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The Chrysalis Effect
The Metamorphosis of Global Culture
By Philip Slater
Sussex Academic PressCopyright © 2014 Philip Slater
All rights reserved.
In the Middle of the Bridge
A great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully constructed denials. Mark Z. Danielewski
What is now proved was once, only imagin'd. William Blake
Our entire globe is convulsed with change. There's confusion over values, a loss of ethical certainty, a bewildering lack of consensus about almost everything. Why is the world in such a mess?
Because, like the caterpillar, we're undergoing a profound metamorphosis. And, to put it mildly, not everyone is overjoyed about it. Large segments of the population, both in America and throughout the world, would just as soon go on chomping leaves. Besides, it's a messy business being liquefied, even if you get to fly at the end of it.
But why is this metamorphosis happening? When did it start? Is it a good thing?
A better question might be: Is it a necessary thing? Jared Diamond, in his study of failed cultures, observes that what usually decides whether a society survives or collapses seems to be a "willingness to reconsider core values".
The good news is that the world has already been engaged in this for over two centuries. The values and assumptions we've been operating on for thousands of years — and which have brought our species to the brink of disaster — are all being challenged today.
The Decade of Sudden Acceleration
I've been impressed lately with how poorly people today understand the 1960s. To the media, of course, the decade was just about wearing funny clothes and long hair, taking drugs and protesting. It came and went, like all fashions. Because that's what media are about — fashions, surfaces, fads.
Others idealize the sixties. They seem to have forgotten that in the sixties what we now think of as a right-wing mentality characterized most of the nation. The sixties innovators were long on visibility but short on numbers. Despite all the huge marches and protests between 1967 and 1971, Richard Nixon won the 1972 election in a popular landslide.
The sixties were only a beginning. And while beginnings are fascinating and exciting, they only become significant if what has begun continues to grow. And in this sense, the sixties never ended. Did Jim Crow return to the South? Did blacks disappear from TV? Did women go back in the kitchen and stop going to professional schools? Did sex become taboo in the media and people start having to pretend they were married to live together or have children? Did interest in New Age ideas, alternative medicine, and organic foods suddenly come to an end? Did everyone revert to the environmental habits of the 1950s? Did people stop protesting foolish and unnecessary wars?
The truth is, all the trends that began in the sixties have flourished in the ensuing decades. If this weren't so, the fundamentalist backlash so familiar to us today wouldn't have occurred. It was the challenge to a host of basic cultural assumptions at once that horrified traditionalists the world over. As Joel Arthur Barker observed a decade ago:
We're living in a time when fundamental rules, the basic ways we do things, have been altered dramatically. What was right and appropriate in the early 1960s is wrong and inappropriate today. And what was impossible, crazy, or clearly out of line in the early 1960s is so ordinary that we forget it wasn't always that way.
Few people in the sixties recognized the common denominator to these movements, and the various groups involved — hippies, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, feminists — engaged in loud and bitter arguments about priorities. But the Radical Right correctly saw in these movements the overthrow of an entire cultural tradition, and mobilized the antibodies. Yet despite their many political successes in the last two and a half decades they have been unable even to slow it down.
"The Center Will Not Hold"
We're used to riding the rapids of technological change, but social change, historically, has proceeded at the pace of a stream meandering through a dense swamp. The recent speed of social change has put a strain on our adaptive capabilities. We've had to adjust not merely to computers and cell phones and the Internet, but to the changing status of women and minorities, the sexual revolution, the decline of the nuclear family, the global economy, the increasing meaninglessness of national boundaries, the ecological movement, the bewildering concepts of modern physics, and so on. All in a few decades.
Consider the poor caterpillar again: it doesn't know it's going to become a butterfly. It doesn't even know what a butterfly is. It only knows it was perfectly happy crawling along and gorging itself when suddenly its world was completely turned upside down, and it found itself under attack from un unknown source.
As humans we have more awareness. We may welcome the changes that are happening and see in them a happier future. But it's also part of our human makeup to long for things to be simpler, to want something immutable and permanent. Which accounts for the increasing strength — in our largely secular, ecumenical society — of fundamentalism. It's as if people were saying, "I can accept that everything I own and everything I've learned and everything I enjoy is rapidly becoming obsolete, as long as I have these ancient dogmas I can hold onto amid the chaos". And who among us has not had days of wishing the world would slow down for a moment so we could get our bearings?
Obviously this isn't just an American response. The fundamentalists of the United States are mirrored in the fundamentalists of Islam, and the conflict between 'reds' and 'blues' in the United States is mirrored in the battle between Iranian ayatollahs and Iranian secularists. Everywhere on earth people are embracing change warmly and resisting it fiercely.
Some people talk about a 'culture war' between the West and Islam. But the real culture clash is taking place within I slam and within the West. This is not a conflict between nations, or between religions, or between left and right. The conflict is within every nation, every political party, every religious tradition, every institution, every individual.
Incivility and chaos arise when an old system is breaking down and a new one hasn't yet fully taken hold. Today we're in that very spot, undergoing a transition between two global cultural systems with opposing values and assumptions: one of them thousands of years old and dying, but still tenacious, exhausting itself in ever more violent resurgences; the other in its youth, but growing stronger every day.
The change has been going on for generations, but in the last fifty years the pace has accelerated, creating the most rapid social upheaval in the history of our species. It has even led some fundamentalists to anticipate the end of the world.
And in a sense it is. The ending of an old world, the beginning of a new one. It's changing everything around us, from international relations to sexual relations, from how we arrange governments to how we arrange our gardens, from how we think about God to how we think about the atom.
And we're in the middle of it, trying to live normal lives.
The ongoing battle over evolution is usually defined as science vs. religion, but it goes far beyond that, reflecting two opposite ways of conceptualizing the world. Creationists and scientists are after all considering the same data — a planet full of living creatures of extraordinary complexity, coexisting in an ecological system of even greater complexity. The creationist looks at this and thinks, this could only have come about as the conscious creation of a humanoid intelligence — some sort of über-authority — since it would be impossible for this sort of thing to evolve on its own. He assumes that complexity presupposes intelligence. The scientist, on the other hand, would say the creationist has it backwards — that intelligence springs from organizational complexity. Mind inheres in any cybernetic system capable of learning from trial and error and becoming self-correcting.
Lewis Thomas points out that a single ant wandering about in aimless circles seems the height of stupidity. It's only when you're confronted with one of those long columns, running all the way from your garden into the house, up the stairs, into your cat's dish or honey jar and back again, that you can say intelligence is at work. But whose? There's no dictator ant. Alone every ant is as stupid as the next.
Termites are even more extraordinary in the way they seem to accumulate intelligence as they gather together. Two or three termites in a chamber will begin to pick up pellets and move them from place to place, but nothing comes of it; nothing is built. As more join in, they seem to reach a critical mass, a quorum, and the thinking begins.
Creationism is inherently anti-democratic. It says order can only be imposed from above by some sort of dictator — that order can't evolve from interaction among equals. The great visionary Mary Parker Follett called democracy a form of self-creating coherence. This universal tendency toward spontaneous integration by living things is a deeply spiritual concept to many people, but anathema to mainstream religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which are rooted in deeply authoritarian traditions.
Creationism, then, is based on a cultural principle of authoritarian control, while evolutionary theory is based on a cultural assumption of spontaneous integration. This difference underlies virtually all the social changes that have occurred in the past two centuries or more.
The Two Systems
The old system I call Control Culture. Its concern with mastery led to the creation of rigid mental and physical compartments, a static vision of the universe, a deep dependence on authoritarian rule, a conviction that order was something that had to be imposed, and a preoccupation with combat.
The new system I call Integrative Culture, because its guiding impulse is to dissolve mental walls and permeate artificial boundaries — to celebrate interdependence. It has a dynamic vision of the universe, a democratic ethos, and sees order as something that evolves, as it does in Nature, from spontaneous interaction.
Control culture was coherent. If your life revolves around getting and maintaining control over your world, you need to separate your-self — your mind, your ego — from Nature, from your own body and feelings. You don't want to think of yourself merely as part of the animal kingdom. You're outside all that — a separate, controlled, and controlling cerebral being. 'Human' is defined as 'not animal'. Nor is this world you've separated yourself from an organic, evolving whole. How could you ever control such a thing? So Controllers tended to view the world as fixed and unchanging, and liked to split it into paired opposites: friend/enemy, master/slave, material/spiritual, sacred/profane, good/evil. It was a worldview that fit the Bible and Newton's Clockwork Universe equally well.
Another problem for the Controller is that living things aren't all that crazy about being controlled. We humans were, after all, genetically programmed to be hunter-gatherers, and lived that way for 99% of our existence on this planet. So Controllers end up fighting a lot. Control Culture was a warrior culture — competitive, belligerent, macho. And a culture based on war has to be authoritarian. Slaves and serfs have to be kept in line, while fighting men — trained to be competitive and quarrelsome — have to be controlled. So rigid hierarchies with rigid rules of behavior became the norm. And because war was viewed as the most noble masculine profession, parents raised their boys to be 'from Mars' — that is, stoic, rigid, and aggressive. And since men were being trained to be unfeeling and insensitive, women had to specialize in what the men were being trained to neglect: love, cooperation, intimacy, nurturance. They were trained to be 'from Venus'. And since women weren't doing soldierly things — which were more highly valued — they wound up at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Even the lowest serf was expected to dominate his wife, and was looked down on if he didn't.
This demotion of women is the foundation of the entire system. You cannot have an authoritarian, war-like society unless women are devalued and oppressed. It is an axiom of Control Culture that a woman must not be allowed freedom of choice — not just about whether to bear a child or not, but about what she does with her life, who she sleeps with, how she looks — everything. Controlling women is fundamental to Control Culture, and women have the lowest possible status wherever Control Culture is dominant. We in the West are horrified that elders in a Pakistani village would order a woman to be gang-raped as punishment for her brother's crime, but in the Bible, Lot is considered noble because he offers his daughters to be gang-raped by a mob in order to protect his male guests. Misogyny is cultural, not religious or ethnic.
The Beginning of Control Culture
Prior to today's upheaval the most profound event in human history was the moment we decided not to rely on the earth's abundance, like other species, but to attempt to control it, by manipulating crops and flocks. It started us down a long, arduous, and frustrating road from which there is no turning back. Nor do we want to turn back. We're proud of our achievements. Yet we're occasionally made aware of the price. Most cultures have a tradition of a 'fall' — from a 'golden age', an Eden — to a life of constant toil and struggle (see Chapter 8). In other words, from the relative simplicity and ease of the hunter-gatherer life to the more stressful and laborious demands of agriculture. Trying to control your environment takes work.
This attempt to control nature was an addictive drug, requiring bigger and bigger hits. For before long it's not just plants and animals and insects that have to be controlled — it's other people. And ultimately, oneself, one's feelings (see Chapter 6).
Archeological studies indicate that Control Culture is only about eight thousand years old. For most of our existence as a species we were governed by very different habits and values. Control Culture is only a very brief phase in human evolution.
Yet we've been steeped for so long in this cultural system that many people assume its customs and norms are locked in our DNA. They think Control Culture is just 'human nature'. But what was human nature two thousand years ago is very different from what human nature was twenty thousand years ago, or what it will be a thousand years from now. Human societies have managed to persuade people to act in the most varied and outlandish ways, and to believe their odd habits 'natural'.
We're an evolving species. We're not locked into instinctual behavior. Nor are other species, entirely. Animal and bird behavior can be modified by environmental changes. Even fish, according to recent studies, are less bound by instinct than we used to believe — genetic factors are often modified by environmental ones:
The environment — even social and cultural contexts — can switch genes on and off.
Nature and nurture are no longer as distinct as they used to be viewed. The old notion of the DNA as a "fixed 'blueprint' in each creature, altered only by accidents", has been replaced by a "new view of the DNA as a complex self-organizing system that responds to events outside".
Yet there's a grain of truth in the 'human nature' belief: a cultural pattern this deeply ingrained doesn't change overnight. It will take many generations for these habits to fall into disuse.
Excerpted from The Chrysalis Effect by Philip Slater. Copyright © 2014 Philip Slater. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I The Way It Works,
1 In the Middle of the Bridge,
2 The Way of Change: Purity Destroys,
Part II The Effects,
3 On Gender Concepts: Is Stupidity Masculine?,
4 On Thinking: Becoming a Verb,
5 On Authority: Getting Out From Under,
6 On Our Psyches: The Illusion of Control,
7 On Warfare: The Decaying Glory,
8 On Religion: Back to Nature,
Part III Where We're Heading,
9 Is America's Decline Reversible?,
10 Changing How We Change,
Appendix: The Rise and Decline of Control Culture: A Brief History,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mr. Slater posits that there are two trends in social organization, so called "controller" culture vs "integrative" culture. One is authoritarian, tho other more egalitarian and open.This is a reasonable framework to describe social trends however Mr. Slater then goes on to state that there is an inexorable trend towards integrative culture.To prove his points he uses inept analogies, simple assertions and in one bizarre table of "each thing begets it's opposite" (which he simple asserts is true) he gives a list of things, many of which are not opposites.He references chaos theory in several areas in ways that indicates no understanding- he is depending on the reader to not actually know what chaos theory says. Pretentious.This book should have been a pamphlet at most. Seriously needed an editor. There were NO acknowledgements- he should've run this by someone first. I was amazed at only glowing positive reviews on the internet. It must be s select crowd that reads this drivel.