Progress with Maturely Addressing Complexity

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Understanding of a more complex sort is not just needed, it is possible. Indeed we already see numerous complexity-related changes. Today’s endlessly multifaceted realities often overwhelm us. But our ability to engage a creatively rich and demanding world is dramatically greater than it was fifty years ago.

Recognizing how far we have come is essential if we are to avoid potential traps in our thinking. We need to be careful of misplaced self-congratulation, but I grow wary whenever advocates of cultural change imply that everything has yet to change, or even when people express frustration that movement is happening slowly—though I can share their frustration. Arguments that dismiss the changes we have already realized not only tend to misconceive the past, they also most often misrepresent where we need to go.

Below I’ve chronicled a few of the more important successes. Each example in some important way reflects leaving behind ideology, either ideology in the more obvious sense of positional identification, or, more broadly, in identification with the absolutes of Modern Age belief.  Each also illustrates the possibility of more nuanced, complex, and sophisticated perspective. The need not just to take more into account, but to think in more “complexly complex” ways, is not explicit in each of these examples, but in each case it is somehow implied.

I’ve given particular attention to our past tendency to demonize others on the world stage. Given the pervasiveness of conflict on the evening news we might miss that anything has changed. But certainly much is different from only a few decades back, at least at the level of superpower leadership. Beyond the fact of the fall of the Berlin Wall. there is what has happened—or not happened—since. With the fall of the wall and 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 often begrudging, respect. And we have not seen major polarization between world powers since (though we must keep our fingers crossed).

I suspect growing globalization—paired with growing weapons arsenals—would have already produced catastrophe if we had not already made beginning steps toward reduced polarization. Globalization, because it stretches familiar realities, could easily be assumed to produce only rigidity and reactiveness—remember Robert Frost’s counsel that “good fences make good neighbors.” And globalization often has produced less than positive outcomes. I see the collision of cultures that before now would have had little contact with each other as a major cause of modern conflict—particularly the kind that we see with terrorism. Globalization also contributes to the destabilization of governments and social structures, such as we’ve seen in Somalia and the Congo. But for the most part, globalization has thus far served as a creative force, both economically, and as vehicle for expanded understanding.

We see related progress in a terrorism-linked challenge that has more to do with ourselves than its potential perpetrators. The possibility of more events like the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks is very real. In the face of this frightening specter, we could very easily make terrorism the new communism and, in the process, undermine any possibility of effectively addressing it (or worse, turn predicted new uncertainties into a clash of civilizations). But while leaders have sometimes been slow to recognize the dangers and appreciate the necessary larger picture, to a remarkable degree average citizens have not fallen for the bait. Most people today see terrorism as complex and dreadful, but not a product of people who are themselves evil.

The extremes of current partisan childishness can hide progress on the political front, but even there, I think we see change. We’ve heard serious calls for a new post-partisanship from both sides of the political aisle. There is Barack Obama’s leadership on the Left, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a related call from the Right. In both cases this drive toward post-partisanships is much more than just electoral posturing. And they are not at all alone, though it can be hard to hear such voices above the partisan din. Pundits have been quick to point out that a look through history shows that efforts at bipartisanship have never succeeded. But Cultural Maturity’s developmental perspective proposes that this is exactly what we would expect to find looking back. We should now celebrate even small successes—which, big-picture, we are beginning to see.

We also witness important individual instances of leadership able to hold complexity with the needed maturity of perspective. Political leadership thus far has most often stopped short, but there have been striking exceptions. I think of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable accomplishments.

A year before the fall of Apartheid I was invited to visit South Africa in a consulting role by a group of expatriates living in the U.S. They wanted answers to two questions: Was change really happening? (Hopes had been brutally dashed so many times in the past.) And if it was, did any way exist to have change happen without major violence and bloodshed? I was in South Africa for over a month, talking with opposition leadership, academics, government officials, and people in the streets. My answer was split. I came away convinced that real change was indeed possible—and happening. But in spite of all the brilliant and committed people I spoke with and my own background in understanding systems, I could not see a way for change to happen peacefully.

I was right on the first count, but proven quite wrong on the second.

The variable I had not factored in was the person of Nelson Mandela. I am not one to give leadership more than it is due. Change is as often a product of circumstances as the people we associate with it. But I see Nelson Mandela’s efforts in a special light. We need only contrast South Africa’s recent history with events in neighboring Zimbabwe to appreciate the sophistication of leadership Mandela brought to bear—and how different things could have been without him. Certainly polarization—and righteous revenge—would have been the more expected reaction given South Africa’s past and Mandela’s years of imprisonment. Instead we saw something that went beyond even just personal wisdom. His was a wisdom that embraced South Africa as a whole, and beyond. His vision—and stature in holding it—produced changes that others, including myself, could not readily imagine.

We see progress, too, in how we are rethinking about the ways organizations function and the characteristics of good organizational strategy. The best of new organizational thinking emphasizes the importance of systemic perspective. (The ideas of Peter Singe, with their explicit emphasis on systemic thinking, will likely be most familiar to readers, but he is but one of a growing number of more expansive organizational thinkers.)   Most new formulations focus on familiar institutional spheres—business, government, or education—but some have more unexpected origins. Recent rethinking of U.S military strategy provides an example that is fascinating both because of where we find it and how rapidly changes have taken place.

Modern military training has focused on using overwhelming force to kill enemies. But in 2007, U.S. military strategists for the Iraq war began to recognize that the “successful” use of force was in fact only creating more enemies. General David Petraeus met in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with others who would not normally be in such a conversation—not just military thinkers, but journalists, academics, human rights activists—to develop a new counterinsurgency strategy. The resulting new field manual emphasized community-building operations in equal balance with combat and the importance of cultural understanding and negotiating with regional leaders. The result, in a remarkable short time, was not just different tactics, but the beginnings of a new mentality—and often much greater success.

We find some of our time’s most readily recognized complexity-related advances in the progress we’re making toward better acceptance and understanding of diversity. It is essential that we not deny how far we have yet to go. But the election in the U.S, of a black president is something truly remarkable. I was deeply struck by an interview with Jesse Jackson on the evening of Barack Obama’s election victory. With tears in his eyes, Jackson acknowledged that he never expected to witness a black president in his lifetime. It is something that I, too, in spite of how much I write about cultural change, did not expect to see. And in the same election we could have just as easily seen the first woman assume the oval office.

We see some of the most important complexity-related advances of the last century in realms of more formal thought. Certainly we recognize related changes in how we understand ourselves. I like this general description of how human identity is changing from social critic Walter Truett Anderson: “The modern self is dying amid the turbulence of the present era and a new global, post-modern self is being born—a sense of the person as multidimensional, mobile, and changeable, a member of multiple communities, in some ways highly individualistic, in other ways scarcely an individual at all.”

Our modern social sciences present an increasingly nuanced account. Anthropology and sociology remind us that human truth always exists in a context. Psychology and psychiatry have replaced the Enlightenment picture of awareness as a clear and objective directing force with a much richer and multifaceted account of our inner natures (an important future topic in this book). And education increasingly emphasizes how learning-style differences (and in the best of formulations, deeper personality-style differences) mean that my world may be different from yours at levels we have not before seriously considered (another topic to which we shall return).

We find a particularly provocative example of such more complex understandings of ourselves in our growing appreciation in both psychology and medicine of the intimate relationship between mind and body. Not long ago we confidently treated mind and body as if they resided on opposite sides of an unnavigable moat. Today we appreciate how a complex array of neural pathways and communications molecules join the moat’s banks. New mind/body understandings have played essential roles in the biotechnology revolution, reshaped thinking about the nature of the psyche, and will be increasingly critical to crafting good health care policy.

Complexity-related changes in the world of aesthetics provide less formal, but no less ultimately significant examples. Art not only mirrors broader changes, it often anticipates what we will later understand consciously. (We find the most familiar example in how Renaissance aesthetics presaged the later social advances of the Reformation, democratic governance, and the Industrial Age.) The cubism of Picasso and Brach, with its multiple, counterpoised perspectives, communicates the new, more complex picture with provocative immediacy—both in what it asks of viewers and how perplexing it can be for them. Architect Charles Jencks proposed that pluralism was “the ‘ism’ of our time,” and described it as “both the great problem and the great opportunity.”

Cutting-edge thought in the biological and physical sciences through the last century has presented a similarly rich and multifaceted (and often similarly perplexing) picture of our nonhuman worlds. Ecological perspective provides the example with most immediate application to decision-making. For much of the twentieth century, the discipline of biology treated ecological thought as a poor cousin. Today, complex ecological formulations drive many of biology’s—and modern social policy’s—most important conversations. Ecological thought challenges us to address ecosystems as systems—as integrated wholes. Early biologists focused almost exclusively on individual organisms. Today, ecology combines with biological sub-disciplines that focus more on change—evolutionary biology, embryology, genetics—to produce an evermore complex, dynamic, and intricately interwoven picture of life. And often the picture is even more mysterious than previously thought.

The hardest of the hard sciences, physics and chemistry, have thrown us with particular inescapability into complexity’s multifaceted and sometimes wonderfully baffling world—in this case of galaxies upon galaxies, of subatomic particles that forever reveal smaller particles, and of seemingly rabbit-out-of-hat outcomes that defy traditional explanation. I am reminded of Werner Heisenberg’s famous description of existence as seen through the eyes of quantum mechanics: “The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternated or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”

This picture predicts something else that we also see: technologies that are similarly dynamic, complex, and richly networked. History teaches us that while invention drives understanding, the opposite is also true: What we can invent follows from how we are capable of understanding. The Industrial Revolution could not have happened without the Enlightenment’s newly rationalistic and mechanistic picture of truth’s workings, and a look through history reveals similarly interlinked causality every step of way.  We can legitimately debate why we witness the advances we see today. But certainly we see much that is consistent with complexity’s new, more systemic picture: the Internet’s ever expanding, intricately interlinked, and dynamically interactive presense; discoveries that tap the multi-leveled, everevolving structures of the human genome; nanotechnologies that engage Lilliputian-scale complexities that forever surprise us in their implications. Whether such defining inventions prove to be “advances” will depend on the wisdom we bring to their use. But it is highly unlikely that we could have invented them before now. And if somehow we did, we very well might not have recognized them as having great significance.

If the predictions here are accurate, the future should find us approaching questions of all sorts from perspectives that are more dynamic and encompassing, and not just particular concerns in particular spheres of endeavor. We should get better at thinking in more complex ways about reality more generally. We see the beginnings of this with the growing influence of hybrid disciplines—behavioral economics, medical anthropology, sociobiology, educational psychology, bioengineering, and more. And in spite of how the walls of academia have historically hindered interdisciplinary reflection, we recognize in education of late a growing appreciation for the importance of more broadly embracing inquiry.

I find fascinating the ease with which people today, often in the most unexpected of contexts, make leaps and linkages in their thinking that give direct expression to the more complex picture the idea of a new human maturity predicts. In a recent Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks challenged politicians and economists with these words: “Mechanistic thinkers on the right and the left pose as rigorous empiricists. But empiricism built on an inaccurate view of human nature is just a prison.”  In making his argument, he drew for comparison on changing models in the sciences. “Once there was just Newtonian physics and the world seemed neat and mechanical. Then quantum physics came along and revealed that deep down things are much weirder than they seem. Something similar is now happening with public policy.”  Political right meets political left, and politics and economics meet the cutting edge of hard science, all in a new, more dynamic and complex—and weird but also wonderfully intriguing—picture of reality’s workings.

Ideas, values, and approaches to relationship that in times past served us are giving way to more complex and complete ways of understanding and being—in every part of our lives. This new, more dynamic, multifaceted, and often highly interlinked picture does not make things easier. All these changes stretch us to tolerate. And the needed new understandings are not so easily grasped. But our deeper understanding produces options we would not before have considered and offers that we might think and act in more effective and nuanced ways—which, in the end, also means more meaning-filled ways.