Over the past two weeks on BigThink, I’ve shared the first two of a three-part dialogue between myself and the Danish psychotherapist Ole Vadum Dahl (read part 1 and part 2). In the series, Ole and I are exploring an interesting “existential cul de sac” that we’ve both observed among the most progressive people on the planet today (a demographic that I often call “the luckiest people who have ever been born”). As Ole is from Denmark, one of the most progressive and wealthy societies on the planet, we’ve used some examples from his country which point to the fact that particularly young people are lacking a deeper sense of meaning, direction, and purpose, and are therefore turning to other, more destructive activities (like excessive drinking, pornography, etc) to fill a kind of gap in themselves.
In the third and final part of our dialogue (below), we’re expanding the conversation to explore the historical forces that have led to this particular cultural phenomenon and offer a few of our speculations about the solution. I hope you enjoy it!
What Do I Stand For? The Postmodern Predicament
By Andrew Cohen & Ole Vadum Dahl
ANDREW: Dear Ole, what you’re describing with alarming detail is what I call the “postmodern predicament.” The new cultural stage of postmodernism first emerged in the 1960s. The sixties (baby boomer) generation, of which I am a member, was called the “me generation.” It was all about freedom of and for the individual, and this gave rise to many very positive steps forward for humanity. Here in America, the Civil Rights movement with its call for freedom and equality for African Americans made great strides forward. The Women’s Liberation movement exploded as a force in culture, as did the gay rights movement some decades later. Postmodernity is the culture of the individual, which emphasizes the inherent rights and freedoms of individuals.
It’s also a culture of pluralism. That means for the first time in history there was an appreciation and respect for different individual points of view and different cultural perspectives. For the first time in history, there was no one right way to see reality, nor was there one truth that was higher or better than any other. Pluralism sees everybody as being right and having a valid point of view (no matter what that point of view may be). That’s the good news.
The bad news is that in this kind of extreme pluralism, there’s no acknowledgement of hierarchy or value distinctions. In fact, hierarchy in any form is seen as marginalizing and repressive. Indeed, all points of view are considered equally valid and no one’s opinion or perspective can be seen as having any greater value or validity than anyone else’s.
So in spite of the enormous positive cultural breakthroughs that postmodern pluralism made possible (like multiculturalism and universal human rights), the downside was and still is that it also gave rise to a flattened worldview. That’s because when all truths, perspectives, and opinions are considered equal, it’s actually wrong (and even considered a form of Fascism) to see anything as having greater value than anything else. Taken to its most extreme, that means that all individuals are seen as being the same, no matter what their accomplishments or lack thereof may be. It also means that everybody’s opinions have equal value, no matter if one individual has significantly more life experience than another. In this new postmodern world of inclusivity, everything gets equalized and therefore flattened out.
That’s why in this brave new world, parents actually prefer to appear equal to their children, rather than smarter or wiser or more mature. They really don’t want to stand out or be seen as in any way being different than their children. More than anything else they want to be accepted as equals, because from the postmodern perspective, equality is the highest value.
It’s this refusal to embrace distinctions, value hierarchies, or inherent difference that has given rise to the mess you so articulately describe here my friend. Unless parents are ready to grow up and transcend the limitations of the sixties cultural revolution, there’s just no way to move forward. To put it simply, that means everyone over 40 has got to grow up and take responsibility for the truth of hierarchy, the reality of the actual differences that exist between individuals and cultures. If we want the world to change, we adults have to have the courage to embrace the wisdom of our years and become the leaders we should be. Parents, more than anyone else, need to do this.
Ole, do you agree?
OLE: Yes Andrew, I agree that it is the parents who need to make the kinds of changes in values you’re speaking about to help get our young people out of this cultural predicament.
I am also confronted quite often with the shadow side of pluralism that you mentioned. If anyone claims that something is more true or right than something else, then the person will very often be judged in our culture for being arrogant, authoritarian, self-righteous, or something worse (which might sometimes be the case). But even when the truth you’re standing for is quite obvious, you are typically met with clichés like "the truth is relative," "it depends on how you look at it," or "no one has copyright on the truth."
I can share an example of this from one of my classes some weeks ago. We were discussing the role of moral behavior in spiritual growth. I stated that in my opinion the difference between true spirituality and what I call “legalized spiritual narcissism” has to do with whether or not your spiritual growth includes moral behavior and a concern for others.
For example, I suggested that no matter how beautiful are the kinds of spiritual experiences we have during our meditative exercises in the lessons, I wouldn't be very impressed by the actual level of spiritual development if we for instance would make a mess in the kitchen afterwards in the coffee break without cleaning up after our selves.
To my amazement, one of the participants stated that in her opinion it could be as morally right not to clean up after herself. She said that would depend on what she felt about it in the moment, and not what an outer authority thought of it. I argued that her view didn't take into consideration that someone else then would have to clean up after her, and that this lack of consideration was incongruent with higher values like caring for others, which for me is a natural consequence of being spiritually developed.
The woman got really angry with me, because she thought that I was ranking her moral standpoint, which I admit that I did. But if we look at psychological and spiritual evolution, there are actually particular stages of maturity that we go through has humans in which we exhibit more and more care and inclusivity. Extensive cross cultural research by developmental psychologists like Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan has clearly shown that as we evolve and mature as humans, our capability for caring will expand in predictable stages. We start out being selfishly concerned only with our own needs and desires and grow to become genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of more and more people, and then in some cases we develop a deep concern for all living beings. Moral evolution never goes the other way round—from altruism to egotism.
In my opinion, caring about the welfare of others is more evolved and therefore morally better than just thinking about ourselves. The Buddha said that truth is what works, and I agree. Love and respect for others is more true than selfishness, because it works. By caring for each other we create a better and more happy world.
And yes, that is hierarchical thinking!
If our young people were taught how to develop their care for others, they would create good feelings around them and they would certainly be much happier themselves. It feels fantastic to make a positive difference in the world. No drug, no amounts of alcohol, and no type of entertainment can substitute for that feeling. Empathy, care, and ethics are a matter of being able to take on different perspectives—the capacity to see situations from both our own and from other peoples’ perspectives. The more perspectives we can assume, the more compassionate we feel. And the art of taking different perspectives can be learned. It's a matter of evolving mentally, emotionally, and spiritually...
ANDREW: I completely agree with you Ole. I believe that our children (and all of us) can be helped enormously in this challenging task by learning about evolution. Not just about the evolution of matter, the evolution of the cosmos, or the evolution of biological life, but the evolution of human consciousness and culture. This includes the stages of higher moral development that you were referring to. When we realize that we’re all part of a vast process that is actually evolving, this developmental challenge will no longer be seen as so daunting. When we see that postmodernism and all of its inherent problems, which we’ve been exploring here together, has become a kind of evolutionary cul-de-sac, the leap to this next step beyond it will be seen as both inspiring and compelling. It’s this kind of higher vision for ourselves and our lives that I believe can give young people the sense of meaning, purpose, and accomplishment they need to move beyond our current cultural moment and into a much brighter future.
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