Empty Talk and Slow Transformational Change: On New Age Rhetoric

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At the outset, I want to emphasize three beliefs that I share with many others: 

• Peace, freedom, equali­ty, justice, community, love, truth, health, beauty, frugality, self-reliance and self-fulfillment–despite frequent conflicts with each other–are all worthy goals, and should be pursued for all people worldwide.

• The old paradigms or ways of thought are obsolete; new and broader paradigms offer more promise for the intelligent conduct of human affairs.

• Hyper-industrialized societies are in deep trouble, as are “developing” countries seeking to follow their example; major changes will be necessary if we are to survive in any dignified fashion.

Although a transformation in values, per­ceptions and institutions is desirable, it is far from inevitable. Despite an urgent need, change in a humanly desirable direction may not be taking place at all, or may be taking place at such a miniscule rate so as to be irrele­vant. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the wide- spread belief in a transformation that is happening in fact keeps it from happening. We need reasonable hopes, of course. But making a religion out of social change–developing a body of unquestioned belief, derived from concern for the human condition and hope for a better world–only serves to deflect energies away from the hard work that must be done.

To illustrate, imagine that you are an agent of the FBI or CIA. You are called into the office of the Big Chief and informed that there may be a subversive movement afoot– some call it the Aquarian Conspiracy. It threatens the American way of life by seeking to disarm the U.S. and make peace with the Soviet Union, by redefining national security, by weakening the nation-state in favor of glo­bal peacekeeping, by weakening the global economy in favor of national and local self-reliance, by slackening U.S. participation in world competition for high-technology leader­ship, by encouraging individuals to be more self-reliant and not to consume as much, by promoting environmentalism at the expense of commerce, and by decentralizing economic and political power through wider participa­tion in corporate and community decision making. This is clearly subversive. Your mis­sion is to stop it. What should an effective agent do?

Being wise in the ways of the world, you realize that the 1950s strategy of fighting the Red Menace will no longer work in the sophis­ticated 1980s. In our age of infoglut, why give valuable publicity to the Green Menace, when the movement, at least in the United States, is largely invisible? Rather, you would exploit the widespread tendency of the movement, such as it is, to render itself politically impo­tent. You understand the dynamics of the sandbox: an enclosed area where children safe­ly play, while adults carry on, undisturbed, in their usual wicked ways. Two complementary forces promote this condition: Adults place children in the sandbox to get rid of them, and children volunteer to play there because it is fun.

To stop the potential subversion of Amer­ica, all you have to do is go with the flow and promote the Sandbox Syndrome. It’s easy. Here are some tips:

(1) Encourage Belief in Success

Promote the view that cosmic change is coming, and taking place. Similar to the fundamentalist Chris­tians, who believe that Armageddon is about to take place, to be followed by a millenium for those who are saved, preach that the Transfor­mation, or the Third Wave, is happening now –that we have reached the turning point, and that people are now seeing that we can’t con­tinue the old ways. Don’t attempt to offer evi­dence for this change, other than a one-time 1977 Harris Poll based on leading questions, or some fuzzily estimated data sanctified by association with Stanford Research Interna­tional. Anything else would involve left-brain quantifying–an artifact of Consciousness II.

(2) Confuse Goals and Results

It feels good, and it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings, to pro­claim that we are working for peace, we are changing minds, we are healing. Perhaps we are; perhaps we aren’t. The intention and the process are primary, not the outcome. Any hint of a managerial, performance-oriented approach is fascistic.

(3) Don’t Criticize

That’s related to asking embarrassing questions about results. Just let it be. Being peaceful, loving, supportive and cooperative means treating everyone equally and saying ill of no one. After all, everyone means well. Prickly questions are hostile and best ignored, or met with a hug.

(4) Add a Dose of Hubris.

Stand on the leading edge, the crest of the Third Wave, amidst the New Age. You’re superior to those unliberated, linear cluckheads out there. You know; they don’t. Write a guidebook to networking or bartering, the magic processes of the alter­native culture–but don’t acknowledge the networks and barters used by the rest of the world. Your folkways, too, are superior: To enhance communication invite them to your saunas and hot tubs–don’t even think of vis­iting their bridle trails and tennis courts, or, among the masses, their corner bars and bowl­ing alleys.

(5) Promote Your Own Dialect

Tired of pe­dantic jargon? Create your own hip language. Turn nouns to verbs such as “peacing” and “futuring.” Use adjectives such as “incredible” to describe every experience. Blows the mind, but who needs it? Use positive words such as “network,” “caring,” “holistic,” “creativity,” “synergy,” “foresight,” “cooperation,” “tran­scendence,” “win/win,” “human scale” and “human values.” Don’t use negative words like “competition,” “corporations,” “commu­nism” or “crime.” Maybe they’ll go away.

(6) Extol the Informal and the Nonacademic

 Your intuition is a safe guide, as is the com­mon sense of the people. Ignore the elitist aca­demics, with their ponderous footnotes and interminable data. Accordingly, the academic journals and commercial publishers should also be dismissed, in favor of small book pub­lishers and honest, alternative periodicals.

(7) Get the Holistic Picture

You can acquire instant wisdom by taking the general systems point of view, or viewing whole systems. When you have the Big Picture of humanity, nature, and society, you know it all, and there is no need to learn any more. A historical per­spective isn’t needed because these ideas are obviously new.

(8) Create Instant Equality

Forget the rich and the poor. The rich have great power, which is too much to contemplate. So don’t. The poor can’t meet their basic material needs, which is also a downer, best ignored. Preach that we all have enough and that more self-help is needed. Fits nicely into the anti-poverty strategy of the Reagan administra­tion.

(9) Be Self-Centered

You have the power of the New Age in your head; change your con­sciousness and you can change the world. We have met the enemy and he is us. The respon­sibility for health, for change, for peace, is within you.

All of the above–and more, no doubt, could be added–add up to the Sandbox Syn­drome: a set of behaviors guaranteed to keep an individual or an organization in a childish state of innocence, content with building sand castles, instead of real-life structures.

But what if you read some books by Lester R. Brown, Willis Harman, Hazel Henderson, Ivan Illich, Amory Lovins, James Ogilvy, James Robertson, Theodore Roszak, Kirkpatrick Sale, Mark Satin, E. F. Schumacher, Robert Theobald, William Irwin Thompson, Alvin Toffler and others, causing you to believe the Green Message? What if you see the necessity of a sustainable, decentral­ized, human-needs-oriented society–the Jeffersonian vision of America as the real American way of life, rather than the Hamiltonian, corporate view? With a flush of true patriotism, you decide to be a counteragent and to work for genuine eco-decentralism. What do you do? Here are some general tips:

(1) Grow Up

All of the above-mentioned po­sitions are simplistic. An upward growth re­quires a broader, more subtle, and complex view:

(a)Develop a wide range of indicators that describe both successes and failures.

(b) Don’t confuse goals and results, but in­sist on measures of performance and on standards.

(c) Be constructively critical: Point to good work and how it can be improved–and also to work that is useless or damaging.

(d) Be humble: We all have much to learn in an age of ignorance. Identify your oppo­nents and their arguments, and learn*from them.

(e) Use the English Language correctly as a tool of thought, and to enable communica­tion with those in need of hearing your message.

(f) See the best thought from both academ­ics and non-academics; use your intuition as one of many learning tools.

(g) Similarly, holism should also be used as a tool for learning, and recognized as an ideal to strive for ceaselessly both in space and time.

(h) Recognize that inequities in wealth and income are increasing, that the poor need help to help themselves, and that even good help will not necessarily help.

(i) Understand that there are many sources of problems in both individuals and society, that the two are interactive, and that individuals are often not at all responsible for their problems.

(2) Connect Some Disconnected Yins and Yangs

In advocating a Taoist framework for dealing with reality, Fritjof Capra notes that a dynamic balance between yin and yang is good, and imbalance is bad. Several balances are mentioned above (success and failure, aca­demic and nonacademic, individual and so­ciety). Several additional pairings are also needed:

(a) Inspiration and Perspiration. Our spir­its can benefit from the uplift of preaching and cheerleading. But exhortation toward the promised land is not enough; we must work very hard to bring it about.

(b) Realism and Idealism. We need ideal­ists with a foot on the ground of reality, as well as realists who can keep some ideal in mind. Both, in dialogue with each other, should replace the great number of Utopians with no sense of reality and “realists” with no appreciation of any ideal.

(c) Cooperation and Struggle. In our age of instant gratification by video and drugs, many think that social change should be in­stant, painless, and non-reversible. While seeking out opportunities for cooperation, a dialectical view of struggle is also needed. Indeed, those who ostensibly share your views may not necessarily be cooperative, and your greatest struggle may be with such “movement killers.”

(d) Intellect and Spirit. In trying to escape from what is seen as too much rationality in modern society, an excuse is often provided for anti-intellectualism in the name of the neglected “right brain.” We need a more rational rationality, not less rationality,

(e) Critics and Lovers. We should avoid the extremes of unloving critics and uncriti­cal lovers. Another way to consider more productive behavior is to note the traits of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualizing people, which include: fighting untruths, not need­ing to be loved by everyone, enjoying great­er efficiency and being effective, looking at facts courageously and avoiding illusions.

(3) Get the New Age Act Together (to Some Degree)

The pervasive condition that must be faced is the fact that we live in an age of info-glut. Another book, journal, conference, or newsletter about peace, healing or environ-mentalism will not necessarily help people, and might simply add to the pervasive prob lem of information overload and fragmenta­tion. The transformational message must be recognized as “the world-crisis solution with a hundred names”–green revolution, human scale, person-centered society, human econo­my, conserver society, solar age, meta-industrial alternative, Gandhism, and so on. As long as this message is fractured into a hun­dred or so labelings, The Transformation, or whatever, will continue to be stillborn.

(4)… and Take It on the Road

If we are seri­ous about a genuine transformation of values and perceptions, the world must know that de­sirable and practical alternatives exist. Despite the great volume of New Age literature, “the world-crisis solution with a hundred names” still remains invisible to mainstream culture, or is readily dismissed as “small is beautiful” romanticism. New Age literature is seldom re­viewed in mainstream periodicals. It seldom enters textbooks or political campaigns. The old ways of thinking are still very much in power.

(a) One-dimensional, flat-earth politics, re­stricting all possibilities to “the” left-right political spectrum of liberals and conserva­tives, still prevails in our political analysis.

(b) One-eyed economics, ignoring the in­formal and household economy, continues to define “the” economy.

(c) One-directional social evolution, in­volving more economic growth and a serv­ice society, continues to be the only definition of progress.

(d) One-time education, assuming that an individual has completed learning upon leaving school or college, continues to in­hibit adults from discovering ignorance and learning needs.

To improve on these paradigms in power, there must be widespread and genuine debate and discussion, rather than smug isolation and loose talk of paradigm change.

(5) Aim High and Don’t Shoot your Foot

There is a frequent tendency to underestimate the transformational task, while overestimat­ing the progress that has been made. This is complicated by the use of images and ideas that are intellectually laudable but politically inept: for example, a “no-growth society,” in contrast to the more attractive notion of a human-growth society. Western science is an­other illustration: rather than rejecting it, and creating an easy target for the charge of being anti-science, a better strategy would advocate a more scientific science–a superior world sci­ence that incorporates various scientific traditions.

This advice is for the counteragent, who would seek to promote an actual transforma­tion. But the task is difficult. The agent, who embraces the Way of the Sandbox, follows the path of least resistance. Both the agent and the counteragent are at work. Who will win? Prob­ably the agent. Still, the counteragent may prevail–the slender hope that prompts this essay. Whom do you want to win?

Excerpted with permission from the Journal of Humanis­tic Psychology (Winter 1983). Subscriptions: quarterly, $19.80/yr., from Sage Publications, P.O. Box 5024, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Back issues: $6.00 ppd. from same address.

This article originally appeared in Utne Reader‘s Summer 1984 issue. For sidebars, see New Age: What in the Name of God? ,  The New Age Should Disappear, andThe New Age Danger: Real or Imagined?

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