Some post-conventional thoughts on Snowden and the NSA surveillance affair

The hot topic of this summer has of course been Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing about the state of global surveillance by the NSA and its partners. It is now clear that there is no such thing as privacy online and that we can count on every Google search, every email, every purchase, every link we click, every Facebook status update and like and so forth, basically everything we do on the internet, as well as phone calls, being monitored and stored for all future. I could complain about paranoid Americans, but we Swedes are one of the closest allies and collaborators in this matter, so that would be kind of a hypocrisy.

Nevertheless, this whole affair has concerned me a great deal. However, it is not the question of possible and apparent abuse of the surveillance of the people, even where there is no legal ground, that bothers me most, although it certainly does. Nor the excuses of it being necessary in order to prevent terrorist attacks, I’m not being that naïve that I believe that the intelligence service should be perfectly transparent. Any state needs to defend itself to threats and it needs to stay informed about these threats.

One thing that do bother me a great deal is the shift in power between the government and the people that comes as a result from this. There will and always should be a conflict or power balance between the government and the people in a functioning democracy. But ultimately, democracy means “rule of the people” where the people elects a government and this government answers to the people, not the other way around. This is nicely elaborated in this must-read WSJ article.

Even though you may have nothing to hide and even though you think that you are not breaking any laws, the fact that the government knows so much about you, in many cases even more than you know about yourself (oh, the infinite possibilities of data-mining), and that you know so little about the people that govern and monitor you and how they govern and monitor you, is what makes this such an unhealthy development away from our democratic ideal. The leak by Snowden gives a small contribution to leveling this asymmetry, although the self-censorship will remain. I am far from comfortable in reading, liking and sharing Guardian-articles on Facebook as well as writing this, of course. This could be slightly too uncomfortable for a presumptive employer, although I try hard to be a good and useful citizen and employee and work with issues of sustainability where our governments have done such a poor job on so many levels for so long.

While I mention sustainability, add to this issue a future with even further growing debts, depletion of finite resources (e.g. the oil export market peaked in 2005), growing economic inequalities and possible conflicts within as well as between nations. Given this possible, and I would say even probable scenario, do you think that in the future the governments’ desire for controlling their citizens will increase or decrease? If it will increase we have in the social networks and the internet as a whole implemented the perfect tools for the government to control the people. Or perhaps, hopefully, we will move in a more post-heroic direction in terms of leadership, where the government sees the people as mainly a resource rather than a threat, Big society rather than Big brother. Perhaps it is up to us citizens to first show that we are worthy of such responsibility, or to just claim it.

Another of my main concerns about this, since no one else have brought it up, is about the nature of post-conventionality. The term is associated with Lawrence Kohlberg’s higher stages of moral development. It was inspired from his experiences from WWII where conventional people followed orders and committed massive acts of cruelty in contrast to post-conventional people who would refuse to follow orders and instead act from higher moral principles. Post-conventionality starts with stage transition 4/5 (corresponding to the individualist stage according to Loevinger’s ego development theory, EDT) and it starts with questioning conventions, questioning the own culture and ethnocentricity and henceforth questioning the state. If a typical stage 4/5 can be seen as an antithesis to the conventional stage 4 where you typically are embedded in the system, the stage 5 (or autonomous in terms of EDT) view on society, to balance the conflict between the individual and the collective, could be seen as the synthesis.

Thus, when you reject your cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity (or at least some of it), if you try to search for yourself and for a way of defining yourself beyond conventions and other’s opinions, and if you’d choose to express yourself openly in e.g. online discussion forums, wouldn’t there be a risk that the government would see you as a threat? After all, isn’t the government’s views of what is rational and right in life pretty much what defines conventions and conventionality?! Therefore, I’m not foremost afraid of misuse and irrational use of the surveillance apparatus, I’m more afraid of it being used in a most rational way, as a weapon against those who do not conform. After all, post-conventional is non-conventional. Or in terms of Big mind, it seems that this state of surveillance is like the voice of the Controller, that is getting too much influence and dominance, is being fueled by the voice of Fear. And the more it controls, the more it finds to fear.

From this I see as a very important feature in the cultural aspect of a sustainable society in holding a space or bridge for people that allows them to move into post-conventionality. To allow for the new generations of post-conventional or even integral thinkers to emerge as the older generations eventually die out. Or simply put, to help people to grow, to flourish, to think, to question, to act and to be in the most complex and reflective ways they can or chose. This I see mainly as an integral task, could there be anyone else?!

However, in this discussion I experience a lack of integral voices, although I have noticed a few exceptions, one being Gary Stamper. In my view, leading integral thinkers are too rarely seen challenging or questioning the power and authorities. Although Wilber had some restrained critique against the Bush administration, he enjoys being endorsed by Bill Clinton. And the foremost advocate of integral activism, Terry Patten, is in turn endorsing Barack Obama. So why this silence or shadow? And how do we break it?

After a few of my analyses of what makes integral not that integral as it claims to be, I have some candidates to why I think so few step up:

  • Lack of collapse or resource perspective – one limitation within the integral view that I elaborated in a previous post was the focus on the evolutionary or developmental aspects of culture and society. The only way is up and that movement is driven by an evolutionary impulse. Should there be a crisis, we can solve it by evolving to the next stage of development. Besides, there are cosmic habits to take care of previous lower stage problems, right?!
  • Lack of conflict perspective – it is in the very core and nature of integral theory to integrate and to be constructive instead of emphasizing the conflict aspects. The relation between individual and culture or state is basically seen from a functional or integration perspective, which I have described and problematized here. We would never be where we were without development support, therefore we should be grateful to our culture, our institutions and the way they function, right?!
  • First tier business – it is also in the nature of integral to climb down from the barricades and instead take meta-perspectives of conflicts. The “everyone is partially right”-stance and the exclusive “I am second tier”-view doesn’t exactly invite to getting the hands dirty on the battle field. It’s easy to feel too important to exposing oneself as a critic and instead trying to stay under the radar. Perhaps this is a wise strategy, although not all leading edge thinkers such as Noam Chomsky would agree.

My response to this and my view is that regardless of which metaphysical or post-metaphysical assumptions or meaning-making one happens to be embraced by, whatever perspectives one happens to prefer, whatever life experiences one happens to have as a basis for this, and regardless of the amount of gratitude that one happens to feel for society, it may be that there are a lot of things that we have taken for granted and that we in the future will have to fight hard for sustaining. And sometimes I think it’s just a matter of decency not to keep quiet and passive. I would argue that we don’t have the moral right to so easily give up the democracy that previous generations have fought so hard for. We are betraying the democratic ideals by not speaking up in issues such as this one.

In my view, post-conventionality doesn’t mean complying with a new set of more complex conventions. It means to never stop questioning and taking critical perspectives, and it means always being solely responsible for your own stance and actions.

And regarding Edward Snowden, I see little interest in trying to evaluate his stage of development, be it moral, hierarchical complexity, ego development or whatever. We sometimes discuss leadership stage of development, e.g. according to Joiner and Josephs, but sometimes leadership is just doing the best with whatever means available to you in the situation that you happen to be in. I find Snowden’s self-sacrificing action utterly courageous, as well as for those reporting about it and those standing up for fundamental democratic principles.

The question is not if we should, the question is how we engage in this as skillfully as possible?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Some post-conventional thoughts on Snowden and the NSA surveillance affair

  1. Tom Steele says:

    I put it to you that the Snowden Leaks have had the profound effect of convincing everyone they are under surveillance, happening all the time.
    This is far more effective than actually PUTTING everyone under surveillance, for the reason for putting everyone under surveillance is to control them, not to catch out the ones who you actually see doing something untoward. Simply by the Snowden incident (which is by the way, much cheaper to stage than introduce mass surveillance) and by the utter outrage of the Obama administration (the act of being angry with him validates his accusations. Had they laughed and called him a deranged madman total surveillance would have ended up in the realms of conspiracy theory) the incident has created a surveillance meme. Add world leaders like Putin and the Brazilian president in the indignation pot and you have successfully validated the “truth” that we are all being watched. Mentally humanity arrived at 1984 thanks to that little media novella. And I still don’t know if Snowden was for real, played, or staged. Welcome to my world.