It’s so easy to become frustrated, disillusioned, and even apathetic to our current state of affairs in our political process. It appears that no one is happy—republican, democrat, or independent. I submit that in shedding our political affiliations, we are individualistic, conservative, modernistic, post-modernistic, and integrative. These are all classifications of mindsets, values and beliefs—our worldviews. Assuming no judgment to any of these classifications, it is no wonder that we have a hard time getting along with each other and finding “one” person or party that represents us.
So what is different about these worldviews and why does it appear that the differences have become more pronounced? I will attempt to provide some answers in this post; however, keep in mind that I too have a worldview.
Meaning-making and sense-making is what we do all day long as we encounter new information and situations, and as we engage in relationships. Our meaning- and sense-making lens comes from our worldview. We establish our worldview from the time we are born layering understanding as we gain it through our experiences—first at home and later out in the world. Neurology tells us that our brain is most impressionable during our first eight years having practically no filters to ascertain what is true or false, taking everything we experience as factual. The foundation of our worldview is mostly established by the time we are 12 and it’s shaped and tested during our teen years.
Reaching into complexity theory and the work of scientist and psychologist John H. Holland, we find four characteristics involved in our interactions as we participate in the organizations that are part of our lives, including our own families, workplaces, and churches, which together constitute our social systems. According to Holland, interactions rather than actions determine the outcomes and qualities of our social systems. For instance, families work, go to school, eat, talk, entertain and spend time together. These are common actions among this type of social system; however, it is the interactions of the family members that determine the qualities of the family unit. Supportive, loving interactions yield a different kind of experience than ones devoid of these attributes.
The four characteristics of the interactions in our social systems are: aggregation, diversity, flow, and nonlinearity. Aggregation is an obvious characteristic. Social systems are all about individuals coming together for a common purpose. Diversity is also always present but not necessarily desired or accepted. What is interesting is that strong and thriving complex systems, according to Holland, welcome and integrate diversity. Think of a rain forest and myriads of insects, animals, and vegetation that interact in an interdependent manner.
Flows, Holland explained, relate to the communication and collaboration between the members of a social system. Adding to the previous family example, the level of communication and collaboration in a family would significantly affect how it develops and what conditions emerge for its members. Nonlinearity is a little more challenging to understand. This characteristic relates to the effect of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts by some order of magnitude. We can easily see nonlinearity in sports teams and the heroic actions of groups dealing with community tragedies, such as the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011.
Weaving the four characteristics of the interactions of our social systems with our worldviews, we end up with some interesting differences. Individualists prefer not to aggregate and view diversity as threatening. To them, any kind of flow should provide a personal advantage while nonlinearity is often viewed as a weakness, or something the masses do because they are weak. On the other hand, conservatives want to aggregate but only with those with whom they share their worldviews. Diversity is low with these individuals and their social systems. Flow and nonlinearity can be strong with conservatives, but are limited to the context of their selective groups.
Modernists see aggregation and diversity as necessary to get things done and gain personal success. Aggregations and diversity that limit or slow down personal success are viewed as undesirable. Flow and nonlinearity are optimized by modernists to achieve their personal ends. Post-modernist take a completely social perspective to all four of the interaction characteristics. For them, aggregations are encouraged and diversity is not only welcomed but necessary. These individuals strive for a high level of communication and collaboration (or flow) among all. Post-modernists believe that the whole is better than the parts making their appreciation for individuals somewhat challenging.
Philosopher Ken Wilber describes the integral or integrative worldview as one that recognizes and understands all of the others without judgment. Along with other social scientists and philosophers, Wilber sees worldviews as developmental stages and not as conflicting political positions. His struggle is that the integral worldview is not yet prevalent in all of us, and that we are running out of time to solve our planetary sustainability challenges while we debate which brand of values and beliefs is right.
We have been living among these evolving worldviews for at least two or three generations. Social scientists point to the modernist worldview as having its inception in the Renaissance and getting some real traction with the industrial revolution. The post-modernist worldview emerged in the 1950s and, while not yet widely recognized, it has started gaining critical mass.
So why do we seem more polarized than ever before? If we accept that we have an evolving set of worldviews, there has been a shift between them as our population grows. Prior to the Renaissance, the only choices with our worldviews were individualistic and conservative. Much throughout the 1900s, we saw a shift to the modernistic worldview and over the last 50 years or so to the post-modernistic. As these worldviews aggregated, they became more impactful. Over the last 20 years, the post-modernistic worldview has gained a larger amount of representation introducing a wider gap in our collective meaning- and sense-making. Conservatives have an easier time understanding modernists and vice versa; however, they both have significant difficulty in appreciating the values and beliefs of the post-modernists. In turn, post-modernists are intolerant of the self-benefitting views of modernists and the lack of acceptance of diversity by conservatives.
There you have it. We have a real challenge in harmonizing our worldviews not because we do not want to and definitely not because one is better than the other. We have this challenge because it is part of our evolution as humans and social systems. Having said that, we still have to consider Wilber’s question: do we have time for our worldviews to evolve before it is too late to address the sustainability of our planet? I certainly hope so.