Violence and Stages of Political Consciousness
Stage 1 Consciousness: Physical Violence
Physical violence is a biological impulse related to threats to survival. Killing others who are a threat to oneself and taking their food and property are often associated with animal behavior, or called primitive behavior. Physical violence is a method of satisfying personal needs and desires without regard or concern to the other.
Babies and young children naturally exhibit stage one behavior: screaming, waving their arms, and kicking, to get their needs met. Then, until nurturing takes hold, totally self-focused children push, hit, and bully to get what they want. With the guidance of loving parents and teachers children can be taught to respect each other and control their violent impulses, eventually learning methods of cooperation and respect, or stage 2 behavior.
Lacking the nurture that raises a child to Stage 2, and eventually Stage 3, consciousness, Stage 1 behavior will continue, even as an adult. Beating, rape, and theft are evidence that the perpetrator, even though a physical adult, who has reached 18 years of age, is only at a Stage 1 level of social consciousness, and thus an infant in terms of social development.
Stage 2 Consciousness: Structural Violence
In an individual, Stage 2 Consciousness often begins in the early teens. At this age, often in middle school in the U.S., individuals begin to compare their lives to others, their parents’ houses, cars, and religious teachings to their classmates’. They begin to form a group consciousness with their peers and a sense for what seems just and unjust.
In stage 2 consciousness, there is still a focus centered on the self, reflected in comments like, “Why does he have more than me?” Or, “Why does that group have more than another group.” Stage 2 acknowledge the existence of others, and their right to exist. At the beginning of this stage, individuals tend to associate with others more like themselves–the “popular” group, the “nerds,” the “goths,” etc. These peer groups represent a stage in which youth will form a new self-identity as they seek to evolve beyond the world of their parents into a new world when they realize they will one day need to care for themselves.
At stage 2, there are some carryovers from their parent’s groups, especially among those children who were happy and loved at home–the traditionalists. Lutherans hang out with Lutherans, Catholics with Catholics, Muslims with Muslims. Then there are the rebellious groups, often composed of children who have rejected their parents and substituted gang leaders or charismatic anti-establishment leaders who appear to offer more love, justice, or security than they experienced at home. Those in these latter groups, either the traditionalists or the revolutionaries, tend to adopt a group identity instead of developing a self-identity, thus both types are aberrations in normal maturation. Members of such groups are likely to see the world with an “us vs. them” consciousness and are more likely to resort to violence, than those seeking to form their own self-identity based on the idea that we all need to share the world we were given.
Stage 2 consciousness still considers the “self” as primary and the “other” as one to begrudgingly tolerate. In fact, “tolerance” of the other is a good characterization of stage 2 consciousness, and “religious, racial, or ethnic toleration” is a good example of stage 2 political and religious consciousness. One doesn’t have to accept the values and doctrines of others, but must recognize their right to exist, and even live in in your neighborhood.
The UN International Declaration of International Human Rights can be considered a sign of the global emergence of a stage two political consciousness.
Stage 2 consciousness does not use physical violence to achieve political goals, but inevitably causes systems of structural violence. The idea of a “nation-state” is a good metaphor for a system of structural violence because the national group that controls the state inevitably imposes its values on the other groups it “tolerates” living on the territory. Hence, a Sunni-controlled nation-state in Iraq inevitably leads to structural Shiite oppression that can descend into violence and genocide.
Current democracies largely reflect stage 2 consciousness as well, because voters each vote for their self-interest, and gang up into political parties to get something for one group at the expense of the other. In political discourse, stage 2 consciousness is exemplified by rationalizations, justifications, and rhetoric that promotes personal or group agendas, rather than discourse that is based on known principles or truth. Thus, democracy is a way to recognize the existence of the other that does not overtly care for the well-being of the other. That requires stage 3 political consciousness.
Stage 3 Consciousness: The Well-Being of the Whole
Stage 3 consciousness is a consciousness that transcends the personal ego and views the entire world as an interrelated system, and the destiny and well-being of others inexorably linked to the well-being of oneself. Stage 3 consciousness, or spiritual maturity, realizes that the world will only become peaceful if all parents and political systems nurture everyone to attain a stage three consciousness.
Stage 3 consciousness of groups is not “us” vs. “them.” But “us” and a different group of “us.” One group realizes another has glimpsed a different aspect of the proverbial elephant, and that all groups are evolving from particular cultural experiences towards a common end where higher truth can become universally realized.
So far there are no corollary universal doctrines of human responsibility that guide our systems of social leadership and governance, only doctrines of human rights. Doctrines of moral and social responsibility have evolved to various degrees and at different social levels, and particularly advanced during the so-called “axial age” with Confucianism, Buddhism, the Bible, and the virtues of Classical Greece and Rome. Thus, stage three consciousness is not new to human beings even though it has not developed in a global form, which some argue will occur in a second axial age.
Group Consciousness and Individual Consciousness
Groups, like individuals, exhibit different stages of consciousness. The Old Testament is filled with stories of conquest and violence, from the destruction of cities to the stoning of unfaithful women. The violence in these stories characterize a stage 1 consciousness that can even be sanctioned by tribal, religious, and political leaders.
We see this form of consciousness in present-day genocides where tribes, ethnic groups, and nation-states seek to serve themselves by the elimination of others, who are conceived as competitors and threats. From violent jihad, to ethnic cleansing, to “preemptive war,” we see religious, cultural, and political arguments to justify stage one consciousness. Unfortunately, many popular religious and political doctrines that reflect stage 1 consciousness are naively cited by mass media newscasters as acceptable, because these newscasters share the stage 1 group consciousness, even though their personal interactions with others reflect a higher stage of personal consciousness.
The differences between personal consciousness and group consciousness can be striking. This has been the topic of a number of books on social thought. Particularly influential have been Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society and Irving Janis’s Victims of Groupthink. This disconnect often exists because individuals and groups each go through their own course of development, hence, good German Christian individuals could end up participating in the Holocaust.
Genocide is a Stage 1 response to group frustration. Stage 2 is negotiation and toleration that transcends outright violence, but is still based on the manipulation of others for one’s own ends. In governance systems, democracy and normal diplomacy fit into this category of stage 2 consciousness. The U.S. has been at stage two, as is the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but in recent years the adoption of preemptive war and the assassination of Osama bin Laden without trial shows the U.S. is declining into stage 1 consciousness.
Stage 3 consciousness is the ability to transcend the self and see the social system as a whole, with every person deserving fulfillment. This would apply to both individual consciousness and group behavior.
If we look at policies, religious doctrines, and behaviors from the standpoint of level of consciousness, we can understand that what we call “evil” is, in part, a result of behaviors characteristic of lower stages of development. Thus, the Bush policy of preemptive war would be stage 1. The ISIS violence in Iraq is stage 1, but the Maliki regime was Stage 2 (using the system for its own purposes, thus causing structural violence). The world is largely ruled by Stage 1 and Stage 2 thinking, but there won’t be peace until it is governed by Stage 3 thought.
In our current world, our universal doctrines of human rights create a foundation for every person to have equal opportunity, however there are no corollary universal doctrines of human responsibility that guide our systems of social leadership and governance. So long as Stage 1 and Stage 2 social systems remain in place there will be violence, either outright or structural.
Stage 3 Political Systems: Universal Principle over Group-serving Rhetoric
As we look forward to the evolution of society to stage 3 consciousness we can imagine hearing arguments that are not rooted in rhetoric or fear, but on the merits of the cases. Political parties and interest groups that have personal and group agendas will fall out of favor and newscasters will discount them rather than repeating their press releases. Heads of government agencies and judges will not be political appointments but selected on their history of stage 3 behaviors.
In the environmental groups today we see the appeal to stage three concerns–our common planet earth. So far, environmental agendas, except perhaps the WorldWatch Institute, have been stage 2, either pitting the economy against the environment, or using environmental rhetoric to amass sums of money for group agendas through taxation. In a stage 3 governance system, economic development and environmental sustainability would be two of many interrelated human goals that would foster personal and social responsibility rather than an elite’s vision at the expense of the people.
It will be particularity important for public schools and institutions to begin promoting social responsibility by all and stop hiding behind the mask of value relativism. Certain forms of stage 1 violence like rape are decried as evil, but perpetrators and victims are treated with group labels like victim and bully, rather than as children at different stages of growth that need to achieve a stage 3 consciousness. Of course, examination of current curricula tends to reveal stage 2 doctrines of education, and it is impossible for a teacher that has not reached a stage 3 consciousness to pass that on to a student.
The U.S. and much of the democratic world is at a critical juncture. This world has been made of societies with stage two political consciousness, supplemented by the virtues and values inherited from great civilizational traditions. Today, we see an ever-greater number of individuals striving to attain a stage 3 consciousness on the individual level, through meditation, new age thought, wholeness, and integral practices. However, we simultaneously see political institutions co-opted, in disrepair, and devolving into greater structural violence that is leading to greater physical violence by groups that can no longer bear the suffering. Elsewhere, we find violence stemming from a growing number of gangs and outcast groups that were never raised beyond stage 1 consciousness. The absence of the influence of the great civilizational traditions over modern life has led to an ever larger portion of the population stuck in stage 1 or early stage 2 consciousness.
The next step for the modern world is to learn to understand the nature and signs of stage 3 consciousness so that we can transform our leadership and social institutions in ways that reflect that consciousness and the principles and laws that would derive from it.
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