Domination Keeps Flourishing at Bay

maslow pyramid

David commented on the last post asking me to expand on two statements:

1) Flourishing needs a non-dominating culture to appear.

2) Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world of unfulfilled promises.

I'll take on the first one today. Flourishing, as I have been using it, refers to a state of Being in which the individual realizes a sense of wholeness or completion or perfection. The cares of the world recede for a moment or more. The positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihali defines it as "flow," a condition of "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

In my book, I use an example from the work of Abraham Maslow to describe a state of being. His attributes include, among others, justice, aliveness, simplicity, beauty, goodness, self-sufficiency, and another handful of similar qualities. I also refer to a description by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner speaks of what I would call flourishing in his own language, "people hunger for a world that has meaning and love, for a sense of aliveness, energy, and authenticity. For a life embedded in a community in which they are valued for who."

I do not think it is much of a jump to argue that such states of being cannot be found in any social system in which substantial numbers of people are dominated by others, acting on behalf of the state or any other institution demanding obedience forcing a person to act in contradiction to "who they most deeply are." They may possess many of the material trappings that satisfy the first few tiers of Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, but they cannot, with only a very few exceptions, rise to the upper level of self actualization. Very few human beings have been able to make it to the top under severe conditions of dominating oppression. Nelson Mandela managed to maintain his dignity (another facet of flourishing) even as he languished in jail. Vaclav Havel kept his spirit of flourishing alive under the repressive Soviet period in Czechoslovakia. And so have others across history, but the mass of humanity lack the inner being to flourish under such dominating circumstances.

Lerner speaks of authenticity, which is also a key feature for me. Authenticity means acting, as he says, out of a sense of who you are. It is very difficult to do that in a culture, like our present one, that exerts pressure, sometimes relentless, to behave according to the prevalent social norms. Social norms are critical in any civilized society, and are needed to establish the basic rules of that civility. But when they come to dominate everyday behavior, they produce inauthentic action that cannot produce the sense of being such as I list above.

There is a categorical difference between a norm that is grounded in a moral imperative, such as "Do not kill," and one that tells me I need to keep up with my neighbor or risk losing my identity. I cannot breech the first without vacating my place in the society. But I have two choices in the second case. If I do what they tell me out of conformity, I act inauthentically, and become dominated. If I do what they say completely as an act of my own, I become authentic and can avoid the domination of the cultural they ("One does . . ," or "They say to do . . ."). Escaping the domination by the cultural world we inhabit today is very difficult given the massive assault from media voices to do and believe whatever they say.

There is a third dominating force at play which operates very subtly, even in the absence of these first two dominating contexts. The most basic belief modern societies carry in the culture is that of reality. In our culture reality is built on an objective Cartesian world, positivism, and other analogous descriptions. I have argued in my book and elsewhere that that system of belief is fundamentally dominating. The objective world is one of absolute truths. The Earth is flat until it scientists tell us round. We understand the world through our scientific prowess.

This notion that there are truths to be found has spilled over into the sphere of everyday actions and to the opinions and assessments we make to coordinate our actions with others. Civility is possible only with coordinated acts reasonably free from coercion or domination. But if there is only one truth out there, then unless all parties agree on it there is no way to act together consensually. Any action short of consensual is dominating to some degree.

I often refer to the work of Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist, who has developed a novel theory to explain how living organisms acquire knowledge about the world. One sentence from his work sums up one of the most important ideas he has produced. Maturana says ". . .[in the world of objective reality] a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience." The consequences of this deep-seated cause of domination on flourishing are clear. We can work to remove the structural causes of domination (power and compulsive social norms) in our western world, but we will still not flourish until we expand the way we talk about what is real and true.

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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

Your comments today are greatly appreciated! At first blush, our dominating culture can be easily seen as a paradigm that enforces and reinforces the economic benefit of the few at the expense of the many - this is certainly what comes to mind first for me. Expanding this economic paradigm to the broader ecological reality, we see the culmination of unsustainability from a real, physical standpoint.

What does not so readily come to mind is the cutural domination of our psychological world. Our now world-dominating culture of extrinsic values - financial wealth, popularity, conformity, public image - has taken hold of most humans in one way or another. And, as you so poignantly point out, this cultural domination of our internal world is keeping us from flourishing.

What is particularly disturbing to me is that research on human well-being and extrinsic values (see Self-Deterimination Theory for details) shows that, the more we prescribe to an extrinsic value context, the greater the chance of us becoming detached from those things in life that ultimately bring us the most joy. The world is now full of people who have jumped into the pool of modernity with all of the technological trappings and dominant social norms, and now find themselves missing something, as if they have become detached from their authentic selves.

This crisis of (lack of) self-actualization continues to erode well-being at the same time that it encourages the domination of a cultural paradigm that is driving the Earth toward ecological collapse.

I'm sorry to be so negative. But, it is good to point out that, perhaps, the most dangerous feature of our extrinsically motivated culture is the social normality created that disallows human flourishing while, at the same time, works to disconnect us from the tenuous connections with nature hidden deeply within our DNA.

The good news is that it is possible to shift from an extrinsic value orientation to an intrinsic value orientation. I am but one example. And, when you get to the other side (which may take some time), it doesn't take long to recognize the utter folly of all that you have been taught to believe by our dominating cultural paradigm. With enough people willing and able to get to the other side, it is possible for our cultural paradigm to change into one that supports and reinforces human flourishing while, at the same time, healing the damage that has been done to our fragile yet resilient living ecosystem.