Why we need to switch the story for the Great Transition to succeed

From a narrative of oppression to a story of human evolution

image of evolution of man from primates

I have been convening conversations about the role of activism in tackling the root causes of climate change, inequality etc. for more than ten years. During the last three years, the conversations in social justice and environmental activist spaces have changed considerably.

These conversations have increasingly been captured by an ideological agenda where all problems are seen through the lens of patriarchy, racism and colonialism. The dogmatism developing in these spaces has become so extreme that I’m now convinced we need to relaunch this strategic conversation. Under the prevailing thinking that tries to explain almost everything as a consequence of persisting systems of oppression, I don’t believe we will be able to explore the best ideas necessary for contributing to the Great Transition. What I suggest instead is that the premise for a new space has to be the honest willingness and ability to explore ideas beyond a dogmatic post-modern ideology that is inherently anti-intellectual.

The limitations of the oppression narrative

The oppression narrative is dominating media discourse and also much of the discussion in progressive activist circles. Currently, the official and rarely disputed story says that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, that institutional and systemic racism is (at least) as bad as ever and that the patriarchy is to blame for any differences observed between women and men in occupational choices and the unequal participation of women in academia.

Serious research in different fields shows a very different picture. While of course racial and gender discrimination is still a reality, much improvement has been made over recent decades — progress that is rarely acknowledged by progressives. In 2018, a significant part of what is put forward as gender discrimination is in reality caused by other factors. Apart from obvious differences like pregnancy, research findings in psychology reveal differences between sexes in psychological traits, like risk-taking or agreeableness, and occupational interests[1]. Similarly, culture might play an important role in the underachievement of black people in American society. President Obama knew this, calling on black people to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white”[2].

Empirical research can provide us with a nuanced understanding of a complex reality. But there is a scepticism that sits deep in social movements, wary of scientific researchers that could be influenced by biases and arbitrary social constructions. Many activists are openly anti-intellectual: for them their ‘personal truth’ is everything.

Furthermore, our human tendency towards confirmation bias[3] means that we choose the anecdotes and pieces of evidence that confirm our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses — in this case the oppression narrative — while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.

Today’s activism is often more driven by outrage over extreme anecdotal cases, often in the form of videos that spread rapidly throughout social media, than by any serious analysis of the specific problems and their causes. These days there is more outrage over (and public attention towards) a vague notion of patriarchy and systemic racism than about real, big threats like climate change or growing wealth inequality. As a result, we’re seeing long discussions about implicit bias training and the need to check our white male privilege that are more distracting than they are effective at solving any real problems.

The oppression narrative is not describing reality in an accurate way, and most ordinary people know this. Many feel patronised by a progressive urban elite as well as media and public discourse that don’t make space for other conversations. The oppression narrative is partly responsible for the rise of far-right parties throughout the Western world as well as the polarisation we’re seeing in societies[4].

The evolutionary story of humans

But if we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more comprehensive view of the human condition, which is absolutely necessary if we actually want to solve the important systemic problems of our times.

There are significant blind spots in progressive activist thinking that we have to face and tackle if we want human civilisation to survive. And who if not progressives can address these? The responsibility is huge, but in order to succeed, we have to accept that we cannot wish ourselves into a better tomorrow. We have to overcome denial.

To start with, we have to shift from understanding the story of humanity as mainly one of oppression towards seeing it as an evolutionary story.

We need to better understand how we have evolved biologically and culturally before we can develop promising approaches for a conscious cultural evolution that will ensure everyone’s wellbeing, for current and future generations. For this we need to be open-minded towards established and emerging knowledge from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution etc. We have to avoid selecting ideas and theories based purely on utopian wishful thinking and instead be open to learning what ideas have the most potential for solving problems in line with our values.

Progressive blind spots

Here are some initial ideas about potentially significant blind spots and inconsistencies in progressive thinking that we need to tackle:

Beyond a dichotomy between masculine and feminine ideals

“The Great Transition has to be feminist,” many activists now say. The narrative goes that capitalism is a product of patriarchy, of masculine ideals of competition and hierarchy to win and dominate others. As a result, we are in need of feminine values and traits, like caring and cooperation, that are more suited to creating change in an economic system that presumably has to be more co-operative and less hierarchical, more about caring for people’s needs.

There is much to unpack here.

If the Great Transition has to be feminist and is in need of feminine traits, then the assumption here is that men and women have radically different minds. This is indeed an assumption that could be endorsed by empirical psychological research, but it contradicts another assumption that is continuously upheld by many feminists and progressive activists: that the human sexes have the same mind, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities should be due to systemic sexism.

Clearly, both dogmas cannot be true simultaneously, and there is some cognitive dissonance going on. But activists don’t seem to be trying very hard to counter it. Depending on what is more advantageous for the feminist cause, one or the other argument is used.

From a perspective of evolutionary biology, there is a good argument to be made here: if we are moving towards an economic system that should be based more on collaborative solutions and is more about serving human needs than wealth creation at all costs, we could indeed all benefit from the participation and leadership of women. On average, women are more interested in people (while men are more interested in things): they develop a higher level of empathy for co-workers and might help create better collaborative environments. But then we would have to debunk the idea that it was systemic oppression that brought us to where we are now. Instead, it was an evolutionary selection process, happening at both genetic and cultural levels.

We also have to ask ourselves if it is the right framing to say that “the Great Transition has to be feminist”. If it means that women with their feminine ideals and traits should be in charge of creating the new system, does that make masculine traits, like risk-taking and competitiveness, useless? Are risk-taking and competitiveness actually negative traits in this new scenario? This is at least what it often sounds like when one reads and listens to activists on the radical left or those discussing the Great Transition / systems change.

The problem is that these questions are not even being asked. The narrative continuously repeats that the future has to be feminist, that the new system will substitute competition with collaboration and hierarchies are archaic anyway and have to go. I understand why these are to some degree well-founded, good ideas given the situation we’re in and the mess that capitalism has created.

But this can’t be the whole story. Or are we saying that we don’t want risk and competition to be part of the new system? How should we stimulate positive innovation that serve human needs if we don’t value risk-taking? Also, the history of human evolution is a history of competition and cooperation. We have evolved to cooperate within teams and to compete between teams. In the future we will need more cooperation at all levels to care for the common good and take care of the Commons. But presumably a future economic system will still gain from preserving elements of competition and market mechanisms. And let us be clear: we need the new system to ‘outcompete’ the neoliberal growth economy — another instance of competition.

Ultimately, we could talk about the need for a new balance of feminine and masculine traits, like yin and yang. If both feminine and masculine traits are needed and will be useful in co-designing our cultural evolution, one important potential effect is that boys and young men would feel much more empowered than they currently are with a narrative about toxic masculinity and other negative attributes assigned to maleness[5].

How to deal with tribalism

On the positive side, we know from evolutionary biology that humans are not pure, selfish Homo economicus. We are moral creatures who care for others, and we especially care about our teams thriving. We care for our families, communities and nations. But our tribal circuits are wired to make us compete between teams, normally peacefully, but depending on the circumstances conflict between teams can become violent. Tribalism was once an evolutionarily adaptive trait, helping individuals feel committed to the group so they would be better equipped to survive.

But many biological traits that were once useful under different circumstances over the course of human evolution have not evolved fast enough to respond to the requirements and complexities of our current reality. Genetic evolution is lagging behind our cultural evolution. What was once an evolutionary advantage can become a burden. It is dangerously easy to give in to our ancient tribal circuitsand see the world through a lens of ‘us vs. them’. In a globally interdependent world, we need to cooperate at a global level when tackling issues like climate change, AI etc, but we see how difficult it is for nations to cooperate, and we also see how certain tools and conditions can favour more tribal behaviour, as is now the case with certain social media platforms.

We have to increase awareness about this evolutionary reality if we want to design systems for humanity that are future-proof. We can’t afford to ignore it. This is especially difficult to understand for those of us who feel less attached to our traditional tribes, as is the case with most progressives who hold strong universal values. In his book, The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes how the progressive left is only a small fraction of global society, mainly a share of the European and North American population. The vast majority of humanity holds more conservative values, including caring a great deal about bonding socially with their local tribes and their nation. Haidt argues that ideas like a world without borders leading to something like one giant country and a global government, which are popular among the left, might be difficult to achieve given that we’ve evolved to be groupish creatures. So, again, we have to deal with the question of what solutions are realistic in solving our global problems considering how human nature has evolved.  We are clearly already living far beyond our genetic design constraints, and we have to evolve further. But which structures and solutions are more compatible with human nature and which are less so? Haidt argues that a more nested structure, starting with institutions at a local level and collaborative structures at the international level with minimum friction, would be more workable.

Overall, the problem here is that evolutionary biology and its design constraints rarely play a role in progressive activist discussions about new institutions and systems for tackling systemic problems. They should instead be at the centre of our discussions.

Conservatives are driven by morality too

Progressives often completely misunderstand what it is that motivates people to not lean left or not vote for progressive parties. Conservatives are often either seen as selfish beings driven by economic interest (which they sometimes are) or as sexist, homophobic, racist and xenophobic. Or it’s believed they are being manipulated by smart right-wing narratives or the distorting effects power has on people’s beliefs and values (critical theory). Right-leaning working class people are especially thought to be voting against their (economic) interests. If only progressives tried harder, were better organised or had smarter narratives, people would convert.

There is always some truth in such caricatures, but they don’t capture the essence of what motivates most people. Many psychologists have found that people’s political choices are mostly driven by moral values and not by self-interest, something that is also true for conservatives. Haidt developed a theory based on the moral diversity found across many cultures. This theory proposes that the wide variety of moral systems governing human societies are all based on a common set of six moral foundations shared by all humans[6]. For people on the left, empathy for those who are suffering and the willingness to help them is the highest moral good. Conservatives also value care and compassion, but respect for authority and loyalty to their own group is just as valuable to them (see the section on tribalism above). In simple terms, a conservative will share the values of social justice as long as the proposed changes don’t endanger the social order. Haidt believes that all moral foundations have been essential tools that enabled the success of human civilisation.

The conclusion from this research shouldn’t be to value all moral foundations equally. There are reasons why we shouldn’t. But we need to acknowledge that they are the result of our cultural and genetic evolution. Haidt found out that we are genetically predisposed to lean further right or left, which he calls the first draft of morality. During childhood, culture creates the second draft, and so on.

One conclusion is that if the majority of the human population shares a different moral matrix than progressives, we can’t ignore that fact and continue to maximise our own aspirations for social justice. There will be backlash.

A second conclusion is that we should be more open and willing to explore the value of conservative moral foundations as part of our conversations of the Great Transition and for our cultural evolution. If conservatives have traditionally valued stability in our social order, they might have something to contribute to creating stable, functioning new systems.

For example, conservatives value hierarchy and authority as important elements in stable societies. Progressives and especially radical lefties often would like to get rid of hierarchies all together. And, in fact, I believe that hierarchy is one of the important blind spots that we need to tackle. One of the reasons that Occupy failed was that it didn’t want to make use of any hierarchical structures. Everything had to be agreed upon through consensus in assemblies. In the absence of formal hierarchies, informal hierarchies always emerge, and they are usually non-transparent, undemocratic power structures. Of course the hierarchies of the future should be free from oppression and domination, and they should be democratic and transparent. And in our internet-based networks, we can and should create hierarchies that are empowering and sensitive to people’s needs. But they are still important organising tools for our way forward, for our evolution. And they are an example of the importance of listening to what conservatives have to offer.

Are we clear on what real diversity and inclusion would mean?

One of the most passionate demands frequently made at progressive activist gatherings is full inclusion (at meetings) of all dimensions of society and especially of marginalised communities who often don’t have a voice. The narrative goes that without representation of the oppressed and the marginalised, we are perpetuating oppressive power structures, and any discussion about systemic change is worthless.

The argument is compelling and often convinces many people. It looks like we’re excluding important voices if, for instance, in Europe we organise activist gatherings where people of migrant background from Turkey or Africa lack representation.

But there are a number of issues that are usually left completely unconsidered.

It is not usually due to active exclusion that this diversity of representation is not achieved. In my personal experience, I have tried to increase such diversity in our gatherings many times but have often been unsuccessful. One of the reasons certainly is that people are drawn towards projects according to their values, personalities and areas of interest. Among immigrant communities, which are largely traditionalist and conservative[7], there are just not that many people who are keen to join a gathering about the Great Transition.

There are, of course, some progressive / social justice activists in immigrant communities, and there are, of course, activist networks that make a special effort to achieve ethnic and cultural diversity in their gatherings.

But is this real diversity? I would argue that it is actually self-deception. I am sure that if we had gatherings with real representation of immigrant communities and non-elite social classes (assuming this were possible to achieve), the conversations at our meetings would shift radically because of the reasons outlined above. The majority of people lean far more conservative and wouldn’t share many of the unquestioned assumptions of progressive activists. It would be an interesting experience.

While I don’t think that this real representation should be an aspiration, I think that increasing the diversity of experience, cultural background and social class is a valuable goal, but it has to be based on the assumption that people share the motivation for our conversation, in this case the Great Transition.

More importantly, all this shows that increasing the diversity of viewpoint should be an important goal for the future.

How to proceed

When reflecting recently on what is happening in the world, and more specifically in our discussions about the Great Transition, I’m constantly reminded of some wise words from John Stuart Mill. He believed that the pursuit of truth required the collation and combination of ideas and propositions, even those that seem to be in opposition to each other. He urged us to allow others to speak—and then to listen to them—for three main reasons:

  • First, the other person’s idea, however controversial it might seem today, could turn out to be right. (“The opinion may possibly be true.”)
  • Second, even if our opinion is largely correct, we hold it more rationally and securely as a result of being challenged. (“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”)
  • Third, and in Mill’s view most likely, opposing views may each contain a portion of the truth, which need to be combined. (“Conflicting doctrines share the truth between them.”)

I believe that for the way forward in our conversations, we should take these words to heart, question some dogmas that exist in the progressive mind and allow for serious contributions from a broader ideological spectrum to be heard.

I think that everybody who joins our space should subscribe to these principles.

In addition, we must not simply pay lip service to the idea of systems thinking. We need to really apply it and connect the dots between all of this valuable, existing knowledge about our evolutionary history, between ideas for how we can evolve culturally. We need to do what Bret Weinstein calls ‘the hard problem of evolution’: figuring out how to adapt to the new conditions on Earth much faster than humanity has ever done or has had to do. Now we have to.


by Micha Narberhaus

I would like to thank Heather Heying for her valuable comments and Viki Lafarga for proofreading and editing.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, “The Google Memo: What Does the Research Say About Gender Differences?”, Heterodox Academy's blog (10 Aug 2017) heterodoxacademy.org/the-google-memo-what-does-the-research-say-about-gender-differences

[2] Coleman Hughes, “The Racism Treadmill”, Quillette (14 May 2018) quillette.com/2018/05/14/the-racism-treadmill

[3] Thomas DeMichele, “Confirmation Bias, Ideological Bubbles, Reference Frames, and Filters”, FactMyth.com (13 Dec 2016) factmyth.com/confirmation-bias-ideological-bubbles-reference-frames-and-filters

[4] See for example Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017) and my earlier discussion paper “Systemic Activism in a Polarised World” (2018) [PDF].

[5] See for example: Samuel Veissière, ‘The Real Problem With “Toxic Masculinity”’, Psychology Today's blog (16 Feb 2018) psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-mind-and-brain/201802/the-real-problem-toxic-masculinity

[6] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). For a summary of these ideas and links to further reading, visit moralfoundations.org.

[7] See for example: Sophio Bagdoshvili, Turkish Migrants In Germany (Master’s thesis), Institute for European Studies (2010) [PDF]

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