A major part of my task as cultural psychiatrist and futurist is to alert people to circumstances where how we respond and the perspectives we bring could have major consequences—to serve as something of an early warning system. It is important to recognize how choices we make over the next ten years could be critical. As we in the U.S. hope (fingers crossed) that we will have a President in the White House who is not committed to inflaming animosities and creating distractions, we face that some very different scenarios could unfold, here and in the world more generally. I think of three main ones. How we lead in the face of these very different possibilities could have major implications for our future human well-being, and perhaps even for our survival. (If somehow the democrats manage to lose the election, prediction is less complicated. Chaos and absurdity will be very hard to avoid.)
In a previous article, A Very Disturbing, and Dangerous, Situation: Political Polarization and Populism Run Amok, I addressed how current absurdities from both the political right and the political left today put us at significant risk. One result if the upcoming election brings a new administration could be a diminishing of the craziness from both sides, more of a sense of normalcy, a righting of the ship if you will. That would be a generally good thing. The new President and Vice-President if elected appear to be committed to a more down-to-earth and generally sane kind of leadership. And a huge amount could be accomplished just through reinstating many of the Obama-era polities that the current President has eliminated. I wouldn’t personally give the likely new administration more than a “B” if I was to grade their potential to be great leaders. But while B might seem like a low bar, it would be a major improvement, and given today’s circumstances, perhaps solid and “good enough” is quite sufficient.
A major reason we should be happy with this less-than-perfect scenario, is that a second scenario is just as likely. We could see a further amplification of anti-authoritarian, extreme ideological tendencies on both the Right and Left such that any kind of effective governance becomes essentially impossible. While my best guess is that with a new administration we will at least start with a period of greater stability, if how I think about current underlying change processes is accurate, it is very likely that eventually we will witness this kind of extreme discord in some form. If we don’t handle it wisely, the results could be badly destabilizing—or worse.
Which brings us to the third scenario, the possibility that we can use the challenges we face and the underlying sensibilities that so easily come into conflict today to learn how to think and act in more “grown up” ways. I proposed in the previous article that the greatest danger with today’s extreme social and political polarization is that it would serve to distract from the more fundamentally important questions that define our time and the task of developing the kinds of thinking on which our future well-being on the planet depends.
At the least this means learning to step back sufficiently that we can appreciate how traditional views of the Right and the Left can be understood as contrasting aspects of a larger systemic picture. Each includes values that contribute going forward and conclusions that have the potential to do significant harm. For example, on the Right we find a deep valuing of family, community, and country; an emphasis on personal responsibility; and particular attention given to the moral dimension. But we also find tendencies toward an overly protective and easily reactive nationalism that could be our undoing, and often a narrowness of belief that can translate into intolerance and racism. On the Left we find greater openness to new options and also a commitment to supporting the less advantaged. But we also find blindness to inconvenient complexities that must be addressed and difficulty appreciating when boundaries, structure, authority in any hierarchical sense, or tradition have important roles in needed solutions.
And ultimately we need more than just this. Much of my life’s work has involved writing and teaching about how our times challenge us to an essential new chapter in our human story, what Creative Systems Theory calls simply Cultural Maturity. One characteristic of culturally mature understanding is that it reveals that Right, Left, or somewhere (more moderate) in between are not the only options going forward—and can’t be if we are to progress in ways that will ultimately benefit us. In our time, we confront essential challenges that before now would have overwhelmed us even just to consider—climate change, the risk of nuclear annihilation, and the today’s unsustainable gap between the conditions of the worlds haves and have-nots, to name only the most obvious. In my most recent book, Rethinking How We Think: Integrative Meta-Perspective and the Cognitive “Growing up” On which Our Future Depends, I describe how successfully addressing any of these new challenges will require new, more mature and complete ways of understanding, and with them, some quite new human skills and capacities. As I see things, the most important question as we engage the next ten years is the degree we can use that time to begin bringing the needed greater maturity in how we think and act to bear.
This result is not wholly incompatible with either of the other scenarios I have described. A period of “righting the ship” could give us just enough of a pause that we could prepare ourselves for the more challenging tasks ahead and have time to better grasp just what is being asked. And a period of increasing disorder and discord could have the effect of alerting us to the dangers ideological absolutisms of all sorts present and how fundamentally they leave us short of what is needed. But if Creative Systems Theory is correct, the further kind of change the concept of Cultural Maturity describes must define our task eventually—and if the decades immediately ahead are not to brutishly unpleasant, do so sooner rather than later.