Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences. (Mikhail Gorbachev)
Today the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died.
When I lived in London in the 1980s it was Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were reshaping the Western World and the European continent. Today it is Gorbachev’s successor Vladimir Putin who, through waging the first European conflict since WWII between Ukraine and Russia, is seeking to return to the glory days of Empire whilst dividing Europe as a continent once more.
In the 1990s I recall my nephew asking me why all the baddies in spy movies were Russian – he couldn’t understand this East-West dynamic. The world did seem to be a safer, calmer, saner and more united place until 9/11 in 2001.
As I watched the early days of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war unfold I kept on thinking about human history and how we seem to take two steps forward, then one step back. As Stephen Pinker argues the world (for humans) does seem to be getting better. There are more of us; fewer of us (percentage wise) live in poverty; more of us are educated; we are living longer better lives, and we have a command of technological solutions to do things that our ancestors would only dream of in the realm of magicians.
Of course the planet and other species might disagree, but perhaps we are being too quick to judge.
I watched a critique of the Russian versus US Army recruiting advertisements with the commentator ridiculing the US use of a young, female, gay graduate from (see this and this). We also know that Putin felt that the time was right to strike due to the perceived weakness of the West as it became increasingly focused on issues such as gay-rights and transgender identity.
Time has revealed several things:
- You don’t need to be a butch, buff Rambo to successful operate a high tech weapon and be a very effective fighter
- Putin underestimated the West in it’s use of smart technologies, social media and propaganda tools, and it’s determination to stand up for its values
- History does rhyme and move in cycles, but it does not repeat.
The more I have been thinking about this the more it strikes me that, just like Spiral Dynamics, humans may be evolving beyond the historical stereotypes and constraints that have so long dominated our thinking. We have always had strong men driven by greed, power and their own sense of personal destiny. We have always had armies and mercenaries prepared to fight for whomever pays the highest price. We have always had familial, tribal, and then nationalistic identities which have filtered any sense of empathetic thinking in terms of ‘others’.
If we study our history we have also had Empires and Societies which have failed through their own self-focus – think of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. If we look through the prism of artistic expression we see societies go through stages of development from early formation (archaic) to consolidation (classical) to a period of decline (Hellenistic). Whilst this may be very simplistic perhaps it also offers something to interrogate when it comes to looking historically at why societies collapsed and then thinking about what is happening with the West now.
The stock standard reasons that historians and economists give for Societal Collapse focus on economic decline, rise of competition, resource depletion, inequality, political corruption (see Andrews and Diamond as well as this list). But, perhaps there is something else going on at the minute that is beyond the bounds of human history, something that is over the event horizon that we are just beginning to intuit.
Perhaps what we are seeing is not a sign of weakness. Perhaps, in fact it is a sign of true strength and a major evolution in our thinking.
An event horizon is a boundary beyond which an observer cannot see or comprehend.
If I go back to the rant I watched about military recruitment the thought that continually kept occurring to me is that in times of stress and conflict it our base behaviours linked to our limbic and reptilian brains flooded with testosterone which drives us to pick up a gun and shoot someone or something. This has been our default and is evident in our entertainment (think gladiators to Marvel movies) and our definition of ‘heroes’.
However, the real heroes are those who don’t hit out, do not give in to those impulses, but who stop and allow our higher brains to determine our actions. This, for me, is the real power of turning the other cheek.
Instead of lashing out at and condemning that which we don’t understand the real challenge is to comprehend what it must be like to have been born in a body that feels alien and disconnected, to live a life which feels like a lie, to be physically or intellectually misaligned with many of the demands of everyday life, and to feel either trapped or disempowered by the society within which we live.
Many people feel like this all their lives but in the 21st Century our Western societies, driven by the Christian values upon which our societies are built I believe that we in the West are slowly taking on the challenges that are inherent within the diverse nature of humanity and seeking to embrace the fringes of our selves.
Perhaps this is what has happened throughout history and previous societies may have also got to this point but were unable to advance their thinking and being precisely because the invading hordes were at the gate and they had to divert their mental attention away from this really complex thinking towards the base requirements of survival. Perhaps now, after one of the longest periods of historical peace, and unprecedented technological development, we have enough momentum to finally be able to release the shackles of our past and move towards building a world for all of the human family.
Understanding the collapse of societies and Empires is a complex issue and no one really has the definitive answer. But perhaps instead of collapse there is a human drive towards something beyond anything we can truly comprehend and understand. Smart technologies are undermining the advantages of physical strength within human competition. We are working to defeat ageing and decay; we are working to unravel the mystery of the creation of life and begin to think about a human existence beyond sex and gender. So perhaps also we are beginning to be able to imagine a world beyond that which human history has bequeathed us. If we don’t then the emerging intelligences we are creating certainly will, although underpinned by the values we build in to them.
I believe, unlike Putin, that the West is not descending in to decadence, decay and depravity but is, in fact, slowly evolving to become both more empathetic towards those who don’t fit within the “norm” (whatever that is) and to appreciate that all humans have something to contribute towards the world we are all building. This is the real work of building human societies and takes both bravery and courage.
It is a slow and fragile process which may be derailed at any minute. Whilst things are improving we can often feel distressed that the speed is too slow, that there are too many forces working against us, and that we are powerless to effect any change.
The Ukraine War is just one example of this. Putin expected the war to be over quickly due to his underestimation of the 21st human values inherent in Ukraine and the West but collectively people have risen up to defend their rights to live freely and at peace. Putin may succeed in his goals and he is playing the long game but so is everyone else.
My instinct is telling me that we as 21st Century humans are in a place that humanity has never been before. For better or worse we are more globally connected; we have split second information and news cycles; we have an unprecedented insight and understanding of the physical, chemical and biological worlds; and, ever since we sent humans in to space, we have a view of ourselves living on one planet which we can now actually see. We are also beginning to think beyond the binary nature of male/female; us/them and see things holistically … but only just beginning.
As Carl Sagan demonstrates in Pale Blue Dot
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)
For Intersticia and the work we do to help develop 21st Century Stewards I can think of no better guideline nor philosophy.
Regardless of how we approach this horizon or what we find when get there the preciousness of humanity is what phil-anthropos is all about and drives how we serve those within our community and from there the human family itself.
Of course we may not get there this time. We may self-destruct and go backwards as many previous societies have done due to our own fears and self-destructive instincts. But eventually I believe that we will.