One step backwards, two steps forwards
Trump, Brexit and the movement of history
- All of Us
- Issue 1
The radiations of history
I was a teenager in the 80’s when a democratic revolution swept Russia. At the time I remember President Gorbachev said something like – I’m paraphrasing from memory - (for the life of me I cannot find the exact quote! I think I read it in Time magazine), “It’s not us, we’re witnessing the movement of history”.
I remember the impression this statement made upon me at the time – it was a humble, thoughtful insight into the origin of the momentous changes he experienced. I think a historical context can be an important way of understanding some events - and in the case of Trump, Brexit and the rise of right wing factions across the West, I think this thinking applies, as I will hopefully explain.
There is a way of viewing human history that casts it into a clear pattern that really helps us understand and think about broad scale events and developments. Of course history is our-story, and that story is about the development of humanity itself. Our story, from the broadest viewpoint, is a series of emergent radiations in our very capacity for Human being.
Human history and human being has emerged in a sequence of radiations or waves of values and capacities over the last 300,000 years [Reference 1].
Several million to 300,000 thousand years ago we were animals that started to think. We formed survival bands – much akin to the culture of the Kalahari bushmen (only recently completely removed from the wild onto reservations). Between 55 and 35 thousand years ago, with a new collective identity, we formed tribes that worshipped nature spirits and ancestor spirits. Around 10,000 years ago, we broke away from the tribe with a new sense of autonomy and courageous individuality. We worshipped gods and in this age of Barbarism, we sought glory and honour. Around 4000 years ago things changed again, with the emergence of the great traditions such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism Christianity and Islam to name a few. After the black death in Europe we reinvented science, and, adopting the mathematics, astronomy and inspiration of the Islamic renaissance, we had a new one in Europe that finally stuck. It led to the resurgence of democracy, the end of slavery and the industrial revolution, not necessarily in that order. Finally around 1850, the suffragettes founded a new wave of values for equality and freedom that we now call post-modernism (Fig 1).
History can be viewed as a series of radiations from one level of cultural depth, complexity and human capacities to another greater depth of complexity. It is a series of radiations as well as a succession. In the same way all evolving systems build or flower from previous levels of creativity - each new radiation is founded upon the previous level of success. It builds upon it, uses it as a launch pad and a foundation for new mutation and creative adventure in how we can be. Throughout history, each radiation has been the advent of a greater depth of self awareness - both individually and collectively - and a greater awareness of others. Relationships deepen, perspectives widen, our humanity becomes more subtle with each new wave. This series of radiations is the story of the evolution of mind. [Reference 2]
History can be viewed as a series of radiations from one level of cultural depth, complexity and human capacities to another greater depth of complexity.
The series generally can’t be leapfrogged. For example, say we get a Caravaggio or a Galileo turn up in a Germanic barbarian tribe but without and education system for painters, tools, books, Christian towns and economies, patrons, academies, canvas etc what would they be. It can’t happen - for renaissances apparently you need something like a Christian Europe first, much like Baghdad needed something like Islamic Arabia first. The emergent series is just what it is - things happen in a particular order because they can only really happen that way, in that general sequence of emergences and adjacent possibilities.
This process of radiation is a response to the ‘life conditions’ populations experience, technologically, culturally, socially and economically. In particular, affluence and prosperity appear to be key drivers propelling this process of radiation. The relative affluence of any individual or society is essentially the free energy available to that individual or society to innovate itself. Affluence provides the option for cultural mutation, experimentation, and renewal. One of the reasons the Renaissance in Europe was able to take place was the increased affluence per capita due to a greatly reduced population – thank you the Black Death. The Black Death also rattled people’s faith in God and the Church, setting the stage for the emergence of modernistic values and cultures. Post modernism emerged out of the success of the industrial revolution. It’s a new radiation extending from this most recent explosion in affluence and prosperity.
These great radiations, as well as being radiations of depth and capacity, are also the solutions creatively found by the people living with the new problems created by the success of the previous radiation. For example, the emergence of Christianity was a fresh, revolutionary and innovative response to the Barbaric nature of Europe at the time. As with many traditions it innovated the ‘Golden Rule’ - “Do as to others as you would have them do to you” (As opposed to the Barbarian version: “Hit people really hard and take stuff from them”.) The golden rule was a founding value of a far more mature version of how to be Human. But in it’s success, this new wave of values created it’s own new problems - a Europe that was straightjacketed by the rules and more and more so the antiquated beliefs of the Christian Middle Ages. To solve this problem we, erm... renaissanced. This became the modern era of science, materialistic empiricism, industry, innovation, entrepreneurial endeavour. As we sit here, we are the very products of its success.
But this radiation too, in its success revealed new unprecedented problems. I think the quintessential example of this - and without a doubt the beginning of the end of the modernistic era - was the 2008 banking crisis. The amoral greed of the banks was revealed to be stunningly unscalable to our needs in the third millennium. The spectacular levels of carelessness and greed effectively produced a worldwide economic heart attack. We are now living in the context of this catastrophic failure.
Forwards and backwards
During the French Revolution, the progressives sat on the left hand side of the French parliament and this is how the left and the right got their names. It’s an incredibly misleading description of what’s going on. In fact, political value groupings are actually structured more like this: left = forwards, and right = backwards. Left generally represents the leading radiation(s) whilst the right generally represents the previous radiation(s). (Figure 1b) [Note 1]
The movements of values in populations are dynamic and flexible and can progress or regress as needed. Once a cultural mode and value system has been established—it’s always an option, an already established pattern of living. Broadly speaking, when times are tough, people tend to retreat to the most recent robust radiation of values and culture that is known and proven to be reasonably solid and sustainable. When times are good, we let our hair down and adopt more open positions.
There’s been a clear interruption in the recent trends towards greater affluence that started with the banking crash of 2008 – a moment that will, in my opinion, be recorded in history as the beginning of the end of modernism. This is a point I think everybody today intuitively understands. Capitalism has failed. It’s coming to an end. We may not all understand it with great insight but everyone is feeling it economically. As economic inequality increases, it’s creating a harder, less affluent world. I believe this is a key reason why right-leaning politics has dominated or renewed in many western democracies since the banking crash. Contrast this with the affluent nineties when everyone was lifted by a bountiful UK economy and in swept Blair’s government. That liberal feeling evaporated along with the money in 2008, leaving everyone on the back foot.
Estimates of living standards are a useful indicator of the current status of ‘life conditions’ and relative affluence in a society. A report has recently come out [Reference 3] saying the growth in life expectancy - something that we fully expected to continuously grow throughout this century has completely stalled in England since 2010. Stalled! If that’s not an indication of the current life conditions—I don’t know what is.
The answer to the question of “What should we do now?” is often a call to ‘go forwards!’ But in the US and in the UK when given the democratic option to have a say—we chose backwards. Why didn’t we go forwards? The reasons are vast and complex—but, again, I think it’s mainly because backwards is safer, robust, proven and known. It’s established, well rooted and widely supported by the large population of people who never moved or became more “forwards”. I think, also, people are struggling with the increasing complexities of modern life and finding themselves looking back towards more traditional modes as an option. Nostalgia played a part in this shift: Brexiteers longed for the Britain of a previous age, and Trump ran on “Make America great again”.
But there are other reasons we didn’t move forwards that are very much the fault of forwards. Forwards is failing us and we need to fix it.
Forwards has of course been around for ages. It’s the liberal progressive edge we invented to supersede modernism. It’s post-modernism. It’s aspirations to freedom, egalitarianism, fraternity and social equality for individuals no matter their orientations or origins and its emphatic emotional intelligence for the subjective lives of others has marked it as one of the most sophisticated radiations of depth and values we’ve ever grown into. Ideally this is the place we should all run to as Modernism fails - the next great step. A more socialistic, fairer, kinder society. However, in voting for Trump and Brexit, that’s spectacularly exactly not what we have done. Part of the reason for this is the leading edge has an illness. Something is not quite right.
The great fundamentalisms
There’s another aspect to this history of radiations I’ve not covered. They are all fundamentalistic by nature (so far). In other words individuals tend to believe that their way of perceiving life is the correct way—because that’s how they perceive it—so any other way is essentially not the right way to perceive it. That in and of itself isn’t fundamentalism, but it can become so, quite easily. Fundamentalism is a Human foible – no one’s really doing anything wrong—it’s just that we’re usually only familiar with one way of living – our way – whichever that one happens to be. When push comes to shove, we’ll fall back on it as a reference of how to be and how we think others should be.
You may be familiar with religious fundamentalism, but fundamentalism is well and truly a phenomenon of modernistic values and post-modernistic as well (and all preceding ones). For example, I think Sir Richard Dawkins’ repeated, well reasoned but disdainful attacks on religions of all kinds is a classic example of modernistic fundamentalism towards the preceding radiation and its fundamentals. Most of human history has been an endless cold war between the fundamental positions of these broad radiations.
Where do we go as a society when the most progressive of us deny others the option of living by what they believe?
Unfortunately, the postmodern wave of liberal pluralism also has a capacity for fundamentalism, too. It’s version goes something like this: “We think everyone has the right to live free of persecution, discrimination and undue control. We believe in the equal rights and unique intrinsic value, of all beings. We cherish liberty, fraternity and equality. We are all together in this. If you don’t agree with us—well then you can just f!@% off”.
You might say that the entire point of post-modern values is to exactly not do that – to be nice, to allow all viewpoints to be considered. So would I, but, unfortunately, that’s not how it’s panning out presently. Take, for a single example, the Gay Bakery Row...
In an nutshell, a gay customer requested a Bakery in Belfast make a ‘Bert and Ernie’ cake with a message saying “Support Gay Marriage” on it. The Bakery refused the request as they are Christian and it is against their beliefs. Gay person took the Bakers to the Belfast High Court for discrimination. The bakers lost the case. I think the Bakery owners were wrongly treated in this instance.
I would feel differently if we were talking about a mortgage application or a workplace incident—things that are really life changing or limiting in their significance. But this was a cake, in a bakery, in a major city full of bakeries. I would also feel differently if the bakery were actually refusing to serve people based on their sexual preferences/identity – which they weren’t – they were refusing fulfil this particular request, because it required they personally write down and supply and endorse via a sale the support of an idea they are deeply opposed to. The court ruled in the gay customer’s favour. The judge said – you are welcome to go into a Bakery and order a cake saying “Supporting heterosexual marriage”—and you would probably receive the cake. That’s a good point, but misses the issue entirely – completely ignoring the values and beliefs of the Bakery owners – which is the heart of the problem here. [Note 2]
I’m not gay, but I wholeheartedly support gay freedoms and equality, including marriage. I’m not Christian either. Actually, I think many of, if not most Christian beliefs are nonsensical to say the least—but I do believe in people’s right to believe what they need to believe and/or want to believe, as long as it’s not harming anyone else. Just because you or I may not understand their belief give us no right to prevent them from living by it.
I’d react in exactly the same way if I was asked to write something that contravened the fibre of my being. As I understand it, this decision sets precedent for a baker to be obligated by law to write jihadist propaganda on a cake when requested to do so, and then charge money for it! Even the great and not late, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, after changing his mind about the case, said it was a “step too far”. [Reference 4] He said: “Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”
To me this is an example (not the most clear cut one, I have to admit) of a fundamentalistic rejection of another’s position by post-moderns. I appreciate that is exactly what the Christians were doing (being fundamental to their own beliefs)—but my point is we need to be better than that!—not exactly the same! Assuming it was clear the issue was with the message requested, and not with the person requesting it—the mature, respectful, magnanimous and truly sophisticated response would have been to simply go to another bakery—not drag them through a court case just for being themselves. I do appreciate that to many of us the Christian arguments against same sex marriage are largely absurd and prehistoric (and I feel stupid even having to say this) but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to deny them their existence and beliefs as humans. They are part of our world, too, and they have every right to be here, just as they are.
Where do we go as a society when the most progressive of us deny others the option of living by what they believe? This is the nature of post-modern fundamentalism—out of a generally deserved sense of moral superiority, it can become a self-righteous and hypocritical manifestation of the very thing it’s fighting—a dictatorial power hierarchy. “It’s not OK for you to impose your beliefs on others if they don’t agree with them. But it is OK for us to impose our values and beliefs on you (even if you don’t agree with them), because ours are better than yours”. Fundamentalistic, excluding positions and equal rights are elementally opposed—they cannot co-exist.
In relation to other fundamentally different positions—a fundamental position can become violent in nature. There is a distinct “us and them” separation —and once that separation is there in thought, violence can ensue. Violence doesn’t have to be physical. Social violence is an extreme and horrendous reality that can be just as bad in different ways. There has been a recent and ongoing spate of violent protests by university students who don’t seem to understand the concept of freedom of speech (a modernistic invention enshrined in that greatest of all modernistic documents – the constitution of the United States). Repeatedly, students protest about lectures on topics they don’t consider acceptable have caused them to be disrupted or shut down completely, sometimes using physical violence. [Note 3]
By violently attacking others for their differing values—in the name of equality, fraternity and liberty—the progressive edge perfectly undermines itself. I understand how frustrating and offensive less sensitive people can be—but as the latest and greatest, most sophisticated wave of human, the onus is on us to be the adults in these conflicts. For this reason, my heart sank when I saw people rioting after Trump’s election. Starting fires and destroying property only made the progressive crowd look unfit, dangerous and crazy – and gives the far right the perfect propaganda to use against us.
I think if we combine these issues with the nature of the internet and social media – we end up with a perfect storm of problems at the leading edge. Consider the dismissal of Nobel Prize winning scientist, Tim Hunt. Hunt had been invited to speak at the global conference of science journalists in Seoul at a meeting about women in science. He got up and said (as a very poor opening joke): “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.”
He said he made them in them in a “totally jocular, ironic way” [Reference 5]. He then went on to say: ”Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” Maybe, in all, not a perfect statement – but one can tell from these words—the man is self depreciating, not very funny—and not a sexist.
Audience members started tweeting his initial remarks out of this context. Later that day, the mediasphere went nuts. By the time Tim’s plane landed in England his wife had been told he was fired from his job at University College London. He didn’t even get to meet or in any way speak with the University staff about it. He was also forced to step down from the European research council and experienced strong pressure from the Royal Society, of which he is a fellow. He has repeatedly apologised and had several women scientists mentored by him also vouched for him, to no avail.
To me, considering the circumstances, the journalists who took his comments out of context and the University administration are to blame here—though Tim also blames himself and has been very apologetic. Quoting a bad joke out of context as a serious statement is just irresponsible, considering the possible affects upon the person being quoted—the person who’s clearly not sexist. Simultaneously, the University College of London administration apparently won’t show any backbone in a fight, or help demonstrate what a mature response is in the face of an crazed worldwide social media fuelled witch hunt. They just stopped talking to him, without asking for his side of events.
This is a case of an obsession with political correctness that’s lost it’s way. This is the social violence of post-moderns—enabled and amplified by internet media—creating new victims of innocents—in the name of protecting innocents. It’s really trolling—just by progressives. Normal, real, bad actual trolling has the same dysfunction—glib lack of understanding, consideration or concern for the individual attacked. The only actual victim of any discrimination in all of this was Tim.
Two steps forwards
During the writing of this article the pro Gay marriage campaign in Australia started a petition (after much outcry it was pulled and is no longer active) to the Australian Medical Association to have a doctor de-registered (or in other words—completely destroy her life) for supporting the No campaign in a television ad. A few days later, a 16 year old girl was fired from her job for supporting the ‘No’ campaign on her Facebook profile. These appear to be more examples of progressives failing to understand and actively attempting to undermine basic rights to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is essentially freedom of belief and it’s the very platform that allows progressives to campaign for anything in the first place. Trying to revert this right is akin to unpicking the seams of the fabric of society itself, not building upon it or developing it.
In the name of equality, unity, liberty and fairness the progressive edge, on it’s worst days, has come to institute new hierarchies and divisions that also aggressively divide, ignore, attack and diminish people it doesn’t like. The violence with which these values are currently championed perfectly undermines them and really speaks volumes about where this value wave is currently at. It has apparently lost the careful beautiful and inspired magnanimity it previously bestowed upon us in the late 60’s, and too often descends into a glib meanness. And meanness is just mean—it never has been and never will be ok.
The ‘basket of deplorables’ are endlessly condemned, ridiculed and misunderstood. They too really believe their values are the best for everybody and many are earnestly doing their honest best to help. They are rightly alarmed by the vitriol directed at them and their friends when they step out of the strict politically correct ‘rules’ they just don’t understand. There’s apparently little attempt to understand them, to include them, to care about them. Really they should ideally feel a pull on their best bits, their good hearts, from the progressive edge but generally they feel attacked. This just makes them retreat to their own fundamentalistic value positions—not consider leaving them for entirely new ones. They may not feel represented properly in the press, but they do get to vote. If they are not engaged with appropriately they will simply keep voting against forwards...and there’s more of them than there are of us! (Fig 1a.)
Those at the leading edges feel dismayed, stunned, bewildered that Trump could be voted in, Brexit could happen, the far right could rise up when they
The progressive edge needs to take responsibility for it’s own dysfunctions. It’s critical that it re-forms, renovates and renews. It must contemplate the nature of violence, how it separates, even if it’s just the social violence of words and ideas. Contemplate the nature of web media and how it can polarize and separate us with glib or shallow commentaries and echo boxes. Whilst cherishing and championing it’s sophisticated core values, it needs to do something completely new. It must learn to be genuinely inclusive. It must consider its responsibilities to be the grown up - to bring along and care about those that don’t understand it.
There’s a marvellous opportunity here to innovate by contemplating how an isolating fundamentalistic attitude (“Our way or the highway”) cannot never ever couple with a genuinely inclusive value system (“All of us”). Because our society is comprised of many different walks of Human—‘inclusive’ means learning how to actively respect the right to be completely different.
History is a messy business. Often what’s involved is two steps forward, one step back, the occasional calamitous mistake and now and then a truly momentous leap forward. The times we are living in demand that we collectively rise to the new challenges facing us. In part I think that means all of us growing, rethinking, developing, becoming deeper, more considerate careful souls. I’m firmly of the belief this is a good time to innovate a new radiation in our capacity for human—a post-fundamentalistic, more encompassing, more magnanimous and inclusive radiation that can, big heartedly accept real difference, by trying hard to understand the different walks of Human and why they exist. By genuinely finding a way to be deeply concerned about everybody. To genuinely passionately care for all those with whom we agree and, all those we don’t. It’s really hard to do this. It’s a real stretch. I think this would be a great big new step it seems we have yet to take.
- Note 1.
EDIT: The infographic is a little confusing in that figure 1a aims to chart values and estimated populations, whilst figure 1b really maps the values expressed by political parties as a whole, not of the population of individuals in the party. Go to reference in main text
- Note 2.
In fairness the judges also said: “There appears to have been no consideration given to any other measures such as the non-Christian decorator icing the cake or, alternatively, sub-contracting this order.” But again I think this misses the point of an individual having to actively help propagate an idea they fundamentally cannot. The law says they must—the judges ruled. I’m sure they really understand the law they are ruling on—but the law as it stands appears to be not subtle enough to be sensitive to the issues at hand in this instance. This particular instance infringes upon vital basic human needs to be ourselves on some things.
Go to reference in main text
- Note 3.
The problems students are facing on campuses are complex. I found this interview by the NY Times with Erwin Chemerinsky, a new dean at University of California quite helpful. “The Free Speech – Hate Speech Trade off”: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/opinion/berkeley-dean-erwin-chemerinsky.html Go to reference in main text
- Reference 1.
See Morocco discovery: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/07/science/human-fossils-morocco.html Go to reference in main text
- Reference 2.
A Theory of Everything by Ken Wilber If you find the emergent stage view of history compelling, this is recommended reading. Go to reference in main text
- Reference 3.
Life expectancy progress in UK ‘stops for first time’, BBC News, 25 September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45638646 Go to reference in main text
- Reference 4.
Peter Tatchell comments on Gay bakery row: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/01/gay-cake-row-i-changed-my-mind-ashers-bakery-freedom-of-conscience-religion Go to reference in main text
- Reference 5.
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/13/tim-hunt-hung-out-to-dry-interview-mary-collins Go to reference in main text