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The Gaps Between Personal & Social Evolution
Ideology as Psycho-Social Parallax in Integral Worlds
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it,” said that incorrigible wag Upton Sinclair.
Don’t worry — I’ll get back to that illustrious quote in a minute. And when I do return to Mr. Sinclair, I will be suggesting that he is describing part of an ideological mechanism that operates somewhere between individual understanding & cultural reality.
I will, as usual, be exploring the irregular landscape of a question you have probably never asked: How does the notion of ideology relate to different patterns of developmental psychology in personal and social domains?
What’s that? You frequently ask yourself that question??? Well, good! Let us then proceed as peers! First, though, we should get on the same page about some key terminology.
Ideological mechanisms are herein different from “belief systems.” Our personal opinions and our ideological opinions may compete within us for control. Sometimes we say what-we-mean, but other times we say what anyone-in-our-position-would-say. That’s pretty straightforward.
So an ideological mechanism is a way of describing how our social procedures and material circumstances cause us to behave & speak — regardless of whether we believe it or not.
There is a fairly famous story about the quantum physicist Niels Bohr putting up a “lucky horseshoe.” When challenged by a friend, he declared, “Of course I don’t believe the silly superstition! I’m a scientist. However, I’ve been told that it works whether you believe it or not…”
It works whether you believe it or not.
That is the “material force of ideology.” Social habits and cultural atmospheres can, like hammers and shovels, do their work regardless of your private values and opinions.
Many great socialist critics discovered this idea over the last few hundred years when they examined the irrational elements of the modern economy — the big gaps between what we seem to value (good jobs, clean environment, peace, legal equality, more free time) and what our socio-economic system often provides (massive inequality, pollution, constant wars, covert inequality). They coined the phrase “false consciousness” to describe the way that people seem to be possessed by the needs of our social groups, status hierarchies, employers, national GDP, etc.
Yet it is not only an issue for the economic critics of modernity. The philosopher Heidegger claimed that we only do what “one does” until we achieve personal authenticity through integration of mortality & finitude. Psychologist Carl Jung taught that people are generally steered through life by unseen archetypal complexes from the collective mind unless we do the work of individuating.
I’ve personally proposed that we all have a subconscious hive brain deep in our psyche. Hive insects require a secure hive with stable access to resources. In practice, that means individual insects must be willing to sacrifice themselves to maintain the current resource-control system of the hive. So it would not be weird to find that human beings exhibit an often self-destructive, pre-conscious, willingness to support the well-being of “whoever controls a lot of resources in our hive.” When you vote for billionaire tax breaks, regardless of why you say you’re doing it, you may be willing to sacrifice your own well-being to support the existing resource-control pattern of your society.
Casting your vote is sometimes an expression of what you really need and believe but also, sometimes, the expression of a role that you perform.
The common feature of all these analyses is the basic insight that individual human motivation is an uncertain mixture of both the personal & social dimensions of existence.
Do you know what interpolate means? It means receiving something from another genre of experience. There is another word “interpellation” which I will be considering to be a specialized subset of interpolation. A famous example is that you turn around when a policeman shouts, “Hey you!” At that moment you are not acting as a specific individual personality but rather as the impersonal “you” to whom the authority figure is referring. The behavioral controls of your neuro-organism are temporarily substituted by the organizational procedures of your society.
If you are a fan of integrative metatheory (eg Ken Wilber’s model), you will immediately recognize that all “four quadrants” can interpolate into each other. Here are some examples?
What's going on if you mistake your personal meditative experience and mystical visions for objective facts about the physical universe?
Why do some people mistake their group feeling about America’s greatness for proof that the current American system is actually operating magnificently?
Why do we so frequently treat an individual as if he or she was nothing but the representative of an entire race, class, or philosophical agenda?
You see the common issue here. Factors from personal, interpersonal, systemic, and physical domains of reality can substitute into each other’s zones. And for developmental thinkers, the question naturally arises: How should we understand emergent growth patterns of depth, complexity, and understanding in these different, interacting zones?
This vision of an integrative analysis of ideological interpolation is a sprawling and highly novel topic, so I’ll narrow the focus onto just two ideas: Personal understanding & cultural operating systems.
Are there some obvious ways to get a sense of the gaps between developmental personal structures & developmental social systems? Sure.
Traditional societies did not invent jet airplanes, nuclear bombs, or industrial factories. That does not stop individuals from riding on airplanes, using bombs against their ethnic rivals, or going to work in factories. They can participate in patterns that rely on modern thinking without necessarily being modern. Working with (at least speaking the words of!) modernity is not quite the same thing as deeply embodying the values and generative capacities of the modern soul.
Imagine a woman who is a high-school graduate with a driver’s license. She uses electronic appliances and expects the right to vote. It would be hard to say that she is not a citizen of modern civilization. Yet a closer look at her politics, emotions, philosophy, worldview, etc. might reveal that she is still basically motivated by irrational symbolism, ethnocentric tensions, dogmatic stereotypes & rural-territorial emotions.
Perhaps she would be more at home in the hereditary, theocratic kingdoms of the 13th century? Maybe she harbors secret “flat earth” sympathies? And yet… she still likes being able to brush her teeth and watch television in a heated home with windows.
Is she modern? The situation is not immediately obvious.
The “level of developmental complexity” characteristic of her general personality is not the same as the complexity of the socio-economic, technological, and cultural situation in which she has been raised.
Remember that opening quote from Upton Sinclair? It is a pithy way of saying that our material needs, social environment & work procedures are somehow able to hack our personal understanding.
Here’s how I relate to this idea from my own experience:
Several years ago I was walking past a newly opened coffee house in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. The place looked very hip and inviting. “I hope they do well and get lots of customers,” I thought to myself. However, I did not go in. As it happened, I was already on my way to another cafe. Not one that I thought was better — just one that my feet already knew how to walk toward. It was reliable. Already in my routine. The new shop — which I thought was better! — eventually went out of business. I never bought a coffee there.
Although I was mentally and emotionally in favor of it, that did not translate into action. My walk was not determined by my inner talk (or feelings). Instead, my behavior was largely determined by habits, systems, and seemingly reliable procedures in which I was already embedded.
We might say, suggestively, that in this case a “lower” set of social and physical habits was determining my behavior instead of my “higher” personal understanding. Interpolative hacking.
Think about a similar situation in American federal politics:
Suppose there is a popular politician who speaks convincingly about his personal preference for a “single-payer healthcare system.” He gets it. It works pretty well in most other wealthy nations. It is very popular. Saves money and saves lives. Protects citizens from the predatory practices of profit-driven private insurance companies.
Not only does he mentally understand, he sincerely sympathizes with people’s personal stories about tragic health crises and medical bankruptcies that could be solved by expanding the existing, well-liked, Medicare system to cover everyone.
So far, so good.
However, when it comes to using his actual power to legislatively fight for universal healthcare or even a public option, he seems oddly ambivalent. We, he tells us, just don’t understand how hard and complicated it is. He says the opposition won’t budge. He says compromise is ideal. We need to set more reasonable expectations. Too soon! Although he would personally love to do it… we just have to accept that we are constrained by the existing procedures of the system we have.
Of course, I’m talking about Barack Obama. I believe him when he says that he understands the upside of public healthcare and feels deeply for the Americans suffering under the current situation. But a lot of people find it strange that he always has some excuse for why he personally didn’t even try to fight for it.
Or what about Donald Trump? Prior to the 2020 election, he publically advocated a large (and popular) COVID stimulus package that would have probably swayed many voters. So it is odd that he didn’t seem to make any real efforts to get Republican legislators to support the idea. Why not?
Joe Biden is often praised for having admitted his problematic former stances on many issues. The flak he got after the Anita Hill inquiry did not jive with his self-image. The racially-problematic Crime Bill did not square with his personal affinity for African Americans. The trade deals that he helped engineer resulted in the predictable hollowing out of small-town economies and blue-collar workers with which he identifies. So he has had to navigate these contradictions.
But even his apologies beg the question: Why was he acting in ways that deviated from his personal values, understanding, and sympathies? Could it be that habits, procedures, social groups, and perhaps paychecks, keep politicians from behaviorally “understanding” what they already personally believe?
Philosophers should be very curious about potential situations in which a cultural operating system might be hacking people’s ability to embody what they know and feel.
A quick look at the example of the “stereotypical authoritarian progressive” will help us to grasp our interpretive options for analyzing this uncanny gap between behavior & values.
Suppose I have graduated from college with a head full of powerful new ideas —deconstructionism, pluralism, egalitarianism & anti-racism. Terrific. It would certainly be odd then if I went around, very agitated, saying that the white race is the sole source of America’s misfortunes. Or if I treated my own point of view as singular, obvious, and absolutely righteous. Etc.
It would be easy to accuse me of hypocrisy when I want to transcend racism by insisting upon racial differences when I deconstruct the basic biological science of gender but leave my own opinions unchallenged, or when I attack hierarchy while asserting that my personal sensitivities should officially dominate in all public institutions. That hypocrisy (a widely derided human quality, I’m told) may stem simply from the fact that, while I have received the thought-tools, memes, and conceptual sympathies of postmodernity, my personal understanding, and emotional development remain premodern, racialist, tribal, violent, authoritarian, illiberal, etc.
Now how should I be described in terms of a multidimensional developmental theory?
Here are the options:
a) I am not “really” postmodern but actually just a pre-modernist in postmodern drag. The change in my issues, words, and value-claims does not represent any actual development. It is a purely horizontal transition. Although we typically associate pre-modernity with traditional beliefs and value-claims, the exact same people and behavior can, in fact, adopt any popular words or ideas.
b) I am authentically postmodern along one of my major developmental lines (eg. cognition) but not others (eg. ethics) A disconnect arises from the mismatch between the sophistication of what I am able to SAY & the sophistication of what I am able to feel, appreciation, enact, etc. I am a narrow postmodernist — but a real one.
c) I understand postmodernity only in the superficial foyer of the Self. My development is real but superficial — because I was encouraged in my education to develop AS the superficial, social personality that is NOT the true self. The wrong “ego” climbed the ladder but it really did climb that ladder.
d) I am adapted to a postmodern SYSTEM but that is not necessarily related to my personal embodied understanding. A legitimate postmodern development in my social dimension is not coherent with my personal understanding. My cultural self is authentically derived from a level above that of my personal self.
You can see that there is a great deal of nuanced similarity between these analytic options. And you will find all of them in play wherever there is a community of people engaged in critical debate about developmental stages. I think variations of all these odd juxtapositions are in play but that many of them can be explained by option d) — the one we are focusing on today.
Let’s consider developmental stages for a moment. The construction of a house is different from a software update. These are two metaphors for human development that seem to apply to distinct facets of our psyche.
Some parts of ourselves, for example, can be likened to buildings. You just cannot install a second floor without some semblance of a first floor already in place. You cannot skip childhood and go directly to adult maturity. You cannot authentically transcend pluralism without actually having been pluralistic.
These are sometimes called vertical stages. They are structural competencies that exist only by performing actions upon previous structural competencies — which therefore have to already be installed (at least in a minimum sense).
Yet, other parts of our psyche seem to be more like software updates. You can directly replace Windows 95 with Windows 10. You don’t need to grow through all of the in-between stages. We can just stop speaking English and start speaking Korean anytime. This is a different kind of development. We often call these horizontal changes.
Developmental maturation in the sense of Piaget, Wilber, or MHC is a series of vertical stages. And so is the kind of broad, epochal, socio-technological development envisioned by Hegel, Gebser, and other historians of progress. There appear to be processes of growth, enfoldment, and transcendence in both domains. Something like vertical stages in both individual and social domains.
What about the relationship between vertical personal and vertical cultural development?
Could that be horizontal?
An elevator is a great example of a situation in which you move horizontally (walk on, walk off) to a different vertical location (floor).
This is a way of re-describing what I have been calling a “hack” (interpolation). If we consider a flat relationship between two vertical types of development, we discover a contested playing field open to all kinds of frustrating hypocrisy and uncanny ideological mysteries.
A modern liberal can simply step sideways into verbal and emotional identification with a progressive cultural movement. Although he or she does not personally exhibit the inner skills and styles (functionally consonant with the postmodern cultural code), nonetheless they have been hacked by a higher social operating system. Wilber might be tempted to say it is “legitimate but not authentic.” We could also see it as two different, overlapping, authenticities trying to operate through the same brain.
Conversely, a group of contemporary people might regress to tribal warfare when stranded and starving on a classic desert island — hacked by a lower set of social procedures in a more primitive environment.
With my personal understanding of the global economy, I could intervene in the culture of rural Africa to essentially enslave children into black market drug production. My ‘higher’ personal awareness of how to get things done in the world has hacked the less complicated local cultural system.
Or an egotistical, sociopathic presidential candidate might cause an ethnocentric political party to steer toward regression. That (clearly imaginary) scenario is a lower personal hack into a (slightly) higher social system.
Regardless of the level of development, you may be able to slide sideways into a disparate level in another domain. A 5yr old cannot leap to 20 years old but he can use words and tools, however clumsily, favored by people 15 years older than himself. And a barbarian boss can downshift the ethics and ethos of an egalitarian corporation without the internal personal regression of all the employees. There seem to be no particular limits on the horizontal slide between two vertical systems if they are operating in different domains.
The results, in all cases, will strike some observers as hypocrisy, corruption, inauthenticity, ideology, interpolation — a gap between patterns of individual behavior and the personal ideas, values, and feelings of the people involved.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it,” said Upton Sinclair.
We need analytic categories that incorporate parallax between the individual and the social dimension. Vertical development depends on authenticity — (i.e. whether you have actually discovered or created the requisite style of insight and motivation and recognition and perhaps whole worldscape that is appropriate to a set of locally instantiated structures in a particular domain. That could be in the context of a social domain or a personal domain. These domains also interact. The interactions can be constructive or destructive interference. That is to say, they can coherently anchor each other or they can “hack” each other to produce effects normally called interpolation and ideology when examined in critical cultural studies. An integrative expansion of those notions from cultural studies may open pathways of analysis that are much more germane to the needs of a higher, post-progressive metapolitics.
The next steps would be (a) catalog the types of interactions between personal and social levels within individuals (b) extend the analysis to more explicitly include other domains (e.g. the physical situation of the body).