On the logic of cultism at the Integral institutes

James Burke posted an update on the previous entry, showing the claim that Wilber now says that the outrageous rant was written on purpose. This is entirely consistent with the cultic process.

The basis of cultism is the abandonment of autonomy and critical thinking by adherents, which project ideal qualities on the leader of the group. This same process feeds the narcissism and sense of superiority of the leader. In other words: such a process is never static. Once it sets in, it becomes a self-reinforcing process, which evolves around key events. One typical event is the example setting of outrageous and ‘non-normal’ behaviour. Such an event will typically set apart those with doubts and critique, as being part of the outgroup; while those willing to justify the behaviour, will be considered to be part of the superior in-group. As an individual you then have two choices. Remain critical, and be considered a negative force by the in-group; you can then stay and adapt, or, if you’re steadfast, the process of separation will have begun. But facing a group requires a large amount of self-confidence, since the group makes you appear as the ‘abnormal’ one. Like Frank Visser, who started to feel uncomfortable that intellectual dialogue became an impossibility, your doubts will be evidence against you, that you are in fact aggressive, and don’t belong in the cozy in-group of confirmers.
If you adapt to the pressure of the majority, the confirmation that the event has given to the superiority of the leader, will only reinforce the narcissism, and the stage will be set for a further ‘event’ or process. This next event will generally test the waters of conformity and obedience even further. People should therefore not expect that the movement around Wilber will stay a moderate and positive force, because once the process has set in, based on authoritatian cognitive and spiritual premises, there can no longer be a counter-force. The narcissism demands to be fed, and like an addition, the doses have to be increased to be felt.
Let me offer a hypothesis of how it evolved in the case of the Integral Institute.

Wilber was at first a ‘normal’ flawed individual, like most of us, but with genial intellectual and integrative gifts, at one moment in tune with what our culture needed. He pretty much lived like a hermit, dedicated to his search, which would eventually resulted in a totalising intellectual edifice. At some point a craving for recognition sets in. At that precise moment, James Firmage, the creator of the USWeb/CKS and at some point a internet billionaire, promised a huge amount of money to Ken Wilber. The promise and availability of money then created peculiar dynamics. Many former critics of Wilber, became gradually his friends again, and it also attracted business consultants. In particular it attracted Don Beck, who uses the Spiral Dynamics system of Clare Graves as a system to rate people and create an in group/ vs. out group process. I’m pretty convinced that the whole stress on the mean green meme, which basically states that the main enemy of civilizational progress are a few postmodern academics (and not the biospere-destructing orange meme), came from within that camp. I’m also pretty much convinced that the personal dynamic between Beck and Wilber reinforced the narcissic processes. This gradually aligned the new Wilber/Beck grouping into the discourse of the neoconservatives (with Beck stating his support for Bush as a great leader), and their cultural wars against political correctness. It is also the moment where it became evident that any critique that you could have, by itself was a proof that you were regressive. The SDi forums and mailing lists are rife with attacks on Wilber critics, which are all termed green. In other words: it is no longer possible to have an open intellectual discussion, since your critique itself is a symptom of your disease.

Being integral is increasingly being defined as: ‘agreeing with Ken Wilber’. This is the only critique being accepted within the movement. And basically it takes the form of: yes you are a genius, but wouldn’t you consider that xxx. Such a form of self-denegating critique is the only one acceptable, and it can only serve to strengthen the edifice and the influence of the master.

In the words of Don Beck: Wilber’s critics are ankle-biters and bottom-dwellers. (and in the recent words of Wilber: they are all morons). In One Taste, Wilber then started claiming that he was well on the way of being ‘Enlightened’ himself. The process of institutionalising a non-critical understanding of integralism then just continued, with the creation of the Integral University, not as a classic academy which will be based on peer-review, but as a means of self-reinforcement of an already agreed-upon consensus. It also became clear that Wilber/Beck were increasingly associated with the authoritarian cult of Andrew Cohen.

This is my intuition about how the movement got to where it is now, as a concrete historical process. Could it have been avoided without the Firmage/Beck connections? I’m actually doubtful, because the previous uncritical connection of Ken Wilber with the abusive practices of Da Free John, had already shown the same process at work, and it took years of incredible pressure to break the admiration of Wilber for Da Free John. In other words: the totalising edifice and the particular personality of Wilber would in all likelyhood have evolved in this way eventually.

Can there be any hope for such a movement? In my opinion: none whatsovever. The point of no-return has long passed. Integralism a la Wilber is not a democratic integrative movement. Of course it can attract good people, much like the fellow-travelers of Stalinism, who love the ideal and have a cognitive filter blocking out the lack of freedom in intellectual discourse. And these people may do good things. Also, some of the ideas put forward by Wilber, which are in many cases rewordings of insights of others, can of course have value. I would say, just pick and choose the good ideas, but disregard the totalising system in which they are embedded.

(check the state-of-the-art assessment of the whole incident by matthew dallman, who pretty much comes to the same conclusion)
So what can be done? Recognize that an integrative approach is still a valid one, yes. But also concluding that this is a general cultural movement that takes many forms, and that one particular form of it, the institutionalization of it as a ‘Leninist’ neoconservative movement, has become a travesty of it, and should be avoided.

How is my rant, based on personal experience, since I have been associated for 15 years with Wilberism myself, related to peer to peer theory? Obviously any form of spiritual and cognitive authoritarianism is incompatible with an open process of participative spirituality. If you are an advocate of peer to peer relational dynamics, any closed intellectual environment, based on the systematic abuse of critics, is not something that is acceptable.

4 Comments On the logic of cultism at the Integral institutes

  1. Pingback: Deep Surface » An Authoritarian Cult?

  2. Pingback: I’ve been thinking… at He’s Just Had Coffee

  3. Maury Lee

    One seeks outside authority to move in a direction in which one does not feel enough self confidence. Ultimately, it is the self which is choosing the outside authority. If one can keep that in mind, one is then free at some point to dump the authority and claim one’s own.

    Ultimately, development towards maturity is this process. If Wilber isn’t going to release his followers to their own authority, then he’s not really in favor of maturity and growth, and this destroys the whole edifice.

    Models are models. They are helpful aids, but they are not the truth. They are not containers of truth, they are just sophisticated pointers. Ultimately all pointers must be left behind. Ultimately we all must stand on our own two feet in the unknown, and look out in awe at the mystery.

  4. rachellouise

    well, i read the earpy thing, and have these thoughts

    1) i do find it funny, sorry, that is just my sense of humour, ( i dont think its because i am turquoise as the piece seems to suggest) i just get that Ken was mad at his critics, and this is the way most of us would like to speak to our critics, just common decency gets in the way

    2) however, i dont find it useful, as he and his followers do seem to think

    3) this is because regardless whether he is right or wrong about his critics, and probably a lot of the time he is wrong,

    writing a diatribe aimed at who he is calling ‘green’ critics, a diatribe in which he clearly expresses his opinion that the ‘green’ critics wont get it, is well – pointless, maybe cruel, and (my opinion) stupid.

    apart from points already raised he used some tactics after the letter, i found distressing, a deep rumble of something like fear comes up from my belly i was around bullies at school, and this seems similar tome

    anyway i notice that if you are around integral you are supposed to despise Cowan for his arrogance, and anger. However, if you do read his stuff, maybe you will agree with me, it is well thought out – with plenty of evidence replete arguments to back up his perspectives, and some, frustration (not rudeness) in parts with Wilber and Beck, not nearly as rude as Ken though and with more thought out perspectives on kens work,

    anyway some people dont want to be in kens gang, and i think it is a lot to do with his attitude, as much as anything else.

    i was at an integral womens thing in 2006/7 and i brought up my discomfort with ken. Diane actually said that nearly everyone around him feels the same way (of course that was then, she and they, may have changed their minds now) and they just work with it.

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