In their book Spiral Dynamics, Beck and Cowan color code and thus simplify the categories of psychologist Clare Graves. Graves posited a theory of development based on people’s responses when asked to describe their idea of a successful person. The colors are Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange, Green, Yellow and beyond. They apply both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, i.e., to groups and to individuals: both to human culture in general and to each of us individually.
Beige seeks warmth, shelter, food and sex – just as any animal would. Purple introduces the recognizably human characteristics of storytelling and dance in a tribal context. It emerged with horticulture and had a magical view of things. Red represents the warrior ethic one might find in Homer. Courage and strength make one worthy of respect. Respect and honor are gained by overcoming obstacles and being able to play a protector role. Theologically, the gods are power gods. They are superior to humans because they are stronger and can hurt us at will – not because they are more morally perfect. Blue is the fundamentalist and divides the world between true believers and the damned. A successful person is saved because he is a law-follower and believes the right things. God is the prime legislator and follows his own rules as opposed to Red’s power gods who smite unpredictably. Blue is associated phylogenetically with agriculture, monarchies and aristocracies. Orange is the first rational MEME. It’s the MEME of democracy, all men are created equal, scientific materialism and Darwin. It at least promotes the notion of meritocracy – that one’s social position and leadership role should be earned rather than being a product of birth alone. Green takes ‘all men are created equal’ and takes it further. It rejects the positivism of Orange – the tendency to think that only scientific truths are true and notices how some truths have a perspectival element.
Historically, Green MEME emerged on a larger scale in the 1960s. It saw that blacks and whites, men and women, were equal and thus thoroughly rejected racism and sexism. Around twenty percent of Americans are Green.
Every person, no matter how smart, has gone through each of these levels, which at one point in human history was the cutting edge of human cultural evolution. Each level solved the problems associated with the lower levels. Most American children these days will grow out of Purple at around two years old and Red around three or four. With Red you act in a fashion consistent with morality because your parents are bigger and stronger than you and you are concerned about their opinion of you. A ten year old, however, is more likely to be a Blue MEME rule follower – acting a certain way because, for instance, lying is wrong.
Learning about the MEMEs is supposed to make one fully aware of these ways of being, of which one should already have some conception, and to see where the MEMEs fall in the hierarchy. Once you understand this, the idea is supposed to be that one can understand the people around you better and tailor one’s terms and references to their way of thinking, just as one does not speak to a three year old the same way one interacts with a thirty year old of normal intelligence.
However, one of the problems is that all the colors/levels described so far are so-called ‘first tier.’ First tier colors all think that they represent the pinnacle of human cultural evolution and that all the other colors are wrong. Can you imagine a religious fundamentalist saying – ‘I recognize that my way of thinking exemplifies a relatively early stage of human development and that my crass division of the world into the saved and the damned is a lamentably barbaric way of thinking, relatively speaking. My ambition is to get away from biblical literalism and Manichean dichotomies and introduce subtleties of thought, including interpreting biblical passages as figurative when they conflict with known facts about the world or, say, the age of the universe?’
Yellow is the first second tier level, meaning that it is the first to recognize that the limits of human evolution are unknown but that it is pretty much a certainty that Yellow is not at that limit and that historically there have been people whose sense of values and understanding far exceed their own. It is also the first level to see how each level of development has its good points and that each level can in fact be the most appropriate given any particular situation. Also, that each level must be valued as the doorway to the next. If any level were destroyed, all development would beyond that destroyed level would cease, including their own developmental level.
These features of Yellow are of tremendous moral significance and denote the “tolerance” that Green talks about but does not practice. Green “tolerates” only its own liberal perspective and actively suppresses dissent. Talk of trigger warnings and micro-aggressions are bringing this to a rabid intensity.
Yellow consciousness sees that each of the previous stages reveals an important truth, and pulls them all together and integrates them without trying to change them to “be more like me,” and without resorting to cultural relativism (“all are equal”). Yellow or perhaps the next level above sees Spirit as a living force in the world (manifested through any or all of the three Faces of God: “I”—the “No self” or “witness” of Buddhism; “I/thou”—the “great other” of Christianity, Judaism, Hindusm, Islam, etc.; or “it”—the “Web of Life” seen in Taoism, Pantheism, etc.) https://www.integrallife.com/video/integral-world-federation-possible
Lower level colors remain as incipient potentials within the higher level person and can in principle be called upon in the right circumstance. Prisons at the institutional level tend to be primarily Blue MEME, while the prisoners themselves, particularly violent criminals, are likely to be Red. Red gains respect based on fear, brute strength and cunning. Blue provides structure and clear cut rules with pre-defined consequences if one breaks them. An Orange, Green or Yellow person should have some intuitive understanding of Red and Blue, having lived through those stages, and should be able, in principle, to adapt accordingly. Likewise, finding oneself stranded on a desert island would require a reversion to Beige with the focus on mere survival.
Lower levels cannot understand higher levels. Whereas the person at a higher level should in principle be able to understand the point of view of a lower level MEME because to get to that high level, they had to pass through those lower level colors.
Each level has its healthy and unhealthy manifestations. The warrior ethic is good and healthy on the battlefield, or as exemplified by a brave and honor-loving fireman, but wouldn’t be much fun as a president or as a gang member. Science emerges with Orange MEME but can be converted into scientism and logical positivism with disastrous consequences, such as a radical diminishment in understanding human beings since morality, value, meaning, purpose, consciousness, emotion and beauty are all omitted from the scientific perspective. Darwin gets turned into Darwinism with all sorts of misapplications of his theories. This reductio ad absurdum of the scientific worldview has prevailed in analytic philosophy departments. Trendier, continental philosophy abandons scientism and embraces relativism and post-modernism.
The pathology of Green occurs when the level’s interest in equality gets extended into spheres to which it does not belong. The Green MEME liberal frequently strives to eliminate all differences between people and to reject all hierarchies. Noticing the role of perspective or point of view gets converted into post-modernism and the assertion that “there is no truth,” and “everything is a ‘text’” about which any statement is legitimate. The paradigm of Green MEME theology is New Age religion which, as is typical of the level, ceases to recognize the difference between more or less sophisticated religions and religious understanding. Since it sees all hierarchies as oppressive, New Age religion reverts back to a Purple level magic. This would include human sacrifice if taken to its logical extreme.
Green MEME ideas also get implemented in a Blue MEME fashion, so one frequently gets a Manichean division between the saved and the damned. Those who subscribe to the elimination of difference are of course the saved.
One can definitely see that Green MEME liberals think that they are at the apex of human cultural development. Of course, they don’t officially believe in developmental theories since development requires a hierarchy. Nonetheless, there is no mistaking their assuming the mantle of humanity’s finest.
College campuses, for the most part, are Green MEME through and through. It is necessary for one’s continued employment to officially subscribe to all Green MEME falsehoods. Those who do not are either never employed there in the first place or keep their mouth shut.
It is very hard and perhaps impossible to go beyond the average level of development without moral support from others at that higher level. Jesus raised the moral bar in suggesting that one must love one’s enemies, but he had a group of disciples, specially chosen, to help him. If Jesus and Buddha couldn’t go it alone, neither can anyone else.
Green MEME liberalism may mean the end of Western civilization. Its hostility to hierarchy/development means it seeks to prevent further development. It encourages a reversion to much earlier and more primitive ways of thinking. It is hostile to truth because truth conflicts with the way they would like the world to be. Its extreme conformism, leveling tendencies and militant enforcement of political correctness means it punishes immediately and resolutely any deviation from the party line.
There are plenty of Yellow MEME and higher writers out there, but they are all rejected by the academy and will mostly not be found in college courses. Ken Wilber, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Rupert Sheldrake are three. Others include Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Plotinus, Plutarch, St. Augustine, Jesus, Dostoevsky, James Le Fanu, Thomas Sowell, René Girard, and the Perennial Philosophy/Traditionalism represented by thinkers like René Guènon. Yellow/Turquoise MEME takes Spirit seriously. Militant atheism can only be found at Green MEME or below. Teaching Rupert Sheldrake was part of the reason I was fired from one college and got in serious trouble at another.
Since Plato cannot NOT be taught in philosophy, the spiritual aspects of his thinking are often suppressed.
Just as there is no surefire path to enlightenment, there is no particular method for moving from one level of development to another other than to keep living and thinking. In some cases a personal crisis may precede a change. For me, the extreme vilification of men, reaching a peak in the 1990’s notion of men as pedophiles, helped push me over the edge and to reading Warren Farrell on gender relations. Since Farrell mostly appeals to facts that we all know to be true, it wasn’t hard to agree with him.
The hope is that one will notice the ways in which one would like to think about the world conflict with reality and that one has enough integrity to make the necessary changes. One can simply call it maturing. Green has a particularly adolescent idealism about it; well-meaning, but clueless.
As a Green MEME twenty year old it seemed that the utopian future would see the elimination of any differences between men and women and that if we all wore shapeless overalls that would represent progress. Reality confronts one with the fact that men and women are different.
Green MEME seems particularly to embody the Gnostic’s hatred of reality. Disappointed with reality, one seeks to reshape it in a utopian direction. One may reject the notion of human nature as inherently reactionary. But, by ignoring real human needs and desires one is actually playing the role of the persecutor. Some little girls want to be princesses, others, tomboys. Boys often communicate with each other nonverbally, poking each other and then running away laughing, being chased for payback. Some people want to be stay-at-home parents, others, careerists. Having a fixed idea about the way people ought to be and attempting to shove them into little boxes is the tendency of the utopian idealist. The older more mature person is likely to have realized the folly of this and become more ‘conservative,’ less ‘progressive.’ But it’s the older person who is more tolerant, who is more apt to be more accepting. It’s the young progressive who exhibits a more fascistic, one-size-fits-all agenda. For instance, the notion that from now on, all English classes will now focus on some aspect of gender, class and race.
God save us from those who wish to reshape us in their image – and a mea culpa might be appropriate here.
The hope is that the years will chip away at one’s allegiance to falsehoods and that one will figure out a way to see that acknowledging differences is not always to make a value judgement about those differences. To say that men and women have differences is not to place those differences in a hierarchy of value. If you want proof of those differences, try living in an all-female household and then moving to boarding school. Or visit a family with all boys and then one with all girls.
And then one may hope that one may have the humility to realize that there is no pinnacle of human development so one has not reached it. Arguably, Jesus, Buddha and Plato look down at us from a towering height and whatever we think we have achieved cognitively and morally may seem truly pitiful to someone at their level. Nonetheless, we hope to be treated with some kind of dignity and understanding, as well-intentioned but flawed individuals doing our best. Better than some, worse than others.
To have reached Yellow or Turquoise MEME is no great feat. But at least it means one can see that there is a hierarchy of development, that Spirit pervades all, that each level has worth and is the pathway to the next and that the ultimate destination is the infinite.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.