Jul 25, 2015
[AC- Aryae Coopersmith (moderator); CP - Carter Phipps (guest speaker)]
AC -- Carter, Thank you so much for taking your time to be with us for this conversation today. What I want to initially do is to explore a little more about what you are currently doing, your thinking, and your work today. Then, I want to go back and ask you a few questions about your personal story and how you came to this work and what it means to you. Then get back to looking at what are some of the implications for our world going forward, and communities such as ServiceSpace. We have this title that Nicole and I have been trying to say, "Evolutionary, bridging creative individuality and cooperative society". Can you unpack that a little bit and tell us just what does that mean to you?
CP -- Well, I think the term evolutionary is kind of a play on the idea of revolutionary. This sort of implies a kind of activist, a concern about, "what is it about?" For me it is thinking about how the culture evolved. In some sense to me it is kind of a social activist thinking about moving culture forward in some sense. Moving their particular area of culture, their particular passion, forward. You know, improving the world, improving their community, in some very small sense. Or improving their own lives.
Many of the people on this call are probably very concerned about this issue. I try to frame that issue as an evolutionary movement where we all share the concern with the evolution of culture. Now, when we talk about evolution, there are many principles I have sort of come across in my study of the topic in the last decade or even longer, really. By understanding the principles helps us to act in more powerful and more appropriate way. So we are helping this process move forward; not inhibiting it. One of the principles that I speak about in the book is that there are all these polarities when we talk about evolution. One of the polarities is between individuality and sociality; between the individual and the community. How we work with that polarity is also very important. If we fall on one side of that polarity, if we are just concerned about our self and individuals; that is really our main focus. Sometimes we fall into the trap of being over-concerned with the individual. Sometimes we are only concerned about a community, about the social; we lose the sense of individual initiative. We lose ourselves in the community, in the social; sort of getting lost in the collective. So the sweet spot of evolution is that balance between the individual spirit of the autonomous self. And, letting that spirit be also connected to the community, to the whole. Finding that sweet spot, you can go all the way back to the biological evolution. In the book I offer examples of how that sweet spot between the individual and the collective, between autonomy and community, between individuality and sociality is really one of the key evolutionary principles. So, that is what I think you were getting at in the title. I did not actually create that title.
AC -- As I am listening to you, I am thinking you are talking a lot about the polarization of the right and the left in America and in different ways in different societies around the world. Do you mean by individuality that set of values that grows on the right? Is the collective sociology the left? Or it is a little more complex than that?
CP -- Yes, it probably leans towards that. Right leans towards probably intense concern with the individual and the left probably tends towards more communal concern. So, it does not map exactly like that but it does a little bit. Again one of the principles that we have in the think tank is that you have the left, you have the right, you have these principles and values that each share.
They are both important. They are both important for culture moving forward. This might be heresy for some maybe dyed-in-the-wool left or dyed-in-the-wool people on the right. They both have healthy expression. We need them both to move culture forward. At least in the next few hundred years one is not going to dominate the other. Or at least one is not going to vanquish the other.
Yet we are at this point in culture where there is this hyper-partisan polarization. It has kind of become too stuck, too thick, that keeps us from moving forward. The right may think it is the left's problem and the left may think it is the right's problem, and we can talk about how this happened over the last decade. But, the way we envisioned before is that the left and the right both need to evolve into more healthy form. So in the ideal future we still have partisanship; we still have polarization, but it not the hyper part, and it is not so intense and we are able to work together. So we are working with the left and the right to see how each side can evolve. That is part of being an evolutionary, trying to envision how yourself, your community, the things around you, the people around you, the institutions around you, can move forward in History. Again this is not a revolution. We are not trying to overturn everything, and remake the society from the ground up. We are trying to move forward. We are trying to envision what is next.
AC -- OK. So can we drill down a little bit? Your organization, The Institute for Cultural Integration, is working in this field. Can you give some example of the kinds of things you are doing right now to address this issue?
CP -- Yes. We are doing a number of things. We are doing the things that the think tank normally does. Which is, trying to put out and write about the subjects in the way that is original and fresh and gets attention and makes people think about these ideas in interesting ways. We are doing thinking. In writing and putting out white papers and putting out different material.
We are also trying to be more active and trying to work directly with the left and the right. For example, we are hosting conclaves, small gatherings, small invitational gatherings. We hosted two in the last year. One was with some of the experts on the issue of polarization in the entire country; some of the top experts, top authors, local scientists, even politicians, from different think tanks in Washington, and talked to them about how they see polarization, here is how we see polarization, how we move this forward, how do we form a community and network of influencers that help this move forward.
So that is one thing. And then our second gathering this year was folks from the right, actually; on the future of the right. I have been somewhat left leaning most of my life. But nevertheless I can appreciate there are very healthy values on the right side of the political spectrum. The right needs to evolve and in certain ways they need to represent those values in our culture in a way that is powerful and help mitigate some of the extremes of the left. In the same way that the left helps mitigate some of the extremes of the right.
So we met, we gathered together some of the top strategists and politicians and very interesting forward thinking people on the right from around the country and from Washington as well. We talked to them about these ideas. We had three days of very intensive discussions about how the right moves forward and what that looks like. There were some libertarians there; some traditional republicans there, there even were couple people who lean more toward being more social conservatives. That was very rich discussion, very interesting, very challenging in some way. But you know the good thing about the Right right now in American politics is that they know they need to develop, they need to change. And, when people know they have a problem, they know they need to develop and that helps to have a good conversation.
AC -- Carter, when you and I were talking a couple of days ago, you were telling me that you actually had one of the Koch brothers, I believe ,Charles Koch, and his daughter Elizabeth were part of this conference. Can you say a little bit about what that was like interacting with them?
CP -- To be clear, Charles Koch was not there. The president of his foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, was there and Elizabeth, who is the daughter, was there. She was quite charming and interesting and in her own way a kind of a progressive thinker in many ways. The President of Charles Koch Foundation talked about what they were trying to do at the Foundation, their passion, the different organizations they are working with. They lean in a kind of libertarian direction.
They struck me as very concerned, people who deeply care about the future of American culture. I know that might sound surprising to some people but they really do. Now, they might not hold the same values as people on the left. They are very concerned about free market. But there are certainly areas like prison reform, things like gay marriage, where I think there is a lot more common ground than people may realize. So, it was really interesting to get in there and see exactly how they are thinking about the world. I think some people on the left might be surprised how passionate and idealistic these individuals are. Sometime the left can paint the right as cynically out for themselves. That is not the impression I have. Of course on both sides of the political spectrum there are people like that, no doubt. But that was not the impression I got at all.
So it was really interesting to get into very direct conversation about policy. Of course there are differences, there are big differences. Politics is one of these areas like religion where we can paint people with such negative brushes. It is unfortunate.
AC -- Did you find any interest among these leaders on the right?
CP -- That is a great question and it is probably a bit of complex answer. One person who is a book publisher for many of the intellectuals of the Republican party in the Right, some of the real "firebrands" on the Right; said, "I have to confess that I probably participated and contributed to the polarization that we have today. I'm probably the prime architect of this in a way. But I feel it was productive to have that polarization. We need a little more polarization. Now I feel it is unproductive, dysfunctional. I feel I want to do something about it. I want to help resolve it or move it forward in some way. Make it more functional.”
That was interesting. There was definitely a concern, an appreciation that nothing, a kind of grid-lock in terms of functionality of government at this point. It just does not serve anyone’s value system. Does not serve the country in some way. So there is an appreciation of that.
For some of these individuals, again many of them lean toward the libertarian bit, there is concern that the Right has been, the level which people identify the right with the more social and rigid conservatives, has provided a space in which they feel many of their ideas have not been able to come forth. Because of the culture wars and the media attention the culture wars get, all the social issues get, just dominate so much that some of the economic ideas and the concern over freedom and government and free market don't get the kind of play that they could.
AC -- My understanding is that you are going to bring together a similar conference for politicians and leaders on the Left.
CP -- Yes, that is right. We have two more plans and are having a conference for Esalen. This is going to be a conference at the Esalen Retreat Center in California. People do not know that Esalen is not just a retreat center; it also has its own think tank called Center for Theory and Research. They host gatherings on different subjects. It started back in the late eighties when they started hosting gatherings on relationships between Russia and America. They were very influential in the end of the cold was. But it has continued on
We are working with individuals there to host a conference. We are working with an Oakland-based think tank called, The Breakthrough Institute. That is an environmental think tank. We are hosting a gathering on how dynamics of local polarization plays out around climate change and income inequality. Those issues. We are having experts on both those subjects. Really interesting group of people. Several very interesting thinkers on the right, conservative thinkers. Also some really interesting thinkers on the left as well. Tom Edsall is going to be there; New York Times columnist. Just some really interesting people. I am looking forward to that. Later in the year, probably early next year, we are hosting a gathering on the future of the Left. That is still in the planning stages. So anyone listening and has someone of the left that they feel is really a forward looking individual and absolutely must be there, they should send me a note and tell me. We are still planning that.
AC: Are you going to be publishing anything and making it available to the public?
CP: Yes, people can go to our website: Culturalevolution.org and they can see information about all of these different events. Our first national news coverage was last week--there was an article in the National Journal, which is a Washington-based political magazine, about our gathering in Austin called Beyond the Culture Wars. That was exciting.
AC: In the title of your book, you call evolution science’s greatest idea. Why is evolution science’s greatest idea?
CP: I do think that there is something about the discovery of evolution that is so foundational, so fundamental to who we are as human beings. There is something about realizing little by little from Erasmus Darwin in the late 18th century to the German idealist in the early 19th century to Darwin to Mendel to some of the great thinkers in the early 20th century that I write about in the book like Alfred North Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin to Carl Sagan thinking about cosmic evolution to thinking about development in evolution at all levels, there is something about evolution that is so foundational, so fundamental to what it means to be human, that I do think that it is an extraordinary discovery. It definitely qualifies as science’s greatest idea. If you think about how significant it has been over the last 200 years to realize that at a biological level with Darwin's breakthrough and our evolutionary understandings of the late 19th century, we are moving; we are going somewhere. We are not just placed here. At one point, we thought God just placed humans here on this earth. We've been trying to understand who we are and where we come from. And evolution is the best sense of that narrative, that story we have. We start to realize, "Oh, we have developed over the last several billion years biologically, and then over the last twenty thousand years, we are developing and evolving culturally. And over the last maybe 13-14 billion years, we've been part of this cosmic process that extends all the way back to maybe the Big Bang. When we start to connect all that and see all that and understand all that and put all that together, it changes our sense of who we are so dramatically, in such extraordinary ways. It helps to place human beings in context. It gives us a path and makes us look towards the future in new ways.
To bring it down from that macro-vision to the micro, it makes us look around us at our own lives and our culture to realize that evolution is not just some scientific idea. Evolution is an idea that inspires us to want to move forward in our own lives and in the lives of our communities because we see the change and the impact we can make around us in our own micro-cultures, in our own micro-communities, in our own urban areas, in our own rural areas, countries, and lives. This is connected to the overall development of human culture which is itself connected to this whole scientific evolutionary process that we are part of. We are still coming to terms as a culture with what it means to be part of this sort of cultural, biological, maybe, ultimately, cosmic evolutionary process.
AC: Another big idea you are working with is integral philosophy. Can you tell us in a nutshell what is integral philosophy and how does that relate to evolution?
CP: They are very connected, very similar. Integral philosophy is the philosophical field that has begun to notice this evolutionary pattern and tendency in culture and history, and people in that field have begun to write about it, and think about it. The thinkers in this field are loosely connected under that umbrella of integral philosophy, but one of the concerns is that evolution doesn't neatly fit, it breaks outside the boundaries of just biology, because when we look at human culture something seems to happening. And integral philosophy is one of the philosophies that is trying to grapple with culture, with understanding what is happening in culture and how do we understand human culture and how it is developing. We can't just look at that question through the lens of just psychology or just biology or just social theory. It is trying to integrate many different disciplines to get a full picture of life--of human culture and how we are developing and what it all means. It is trying to integrate, integrate, integrate. That is the nature of integral philosophy. Evolution itself is an integrating idea because if you look at human culture and how it is developing you can't explain it by living in one narrow discipline. You really need to look at a lot of different disciplines to begin to understand it.
AC: I want to turn now in the direction of your own story. You had shared with me that as a growing up in Oklahoma, your parents basically held to a liberal point of view, but you were growing up in a state with a very conservative viewpoint. Can you share a story or a memory or two of how as a kid you became aware of this polarity?
CP: I grew up in a small town in northern Oklahoma. You don't really get more conservative than that. Both my parents had grown up in Oklahoma with several generations back in Oklahoma. My father grew up in a small town in western Oklahoma, and his father was a lawyer and a judge. Their phone number in the town was 2, because the mayor had number one and the judge had number two. That is how small the town was. (Laughter)
My parents were very intellectually interested in life and culture, so as the progressive movements of the 60s and 70s came and went, they were very aware of those things. They had a rich intellectual environment that I grew up in. We were Presbyterians; `I'd go to church and Sunday school most Sunday mornings, but I was aware that there were more conservative versions of Christianity in my home town. When I grew up, interfaith meant that Methodists and Presbyterians, and Lutherans got together. I was very aware growing up that there were some very fundamentalist, conservative people where I was living. I remember in 8th grade learning about evolution where "do you believe in evolution or creation" was a real issue, and it still is.
AC; Going to 8th grade and high school with this perspective, how did you deal with being in a world where there are people sitting next to you who don't believe in evolution? How did you cope with that as a young person?
CP: As a young person, that is the world you live in, so you don't know another world. In some ways I was a bit protected by my family. I felt permission to believe what I wanted to believe. I felt permission to believe what they believe. I didn't feel like I had to become a conservative, fundamentalist myself. But I was aware of the polarizing dynamics of the town. It was an intense period.
I remember my sister was the homecoming queen in 9th grade. I remember going to a dance where she was so upset because her boyfriend at the time, his religion wouldn't allow him to dance, so they couldn't do the dance that you are supposed to do when you become the queen.
In my own church, my parents went through a war within the church between the conservative factions and the more liberal factions. They ultimately lost and stopped going to that church as much.
Even in my small town in Oklahoma, the tensions of the late 60s and 70s were playing themselves out. As culture was developing and these progressive movements were happening, there was a reaction from the religious fundamentalists that was very strong. I was very aware of that growing up. I saw the painful dynamics of how that played out.
At the same time, it was the world I lived in, and I had lots of friends who were much more conservative politically than I was. I was used to being the only liberal in whatever room I was in.
AC: Your touching on the cultural polarization in the US over the past 50 years. Is this sort of a unique moment in history of a society that is being torn asunder or is this something cyclical that happens? How do you view this from a cultural integration perspective?
CP: It's kind of both. Society is being torn asunder. We (are) going through a period of cultural divergence and disintegration. There are periods in history where we come together. There is more of a sense that we are all in the same world view like during the post war era--we had a common enemy, and we were able to work together as a culture, as a political system. People call it the post war liberal consensus.
We sometimes forget how fast culture is moving. We have gone through some very tremendous changes culturally over the last 30-40 years. We are in a period now, where people operate in many different world views across this country now. We are all Americans. One of the things I learned while growing up is the people who I disagreed with on many different things and I felt held dangerous religious views were also good and well-meaning people. Sometimes we forget that. At the same time we are operating in very different worldviews across this country today. We are in a period of disintegration and divergence.
One of the principles of evolution is it moves through periods of integration and it moves through periods of divergence and disintegration. It moves through periods where culture fractures, even biologically. And it moves through periods where things come together. We are in a period where everything is spreading apart. Because of that, there are new dangers associated with the divergent/disintegrated world. We aren't going to be able to solve this overnight. Eventually, I think we will move back to a period of integration, but how we manage this period of disintegration will say a lot about how culture moves forward over the next 50 years. So we can't just long for some consensus where we are all relatively together in the way that we were 50 years ago. It ain't going to happen. We can manage this time of polarization better and that is what our work is about.
AC: How does the idea about acting in a world of disintegration guide us in our communities like ServiceSpace?
CP: Part of it is just recognizing that it is happening at a national level and to some extent at a global level too, although at the global level many different things are happening. Sometimes people spend too much time longing for a world that either is long past or trying to recreate a world that isn't really possible. One of the principles of evolution is a term I call the "adjacent possible." It means what is possible that is adjacent to the space we are in now. There are certain things that are not possible. There are certain ideals that social activist have that are not going to happen in the near future. They are not really adjacent to this time to this moment to this cultural space. The work of the evolutionary is understanding what is possible. What can we aim for? What is in the adjacent space to this cultural time now? And work for that.
Sometimes as social activists we bounce between a kind of naive unrealistic idealism in which we reach too far, too quickly, then we collapse into a sort of slightly cynical realism and wonder why our visions can't become manifest. Well, one way between a naive, unrealistic optimism/idealism and a cynical realism is an evolutionary sense of the adjacent possible. What's possible to this cultural space, to this moment? Let's talk about smaller changes that we can deliver on. That is a principle that can really help us in our various communities as we move forward.
AC: What you are saying is that the adjacent possible in Berkeley, California may be different from the adjacent possible in a village in India?
AC: There is no template for what we should be doing around the world. We need to look at what is possible in each culture.