Overcoming the Myth of our Cultural Superiority
In recent years, the consciousness development model of Spiral Dynamics, originally conceived decades ago by Robert Graves and Don Beck, has gained considerable popularity. Like all effective models, it allows us to see and name phenomena we could not understand or adequately talk about before. Yet while I really appreciate how Spiral Dynamics enables us to better understand ourselves and each other, there was always a sense of unease I couldn’t quite put a finger on. Something didn’t quite fit. When I figured out what it was, I was shocked.
It all started with educating myself about the history of racism. Of course, I was familiar with various race theories and how they had been used in the past to legitimize slavery, colonialism and imperialism. Yet it took Black Lives Matter for me to fully grasp how deeply these bogus theories are still entrenched in our institutions, our world order and most importantly in the way we look at the world. And yes, also in Spiral Dynamics.
Let me explain: whatever the theory, inevitably the white folks were on top of the human hierarchy, a supreme race destined to dominate and guide the less fortunate, less evolved races beneath them. These models were backed by pseudo scientific „evidence” and have served as mandates for the most hideous crimes of humanity: the deportation and enslavement of tens of millions of Africans, the extinction of countless indigenous peoples around the world, the holocaust and others.
Looking at Spiral Dynamics in this context, I could not help but notice the eerie similarities between the old historic models and this new edition. Again, another model developed by white scientists claiming that we are the apex of evolution or, as Ken Wilber puts it, „leading edge”.
Of course Spiral Dynamics doesn’t say that. It doesn’t address the issue of race, it only looks at values and levels of consciousness. Yet we can not deny that these values and levels of consciousness have been identified and ranked by white people from a white perspective. White supremacy has become cultural superiority.
When looking at the world through the lens of Spiral Dynamics, we comfortably validate the notion that we – the modern industrialized countries, which happen to be mostly white – are way more advanced than other cultures, which happen to be mostly „of color”. Of course by now there is also a growing number of non-white people ascending the so called consciousness hierarchy of Spiral Dynamics. Yet according to the model, they all follow the path of evolution set out for them by the example of us white folks. In fact, according to the model, this is the only path. This is how evolution happens because this is how we developed. Again, the white man is the gold standard of evolution.
This way of looking at the world fits very snugly with our current age of cultural imperialism. The world over, people are abandoning traditional ways of life in favor of pursuing some form of „the American dream”. If we look behind its glittering facade, this is a dream of individualism, materialism, narcissism, inequality and alienation from each other and the natural world. It claims „the sky is the limit”, thereby completely disregarding the planet’s natural limitations and is currently revealing itself to be a total nightmare for humans as well as for the planet.
If Spiral Dynamics is correct and evolution can only happen the way we have evolved, we are doomed. Already the prospect of more than three billion Chinese, Indians and Brazilians „evolving” into orange is apocalyptic from an environmental perspective. And, as we know, it will not make people happier.
Questioning Cultural Supremacy
When we believe that people evolve from red to blue or from blue to orange because this is how evolution happens, we deny the very tangible influence we have had on this development. In fact, if we look at history, we can see that it is the conviction of our cultural supremacy which has led us to export this culture into the rest of the world. We did it in colonialism, where we attempted to install blue structures in beige, purple or red cultures. And we are doing it now where we have a multi billion dollar industry of advertisement and entertainment idealizing and promoting the Western consumerist lifestyle all over the world. To put it bluntly: People are not abandoning traditional ways of life because it is a natural course of evolution or because they were unhappy. They are doing so because they are forced to or seduced to or very often both, by „us”, the folks believing ourselves to be higher up in the evolutionary hierarchy. The „evolution” we see could very well be the direct result of our intervention, backed by the notion of cultural supremacy so deeply entrenched in white thinking.
But what if we are wrong? What if, as Spiral Dynamics also points out, each stage has its own place, its beauty, its wisdom, its light and its shadow? And what if Spiral Dynamics is not a universal model of evolution but rather a description of how one particular culture happened to develop, which it then began to apply to the rest of the world, with possibly devastating consequences?
Progress vs. Evolution
One distinction we as a culture are not good at making is between progress and evolution. Since the advent of Darwinism, the observation of the phenomenon of evolution has been muddled with the notion of progress so deeply engrained in our cultural identity. We confuse the two or even believe them to be one. This has led us to assume that technological progress is as inevitable as the natural evolution of life and that it is unstoppable.
Yet there are fundamental differences between the two. While evolution is indeed a natural phenomenon, progress is a cultural ideology. Evolution has always happened through a slow process of adaptation, checks and balances, ensuring the continuation of life in a delicate dance of cooperation and competition between species in a given eco-system. It enabled the emergence of increasing complexity and diversity in living systems. It constantly works with feedback, adapting again and again to new circumstances and species in the environment. It is based on relationships and connection.
Progress, in contrast, has been a race for domination with complete disregard for the needs of the natural world or even our own needs. It is based on a purely mechanistic world-view and continues to ignore feedback from the natural world it depends on. Because of this, it has been an isolated, one could even say autistic endeavor, bringing countless species and possibly us to the verge of extinction. While evolution is based on relating and connecting, progress is based on the notion of separation. The problem with this notion is that it is an illusion.
Of course the realization of this illusion can in Spiral Dynamics be neatly mapped as the evolution from orange to green. This is where we begin to question these mechanistic notions of progress and start to embrace the wisdom of the natural world. We begin to embrace the wisdom of traditional cultures, learning about meditation, yoga, shamanism, plant medicine and so much more. And while I appreciate how well Spiral Dynamics maps this development in consciousness, I have a problem with it as well. It is called cultural appropriation.
Overcoming Cultural Appropriation
We as white folks have a long history of cultural appropriation. Simply put, things didn’t really happen or exist until a white person discovered or did them. The best known example of this is how Columbus supposedly discovered America. I see a similar process currently happening with meditation and yoga, to name two examples of many. The benefits of these practices have been well known for millennia. They are an integral part of the cultural heritage, educational systems and healing practices of cultures Spiral Dynamics smugly considers „less evolved”. Yet since white folks have begun to meditate and do yoga, helping them to evolve into green, yellow and maybe even turquoise levels of consciousness, they are „leading edge”.
Spiral Dynamics helps us to legitimize this cultural appropriation by claiming that it is an altogether different matter if one adopts these practices after having passed through the light of reason in orange. And while I much appreciate the orange meme and its rationality, I am baffled by the smugness with which we continuously protect and replicate the dominating myth of our culture, the myth of our own superiority.
Would it really be so bad to acknowledge that while we as a culture are highly evolved technologically, we might not be so leading edge when it comes to the realms of ecology, psychology or spirituality? Are we so narcissistic that we can not acknowledge that our path of „evolution” didn’t really turn out as well as we had hoped and might not necessarily serve as an ideal role model for other cultures? Apparently we are.
The Great Turning
Environmental activist and Buddhist teacher Joana Macy says that the time we now live in might one day be remembered as The Great Turning. This is the time we as a culture wake up from our collective trance and realize we must change course. We turn. Instead of racing with ever increasing speed towards our destruction in the name of progress, we reweave our connections with the fabric of life, of which we recognize ourselves to be a strand. What would happen if we applied this notion to the model of Spiral Dynamics, transforming it from a linear model to a cyclical one or, more precisely, a spiral?
In this reshaped version of Spiral Dynamics, the Great Turning would occur in orange. Orange is the apex of individualism, materialism, competition and separation. This is as far as we can go from nature, from ourselves and from each other. We burn out, personally and collectively. And in this crisis point, we turn.
We reconnect with ourselves, our feelings, our spirituality, our intuition, the powers of nature, of ritual and so much more. It is a process of coming home. In this journey, we are undeniably dependent on the help of those cultures we arrogantly disregarded as primitive. In green, we begin to rediscover the wealth of their heritage and we heal ourselves by reconnecting with it.
If we rethink Spiral Dynamics in this way, as a journey home, we begin to see the different evolutionary stages in a new light. Each stage then becomes a part of us we can reclaim. And each culture still knowledgable in the ancient ways might hold a key to our healing. We can stop speaking of ourselves as the „developed nations” and refer to other cultures as the “developing nations“. Instead, we can acknowledge we are all in dire need of development. In fact, from an environmental, psycho-logical and spiritual perspective, the industrialized nations might well be regarded as primitive and underdeveloped.
What is development?
If we had the courage to be more honest about our own lack of development, we could stop exporting a dysfunctional notion of progress into every corner of the world. Instead, we could come together in our diversity as one humanity, acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, learning from each other and working together to find a way out of this extreme crisis. The crisis we are in is a product of our culture. It is not inevitable or natural, it is the direct result of a cultural ideology. The myth of superiority is deeply ingrained in this ideology and it might well be its most problematic aspect. While we no longer use it to overtly enslave and colonize the world, we still do so in the name of helping others evolve. We help them with our idea of education, of medical care and of technological progress.
And while there is undeniable value in all three, they are in fact used as tools of cultural eradication. What we call modern education alienates people from the traditional knowledge and means of livelihood of their own cultures, making them completely dependent on finding jobs in urban industrialized settings. What we call medical care often undermines if not eradicates traditional healing systems with more holistic approaches instead of complementing them. Infrastructure programs to enable technological progress too often bind countries in crippling debt, while primarily benefiting the globalized corporate system, rather than the local people. Just to be extra-clear: I am not completely opposed to sharing the benefits of education, medical care and technology, yet I am highly critical of the way we are imposing them, due to our belief that they are vastly superior to traditional ways.
The Journey Home
So what if we are, in fact, all going back home? What if our next evolutionary step lies in abandoning a linear model of progress and instead remembering the cyclical nature of life? What if the most powerful step we can take is not, as is sometimes claimed by supposedly yellow consciousness, to acknowledge our own advanced evolution, but rather to step down from our self-made pedestal? What if all the answers were already here, just not in the minds of white people so used to being on top?
It could mean that Spiral Dynamics describes one possible path of development and does not necessarily have to be followed by all others. It could also mean that it is enough if some of us went to this extreme of competition, greed and materialism for the whole to experience separation. We do not need everyone to go through this. We can reach out a hand and learn from each other and work together for the healing of ourselves and our planet. As an indigenous elder from North America once said to my mother: „The day we will be able to sit together and look into each others eyes, there will be so many tears on both sides”. He no longer lived to see this day. Yet I hope this day is coming near so we can heal from the collective trauma of separation our cultural ideology has inflicted on us and so many others.
Vivian Dittmar is founder of the Be The Change Foundation For Cultural Change and author of several books on feelings, relationships and consciousness. Her childhood and adolescence on three continents in different social contexts allowed her to develop an early awareness of the global challenges of our time and are her drive to find and implement holistic solutions. Her last book, which was published in German in spring 2021 by Penguin Random House, addresses the question what True Prosperity might be.