Ray Harris is the author of the online series "The Memes at War", a sustained reflection on the backgrounds of 9/11 from the perspectives of Spiral Dynamics and his own Temenos system, and of the related "The Blood Brotherhoods: A developmental look at terrorism from the perspective of mythos". He lives in Australia. In this article he argues that Wilber's criticism of the "mean GREEN meme" is unfair, and leaves the real culprit of the hook: the "mean ORANGE meme" [For an explanation of this color terminology, see the Spiral Dynamics section at this website; See also Wilber's online essay "On Mean Memes in General", FV.]
Rescuing the Green Meme
I am a great fan and supporter of Wilber's work but when he announced he was writing a book called 'Boomeritis' I was filled with prescient regret, a kind of dread. You see I had read a draft of 'A Theory of Everything' and was immediately uncomfortable with the idea.
I eventually purchased a copy of 'Boomeritis', as it so happens, at the Small World bookshop on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, just up from 'muscle-beach', an epicenter of narcissism, USA.
And I suppose that's the first problem I have with boomeritis, that it is largely an American problem. A common criticism of America is that it is a narcissistic nation. This is the nation that exalts and displays the individual. The nation of Hollywood, of stars and celebrities, of shows about stars and celebrities and of multiple award shows. The nation of Jerry Springer and a dozen or so other such shows, a nation of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. A nation that still calls itself the greatest democracy on earth justafter it stuffs up a Presidential election. A nation that decides that it alone can act unilaterally.
Wilber does acknowledge that boomeritis is more acute in America. And he is writing for a largely American audience. That is part of the problem. For a writer who advocates an integral approach, who argues for a second tier, worldcentric vision, it's just a bit parochial. The term boomeritis is itself derived from an American pop culture term 'the baby-boomers' used to describe the children born in the baby boom after WWII. The term 'baby-boomer' is meant to describe a recognizable and qualitatively different segment of the population. But unfortunately the description is a bit vague and mostly used by that most narcissistic of professions, the advertising and marketing industries. Are we dealing here with serious sociological research or pop research? Isn't the very idea of labeling your generation as different exactly an example of American narcissism? Do the French, English and Germans use this term? We do in Australia, but it seems to mean something different. When we look at that generation we look at a period of economic change it was the period of the great growth of middle-class suburbia.
A further example of the book's UScentrism occurs in the chapter "Subvert_Transgress_Deconstruct @FuckYou.com". In this chapter Wilber discusses the cult of the victim. This is again largely an American problem. America has a reputation as a highly litigious society. One of the reasons for this is the aggressive 'ambulance chasing' mentality of the American legal system and the high payouts that the system allows. Another factor is the amount of publicity that these cases attract.
So perhaps the real question is why is America so narcissistic? As Wilber himself says:
"Deconstruction never really took hold anywhere but in America. It never caught on in Britain, certainly not in Germany, Japan or Nigeria. No, it took off in the one country where an epidemic of boomeritis has already prepared the ground."
But rather than analyze why America is infected by narcissism Wilber chooses to lay the blame at the feet of the notorious GREEN meme. And this for me is where Wilber becomes seriously unstuck.
As far as I can tell the problem seems to arise out of a misreading of research done on the moral reasoning of radical students at Berkeley.
"The classic case study is the Berkeley student protests of the late sixties protesting especially the Vietnam war. The students claimed, in one voice, that they were acting from a position of higher morals. But when given actual tests of moral development, the vast majority of them scored at preconventional, not postconventional, levels."
It is important to note that on several occasions Wilber has emphasized that it is 'the vast majority'. However, that is not how other writers remember such research. Just recently I uncovered this comment in the Australian journal Dissent [nr. 10, Summer 2002/2003, FV]. The writer, the Australian academic Denis Kenny (who has taught at Harvard) comments on the research done at Harvard and Yale by social psychologist Kenneth Keniston [the author of Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth (1968); Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition (1971), FV]. Using Kohlberg's system Kenny reports [in his article "Return of the Roundheads"]:
"Using this device Keniston made an interesting discovery. Among a wide sample of young students involved in different areas of this broad movement for change, he found there was a significantly greater percentage operating at the higher or progressive level of moral reasoning than in the non-rebellious segment of the youth population. These students were the best and brightest of their generation. But he also found that there was a significantly greater percentage of rebellious youth operating at a pre-conventional or infantile level of moral reasoning than in the non-rebellious segment. Both the conservatives and progressives were partially correct in their evaluation of the rebellious youth of the late sixties."
Note that in this example there is no 'vast majority', rather there is the direct assertion that both postconventional and preconventional were simply more represented.
Wilber does recognize that there is a pre/trans fallacy at work here. He correctly points out that many people could not distinguish pre from post and saw instead only nonconventional behaviour. What was happening? This is something I can directly relate to because I was, here in Australia, one of those radical students (and yes the police have dragged me out of a university administration building). The story is quite simple. There were a core of hard working and dedicated radicals and a host of hangers-on there for the party. The problem is that Wilber mistakenly assumes that the preconventional students, the hangers-on, were of the GREEN meme. They weren't. This is because Wilber fails to fully acknowledge that anyone can 'appropriate' a message to suit his or her own ends.
Note that I say, fails to fully acknowledge, because the fact is that Wilber sort of gets there but somehow the message becomes that the GREEN meme is somehow the problem, not that other memes have distorted its message and used it to their own ends. And this is for me the crux of the problem: where the fault actually lies.
"In other words the GREEN meme under the sway of boomeritis is reproducing its pathology in students as fast as it can."
Note that in this sentence the active agent is the GREEN meme under the sway of boomeritis, not another meme appropriating an extremely selective understanding of the GREEN meme.
You see, the problem is really the narcissistic appropriation of the GREEN meme because that it what narcissism is particularly good at, appropriating things to itself. And here it is about time we had a good look at the ORANGE meme.
The major characteristic of the post war boom period was the rapid expansion of the middle-class, suburban lifestyle. It was a time when a significant percentage of the American population shifted from the blue meme to the ORANGE meme. The ORANGE meme can be rather materialistic, opportunistic and narcissistic.
"When ORANGE is active, image often counts more than substance. When not counted among 'the beautiful people' at least ORANGE can drive a status auto and appear eligible 'you are what you drive'. The brains behind the wheels of these trendy cars become self-ordained VIPs and courtesy gives way to competition zip, zip, zoom, zoom Twenty-two-year-old women adjusting their make-up while 'networking' on cellular phones, like the blow-dried gents out 'to close a deal' and 'make a killing,' are convinced the driving skills of Mario Andretti come along with the Corvette."
The student rebellions of the late sixties were the first to be seen on television. It was a situation ripe for narcissistic ORANGE to steal the stage and make a big 'me' statement. Recently I had a chance to look again at the original Woodstock movie. It made me cringe because what I saw so clearly now was a bunch of egotistical, ORANGE meme rock musicians appropriating and distorting the work of the 'movement'. Who can doubt the utter narcissism of an announcer encouraging the crowd to chant 'no rain, no rain', as if the collective ego could somehow stop it raining of course it rained, it poured. Then miraculously the baby-boomers, the 'Me' generation became the Woodstock generation and somehow the whole thing got rolled into one.
Perhaps the problem here is a really a largely ORANGE, narcissistic America twisting and distorting the GREEN meme. Perhaps the rebellious youth were simply that, rebellious youth.
The ORANGE meme is at its ripest amongst teenagers 'exiting' the blue constraints of family. Perhaps the boomer generation is to be more recognized as a time of rebellion, any rebellion.Originally that rebellion was 'beatnik' in appearance, then it became 'hippie' then that rebellion turned against the hippies and became 'punk'. All of it reflected through the narcissistic music and media industries and fed back to a narcissistic audience. In fact we are now at a stage of polyglot rebellion where teenagers can choose amongst a wide variety of packaged and manipulated rebellions, gangsta rap anyone, death-metal, goth, tribal-trance? And unlike Wilber, I don't really see anything different in Gen X culture, or in the millennium kids. If anything the narcissistic culture of ORANGE has pushed back the age limit we now have the 'tweens', children of the ages 8-12 acting like teenagers. Furthermore, it is the thoroughly ORANGE opportunists who are exploiting this market.
The important thing about this teen/youth rebellion is that it often chooses preconventional means in order to shock those it regards as conventional. In my day we grew our hair long. Today teens turn to tribal body piercing and tattoos.
Is the GREEN meme in part to blame?
Some of it is. And this is where Wilber is at his best, his most effective. He quite correctly argues that the sensitive awareness of the GREEN meme gave rise to a generous interpretation of diversity known as cultural relativism. But here again we must be quick to remind that whilst the GREEN meme did the theoretical work that laid the groundwork for cultural relativism the extreme use of these ideas was completed at the hands of opportunistic ORANGE. Afterall, does not ORANGE also have a belief, "you do your thing and I'll do mine"? Does it not also have it's own brand of relativism?
As I recall a good many of the ORANGE hangers-on were in it for the individual freedom it gave. Some were never GREEN to begin with. Some were GREEN just as long as they were students, then they slipped into comfortable jobs, leading the perfect yuppie lifestyle. Some only retained token GREEN ideas.
Here we must return to the idea of appropriation. The thing to do is notice the 'walk', not the 'talk'. You can determine a person's centre of gravity by noting what they act to protect. As I have argued elsewhere each level has a core need. A person centered at a certain level will always act to protect the related core need. Appropriation occurs when a level uses the language of another (be that a vertical or horizontal translation) in order to fulfill its core need. The core need of ORANGE is self-expression; the core need of GREEN is tolerance and acceptance of multiple views. ORANGE is typically self-centered and ego driven. GREEN is typically self-sacrificing and empathic. The GREEN memers I knew worked damned hard. They ran the student newspaper and spent their spare time organizing, and they managed to pass their courses with honours.
The 'Me' generation, the baby boomers, look more like rebellious ORANGE the more you look.
The thing is, I would argue that we really haven't seen much of the GREEN meme at all. It has shown it's colours in some aspects of postmodernism, but then, now that I think of it, postmodernism also contains a good dose of ORANGE (such as art and literary criticism). Some of what has been labeled 'post' modern is in fact a continuation of the modernist project.
In previous papers I have introduced my own version of the developmental spectrum called Temenos. Temenos can be called developmental hermeneutics. It argues that the deep structures each develop a unique narrative. Certain symbols, signs and 'meanings' are attracted to and are understood through the relevant narrative. In Temenos development unfolds as the person works through the issues presented by a progression of dynamic tensions. These share much with both Wilber's spectrum model and Beck and Cowan's Spiral model, but there are also important differences.
The ORANGE/GREEN issue corresponds in Temenos to the individuus/civilis dyad. The critical issue of this dyad is the development of individual belief and conscience and the proper interaction of these individuals. The previous dyad is mater/pater and correlates to purple, red and blue. The release of the 'individuus' narrative is highly energetic. It occurs at the point the adolescent leaves the constraint of the family and at the point the individual leaves the norms of the society. The mythic symbol that best captures this stage is the Hero. He is often depicted as a rebellious youth undertaking a perilous journey. It is also captured in the myth of Narcissus and Echo. This is a vital clue to understanding the true origin of narcissism. In the myth Narcissus is a sixteen year-old who falls in love with his own reflection. But Echo is also very important. She looses her 'self' and wanders about repeating everything she hears.
Both of these tales tell us something of the pathology of this level: the glorification of the self and the appropriation of another's ideas as one's own. Sound familiar?
The task of 'civilis' is to actually get Echo and Narcissus together. To have the rebellious and wandering Hero finally return to civilization with the boon he has gained. And here it is interesting to note that a common symbol of civilization is often a goddess. Athena polias was the goddess of Greek civilization, in India Saraswati is the patron of the civilized arts. This image has been repeated throughout the western world. The Statue of Liberty is a version of the French Marianne who led the proletariat through the barricades.
The task of the transformed Echo and Narcissus is to create a just 'civilization' of autonomous individuals.
Perhaps these sets of symbols, this particular narrative, give us an insight into the problem of boomeritis. Perhaps it also reveals something about the 'agentic/communal' issue that has arisen in this debate. In Jungian terms Echo represents the anima and Narcissus the animus. Both play a vital role in this stage of development. In fact the ultimate task of this level is the union of anima and animus, a task that must be completed in order to make the next transformation.
One of the most significant things to arise out of the rebellious sixties was the re-emergence of feminism. Along with that came the issue of gay rights. Here we see the emergence of anima, of anima asserting its identity. But anima has also asserted its identity by demanding greater care and compassion.
It is however, important to remember that each level contains a dynamic tension that must be resolved before the transition to the next level can occur. Before the transition occurs energies swing like a pendulum between one extreme and the other. To pull away from animus, anima sometimes swings too far in the opposite direction. And again interestingly, the symbol of balance is the scales of justice, again held by an anima figure.
Where does this lead us? In Temenos' view boomeritis is a function of the narcissistic aspect of the individual. This is the part of the dyad that is in greatest force in the world today, led by the US. We are, in my opinion, nowhere near 'civilis' as yet. There are signs of its appearance, particularly in Europe as it struggles with the issue of the common union. But perhaps I should be a bit clearer here. Civilis is a truly worldcentric vision. We will know it has arrived when true global co-operation is on the horizon, when individuals feel free to express themselves whilst honouring that expression in others.
And then we get to transform to the next dyad ..
Wilber has criticized boomeritis for well-considered strategic reasons. He argues that as GREEN is the last meme before YELLOW the removal of the pathological aspects, the 'mean GREEN meme' is essential to allowing a transition to second tier.
Unfortunately, whilst I agree with the aim of the strategy, it is his analysis that has failed him. It turns out that a good portion of the narcissism he lays at the feet of GREEN actually belongs to ORANGE. This has two effects. One, it places an unfair criticism on the GREEN meme. Two, it lets the real culprit off the hook, the mean ORANGE meme.
Already within Integral circles the term GREEN meme has become synonymous with 'mean GREEN meme', despite Wilber's protestations that there is a great deal good about GREEN. It has been reported that some within the Integral Institute say they don't have a 'GREEN bone in their body'. How absurd. If Spiral Dynamics is to maintain its integrity then it is simply not possible to get to second tier without going through GREEN. What is this GREEN aversion about?
It is entirely possible for ORANGE to appropriate YELLOW and integralism, just as it can appropriate GREEN for its own narcissistic ends.
In Temenos the clue is to understand the narrative the person is primarily concerned with. In Temenos the transition to second tier correlates with the transition to the master/neophyte dyad. This necessarily involves having done a great deal of internal work integrating anima and animus. It correlates to Wilber's centaur.
My concern is, that in failing to clearly label the problem, an unhealthy aversion to the GREEN meme has arisen. This will work against the genuine transformation to second tier after all, what is the antidote to the mean ORANGE meme? Yikes, a good dose of GREEN!
- Boomeritis, page 201
- Boomeritis, page 59
- Dissent, Issue 10, 'The Return of the Roundheads' by Denis Kenny, http://www.dissent.com.au/
- Boomeritis, page 239
- Spiral Dynamics, page 252
- Memes at War, part 1