By Joe Perez
Given that I wrote recently about an essay of Frank Visser’s which raised the topic of Ken Wilber’s 2006 Wyatt Earp post, I was given the opportunity to re-read what Ken had to say about cross-altitude criticism. It’s an important topic owing to the Integral worldview’s finding that there is not one consciousness that all people share, but a variety of worldspaces conditioned by our developmental level, each of which interact with other extant worldspaces out of virtually inescapable prisms of their own action-logic. Religious fundamentalists and postmodern feminist theorists don’t just disagree about facts, they talk right past each other in ways that neither quite understands.
In “What We Are, That We See. Part I: Response to Some Recent Criticism in a Wild West Fashion” (the Wyatt Earpy post), Ken Wilber wrote:
In short, it’s just ridiculous to say that I try to hide from this criticism, I live on it! Every new truth I find, I rejoice. That’s why it went from wilber-1 all the way to wilber-5. This is what second tier does automatically anyway, it takes new truths wherever it finds themand weaves them into larger tapestries. It can’t help doing so! If I find one, I am ecstatic! So mark this well: Only a first-tier mentality would even think that one would run away from good criticism. But then these folks…. Okay, I won’t even take a shot at that one, too easy.
But I suppose it should be pointed out that many of the ideas these critics offer are in fact at a green or orange altitude, and not even teal or turquoise altitude, where they could at least begin to see the integral patterns that connect. These critics simply cannot see these phenomena, which are “over their heads,” to borrow Kegan’s felicitous phrase—and they get absolutely furious, and I mean furious, when this is pointed out or even mentioned.
But furious or not, that happens to be a completely valid critical approach. So I’ll stop teasing the animals for a moment and get serious. For the developmentalist, some ideas are not at the altitude of those they are criticizing, and those criticisms, in those specific aspects, are nonsensical. Strictly speaking, they are neither true nor false, but empty.
For example, if a blue vMEME says to an orange vMEME, “Excuse me, but I can prove that your entire notion of evolution is wrong, because it is not in the Bible,” then that statement, qua criticism, is not so much false as nonsensical: it is not even in touch with that which it is criticizing, and thus this “cross-level” problem is a paradigm clash, and it cannot be decided with any amount of facts that blue will accept.
In other words, blue will continue to believe that evolution does not exist, no matter how much evidence you produce to the contrary. Blue will actually produce a ton of what it considers to be facts; it will quote the Bible chapter and verse, bringing forth what are indeed actual phenomena and actual facts at that blue level, facts that are absolutely true at that level. So these types of arguments are futile as regards their core claims (although you can always learn something from both sides, simply because they are both producing interesting truths and facts and evidence at their own levels.) But when it comes to cross-level truth-claims, neither side will reach a happy resolution to their core disputes. Orange will not be happy because blue does not accept evolution; blue will not be happy because orange does not accept the Bible. Nor will they be happy until blue evolves to orange (or orange regresses to blue)…. But absent that, both of these less-than-integral levels violate, among other things, the principles of integrative epistemology (see excerpt B).
Thus, it is a completely valid argument for a developmentalist to point out that fact (i.e., the cross-level or paradigm-clash intractability). There is nothing that turquoise or indigo can ever say to green that will make it happy. Thus, the idea that, for example, turquoise is supposed to enter a “dialogue” with green is nonsensical, and nothing in that dialogue will change green’s mind fundamentally (unless green transforms to turquoise). Turquoise can see green and its facts, but green cannot see turquoise and its facts, and thus this cross-level altitude problem jams any real dialogue in that capacity—and yet all that green does is scream for dialogue, dialogue, dialogue…. which in these cases are empty, empty, empty.
I am truly sorry, but that is the developmentalist’s answer to the cry for dialogue in these cross-level cases (again, something can always be learned by both sides, but that is not the issue here). And green always takes turquoise’s failure to make green happy as proof that green is right and turquoise is a bastard. And even a bald bastard with ambition, I might add, instead of even being able to lay blame where it in fact belongs, which is on its own sorry-ass, first-tier, lame-brain case of arrested development, a two-bit, no-fit, nobody-quoting, self-promoting, gas-floating, over-bloating, no deposit, lame composite, really lost it, never had it, wanna bees, felled at the knees, first-tier fleas, flick ‘em off his back and never look back: “Holy mackerel! let’s go get a slurpee,” says lonesome rider, Wyatt Earpy.
These are good points to be reminded of, particularly at a time when I have re-started blogging on a nearly daily basis for the first time in quite a while. Given that I’ve written over 1,000 blog posts (a few hundred of which are still online in the Joe-Perez.com archives), I’ve picked up a thing or two about interacting with people at all stations of life in the blogosphere. I’m now sorting out within myself and in daily blogging the proper tone and energy to bring to this new endeavor.
I take Wilber to be speaking accurately, though not politely, in this excerpt (there’s a reason he said he was writing in Wild West Fashion). The point he makes that so many integralists seem to quickly forget is that pointing out a difference in developmental altitude is a completely valid approach. You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to tell integralists this, but it definitely is.
In my 2006 book Rising Up, which consists mainly of cultural criticism, I identify the chief task of the critic as locating the item under examination within a broader, more inclusive context than it knows for itself. To go on, an integral critic does not arbitrate an object’s rightness and wrongness, but examines the object’s role in and its usefulness or lack thereof to the health of the spiral of development. It is an ethical evaluation.
Within this sort of activity, observing the altitude of a person’s action or argument and identifying its blind spots is not illegitimate, it is a gift! I’m not saying that it’s possible to do a formal psychological assessment of someone’s ego maturity simply on the basis of what they write, but it’s usually possible to get close enough. The religious fundamentalist is probably talking from an Amber lens; the atheistic scientific materialist is probably at Orange; the radical queer theorist is probably coming from Green; and so on.
As I see it, this is a pointing out instruction of the wisest sort, but definitely not the most diplomatic sort (since people don’t like to be told that their argument lacks maturity or, to put it another way, they’re “a sorry-ass, first-tier, lame-brain case of arrested development”). Without this intervening instruction, the object of criticism remains deluded in terms of their self-awareness, and filled with false pride they stagnate and possibly fester in the dysfunctions of first-tier consciousness.
Ken also tells us about the ineffectiveness of “dialogue” between second-tier and first-tier, particularly between teal/turquoise and green (or you might say between post-postmodern and postmodern). It is wise in this context to remember something I read somewhere in one of Ken’s books, that if you are asked to change 5% or more of your worldview, you encounter massive internal resistance. And the transition between first-tier and second-tier is just such a comprehensive overhaul for many of us. It is easier for some people, but my experience is that it is a re-writing of the mind’s operating system requiring a complete shut down and reboot and years of de-bugging. Basically you can’t win an argument when the other person isn’t ready to grow into your vantage point. They need time to grow, but they also need to know that growth is possible and desirable.
Beyond the topic of cross-altitude conversations, there is another issue: naughtiness or niceness. Which is a more effective posture, a forceful display of public disapproval which is bound to wound egos, or a gentle nudging with friendly and soft words of mild criticism? On this topic, I found the relevant blog post “Academic assholes and the circle of niceness” by Dr. Inger Mewburn. He writes:
In his best selling book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, has a lot to say on the topic of, well, assholes in the workplace. The book is erudite and amusing in equal measures and well worth reading especially for the final chapter where Sutton examines the advantages of being an asshole. He cites work by Teresa Amabile, who did a series of controlled experiments using fictitious book reviews. While the reviews themselves essentially made the same observations about the books, the tone in which the reviewers expressed their observations was tweaked to be either nice or nasty. What Amabile found was:
… negative or unkind people were seen as less likeable but more intelligent, competent and expert than those who expressed the the same messages in gentler ways
Despite the risks of seeming less intelligent, less competent, and less expert than his peers, Dr. Mewburn advocates niceness. He writes:
Sutton takes a whole book to talk through the benefits of not being an asshole and I want to believe him. He clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. I suspect this happens in academia all the time. It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.
Ultimately we are all diminished when clever people walk away from academia. So what can we do? It’s tempting to point the finger at senior academics for creating a poor workplace culture, but I’ve experienced this behaviour from people at all levels of the academic hierarchy. We need to work together to break the circle of nastiness.
As it happens, I’m not sure about his conclusions but they may be of value for academics, given the university’s dominant postmodernism which means that power is in the hands of people who value sensitivity and political correctness more than truth (because what is truth but a fiction created by the powerful?). At least it’s the safe route for those without tenure. Regardless, somehow I doubt that nice is the right formula for a successful Integral Blog. Blogs are rough and tumble spaces, and for better or for worse an occasional temper tantrum or venture into controversy helps build an audience. Blog readers don’t want to read bloggers who aren’t willing to stick up for their beliefs.
There used to be another integral blog run mainly by a close circle of Canadians which had a good run for about four years.* I read it regularly and noticed that the contributors seemed to be a mix of folks at first-tier and second-tier consciousness who worked very hard to be nice to each other and create an atmosphere where every single contributor and commenter on the blog felt heard, appreciated, and respected regardless of the altitude of consciousness which informed their ideas. They did good work. It seemed to me that they tried to be “sneakily integral”, usually** not one of those other Integral publications which actually used Integral Theory (if only because those were laden with too much “jargon” which pushed people away). As one might expect from Canadians, they didn’t always agree with their community members but they were usually very nice and civil and insisted that all commenters be well-behaved.
It was a fine experiment, but their blog didn’t persist very long. I hear they all were busy people and got too busy to blog anymore. I’m sure some would say that the blog’s failure to endure is an indictment somehow of integralism. But I wonder if a good part of what held them back was that their approach of sneaking watered down integral ideas in the back door of culture just wasn’t clear, firm, and direct enough. Instead of creating a desire to learn Integral theory and philosophy in their readers, they sought to bury the heady stuff and do without it entirely. As you might expect given the presence of first-tier contributors, there were a lot of posts having nothing to do with integral ideas or practices (they seemed to want to be their own version of The New Yorker). Instead of calling out first-tier thinkers on their problematics, they too often applauded them and soothed their egos. And sometimes when a good piece of Integral writing came to their attention, it met the chopping block of first-tier indifference, or a puzzling response of polite but lukewarm appreciation.
If you ask me, there wasn’t enough “strutting” on that blog, defined as a willingness to walk with an apparently arrogant gait. Nor were their ideas consistently presented with the solid beams of the AQAL Framework (or an alternative Integral model such as Spiral Dynamics). Doing shadow work on myself: If I spot it, I got it. I have a strong nice streak myself and believe that it holds me back from displaying the depths of my knowledge and abilities.
Going forward, I want to offer more beams and struts here rather than soft and squishy commentary. I want to engage readers with Integral ideas presented in a straighforward not sneaky fashion. I’ll try to borrow some things that worked for other publications and other critics, but I’ve gotta find my own voice (again), circa December 2014-. I do hope I find sufficient subscriber support for keeping the project funded so that it keeps going.
Yes, I’ve been down this road before with Rising Up, but that work was entirely unfunded and it was not possible to keep it going after a while. Since then, I’ve learned a thing or two since then (and gravitated higher in ego-maturity). I’m back now and believe the work of co-creating a healthy ecosystem of Integral ideas in the blogosphere has never been more important. I don’t have all the answers and not sure I have the formula for success, but I’m giving it my best shot.
* Chris Dierkes, Content Editor for B&S, writes: “[T]he reason we closed the site down was because we had far exceeded our original goals in launching it. It was becoming a major enterprise and given where our lives were going we decided it was best to close up shop. You would have known that if you asked us. We would have been happy to say so. It had nothing to do with squishiness or not.”
He also claims the site was online for four years and was not run exclusively by Canadians. The post has been updated to reflect these corrections.
** The B&S team did offer some explicitly Integral articles and posts mixed in with the squishier content, less so towards the end of their run, by which time they had removed “An Integral Inquiry…” from their tagline in favor of the squishier “For Hungry Brains and Thirsty Souls”.