The events in the Middle East provide a riveting display of the developmental stages of consciousness and culture in action. As of this morning protests have broken out in 20 countries throughout the Muslim world, demonstrating against the US, and Western powers including Germany and England.
What is at work here? Obviously, a lot of things: religious honor, internal politics, economic frustration, idle young men and all the accumulated karmas of a long history of imperialism and autocracy.
(And for perspective let’s also note what is not going on here. Aside from the killings and property damage, the uprisings are actually less than meets the eye. The demonstrations in Cairo, covered breathlessly for days by the US media, consisted of a few thousand people at its height, according to the BBC; this is out of a city of 9 million and a country of 82 million. Nevertheless, a highly-reactive media is an important part of the world’s nervous system, and in this case is it alerting us to an important and difficult issue: whether they joined the demonstrations or not, a lot of Arabs are royally pissed at the West.)
Integral theory gives us a high-resolution lens with which to look at the situation. Through it we see that the outrage and violence, whether in the form of the al Qaeda attack on our consulate in Benghazi, or the Embassy demonstrations throughout the region, are driven by a sense of insult. This is an impulse that arises out of the premodern mind, first in the warrior stage of development (red altitude), which is driven by honor codes, but it stays strong through the traditional stage (amber altitude), which is mythic-fundamentalist and socially conservative. Both of these structures are very reactive to any perceived affront to their honor.
So here we have an interesting point of integral inquiry: how is it that honor codes are so powerful to the premodern mind? What role do they have in development? And since we know that evolution is a process of transcending by including, how are these codes still alive in the psyches of modern, postmodern and integral folks (remember, we all have a strata of premodern mind)?
Honor codes, systems of revenge, feuding and often murderous face-saving (killing a dishonored daughter, for instance) represent a major increase in complexity from the primitive social systems of early tribal cultures. As renegade tribes conquered and assimilated other tribes, the elders and spirits who had maintained control of the society became less relevant. Sheer brute force could easily overcome them and so power became the new currency. The rule of law was literally thousands of years in the future; there were no police to call if you were threatened by your neighbors and no one to haul them away when they stole your food or daughter. You had to fend for yourself, and the number one law of the jungle is: look big and look tough. Cats arch their backs, dogs raise their hackles, birds ruffle their feathers. Humans add weapons and complex psychological tactics, including a good healthy dose of Don’t Mess With Me I’m Fucking Crazy. (By the way, this is why we often watch our leaders provoke each other and think “these people are fucking crazy.” They’re not; they’re just acting that way on our behalf). As in the animal kingdom, a lot of human conflict is expressed as theater, bluster and games of chicken, and are functional in that they provide a symbolic means of conflict short of war. The downside is that the ritual can sometimes jump the tracks into real mayhem. We’ve seen a lot of the former in the last week as well as a few tragic cases of the latter.
Many commentators see these protesters as a group of people who don’t want any part of the modern world. But what if it’s just the opposite? What if they are people who deeply need to be seen by the modern world? People who feel invisible and left out? People who are sick about their poorly educated and underemployed kids. Who are deeply humiliated by the fact that the entire Arab world, 22 countries with over 350 million people, home of one of history’s great civilizations, creates fewer exports than Finland?
A broader look shows us that honor codes have more to do with stage development than with any particular religion. Revenge, honor killings and trans-generational blood feuds mark the premodern stage of all cultures and religions, strains of which persist into our present day. I include Tibetan Buddhism, where just a few years ago in the Dalai Lama’s home city of Dharmasala, the young monks of one sect ninjaed their way into the sleeping quarters of a rival sect and stabbed them to death. Here in the USA, we have a fascinating trial going on in Ohio where one Christian Amish group is accused of assaulting their rivals and cutting off the men’s beards and the women’s hair. (The premodern mind deals in fetishes and totems, echoes of which are evident today in the Arab protesters’ desecration of the American flag — and Americans’ outrage at the sight of it.)
Where else do we see premodern thinking in Western culture?
“Innocence of Muslims,” the anti-Islam movie that kicked this whole mess off is itself a product of premodern thinking: an intentional insult to the the Prophet Mohammed. Anyone who has ever watched a Godfather movie (which depicts another world of premodern honor-based power dynamics) knows that an lethal insult is an invitation to fight. If we are to judge this movie’s success on it’s own terms, it has indeed become a blockbuster.
Premodern thinking is the source of Romney’s gaffe where he prematurely criticized Obama for apologizing to and sympathizing with the people who attacked our Embassy in Cairo. The backlash that Romney faced was more for the craven opportunism and timing of the comment and less for the content itself. Neither side thought it was a good idea to apologize to or sympathize with the attackers, and Obama’s supporters were vehement in pointing out that he was not doing that (even Rachel Maddow!).
Then there is the dark heart of premodern thinking in American politics, the neo-conservative movement. On Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News on Friday, neocon commentator Charles Krauthammer bitterly criticized Barack Obama for saying in his 2008 Cairo speech that the tide of war is receding. “That means the tide of American power is receding,” Krauthammer complained. It’s a statement remarkable for its candor as well as its clarity in presenting the neocon perspective. For them, American power is projected primarily by the use or credible threat of force. Without it a vacuum is created which our enemies fill. In this scenario what’s going on in the Middle East is the inevitable Arab Winter of violence and anti-Americanism — the natural result of Obama’s policy of withdrawal (from Iraq and soon Afghanistan), abandoning allies (Egypt’s Mubarak), and leading from behind (Libya).
Krauthammer, Hannity, and others who share their worldview are fascinating examples of people who are modern in their exteriors but premodern in their interiors. They can master the technologies and mores of modern life, but inside they experience the cosmos – and their world and life – as a giant battle between good and evil. If that is what you see then the sane response is holy war, whether you’re an Islamic fundamentalist or a personality on Fox News. And if you do not fight the enemy – the Enemy – then you are not being faithful to God and your eternal soul is at risk. So enough of this talk about how the world will live as One. The last trick of the Devil is to convince you that he doesn’t exist.
Not all neocons make this calculation as theologically as I just did but they do believe in the implacable enemy, the foe that has no chance of becoming a friend, the evil one that must be given no quarter, that must be fought on all fronts and can never be engaged or trusted, only defeated.
And if you do not see the implacable enemy then you are naive and deluded about the existence of real evil in the world. This is the conservative critique of us liberals: that we have a bunch of Pollyanna ideas about how everybody should just all get along. We blame ourselves for making our enemies mad. We explain their violence away with bullshit theories about how we have victimized them. And that leads us to sympathizing with and apologizing to the Devil!
As practicing integralists we can work with this by asking ourselves: what are the neocons right about? What piece of the truth do they have? To answer these questions we can practice accessing the premodern strata of our own minds. There’s a deep part of us that realizes there is something in the universe that passes for real evil, and that sometimes life presents us with resistance that does not respond to anything but force.
But our more modern and sophisticated mind realizes that these enemies are few and far between. Al Qaeda clearly counts as an enemy of the sort. The people of Egypt clearly don’t.
How can we know the difference? I have a rule of thumb I call the “cave or palace” test. If the leaders of the enemy live in a cave they’re probably operating out of the Warrior mode (motto: “today is a good day to die!”), and they would be delighted to blow themselves up for the chance to take you out. It’s their ticket to 72 virgins and residence in the land of milk and honey. If the leaders of your enemy live in a palace … not so much. They may think you’re evil and the world would be a better place with you gone, but they’re not keen on dying to make that point.
As for our implacable enemy, al Qaeda, they may have won a battle in Benghazi, but they are badly losing the holy war. Obama is indeed “bringing them to justice” or rather bringing justice to them in the form of drone missiles. Considering their motivation and financing, it’s amazing that they have a wreaked more havoc in the world. And this is an one of the least appreciated results of modernity: the complexity of mind and technology that creates weaponry and indeed human intelligence for which violent premoderns are no match.
But as for the angry, outraged Arab street, hey, why don’t we sympathize? Sympathy is fundamental to integral consciousness, and can be cultivated through the actual practice of taking the perspective of other people.
As we do we may begin to see them differently. Many commentators see these protesters as a group of people who don’t want any part of the modern world. But what if it’s just the opposite? What if they are people who deeply need to be seen by the modern world? People who feel invisible and left out? People who are sick about their poorly educated and underemployed kids. Who are deeply humiliated by the fact that the entire Arab world, 22 countries with over 350 million people, home of one of history’s great civilizations, creates fewer exports than Finland?
There are many reasons for the Arabs’ unhappy circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t face the fact that one of the big reasons is us.
For decades, the US invested many billions of dollars in Arab dictators who ruled their people with an iron fist in return for peace with Israel and nonalignment with Russia. Considering the nationalist worldview of the time, it was probably a reasonably good bargain. But most Americans don’t have the stomach for it any more; we’re developing a worldcentric morality that allows us to feel their pain. And this is all that is required. It’s a bit like restorative therapy; real healing takes place when the victim knows that the victimizer sees what they have done.
So yes, Evolutionaries, by all means let’s sympathize with our enemies! It doesn’t mean rolling over, it doesn’t mean giving them their way. It is simply an integral response to an historic imbalance, one that actually has a chance of setting things right.
And while we’re at it, let’s practice sympathizing with the neocons as well. For most of my liberal friends, this will be the harder task.