlightenment, including subtle insights into the way power tends to be maintained by dominant ways of thinking and speaking. But these insights have largely become weaponized by cultural, political, and (I would argue) metaphysical forces in order to gain institutional power. Some may think that the term ‘woke’ is just the latest insult used by conservatives to discredit the ongoing struggle of the liberal tradition for minority civil rights. But while that is no doubt partly true, it is crucial to understand that today’s social justice orthodoxy constitutes a fundamental mutation from the philosophy which informed the civil rights movements of the 60s. Today’s social justice orthodoxy does not represent a continuation of the liberal tradition but rather its repudiation. The intellectual foundations of this ideology, emerging from the confluence of deconstructive post-modernism and critical theory, are in fact explicitly hostile toward the principles of liberal democracy that most of us take for granted, such as freedom of speech, the presumption of innocence, or individual rights and responsibilities, as well as toward other Enlightenment pillars like rationality, scientific objectivity, or even the need for evidence to establish the truth of a claim.
Using the justification of compassion for the oppressed, today’s social justice ideology replaces these principles with a collectivist framework in which innocence or guilt, virtue or vice is determined not by one’s individual character or actions but primarily by where one is situated on a hierarchy of oppression, as well as one’s level of adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy. It is not hard to recognize the totalitarian implications of such an approach, particularly considering its in-built intolerance for alternative points of view and the speed at which it has established itself as the official or de-facto ideology of most public institutions in the West. Indeed the fact that it has been taken up so readily by key sectors of the power structure — the academy, media, Big Tech, large corporations, Hollywood, education, the military industrial complex — suggests that to whatever extent it may have begun as a movement of authentic liberation, woke ideology has now largely been co-opted by the neo-liberal elite as a political tool of control.
I’ve come to these conclusions after listening to hundreds of podcasts and reading thousands of articles and several books on the topic, by thinkers both liberal and conservative, black and white. Conversations about woke extremism have been raging all over the Internet for years. Millions of lifelong progressives have been ‘red-pilled’ in this regard. Yet the strange thing about our moment is how huge the chasm is in our shared understanding of the topic, particularly among liberals. Those who have been tracking these conversations will no doubt find the above remarks quite straightforward, points they have heard countless times before. Those who haven’t may find it surprising that a progressively-minded person like me holds these views. We are living in such media silos that it’s possible for intelligent people to occupy completely different worlds of understanding on this issue. And the difference seems frequently to come down to the extent to which one still trusts the credibility of mainstream media sources.
In the establishment media — CNN, NBC, ABC, New York Times, Washington Post, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, etcetera — critics of woke extremism are invariably treated as apologists for the right, and thus for the oppressive systems of power the left is purportedly trying to dismantle. Yet a substantial number of high-profile, traditionally liberal commentators have been sounding the alarm for years now about the dangerously illiberal implications of today’s social justice orthodoxy — though typically, by necessity, through alternative media outlets. A short list includes former Rolling Stones reporter Matt Taibbi, former Intercept co-founder and journalist Glenn Greenwald, Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, former New York Times editor Bari Weiss, Columbia linguistics professor and New York Times columnist John McWhorter, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, philosopher Sam Harris, Dutch-Somalian feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and comedians-cum-social commentators Russell Brand, Bill Maher, and Dave Chappelle. As many of these commentators have pointed out, the problem with trying to gain an informed perspective on this issue through the establishment media is that in recent years these institutions have themselves been overtaken by woke dogma so thoroughly that they have no objective distance from the phenomena. A number of mainstream journalists who were critical (like Bari Weiss, Glenn Greenwald, and The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan) were forced out of their jobs, while many others have been cowed into towing the new line. Because of this hugely consequential split in the media ecosystem, it's been suggested that the principal divide is no longer between right and left, but between those whose worldview is shaped primarily by mainstream news sources and those who are mainly following alternative media of various kinds.
Yet however fundamentalist the woke left may have become, it must be understood in the context of its perverse dialectical relationship with the regressive populism and ethnocentric nationalism of the far right, along with the uniquely destabilizing influence of Donald J. Trump. As Matt Taibbi put it, life in America in recent decades has been increasingly “like watching a ping-pong match between the two most unhinged people in the institution.” I regard the woke left and the Trump-aligned far right as two aspects of the Piscean Age power structure vying for supremacy of a soon-to-be obsolete system. Given the inherent futility of the contest, yet with seemingly everything at stake, it's no wonder they seem to be driving each other literally insane.
With its more covert authoritarianism, hidden beneath the appearance of compassion for the victimized, the woke left represents to me the shadow aspect of feminine power, whereas the overtly bullying tactics of the far right express the shadow aspect of masculine power. I think both extremes at this point have become vehicles for almost entirely destructive forces. Yet together they may be playing an important (albeit largely unconscious) evolutionary role: to accelerate the demise of the dying Piscean Age structures of centralized control in order to catalyze the emergence of the decentralized structures and integral consciousness of the coming Aquarian Age.
If the polarity spiral represents the death knell for our current age, what direction might point the way toward the era that is dawning? Although I find myself in alignment with most critics of woke extremism, both liberal and conservative, few of them have anything particularly compelling to say about an integral path forward. Most anti-woke critiques amount to a defense of the healthy aspects of science, rationality, and liberalism from the totalitarian threat of a fundamentalist ideology. Similarly, most of the outrage toward Trump for his brazen attempts to overturn the election result is based on a defense of those same Enlightenment principles as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. While I agree with both positions, we are not simply returning to the Age of Reason, but moving into a new era so radically different from this one it's difficult for us to conceive yet the full implications of the transition.
Both anti-woke and Trump critics are defending what German philosopher Jean Gebser called the mental–rational structure of consciousness. He proposed that we are on the cusp of a profound mutation in consciousness involving the integration of the healthy aspects of all previous structures of consciousness, which he identified as archaic, magical, mythical, and mental–rational. I resonate with this vision. Although it's hard to imagine from our current disenchanted perspective what this development might look like, it almost certainly will entail human consciousness becoming significantly more subtle, complex, and multidimensional. We are not turning our backs on science and rationality, but if we are to make the leap to integral consciousness, we are bound to question the extent to which the modernist dogmas of materialism and rationality have limited our understanding of the full spectrum of reality, in all its multi-dimensional mystery.
Thus, while a defense of the healthy mental–rational structure of consciousness is necessary, it is not sufficient on its own to get us to the higher and more complex levels of consciousness trying to come in. For that we need to acknowledge and address the existence of subtler dimensions of reality.
In the context of our culture wars, this means taking seriously the existence of collective and intergenerational traumas and working together to heal them, even while we may unambiguously oppose these wounds being acted out on the cultural and political stage. Critics of today’s social justice orthodoxy often (rightly) point out that in terms of structural change, the major battles against institutionalized oppression have already been won. Voting rights have been secured, gay marriage has been legalized, discriminatory hiring practices have been outlawed, etc. Compared with these epic struggles, the ‘micro-aggressions’ policed by today's social justice activists are seen by critics as vanishingly trivial. But this hypersensitivity can itself be understood as a symptom of unresolved historical trauma surfacing for healing. As psychic wounds, the more subtle layers of collective and intergenerational trauma are real, even if less visible than the structural components already addressed. Indeed it’s the reality of these wounds that makes today’s social justice orthodoxy persuasive at all, in spite of its authoritarianism. As noted earlier, acknowledging and healing these wounds together is key to unlocking the portal to the world-centric consciousness that will likely underlie the coming age.
It's also our best defense on the energetic plane against the mischief of the dark forces, which love to exploit these wounds to exacerbate division. Whether we are dealing with personal or collective trauma, doing our healing work is our most effective protection against destructive energies, as this brings the light of consciousness to the weakest places in our psychic structures. Yet the process of healing collective or intergenerational trauma cannot be achieved by legislation alone, nor by coercion of any kind. It is first and foremost a process of the heart, undertaken voluntarily by people of goodwill. It calls for a much more honest transformation than merely adopting and advertising a new set of politically correct beliefs.
What I see trying to happen, as an expression of the developing integral/Aquarian consciousness, is a deeper integration of the spheres of inner and outer transformation. The collective and intergenerational traumas that are rising to the surface are not just political in nature, nor are they merely personal or psychological. They cannot, therefore, be resolved by political means alone, nor fully worked out in private therapy. A more integrative approach is called for, one that addresses the psychological and spiritual dimensions of these wounds, but which takes place in the collective realm from where they originated.
In this context, today’s social justice ideology can be seen as a preliminary step to achieving this integration by creating a hypersensitivity in the public realm to the lingering effects of historical trauma. The main problem I have with this approach, however, is that it was not developed within a paradigm of healing, but from an analysis of power. Its intellectual sources (primarily deconstructive post-modernism and critical theory) have focused far more on how to subvert oppressive systems of power than on how to achieve therapeutic outcomes. Accordingly, it’s valid to question the therapeutic effectiveness of its methods to resolve the wounds it purports to address. For example, it is a basic therapeutic principle that authentic transformation never occurs through shaming or coercion, yet these attitudes are virtually synonymous with today’s social justice orthodoxy. More troubling is the way that the focus on power has wedded the movement to unscrupulous political (and metaphysical) forces that cleverly exploit these wounds to divide us from each other and push an agenda of control. This dynamic has created a widespread (and, I think, quite justified) suspicion that the left’s much-trumpeted concern for the suffering of the marginalized and the Earth is at least partly feigned in order to gain or maintain power.
Yet it could be said that leftist extremism is itself a symptom of collective and intergenerational trauma rising to the surface, overdue to be released, and channeled into an ideology determined to force the issue. It has certainly been successful in doing that. But moving forward, a different approach is needed to help heal these wounds in a way that brings us closer together, not further apart.
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