Many Americans are exulting in the wake of Election 2016. Others are badly shaken. Alarmingly, some of the exultant have taken to expressing their delight with Nazi salutes, exuberant displays of the Confederate battle flag, and even acts of intimidation and violence. What happened? And where is the vaunted “Sea Change,” the accelerating progressive values-shift about which I and others at Common Ground have been speaking and writing for several years?
In 2010, I published Thriving in the Crosscurrent—Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change
. My argument was fairly straightforward. We’re living in a time of “sea change” – a critical transformative period – a shift from a declining older wave to a rising newer wave – characterized by a steady decline in influence of some of our most familiar assumptions, values, and models for understanding. We’ve come increasingly to question and challenge patriarchy, the legitimacy of war, ecological exploitation and pollution, racially-based policies, injustice, religious exclusivism, and imperialism. At the same time, we’ve begun to explore and even to give our somteimes-hesitant assent to newer or rediscovered values including human rights, social justice, ecological sustainability, care for the Earth, non-violence, and interreligious harmony.
But, I argued, it’s not all roses. I introduced the concept of turbulent “eddies” of backlash – whirlpools of resistance to change. We’re living through an intense eddy right now. So, it’s hardly surprising that people familiar with the basic outlines of the argument for cultural evolution are wondering if the forces of devolution haven’t Trumped the evolutionary wave.
My view is unchanged. The rise of resistance to the cultural values-shifts that have already taken place is dangerous and destabilizing; but it constitutes an eddy in an unrelenting flow toward the future. There will be no return to patriarchy, culture-wide racism, or unchallenged eco-abuse. Blithe acceptance of social injustice and unconcern for the needs of others will never again be normative. The forces of resentful anger – the voices of once-dominant power groups who “want it back” cannot overcome the louder cries of the clear planetary majority.
In the usual course of events, resistance to change takes form in a stubborn but relatively benign attachment to familiar ways. But when the change is pronounced, more striking forms of reaction and resistance emerge. When the threatened social transformation seems as dramatic and far-reaching as it does in our time, the old-wave opposition can lose touch with its own older values, like tolerance and civility, and become rootless, enraged, and dangerous.
The degree of cultural opposition to change increases in direct proportion to the cultural disruption produced by a values shift. Uncertainty, insecurity, alienation, identity crisis, humiliation, and power anxiety determine the force of a cultural whirlpool.
As tempting as it is to see disturbing cultural phenomena, ranging from road rage to identity politics to nationalism and terrorism, as indicators of the likely future course of the world, many of the signature problems of our age need to be understood instead as phenomena of the crossing. These are not manifestations of the declining older value “wave” or unfortunate features of the newer. They are temporary but dangerous reactive counterflows – eddies – that can slow but never stem the new Sea Change.
Executive Director, Common Ground