Wilber’s Trump and a Post-Truth World: An Overview and Critique
Cynthia Bourgeault offers a critique on Ken Wilber’s article “Trump and a Post-Truth World: An Evolutionary Self-Correction” as a study guide for contemplatives.
Now that Ken Wilber’s paper on “Trump and a Post-Truth World” is officially posted and making its rounds on the internet, I feel at liberty to share my initial “cliff notes” and comments a bit more widely. My comments below were generated originally (and somewhat hastily) for a group of senior Wisdom students who are already working their way through this tract. It is still to be regarded as primarily a “working draft” for limited circulation, not a formal response to Ken’s thesis.
The first part is a quick overview of the main points of Ken’s argument as I understand it. The second part raises a few points for feedback/critique/further reflection.
I. THE ARGUMENT IN A NUTSHELL
Ken Wilber’s wide-ranging and fundamentally hopeful monograph is an analysis of the recent presidential election from the perspective of levels of consciousness as developed primarily according to his own Integral Evolutionary Theory. The powerful contribution he brings here is to move us beyond the reactivity gripping both sides of the political spectrum and offer a much broader perspective. He proposes that Trump’s upset victory reflects an “evolutionary self-correction” necessitated by the fact that the leading edge of consciousness, the so-called green level, lost its way in a mass of internal self-contradictions and gradually failed to lead. His 90-page paper is a lengthy, often verbose, occasionally brilliant analysis of how this situation came to be and what needs to happen to heal it.
To enter this discussion, one first needs to have some familiarity with the general schematic of levels of consciousness which Wilber has been steadily developing and refining for more than thirty years now (since his Up from Eden, first published in the early 1980s). Wilber summarizes this in an early section of his paper, but here’s the cliff notes version:
Levels of consciousness are “color coded” as follows:
- Red: egocentric, self-referential, instinctual
- Amber: (alias “mythic membership”): ethnocentric, authoritarian, pre-modern
- Orange: world-centric, rational, individualistic, modern
- Green: world centered, pluralistic, post-modern
Green, the highest evolutionary level consistently attained to date, began to emerge in the 1960s and has gown steadily for the new [following] five decades, to the point that by Wilber’s estimate, some 25% of the population are presently functioning at that level (how does he generate this data?). But along the way, green began to wander off course, increasingly caught in some internal contradictions that were inherent in its worldview from the start; i.e.:
- Its inherent tendency to relativism, which progressively morphed into the notion of the claim that there is no such thing as universal truth or universal values.
- An inherent “performative contradiction” between its claim that all values are equal and its inner assurance that its value (“that there is no universal truth”) is nonetheless normative and binding.
- A failure to distinguish between “dominator hierarchies” (based on oppression) and “growth hierarchies” (based on evolutionarily necessary differentiation), and a general dislike of all hierarchy.
- An [increasingly] hyper-sensitive political correctness that consistently stirred the pot of resentment and anger (both within green itself, the so-called “mean green meme,” and certainly against it, among the other levels of consciousness).
This “aperspectival madness,” as Wilber terms it, left the ostensible evolutionary leading edge caught in an increasing cul de sac of “nihilism and narcissism.” Trump was able to successfully fan the smoldering fires of resentment building at all three lower levels — red, amber, and orange — into a roaring blaze of anti-green sentiment — an “anti-green morphogenetic field” that went on to torch the entire green value system. However apparently contradictory and volatile Trump’s agendas may be, Wilber points out, the common denominator is that they are always anti-green.
Without condoning these agendas, Wilber does lay out a scenario through which it is possible to discern a coherence (I’ll stop short of saying a “justification”) behind the otherwise unfathomable upheaval that awaited the world on November 8. Rather than simply further demonizing Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” that put the man in office, or resorting to ominous and paralyzing specters of Hitler and Armageddon, Wilber’s hypothesis offers a way to make sense out of what happened —and to cooperate with evolution in making the necessary adjustments.
In the final section of his paper, Wilber does exactly that. He lays out several steps (some theoretical, others quite practical) whereby green could help heal itself and get back on track. In the end, however, Ken’s conviction becomes increasingly transparent — and finally explicit — that the basic performative contradictions inherent in “green-think” are so deep as to be unsalvageable, and that the only long-term and truly satisfying solution will come only from a robust emergence of the next level of consciousness: Integral (color-coded turquoise or teal), which is truly “second tier” (i.e., transitioning to the non-dual), capable of integrating and including all perspectives, unafraid of healthy hierarchy, and hence truly able to lead. It is from this level, he believes, that the ultimate evolutionary resolution will emerge — once a “tipping point” of about 10% of the population functioning at that level is stabilized.
If it takes the Trump election to create this evolutionary jolt, so be it; the important thing is not to miss the window of opportunity now that it has so dramatically opened.
II. Comments and Critique
1. The greatest contribution of this paper is that it gets the scale right: it “nails” the arena in which events are actually playing out and offers a plausible hypothesis as to the underlying causes, a hypothesis which restores both coherence and an empowerment. Virtually every other analysis I have seen — political, sociological, Biblical — is working from too narrow and limited a perspective (that’s the nature of intellectual discourse in the post-modern era; you either get rigor or breadth, rarely both). While I do not share all of Ken’s conclusions, I am totally in agreement that the evolutionary frame offers our best shot at a coherent explanation and a mature and skillful resolution.
2. And as Teilhard discovered a generation before, it is at the evolutionary scale — i.e., over deep time — that “deep hope” becomes possible. I am gratified that Ken seems to agree with Teilhard that evolution is intrinsically purposeful (and in much the same terms as Teilhard sees it: moving toward greater “complexification/consciousness” — not specifically so-named — and an ever-fuller manifestation of Love (or “Eros,” in Wilber languaging). I wish Teilhard were more generally cited in Wilber’s work; it would certainly draw the dual streams of Teilhardian and Integral Evolutionary Theory into a more creative and ultimately illumining dialogue.
3. I continue to suspect that Wilber often conflates “levels of consciousness” with “stages of growth.” The two are not identical, at least according to the criteria I have gleaned from my own Christian contemplative heritage. I remain to be convinced that orange and green are actually different levels; to me they look more like simply progressive stages of the same level. Orange may be individualistic while green is pluralistic, but both are relying on the mental egoic operating system (“perception through differentiation”) to run their program; green’s “groups”, therefore, are merely “individuals writ large,” (which “co-exist,” not a new holonic unity [which “coalesces”]). Or another way of saying it: green is simply orange looking through a post-modern filter.
This, incidentally, I believe to be another fatal “performative contradiction” undetected by Wilber; greens think FOR oneness but FROM “perception through differentiation;” how crazy-making is that? It’s a pretty significant developmental gap to navigate, causing their minds always to be out ahead of what their psyches can actually maintain. Hence the anger, the arrogance, and the hypocrisy.
4. I’m no political historian, but I think Wilber takes some pretty large leapfrogs through the history of the political parties in the US. I’d be highly skeptical that he can make his assertion stick that Democrats by and large function in a higher level of consciousness (green/orange) than Republicans (orange/amber). This may be true of the past few decades, but given that prior to its infiltration by the Religious right, the Republican party was more often the standard bearer for the leading edge of consciousness, case in point: Abraham Lincoln), while the Democratic party was the home to most ethnicities and nearly all of the South. Thus, it’s difficult to see how it would be without its share of well-entrenched ethnocentric (amber) perspectives.
5. Finally, and most substantively, the most important corrective the Christian mystical tradition has to bring to current secular or Buddhist-based models of “second tier” (and higher) states of consciousness is the insistence that the leap to this new level of conscious functioning is not simply an extension of the cognitive line but requires “putting the mind in the heart,” not only attitudinally but neurologically. There is a supporting physiology to each tier of consciousness (which is why I think green and orange are still basically at the same level), and that all-important shift from 1st-tier to 2nd-tier will only happen when grounded in an active awakening of the heart.
And this means, basically, it will happen in the domain of devotion — i.e., our heart’s emotional assent and participation in the ultimate “thouness” of the cosmos and the experiential certainty of the divine not simply as “love” but as Lover. That is to say, I believe it happens beyond the gates of secularity, in the intense, holographic particularity of the upper echelons of each sacred tradition. This is for me the profound strength of Teilhard’s model, as over and against Wilber’s more secular model; it unabashedly is able to stir the fires of adoration and spiritual imagination as it “harnesses the energy of love.” Striving to light this same fire with metaphysical matches, Wilber is left essentially “anthropomorphizing” evolution, transforming it into a new version of the classic demiurge, the creative and implementing arm of the logoic omniscience.
I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback. I repeat: this is a groundbreaking and heartening essay, at the right scale, and headed in the right direction. It’s worth taking the time to grapple with.