When I went to college in 1970 I was looking forward to studying philosophy. I had lots of inchoate questions about Big Things that religion didn't seem to answer. It turned out that philosophy didn't answer them either. In fact, religion and philosophy were similar in that both tended to waft upward into dry intellectual blah blah blah that didn't have anything to do with the beauty and pain of real life.... Plato's Ideals, the Baltimore Catechism, whether we could ever be sure that what we see exists, the ranking of angels in the Great Chain of Being...Catholicism came down to earth only to point out my faults and philosophy spurned earth completely. It had no interest in me, and so I returned the compliment. I could never remember the vocabulary...words like a priori and heuristic slid off my brain like ice cream melting in the sun. I still have to look them up every time I encounter them. I decided I was too dumb to get it and turned away, searching elsewhere for my answers. I read tons of literature, dabbled in New Age stuff, studied Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American shamanism, got therapy, returned to the Church and left it again. It was Joseph Campbell who finally tapped into some of my internal angst by stepping back from the fray and seeing the human search for meaning in all the stories that we had ever told. ( I thought the dogma of the Church was the most important thing about it...what it believed. Campbell said no, the most important thing was its ceremonial forms that linked the material world with the unseen.) Mystery is the secret sauce and myth, miracle, metaphor and paradox are how we approach the Big Thing(s) whose presence we intuit, but find elusive in our daily lives. This gave me a trail to follow, and I am still on it, more content now to Not Know and just witness the unfolding of the power and beauty of life.
Okay, mostly I am content, but sometimes I still wish to understand what the hell is going on. This brings me to my love/hate relationship with Ken Wilber...He Who is More Evolved than You. This is probably sour grapes on my part because I don't like to be made to feel stupid and Ken Wilber's books always do, harking back to every philosopher I ever struggled with. Still I keep returning to his stuff because he also steps back from the human comedy without losing all connection to it. Thus it was that I found myself purchasing (really? are you kidding me?) his latest work: Trump and a Post-Truth World. I thought it was unusual for him to address something as current and immediate as Donald Trump and suspected a wish to reap more financial rewards than philosophy books usually offer by invoking the Trump trigger. That was unworthy of me because actually he offered a different way to think about our current mess that has helped me and so I am grateful.
Let's see...can I sum this up coherently? Ken says that just as individuals go through a series of growth stages, each broader and more encompassing than the last (the complete self absorption of babyhood giving way to ever greater abilities to imagine and empathize with the feelings of others as a person matures), so does human society as a whole. We started as small family groups, then gathered into larger super tribes based on ethnicity, religion, or nations...the us versus them stage that viewed "others" as less than human (Crusades, wide-spread slavery etc.). The transition to a vision of all humans as equals started in the Renaissance and moved through the Enlightenment, when reason and science gave birth to the modern world. Reflection on the sometimes destructive effects of modern rationality led to the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the ever-more inclusive post modernism that we find ourselves in now.
Ken reminds us that even as we make these neat distinctions of cultural evolution, all stages are still present. Each successive wave of growth in people or cultures does not obliterate the level before it, it transcends and includes it. Just as individuals can become stuck in their childhood or adolescence, so societies will not proceed smoothly or evenly through the levels and at any time most people in any group are not on what he calls the leading edge. That brings us to what he sees as the problem we are facing now. He says the leading edge of evolution has turned back on itself because post-modernism let pluralism and relativism erode the truth. A well-intentioned emphasis on equality and resistance to oppression led philosophers and academics to say (and teach) that all truth is relative...that what is true for me is true for me and that what is true for you is true for you. That means there is no objective and universal truth, only narcissism and finally nihilism.. a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless. If there is no truth we are each thrown back into what we individually perceive and fear and collective action degrades into factionalism and division. This seems to be what is happening now. We are turning back into a more racist and exclusionary society because we can't build a more open one without an agreement about what is true and therefore what is valuable. The leading edge that used to be about ever greater inclusion has turned itself into warring camps that clutch their identities very tightly and deny the ability of any "others" to understand them. Both the right and the left are involved in this...the right reverting to the racism that has been there under the surface all along, the left devolving into identity politics ever on the alert for micro aggression and latent oppression....both spewing hatred at each other.
I'm afraid that by trying to condense a whole book into a couple of paragraphs I am not doing justice to the argument. The main point I have taken from it is that we must agree that truth exists outside of our own feelings and wishes. Ken says that one of Trump's silver linings is that no one is seriously advancing the theory that there is no truth since he was elected. We are all pretty clear that there is truth and he isn't telling it. There is a hierarchy of values; some paths are more life-giving than others and those should be encouraged without reservation, including the promotion of the truth. No more false equivocation. The most important change is overcoming the mutual hatred. We need to remember that we grow by transcending and including the stage we were in before, not by erasing it. All of our stages combine to make us what we are and hating immature parts of ourselves does not help us overcome them, it just makes us stuck. I don't know how this might play out on a larger scale, but every change must begin inside. Hating racism (for example) without hating racists is hard but I am sure that contempt and hatred won't help them to change. If I were honest and introspective I might recognize the remnants of racism in myself and thereby cultivate more compassion for those caught in the fear of the other.
Our eventual goal, I think, is the ability of the culture to value and care for all beings, the planet as a whole, and perhaps eventually, worlds beyond. That would be growth worth working for.