The refugee crisis and the crisis of postmodern values

[This is a translation of an article that was recently published in German Integrales forum, no 36, Feb 2017]

Last year’s Integral European Conference in Siofok, in Hungary had three main foci: Teal modes of business, applications on Spiral dynamics and the refugee crisis. In his keynote speech Ken Wilber called for explicitly stated integral approaches to address the recent European development with the European debt crisis, the rise of nationalism and acts of terrorism by ISIS. I presented a Spiral Dynamics analysis of the Swedish response to the refugee crisis and participated in a panel debate on the topic. In this article I will outline some key integral concepts and lessons that can be useful for understanding the Swedish development in relation to the refugee crisis. Some of this is likely to have bearing in German settings as well. I will start by describing the background and the development in Swedish immigration policy the last couple of years.

The shift of the opinion corridor
In Sweden there is a before and an after the shift of the “opinion corridor”, which refers to the space of acceptable opinions that you need to keep within if you don’t want to have your mental health questioned. The term was coined by political scientist Henrik Oscarsson, professor and director of the SOM-institute at Gothenburg University, which studies public political opinion. In relation to the issues of immigration and the refugee crisis, the “opinion corridor” can be seen as the space within which you express tolerance, acceptance and a generally positive attitude towards migrants, a generous immigration policy and towards multiculturalism. This is in integral terms the postmodern or green value system and this was dominating in the Swedish political landscape and in the established mainstream media.

Before the shift and opening up of the opinion corridor, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven urged that “my Europe does not close its borders” and deputy Prime minister Åsa Romson compared the flux and demise of refugees over the Mediterranean to Auschwitz. The debate was extremely polarized and anyone not adhering to the postmodern values was declared evil, intolerant or associated with the populist Sweden Democratic party. Similar to Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!”, Löfven had previously assured that everything was under control and that there was no limit on how many refugees we could harbour. However, it was only a matter of time before the refugee flow exceeded the capacity of the asylum system. There was a limit. In a famous press conference in October 2015 Löfven and Romson, the latter in tears, announced that ID controls would be adopted at the borders and that Sweden would significantly reduce its refugee intake to a more normal level in Swedish terms. What was previously viewed by many as racist and intolerant in an instant became governmental immigration policy. This shift can be seen as a huge defeat of the hegemonic postmodern values.

Understanding the cultural context and development
Before the shift, Swedish values were typically declared either excluding towards others, resulting exclusively from foreign influence or simply non-existent. Critiquing the existing norms and conventions was the new postmodern norm and convention. But the development and the shift induced a wide interest in values and opinions from all parties. In order to understand the polarization, models such as GAL-TAN (Green-Alternative-Libertarian vs Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalistic) from political science and Jonathan Haidt’s work on social psychology was widely discussed. And to understand some of the cultural clashes between immigrants from other cultures, ones where the clan is the base of the collective identity, and the Swedish culture, with its high trust in the state, the World Value Survey (WVS) did shed some light. According to WVS the Swedish culture takes an extreme position and maps as being most secular-rational and most inclined towards self-expression in contrast to traditional and survival values. A positive aspect of the dynamics and of being exposed to other cultures is that you more or less voluntarily starts to reflect on your own values, on why you have them and if they really are the best. Understanding and reflecting on one’s own cultural values can be seen as a way of stepping out of embeddedness in Robert Kegan’s terms. Knowing and understanding one’s history is a necessary step towards owning it. After the shift more debaters argued that we need some set of shared values as a basis of social cohesion in order to prevent unrest and for immigrants to know what they should adapt to and how to conduct themselves in this new country. And here developmental perspectives according to e.g. the Spiral Dynamics model can offer some valuable insights for all that are engaged in the debate.

Key integral concepts
Here I will outline some key integral concepts that I have found to be particularly useful in addressing the crisis. They come primarily from the Spiral Dynamics model, but also from the research field of adult development.

The current values need to be seen in a historical context
In order to understand our cultural response, the conflict between the value systems and between Swedish and other cultures’, we need to take a step back and ask why we have them. Postmodern values are not the ultimately correct and intrinsically good values and end of history. They are rather the result of a historical process of cultural development. Each value system has emerged partly as a consequences of the previous one’s limitations. Traditional values emerged when stability and order was needed, the individualistic and progress-oriented modern values surpassed the more static traditional ones, and the postmodern addressed environmental concerns, gender equality and anti-racism on structural levels. Thus, the current value system landscape can be seen as a reflection of our history the same way that a city carries traces of its history in its architecture. With an understanding and ownership of one’s cultural history often follows a humility that values are not easily transformed and that we are carrying a heritage within ourselves, wherever we come from. We have made progress, although it took us roughly 1000 years to get here from the Viking age. The analysis I made showed that the Spiral Dynamics model, developed in the US, also is valid for describing the historical development of the Swedish culture.

Values are primarily a consequence life conditions
Values are partly a consequence of previous values and socio-technological progress, but in Clare Graves’ terms they are primarily a consequence of the perceived life conditions. The key explanation to the crisis of the postmodern values is that life conditions changed. The dominating green values emphasises a generous migration policy, tolerance, anti-racism, having an open heart and disregarding of ‘practicalities’ such as social order, housing shortage and a preserved welfare state. This has become evident when a less successful integration has created problems with social order and areas where the police fails to uphold the law, a task that the traditional and blue values are better suited for. It has also caused a significant strain on the state finance and the welfare system where it takes several years before a typical immigrant can get a job and support himself (it is most often male immigrants that manage to travel the long way across Europe). It seems that the postmodern values depend on a foundation of a healthy economy and social stability where all basic social needs are met. This is in contrast to the common Swedish view that we all should have the most evolved postmodern values, which brings us to the next item.

Cultures have different characteristics
The Spiral Dynamics model and other developmental theories are generally claimed to describe the development of any culture or individual, but as individuals each culture is unique and has different characteristics and cannot be fully described by any developmental model. One such characteristic is that Sweden is often described by a “consensus culture” where we have a great trust in cooperation and in that we all should agree on common solutions after we have discussed the issue together. Swedish leadership is often characterised as being anti-authoritarian and focusing on anchoring decisions in collective and inclusive processes. This cultural trait has been traced by historians hundreds of years back in our history and have been a source of our success, from being among Europe’s poorest to one of the richest and most developed in less than a century. When we became a modern culture, all were expected to follow. And when we became postmodern, all were expected to be pro gender equality, anti-racism and environmentally aware. The drawback with the consensus culture is that we tend to avoid conflicts and that the conflicts we do have get very infected.

The many facets of Postmodernism
According to the Spiral Dynamics model, postmodern or green values are commonly described in terms of psychological traits such as tolerance, sensitivity and emphasizing human relations. Wilber also associates it with aperspectivism, deconstrution and cultural relativism, all of which are relevant in understanding the many facets of the postmodern values. In order to understand the dominating ideologies of feminism and anti-racism another relevant feature is the conflict and power perspective. Women and immigrants of colour are from this perspective both considered to be victims of oppressive power structures. If an immigrant throws rocks at the ambulance personnel in the suburbs, according to this logic he can be excused since he only revolts against an oppressing racist system. The same goes if a woman publicly expresses hatred towards men in general. But when immigrant girls are subject to honour violence or when young women are sexually assaulted at concerts or at last New year’s eve (as in Cologne), the postmodern power perspective comes into conflict with itself. How can an immigrant be both an oppressor and an oppressed at the same time? Events such as those did not receive much media attention, which sparked a discussion on the role of mainstream media and the rise of alternative media that were more than happy to report on problems with immigration.

The many facets of personal maturity
The broad overview offered by the Spiral Dynamics model is of great importance in order to understand the long term trends and cultural development. But in order to engage in debates or holding space for others we also need to recognize that individuals are more unique and complex than so. A common simplification in integral settings is that a person goes through the same stages as cultures, e.g. that a person is first at a traditional level, then modern to then end up at postmodern level of consciousness. However, this is not necessarily true since we have several lines of development. This is also evident in the Swedish case. Since the postmodern values have become the new conventions you don’t need to reflect and form complex arguments in order to defend them. In public media you seldom get critical questions if you say you are a feminist and anti-racist. In today’s post-truth climate, it has become more important that you hold a certain set of values and opinions rather than how you hold them, how respectful you are towards those with other opinions than your own, how complex you can reason and how many different perspectives you can take; abilities that we associate with maturity in terms of hierarchical complexity according to Michael Commons and ego development according to Jane Loevinger. Thus, a person with traditional values and a restrictive view on immigration may very well be a more mature and complex thinker than a person with postmodern values favouring minimal restrictions on immigration. A similar conclusion was also made in Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous research on moral development; it is not the answer to the specific dilemma that is important, but how you base it in terms of complexity and social perspective taking. The refugee crisis is an extremely complex and ill-structured problem and there are more or less mature and complex arguments for more than one opinion.

In this article I have outlined some key concepts that are useful for understanding the dynamics and for aiding our cultural development in a healthy direction in terms of complexity and maturity. A crisis in postmodern values doesn’t necessarily imply a permanent cultural regression, although that should never be ruled out. The current situation, if we count in the recent development of Brexit, Trump and Russian expansion, can be alarming but should also be seen as opportunities for promoting developmental perspectives and for demonstrating that there is a way forward.

In Sweden the debate climate has opened up as more and more people realize that the refugee crisis was never about right vs wrong or good vs evil. The issues are complex and we should listen to the mature voices from those with an ability for complex thinking and perspective taking. Although this situation offers opportunities for some, we have paid a high price in economic terms and in terms of trust, social cohesion and order here in Sweden.

A more in-depth analysis with relevant references can be found in my longer article on the refugee crisis presented at IEC in Hungary as well as at a conference on migration and the European welfare state:

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