Losing Our Demons, Finding Our Peace – the Promise of Cultural Maturity
February 27, 2012
February 27, 2012
A world at peace is much more achievable than we might imagine—at least a world free from the cataclysmic sort of conflict we most fear. It is essential that this be so. The weapons-of-mass-destruction genie is out of the bottle. And better defenses will only spawn even more dangerous weaponry. Any hope for the future must come from something deeper than putting in place more effective military counter measures. It lies in lessening the forces that have led to war in the past.
Understanding how to do this requires a new and greater sophistication in how we think and act—a fundamental kind of “growing up” as a species. I call this Cultural Maturity and see it as the defining task of our time. Stepping beyond the mechanism that in the past has produced the larger part of human conflict is a pivotal ingredient in Cultural Maturity changes and follows from them.
As human societies grew in scale and complexity, there was a tendency to distinguish self – the “chosen” – from others – the “barbarians.” Since civilization’s earliest beginnings, demonizing others has played a key role in establishing social identity and creating the close bonds needed for social order.
The theme is so embedded in our collective psyche, it is natural to assume it is part of our genetic heritage, something whose influence we cannot escape. The perspective of Cultural Maturity is that this is developmental—a necessary step, but not the endpoint, of our cultural evolution. In fact, two events in the last couple of decades point to hopeful progress.
The fall of the Berlin Wall provides the most striking illustration. Few anticipated it—certainly not the suddenness of its collapse. While many leaders tried to take credit for it, political initiatives in fact had little to do with the collapse of communism. In effect, the world community had grown beyond the absolute dogma and knee-jerk polar animosities the wall represented.
As momentous as those events of 1989 were, it is what has happened—or not happened—since that is truly significant. With the end of the Cold War, “evil empire” animosities between the United States and the former Soviet Union transformed with unprecedented quickness to a relationship of mutual, if begrudging, respect. Though the two countries still have many policy differences, there has not been a return to the deep rooted polarization of the past since the wall came down.
A second major event, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks provided every reason for us to make terrorism the new communism, a response that would have undermined any possibility of effectively addressing terrorism’s threat. Worse yet, in response we could have made the whole of the Islamic East the new “evil empire,” and turned new uncertainties into a clash of civilizations. But while some leaders have played the “demon card” in response to terrorist activities, to a surprising degree most citizens have not fallen for the bait. Viewed from an historical vantage, this outcome is remarkable. It offers hope that we are up to the rigors of a new Cultural Maturity.
If we can recognize—and find significance in— our differences, we can leave cultural demonizing in the past, and find our way to a more peaceful world.