Living With the Eddies

As you may have noticed, I’m returning these days to the theme of cultural evolution, the subject of my 2010 book, Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change. Cultural evolution is the slow, steady advance of humanity’s most essential cultural values (e.g, peace, justice, and ecological sustainability) toward a closer fit with reality. Thus, for example, “the arc of human history” bends toward peace, justice, and ecological sustainability and away from racism, sexism, hateful nationalism, and violent response to personal and societal identity crisis.
Hold it! (I can almost hear the chorus.) How can we hold out any hope for values-evolution, in the face of so much apparent evidence (these days) to the contrary? Well, the answer is to be found in the eddies of resistance to the cultural-evolutionary dynamic.
Eddies are counter-clockwise whirlpools of resistance in a flowing stream. One could almost say that they desperately try to reverse the prevailing flow. Cultural eddies (you’ll see how well the metaphor works) are counter-cultural vortices that struggle against the flow of cultural evolution. Here’s one example: “No, women should not rise to positions of authority over men!”
Cultural evolution, however, arrives in waves, cultural “value waves,” one on the way up and one on the way down. The up wave brings the promise of cultural evolution. Things get better, people get wiser, and the convergenge is toward cooperation. But then there’s the down wave, the backlash. Things seem worse, people get angrier, and there is only divergence.
The question of our age is simple. Will the falling wave swamp the rising wave? Or will the rising wave overcome? The older value set has inertia on its side; the newer packs momentum. I’ll always bet on momentum against inertia.
So, here’s a final thought for now.
Ours today is a continent divided not so much by a geographical, altitudinal watershed as by a seemingly unbridgeable cultural and attitudinal barrier. It does matter that certain regions of our land align with particular values-complexes. And it is significant that one can, with some success, predict the racial, social, gender, and even scientific (or anti-scientific) leanings of people from here as opposed to there.
But America is not really divided between the good and the bad, the bright and the dull, or the generous and the selfish. Our current dilemma is to be found in the eternal tension between hope and fear. Often it may seem that fear is winning; but it never truly can, for it springs from uncertainty and ignorance. Hope is always grounded in a clear vision of what is and what can yet be. And there’s the hope in hope.

Values and Culture

Does culture evolve? Or does it merely change? Culture is the organic matrix within which we make our choices and are in turn shaped by them. The culture of a particular society comprises the beliefs, knowledge, practices, and institutions that structure its life and are transmitted to its next generation. As important as values are, they are only part of the cultural whole.

Changing values drive cultural change; but just think about the relationship between these two dynamics. The benchmarks of a progressive values shift are increasing creative complexity, greater awareness of interdependence, and the further integration of ways of knowing. As these values evolve, what happens to the way people in a culture think and behave? 

My good friend Ron Miller once asked me, “How many people do you think lived through the Renaissance?” I’ve never forgotten his question. He wasn’t asking about population figures, but about the atmosphere of the time. How many people knew then that they were witnessing the rediscovery of the human being in relation to the world? How many knew that theirs was an age of revolution? How many woke each morning eager to find out what the next promising development might be or where the next challenge would arise? How many went about their daily tasks simply unaware of the new world taking shape around them? Who responded to new ideas and opportunities? Who exulted? Who simply denied the rich new  complexities of an age of change?

Who glimpsed the truth, but – frightened of its implications – lied?

The situation that confronts us today is similar in many ways. We live in an era in which evolving values are reshaping culture, yet we are often so preoccupied with simply “coping” that we overlook dramatic, positive changes. Instead, we fixate on the seemingly intractable problems that confront us and are drawn into the naysayers’ camp. And the naysayers simply deny.

To grasp what is changing for the better all around us, we need to focus on the relationship between changing values and evolving cultures. With this understanding, we’ll be better able to develop strategies for life in a renaissance that’s not always apparent.

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