The best argument for the concept of Cultural Maturity’s importance is the most basic: not only our future well-being, but perhaps our survival, will depend on changes it describes. As far as survival-related consequences, the most immediate concerns whether we can keep from destroying ourselves militarily—from having our animosities result in civilization’s end. Cultural Maturity’s answer, besides being provocative, provides important insight with regard to human conflict more generally. I’ll end this post with reflections directly pertinent to the recent U.S. national election results.
Recognizing a Larger Picture
Given today’s increasing availability of weapons of mass destruction and how often conflict dominates the evening news, it can be hard to be optimistic about the human story not ending in calamity. But, in fact, there is reason to believe we can avoid such a result. We will not see the end of conflict, and needed new capacities will take time to be fully realized. But fundamental changes happening today point toward a growing ability to manage conflict in more mature and healthy ways.
Appreciating just what is changing requires historical perspective. Until very recently, our collective sense of security and purpose has depended on a universal human tendency—we’ve divided humanity into worlds of us and them, of “chosen people” and “evil others.” Such polarized belief has served important purposes. It has provided us with unquestioned social bonds and a clear sense of collective identity. In the process, it has protected us from life’s easily overwhelming uncertainties and complexities.
But seeing the world in us-versus-them terms today serves us less and less well. When Richard Nixon was President of the U.S., he uttered these chilling words: “It may seem melodramatic to say that the United States and Russia represent Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, God and the Devil. But if we think of it that way, it helps clarify our perspective in the world struggle.” It is fortunate that we did not see the outcomes we very well could have.
While viewing the world in “chosen people/evil other” terms increasingly puts us in danger, it is reasonable to ask whether relating in more mature ways is really possible. Well-respected thinkers have proposed that our historical need for enemies is hardwired, part of our genetic heritage. Fortunately, the evidence suggests it is not. People today less and less find comfort in the simple-answer assurances that thinking in us-versus-them terms provides. And the ability to engage a more sophisticated picture is, in fact, something we are beginning to see.
The fall of the Berlin Wall provides a particularly iconic moment. Few anticipated it, certainly the suddenness of its collapse. And while leaders have taken credit for it, political initiatives in fact had little to do with what we saw. The cause was at once simpler and more profound. In effect, we got bored with what the wall represented. The absoluteness of belief and the knee-jerk polar animosities needed to support it stopped being sufficiently compelling.
As important as the fact of the Berlin Wall’s fall is what has happened—or not happened—since. With the end of the Cold War, “evil empire” animosities between the United States and the former Soviet Union transformed with remarkable quickness to a relationship of mutual, if often begrudging, respect. We have seen some return of polarized posturing of late. But it has been limited and largely one way. Unless we regress badly, it is unlikely that the U.S. will again see McCarthy-era-like reflexive demonizations become the norm.
The ability to get beyond our past need for “evil others” is a key new capacity that comes with Cultural Maturity’s needed—and now manifesting —new chapter in our human story. It follows directly from the cognitive changes that produce culturally mature understanding (see Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Reordering).
Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make it possible to more consciously hold the diverse aspects of who we are. One result is that projecting parts of ourselves onto others—whether parts that see the world in terms of idealized interconnectedness, as with “chosen people” beliefs, or darker, more malevolent aspects as with “evil other” projections—stops being attractive in the same sense. With time, we experience such sentiments as diminishing us—as making us less rather than more.
Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes offer that we might think about questions of all sorts in more complete, more systemic ways. The predicted result on the global stage is not some world of peace and love, rather simply that we better see circumstances for what they are. Culturally maturity perspective’s “new common sense” helps us better grasp the big picture. That includes better appreciating similarities, and also better understanding real differences. Mythologized views of both our “own kind” and others we might experience as foreign reveal themselves to be ultimately unhelpful distortions.
In recognizing that we have already taken steps toward more mature relations on the world stage, we must take care to avoid misplaced self- congratulation. These are beginning steps. And regression with dire consequences is not out of the question. But it is also important that we appreciate just how far we have come.
I recently had a conversation with a neighbor and her ten year old daughter. They had just visited France, their country of origin, and on their return had watched a film on World War One. The daughter felt frightened on seeing that countries in Europe could be so ready to destroy one another. When I pointed out that that was only a hundred years ago, we shared a moment of surprised recognition of just how quickly and fundamentally things there had become different.
Terrorism offers a more recent example of success in getting beyond seeing the world in us-versus-them terms, one with particular significance as we look to the future. The 9/11 World Trade Center attacks provided every reason to make terrorism the new communism and, in the process, undermine any possibility of effectively addressing it. Or worse, we could have made the Islamic East the new “evil empire” and turned predicted new insecurities into a clash of civilizations. But while leaders have sometimes played the demon card, to a remarkable degree average citizens have not fallen for the bait. Most people today see terrorism as complex and dreadful, but not a product of people who are themselves inherently evil. Seen from an historical vantage, this fact is remarkable. Seen in relation to the question of whether we are up to what the future more broadly will require, it provides important encouragement.
Other Needed New Capacities
It is important to note that effectively addressing world conflict will require a couple additional new capacities that come with Cultural Maturity’s changes. Besides the ability to get beyond us-versus-them thinking, we also need to become more comfortable with the fact of real limits (limits to how much identifying with one’s own kind can make us safe is just a start). We also need to better appreciate context, particularly temporal context and how different the world can look depending on the cultural stage in which people reside. Often we need to apply all three of these new capacities at once.
Appreciating the fact of cultural stage differences and limitations that come with such differences is becoming increasingly critical. The ability to bring culturally mature perspective to world conflict is most common in post- industrial nations. Social identity in many parts of the world remains dependent on “chosen people/evil other” beliefs. When this is the case and conflict is endemic, much can often be done to alleviate suffering, but the ability of outside force to end conflict can be be severely limited (see Seeking Effective Middle East Policy). For similar reasons, while we must do everything we can to combat international terrorism, there is no way to wholly eliminate it (see Making Sense of Terrorism: What We Too Often Miss).
Appreciating the fact of cultural stage differences also alerts us to an expected asymmetry of response that at first can feel “unfair.” It is easy to feel that if we can succeed at getting beyond projecting our demons, the group that has been the recipient of our projections should reciprocate. But not only is this expectation unwarranted, sometimes the opposite is the case—the group finds our response confusing and threatening. Culturally mature defense policy is able to hold reality this large—think with this degree of systemic sophistication. Without such perspective, we become vulnerable to reacting to such “unfair” circumstances by regressing and becoming equally immature in our responses.
Even with these further levels of sophistication, culturally mature leadership doesn’t guarantee safety. Today, globalization means that conflict that in times past would only be local often has much wider ramifications. It is quite possible that weapons of mass destruction will again be used at some time in the future, if not by nations, then by terrorist groups. But the fact that culturally mature leadership offers the possibility of a world in which major wars of the reactive, identity-based sort we have known are phenomena of the past is no small thing.
More circumscribed “chosen people/evil other” relationships
It is not just with nation states that we see “chosen people/evil other” dynamics. Related mechanisms play out in relationships between all sorts of more circumscribed social groups—such as religions, races, schools of thought within particular professions, and political parties. Changes we see in such smaller-scale contexts provide further encouragement and also highlight some of our times most thorny and intriguing challenges.
With most of these kinds of relationships, we’ve seen significant progress over the last century. For example, we’ve become much more tolerant of religious differences. Remember the common sentiment before John Kennedy became U.S. President that the fact that he was a Catholic would preclude him from being elected. And while much work remains to be done when it comes to race, important progress has been made since Selma and Martin Luther King and certainly beyond the realities of earlier times. I think of Michelle Obama’s observation that she lives in a house built by slaves.
We also see changes in relationships between schools of thought within professions. When I was in my training to become a psychiatrist, Freudians, Jungians, behaviorists, humanists, and biomedical sorts (along with endless subgroups of each) not only vehemently disagreed, they viewed each other with unapologetic distain. While today there is ample disagreement, most practitioners draw on multiple perspectives and outright ideologues are rare.
I could imagine a lot of people at this point saying “wait a minute.” There is an obvious exception to this picture. Partisan polarization in the political arena has become so exaggerated and entrenched of late that it is legitimate to despair whether government can ever again function effectively.
How do we best make sense of this? The concept of Cultural Maturity offers one explanation. I’ve written extensively about how there is no reason to assume that the stage of governance’s evolution that modern representative government represents is some ideal and end point—that we should see further chapters in governance’s story (see The Future of Government). I’ve also written about how dynamics common with times of transition can amplify polarization. We see this when people regress out of fear or with attempts to maintain old assumptions past their timeliness (see Transitional Absurdities).
There is no way to know if these interpretation accurately explains today’s untenable degree of partisan pettiness. There are other possible explanations. What we see may be only a temporary blip. Or the implications could be more dire, the beginning of some more general societal collapse. What I can comfortably say is that learning to think in more encompassing ways will be essential to future government that works.
This is so for a simple reason. The important questions before us are all systemic in nature. I’ve written about how the best of traditional conservative and liberal views each express pieces of larger truths (see Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future). The best is not always what we see—and certainly not of late. But it is an important recognition as we try to make sense of the kind of thinking that can effectively take us forward. The isolated positions of neither the political right or the political left—nor simple compromise—can provide the needed systemic completeness of understanding. We need to be able to get our minds around a larger picture.
Are there people who can’t put food on the table and who need the support of society as a whole to make it? Yes, certainly. Is it the case that unhealthy dependencies can result if government reflexively provides handouts? Again, yes certainly.
Is it the case that a nation must stand ready to defend itself and not hesitate to do so when needed? Without question. Is it the case that patience and diplomacy often provide the most effective defense? Again, yes, without question.
Is it the case that government is capable of solving problems that private institutions, with their private motivations, are helpless to address? Unquestionably, yes. Is it the case that governments tend to grow uncontrollably if given the chance and that “less is more” is a pretty good principle when it comes to bureaucracy of any sort? I believe so.
I know no more intriguing—and critical—question than how best to think about the future of government. Solid answers are yet a long ways off. The conversations out of which new ways of thinking about governance and government are barely beginning. And regressive responses to current circumstances can make the needed maturity of perspective difficult to maintain.
But one piece of the puzzle is clear. When it comes to decision-making, falling off either side of the road or walking down the white line in the middle each leave us at risk, whatever the question and whatever that question’s particular conflicting interpretations. Bringing greater maturity to the halls of government will be essential not just to good future decision making, but to the effective future functioning of government.