The—Considerable—Demands of Culturally Mature Advocacy

It would be nice if being an advocate for culturally mature understanding and action were easier than it is—-if suggestions put forward were more often immediately celebrated and readily grasped. A few reflections on just what makes such advocacy the considerable challenge that it tends to be help put the demands of culturally mature leadership in perspective.

The most obvious reason that such advocacy presents challenges is simply that we are always dealing with understanding that for most people is beyond what they are accustomed to. While I often emphasize that culturally mature conclusions are in the end “common sense,” this is a level and sophistication of common sense that we have not known before. You will note as you read posts on this site that I often make reference to ways of seeing things, that while timely and critical, are unlikely to be broadly appreciated for ten or twenty years—or sometimes longer.

The fact that culturally mature advocacy tends to involve perspective that is at least a bit ahead of its time brings blessings along with the limitations. When people ask my advice for how they should proceed with a particular effort that is culturally mature in conception and intent, often I can’t say exactly what they should do, but I can affirm that advocacy is worthy of their time and attention. I can also affirm that because their efforts are on the side of history, even if significant obstacles are encountered, patience will be ultimately rewarded. I think of a colleague who years ago expressed fear that we would never see acceptance of gay marriage. But while being ahead of the curve has its benefits, it also necessarily makes the advocacy task more difficult.

It is important to appreciate an essential aspect of this “ahead of its time” picture that contributes in a particularly fundamental way to the challenge advocacy faces. I’ve proposed that culturally mature perspective represents not just fresh thinking, but fully a new chapter in how we make sense of things. Like it or not, we can’t get there by just thinking in ways we have understood before, however insightful our observations. And just trying harder, however virtuous our intentions, will similarly leave us short.

A ready way to see this major further contributor is to look at how each of Cultural Maturity’s defining themes (see defining themes in the blog library) makes fundamentally new kinds of demands. Engaging any of them deeply requires capacities new to us as a species. The need for a new maturity in how we relate to limits provides a good example. In other posts I describe how effectively moving forward will require a new kind of sophistication in how we relate to all sorts of limits: environmental limits (as with climate change), limits to what it is often possible to accomplish on the world stage (see ), limits to what we can ultimately be for one another (whether as leaders or lovers), or limits to what we can know and control (as health care confronts the need for a new maturity in its relationship to death). The new maturity in our relationship to limits that wise future decision-making will require in all spheres challenges us in a way we have not known before—certainly if we are to make it manifest, and ultimately just if we wish to fully understand it.

Efforts to communicate with groups highlights how we are dealing with something wholly new. While the best of thinking in most fields today takes on questions that require culturally mature perspective—and often makes good progress in engaging them—it remains rare to find groups of any size in which a commitment to understanding of a culturally mature sort is the norm. This should not be a surprise. A critical mass of agreement is needed for a group to become established. Any kind of thinking that attracts great numbers of adherents will be ideological in that sense that it reflects belief that takes one part of understanding’s systemic entirety—one “crayon” in the systemic “box”—and makes it final truth.

I am particularly aware of this sort of dilemma when I am invited to speak at conferences. Most conferences attract people who share the same basic worldview. This may or may not be in an explicitly ideological sense, but people tend to be drawn together by shared assumptions and values. In my field of psychology and psychiatry, differing schools of thought that each claim scientific objectivity may at once war with one another like fundamentalist sects. In conference settings, culturally mature systemic perspective may simply get ignored—seeming not as “sexy” as more ideological positions. And if advocacy does garner attention, not uncommonly it is attention of a problematic sort—a reactive confusing of culturally mature perspective’s more encompassing vantage with the polar opposite of whatever polar position defines the prevailing view. (If the conference’s prevailing view is politically conservative, I will be perceived as simply a liberal—or the situation can be reversed. If the underlying assumptions have a spiritual bias, I will be perceived as being overly rational or scientific—or, again, the situation’s reverse.)

The advocate of culturally mature perspective confronts a related conundrum with any form of mass communication, whether written—with magazines, newspapers, or books—or with radio and television. Such communication requires a “critical mass” of readers/listeners/viewers. That scale of audience is going to be generated either through a lowest-common-denominator, mass-consumer approach that threatens no one (with its appeal being that it requires little in the way of Capacitance), or through the attraction of groups of the ideologically like-minded. The Internet makes possible greater diversity of opinion. It also offers the potential for more substantive content. But, that potential is as yet rarely realized.

During the first years of working on the new book series that I have just completed, I had an experience that brought just how demanding the advocacy task is home for me in a personal—and humbling—way. I was seeking a simple approach to communicating about Cultural Maturity for a general audience. I remember celebrating with a colleague over lunch that I had discovered a solution. It turns out that the same small handful of related new capacities (like the new maturity in relationship to limits just noted) are needed whatever the specific new challenge we face—whether the challenge is more personal or more social, and whatever part of our personal or collective lives if most concerns. My solution: Write a short chapter about each of those new capacities. A concise, easily understandable book should be the result.

But I had missed an essential truth that follows directly from the “new chapter” nature of culturally mature perspective: Culturally mature capacities are needed to fully grasp culturally mature capacities. I was in a “Catch-22“ that I didn’t fully appreciate until I had to face that in my well-intended efforts to make ideas accessible, I had failed miserably to write the short book I had intended. I remember later laughing at myself over lunch with that same colleague as I held the 450 page outcome of my effort to craft a simple 150 page work – an effort that still failed to create the clarity I had hoped for.

The experience of struggling in this effort helped me greatly to then approach my writing in ways that could be more successful. But I still look back with some amazement—and embarrassment—that I could have missed an obstacle that should have been obvious to me from the nature of the task. Today, I think of the experience as an important affirmation of the critical significance of that task—and the advocacy task more generally. If Cultural Maturity’s “growing up” indeed reflects change of “new chapter” sort—if it describes a historical inflection point that fundamentally reorders how we understand (and ultimately what it means to be human)—then what I encountered is exactly what one would predict with initial attempts to articulate its characteristics.


Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.