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Impossible Rhetoric

Boomeritis and its rhetorical problems

Mathias Larsen

If the dominant meme in modern academia (i.e. green) cannot be integrated... then the discussion or promotion of an integral movement is useless.

Ken Wilber has diagnosed a large part of modern academia with boomeritis. He has outlined the symptoms and prescribed a cure for the ailment, but the problem is that the patient does not care. The established academia is not concerned with what Wilber and like-minded think and thus the crucial problems that he is trying to debate are not acknowledged by the very people who are suffering from them.

Ken Wilber does not reach the audience he should be reaching; those who need to be convinced the most are exactly the ones who are most offended by his ideologies and critique of ‘mean green meme’ values. The problem discussed here is not Wilber’s theories but rather how they are conveyed and how this results in fruitless communication.

Wilber has outlined (based on Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics) how the green meme does not acknowledge the values of the yellow meme. Because the green meme lacks the insight in recognising the holistic nature of yellow’s ranking, it is merely perceived as oppressive and reactionary. The reason for this is—according to Wilber—a symptom of one’s own boomeritis, since the depth and inclusive nature of yellow cannot be perceived by first tier memes and is consequently interpreted in a limited way: “there is a simple rule about this: whenever green looks at yellow, it thinks it is seeing red” says Wilber. He continues:

Green hates anything second tier […] Yellow, for example, honors and embraces nested hierarchies, ranked values, universal flow systems, and strong individualism. Green looks at all of those terms—universals, ranking hierarchies, individualism—and screams “oppression! domination! marginalization! elitism! arrogance!” And so on.

This also means that he will not debate seriously with a lot of his critics because he believes that they lack depth and are unable to comprehend the second tier values. Of course Wilber invites debate and discussion, but only using the terms and theories which he employs, which makes a lot of criticism hard since the basic consensus which Wilber demands of his readers is so extensive that he may already lose the sceptics’ interest in his initial arguments. If you do not acknowledge the validity of Spiral Dynamics, The AQAL model, spirituality etc. there is no way that you can meet with Wilber. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a problem per se, but it becomes an obstacle because of the integral ambition of Wilber’s theories.

If the dominant meme in modern academia (i.e. green) cannot be integrated—or at least participate in a frutiful debate—then the discussion or promotion of an integral movement is useless. The tone between the green and the yellow meme appears to be so aggressive that both parties take more extreme viewpoints than is becoming. This is a rhetorical problem and thereby an essential problem since Wilber’s quest in many ways is communicative. Don Beck explains:

[T]he whole idea of the “Mean Green Meme” is a rhetorical strategy. Ken and I asked: How do we uncap GREEN? How do we keep it moving? Because so much of it has become a stagnant pond, in our view. So we said, let’s invent the Mean Green Meme: Let’s shame it a bit. Let’s hold up a mirror and show it what it’s doing, with the hope that it will separate the Mean Green Meme from legitimate healthy GREEN. Let’s expose enough people to the duplicity and artificiality and self-serving nature of their own belief systems around political correctness to finally get the word out that there’s something beyond that. It is a drastic measure, a rhetorical strategy to create a symbol that will hopefully give people an understanding that what they are doing is actually destroying the very thing they want to accomplish.

From this, it is apparent that a very conscious rhetorical strategy lies behind Wilber’s work (and especially his texts dealing with boomeritis (e.g. SES to Boomeritis). It thereby becomes crucial to investigate whether this strategy succeeds. Using basic rhetorical theory, there is the notion of a rhetorical situation which is to say a circumstance which demands an effort of communication. One of the major problems that Wilber wishes to address (i.e. rhetorical situations) is that many people are stuck in a pathological version of the green meme which inhibits the world’s further development. But Wilber’s solution has often been to write a discourse which estranges its target audience since he uses so many terms and ideas that affront the very people he tries to inspire into change (i.e. the pathological version of green). The people who will not take offence or disagree are the ones who already share his ideas. Thus, if a book like Boomeritis succeeds rhetorically, which is to say does it convince its readers, it only does so because it resonates well with people who—to use Spiral Dynamics terms—have a memetic dominance in the exiting phase of green or are well established in yellow or turquoise. Wilber’s communicative strategy is therefore one of communicating to those who already agree and provoking those who do not.

The question is whether Wilber estranges more people than he convinces. The answer is complex since Wilber has truly offended many who have chosen to focus on what they regard as an unconciliatory tone. But the problem is that a part of Wilber’s beliefs claims that people only react negatively to his tone of voice if they are stuck in green. In the endnotes to Boomeritis, Don Beck expresses, in a lecture, how he does not object to a polemical tone in the debate as a tactical device: “because yellow will not react to the “tone” of the delivery, but green will often get infuriated”. In other words, only people who lack insight will react negatively to Wilber’s communicative choices. This argument partially justifies Wilber’s rhetoric, but the problem is that such discourse only infuriates his critics even more. Beck’s acceptance of Wilber’s rhetoric is hardly surprising since they share many of the theories, but Beck’s explanation offers no immediate solution to the problem of communicating between the first and second tier memes or between the elite that Wilber wants to create and the people who need to aspire to this elite. Thus Wilber’s rhetoric may be perfectly rational within its own context (internal coherence), but far from effective if he wants to convince those who do not share his view (external coherence).

If Boomeritis breaks through and finds a more ’green’ audience during the next few years it paradoxically disproves its own thesis. If academics in modern America embrace the book it is ironically because they are not as green as the book argues. Therefore, if the book has a point it will fail to be acknowledged by the people who need to evolve their life values, and if it is acknowledged by the people it tries to inspire, it consequently disproves its own points since the Mean Green Meme would react negatively to the message in Boomeritis. If they did not it would mean that they were not green to begin with, and consequently the people who are criticized in the book are but ghosts and do not constitute one fourth of the American population (as the book argues). In other words, if the theory is valid, it will have no impact on the people it needs to convince, but if the book does have an impact it will signify that the theory is invalid.

Not so Integral

The integral approach seems like its own opposite. Rather than being a philosophy which integrates all lines of thinking, it is unfortunately often a closed circuit. The basis of the philosophy is global but a crucial problem is that the terminology and topics it brings up ironically appears to be those of a very closed environment. Arguably this is the case with all lines of thought and Wilber himself has pointed out that you have to have had similar thoughts yourself in order to appreciate his ideas. Thus the rhetorical problems are not unique and are perhaps universal to all philosophies, since arguably you only agree with arguments that resonate with your own beliefs. However, the matter here is whether the rhetorical strategy actually estranges the people who might be potential ‘converts’. This issue needs to be addressed if the integral movement is to be more widespread and not just considered laughable and perhaps even evil by the very people who are actually disposed to appreciate the ideas.

Wilber’s system has a communicative problem. On one hand it is a profound structure which appears to give answers and proper contexts to everything. Measured by its internal merits, it is impressive. If you share his initial ideas, his outline of the Kosmos will be a hyper-effective tool and the ideas which are exchanged using his terms and concepts are constructive and creative. The problem is that an internal coherence and understanding does not guarantee an external appreciation. Wilber’s system is a success by its own parameters, but the problem is that it does not attract people who are not already engaged in those lines of thought. If you believe that a notion of spirituality is a threat to proper academic research, Wilber will probably not convince you otherwise. In other words, his discourse lacks external appeal. To argue that it lacks external appeal would perhaps seem strange as Wilber is seemingly conquering new ground all the time. The Integral Naked website as well as his own newly established homepage prove fertile ground for all kinds of thinkers from gurus to rock musicians. To boot this, his voice will furthermore be heard in many a filmfreak’s loudspeakers as he has done an extensive commentary track for The Matrix DVD-box set. In other words, Wilber and his ideas are seemingly everywhere and appreciated by priests as well as action film aficionados. The problem is, that no matter how established and popular he is in some circles, he will not break through to the mean green meme because of the way he is communicating. Perhaps it is not necessary for the integral movement to do so, but if the green meme is really as dominant as Boomeritis claims, then it would be strange not to try to appeal to this group in particular.

A Mexican Stand-off

To cure a disease the first step is often to acknowledge the disorder and it is this initial process which is problematical in terms of boomeritis. Wilber is without doubt thought-provoking, but the problem is that a large part of his potential audience may focus more on the ‘provoking’ than the ‘thought’. Those who read his books may find his discourse too demanding since it stipulates many theories that need to be accepted in order to even begin considering whether Wilber’s synthesis of knowledge is viable. And not only that, assuming that one could agree on all the orienting generalizations he deduces from all the rational fields, there is, added to this, the spiritual dimension which arguably provokes further scepticism.

To use a politically incorrect term from movie criticism, Wilber’s discourse is locked in a ‘Mexican stand-off’. A Mexican stand-off is the scene in action films, where two gunslingers have their guns pointed at each other’s heads. If one shoots, the other will shoot too and if one backs down, the other will shoot. – It is a situation where there is no easy solution and the outcome can only be bad. Like a deadlocked action scene in a film, Wilber’s writing will have a hard time exiting the rhetorical stance gracefully. If he chose to promote his vision of boomeritis in a language which would suit the green meme better, and perhaps enable him to be accepted within more academic discourse in universities, he might be in danger of compromising with the distinctive message that he has: the message must not regress to first tier in order to promote second tier. Also, if he were to modify his discourse, he would have to include more counter-arguments and as a result deconstruct his own AQAL model; to create a discourse more ‘acceptable’ to pathological green could therefore result in a repeal of his ideas because he could not be as discriminate in his integration; he cannot include theories which are mutually exclusive.

To use a politically incorrect term from movie criticism, Wilber’s discourse is locked in a ‘Mexican stand-off’.

In contrast, the strategy he has chosen now results in him being exposed only to those who share his ideas to begin with. The diagnosis of boomeritis has arguably only reached those people who suspected the existence of the disease and not those who suffer from a terminal condition (supposing the disease exists). Thus Wilber’s diagnosis of boomeritis has only helped those who were being cured from it to begin with whereas the true ‘sufferers’ will never be reached, since the values he promotes will never be recognized by the pathological version of the green meme. Therefore, the rhetorical problems of the integral movement are seemingly impossible to solve.

The enormous consensus, which is a prerequisite to follow Wilber’s arguments, is another problem. His ability to synthesize and integrate so many worldviews is arguably why he—staying with the action film analogy—is holding the gun with a firm grip, but the extensive consent is also his adversary since he invites so many fields of expertise into the realm of his AQAL-approach which could optimally create a coherent whole but unfortunately also be Trojan horses within his theories. He thereby risks having just as many guns pointed at him. He bases his integral model on several renowned thinkers but they are just that: for every thinker he refers to, he excludes the counter-arguments which those thinkers have met. Therefore, the demanding consensus which Wilber creates as his basis is not only a theory in which you have to agree on many things, you also have to disagree with just as many. That his system thus holds in it a multitude of arguments and counter-arguments makes his efforts in danger of being disregarded altogether, since they might be perceived as a package deal, where it is not enough to agree with one of his theories but necessary to accept his system as a whole. I am not suggesting that the integral movement cannot contain discussions and modifications of the model, but rather that to participate in these discussion alone will demand a demanding consensus which few will endeavour to approach. This is not necessarily a theoretical problem with the integral movement but rather a problem of image and accessibility.

Therefore, although Wilber’s ideas have taken flight in many communities, especially on the internet, they have still to fly into more conventional circles and Boomeritis will probably not help. His theories are without doubt a topic of much debate, and in that sense he is immensely successful as a writer and scholar, but he is not studied in most universities and thus he misses the official stamp of approval which his ideas need: what good is a diagnosis of a disease if the patient does not acknowledge the infection?

Does Wilber Care About Green?

The question is whether Wilber cares. He has already moved on and appears uninterested in discussing boomeritis and tends to focus more on his new writings which will address something which he refers to as “post-metaphysical”. In his recent texts, he is no longer concerned with questioning the basis of his theories but in developing those ideas which he already sees as verified. In the introduction to an excerpt from an upcoming book of his, Wilber explains:

Henceforth, for the most part, my writing […] assumes not just a passing familiarity but a working knowledge of the essentials of the AQAL matrix. […] For the same reason, I have ceased responding to critics and am devoting myself to working exclusively with individuals who understand the integral approach (and whose criticism from within is much more accurate and cogent).

In footnotes, introductions, interviews etc. Wilber always acknowledges that his ideas cannot be widely accepted unless you share certain ideas with him. Arguably all discourses are only appreciated by those who find that the content resonates with themselves, but in the case of diagnosing boomeritis it is a large obstacle since the concept deals with people who will not recognize the value of its content. He outlines everything he believes to be wrong with the pathological green, but his presentation is deliberately provocative, and he uses the exact terms which, according to his own diagnosis, the green meme will react most ferociously against.

From this, Wilber appears more interested in diagnosing the disease than actually curing it. This may seem paradoxical since his discourse, and all that it mobilizes, requires passion and determination: clearly he is serious! But his rhetorical strategy reveals that he is more intent on outlining a theory for those people who already share similar ideas than he is on curing the very people who suffer from boomeritis. Therefore, if Wilber wants his ideas to be more widely discussed, he will have to modify his rhetoric slightly and be more open to counterarguments. Added to this, some people will have to be less provoked and less prejudicial of his ideas. In short: both parties need to alter their approach to the discourse of boomeritis. This might lead to a more cogent discussion of the ideas presented in the integral movement based on a wider consensus. After all, as Wilber puts it, “Nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time”.

Based on a thesis in English and Rethoric at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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