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A Culture Gets Creative

Sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Anderson make an outrageous claim.

Sarah van Gelder: Maybe you can start by telling me something about what drew you into researching shifts in values and world views, and how your findings changed you.

Paul Ray: I initially started doing market research and opinion polling because I wanted to learn about how values relate to culture. As I got further into my research, I was shocked to see that I was getting information not just about why people give money to good causes, or buy things, or vote a certain way. I was compiling evidence that pointed to something more fundamental — a deep shift in the culture.

I was seeing the emergence of a group of people whom we’re calling Cultural Creatives. This is something new. It doesn’t fit the standard categories of activist, or right-thinking church people, or political liberals. These Cultural Creatives are already creating lots of social inventions that are going to make a new world, not just reshuffle old political programs.

For me personally, the biggest thing that changed as a result of this research is that I shifted from being pessimistic — especially in reaction to the Reagan era — to being very optimistic about what’s possible for our future.

Sherry Anderson: When I was 35, which is 23 years ago, I was the head of a research department in the largest psychiatric teaching hospital in Canada and an associate professor of psychiatry at the medical school at the University of Toronto. At the same time, I was heading a rape crisis center, helping to create a women’s counseling and referral service, and heading what became known as the Ontario Zen Center. But I didn’t talk about all these projects except when I was with close friends or colleagues.

I remember that we deeply cared about what was happening to the world, but we thought in such small pockets. We thought that when we were protesting the war in Vietnam or when we were meeting in women’s consciousness-raising groups, we were doing something that might somehow, in some vague way, affect our society and affect the world. But I never dreamed that we were part of an immense group of people who are changing their minds in their own particular ways, and that we would actually arrive at a powerful common set of values.
I used to think of culture as being about art, literature, and music. I didn’t understand that my most personal values and those of my clients and friends could be so profoundly part of a vast cultural movement.

We got a call yesterday from a journalist doing an article on straw bale houses for The New York Times Magazine. She said “Each time I interview someone who is building a straw bale house, I wonder what’s at the core of this? What is going on? And I have finally found the common thread. I realize that they’re all Cultural Creatives, and there’s this enormous energy behind what they are doing.”

And she said “It’s not what I thought. There is nothing flaky about this. There is nothing New Age about this. These people are practical. They love the Earth, and they want to live their values.”
And this is the way I feel — I never knew that there were so many people like me, who believe this.

Sarah: Where did all these Cultural Creatives come from? You say that prior to World War II there were few, if any, Cultural Creatives. Instead, almost all Americans belonged to one of two other subcultures. Could you describe what those two were?

Paul: The two subcultures are what we call the Traditionals and the Moderns. The Modern culture is the dominant, parent culture of this civilization, and it goes back 500 years to the Renaissance. Then around 1750 to 1800, we started getting a major backlash against the materialistic, urban, industrial, bureaucratic, culture of Modernism from the people who were losing — the Traditionalists. These people were reacting against the tendencies of the Modern world to undercut the legitimacy of churches, the Bible, the patri-archal family, and so on.

Sarah: So beginning after World War II, this third subculture emerges?

Paul:First of all, we’re talking today about a quarter of the adults in the United States, 50 million adults, and probably 80 to 90 million adults in Western Europe. These people take the ideas of ecology very seriously, and they support slowing business growth in order to save the planet. They also take very seriously women’s issues and issues of personal growth and relationships.

We found that the typical Cultural Creative cares intensely about the issues raised by post–World War II social movements. These movements include those focused on civil rights, the environment, women’s rights, peace, jobs and social justice, gay and lesbian rights, alternative health care, spirituality, personal growth, and now, of course, stopping corporate globalization.

All of those concerns are now converging into a strong concern for the whole planet.

Sherry: I used to think of the social movement as the people who were on the rampage — the people who were demonstrating, writing the newsletters, or carrying the cases forward in court.

Paul: The politicos, in other words.

Sherry: In fact, that’s way too narrow. We started thinking instead of a great cloud of sympathetic people who are learning from and listening to the arguments of the various movements. You could think of it as a bull’s-eye, with the most active and most visible people at the center, and then whole circles of people surrounding them who are discussing the arguments, donating money, learning, and changing their minds. If you include the people in those larger circles, there are millions and millions of people involved. When you see the ways those circles overlap, you start to be see where the Cultural Creatives come from.

Sarah: What makes these movements different from earlier movements?

Paul: Unlike the social movements of 1880 to 1930 — the Wobblies, the fascists, the communists, the socialists, and so on — those involved in the post-1960s movements are not trying to take over the government. Nor are they primarily concerned with “more for us” issues, like wages and benefits, for example. Rather these movements are reframing issues in a way that changes how people understand the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, didn’t say, “It’s time the Blacks got theirs.” He said, “This is about freedom, and justice, and dignity, and the Constitution, and who we are as an American people.”

Rachel Carson didn’t advocate NIMBYism —“keep pollution out of my back yard.” She said, “This is about the death of nature.”

Betty Friedan didn’t just say, “It’s time that women got through the glass ceiling.” She asked, “Who are we as human beings?” The alternative health care movement isn’t about getting insurance coverage for chiropractic care. It’s about the real meaning of health.

What happens when somebody gets involved in a half dozen of these issues and has their world reframed six times? Their entire worldview changes.

Sarah: Of course, many of these movements actually grew out of earlier struggles. What were some of the early influences on these post-war movements?

Paul: Well, you could argue that the Quakers started the whole thing 300 to 500 years ago, along with the early anti-slavery movement, the feminists, and the Mennonites. Those people did the first versions of reframing — it’s just that the rest of the culture didn’t pick up on it at the time.

One of the earliest movements was the conservation movement, which has since morphed into the environmental movement, which then morphed again into the ecology movement. In all cases, those involved were asserting the importance of nature over the right to ransack nature’s storehouse for wealth. Those involved took the idea of “nature,” which at the time was thought of as untamed, chaotic wilderness, and reframed it as beautiful and worthy in its own right.

Today, more people regard a redwood grove as sacred than regard churches as sacred. Surveys everywhere in the world show that 70 to 90 percent of the people regard nature and the environment as having sacred qualities and as under threat. For all practical purposes that’s unanimity. It’s quite stunning.

Sherry: Another value from the movements that was first articulated in the Black freedom movement is “walking your talk.” Authenticity. Reverend C.T. Vivian, who was a firebrand from the early freedom movement, talks about his days as a minister. He would tell people that they needed to hold on and come to church and that they were fighting the good fight. At what point, he asked himself, do you see their suffering, see people putting their lives on the line, and see that all you’re doing is talking? At some point, he decided he had to go out of the church and join the people.

The importance of authenticity carried over into all of the movements, especially the women’s movement.

Each of the social movements had in effect two arms: one was the political action arm, and the other was a submerged cultural network. People would meet in consciousness-raising groups in each other’s homes and in church basements, discovering together what they really cared about, trying to understand what was true. And the evidence that they drew on was their own direct experience, because they couldn’t trust what was written in the books or the media.

When I was in such a group I remember wondering, “Isn’t there some book where I can look this up?” But there were no books. We had to go into the truth of our own lives. One person would put forward an observation, then somebody else would add a new perspective, and slowly we pieced together a new understanding of what was going on in the world.

We were looking for evidence; we were looking for what was real, what was beyond the rhetoric. And that, of course, is the source of the idea that the personal is political. Just as scientific evidence is part of what Cultural Creatives draw from, so too is direct personal experience.

Paul: This seeking for authenticity is part of what links each person’s own personal and spiritual growth with a concern for the big picture, including a concern for social justice. What Christopher Lasch says about a culture of narcissism — that the people who are concerned about personal growth don’t care about social justice and vice versa — is flat out not true. Our research shows that the more a person is engaged in social activism, ecology, and social justice, the more likely they are to be engaged also in developing their spiritual lives and in personal growth.

Sherry: Why is the capacity to examine your conscience, to sit in silence, to listen deeply important in a social movement?

In the gay and lesbian liberation movement, people had to learn to speak from the pain and the truth of their own lives in the most genuine way. If they didn’t, they didn’t have anything!

In the early days of the women’s health movement, we didn’t know what we wanted; we didn’t know what was possible. We had to sit down and talk about what wasn’t working for us first. We had to learn to sit with that void, in that place where you don’t have the answers, and to start asking questions that no one had asked before.

Out of that honesty, out of that naming of what hadn’t been named before, comes something new. The real seeds that can change society come from being present to what’s most deeply human in us.

Sarah: So this authenticity and openness allows people to question the assumptions that they have been living with all their lives — to explore a different worldview with trusted friends.

Sherry: Right. It also allows you to get beyond outer authority to what’s most true in yourself and so be open to listening to what’s most true in other people. And then you begin to see what isn’t working — what has to be uprooted to allow for the maturing of the human being.

Paul: A process of social learning has been happening in our society since the 1960s as people question the assumptions of the dominant social order that don’t fit their actual experience. That questioning is reinforced by each successive movement. Even those who weren’t active in a particular movement were exposed to the arguments, and the perspectives influenced an enormous number of people.

We’re talking about the creation of a new culture — about living in a different world. What’s in your house is different. Your daily concerns are different. The words you use to describe your own experiences are different. Your life priorities are different.

And in addition to all those up-close and personal changes, you’re looking at changes in the role of corporations and government in American life, changes in the relations of humans to nature, changes in our relationship to people in other parts of the world, changes in how women and minorities are treated.

We’re going through a process of changing our minds at every single level.

Today we regard as totally unacceptable many assumptions that were part of how your average, middle-class, moral person would have thought in the ‘50s. Then, violence and discrimination against Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics were accepted as normal. Nasty ethnic jokes were the norm. Discrimination against women in the workplace was legal, and violence against women and children at home was perfectly normal.

Today, these attitudes persist in some circles, but they’re widely seen as quite unacceptable.
So in a span of 40 to 50 years we have reinterpreted the world in fundamental ways, and every last one of those fundamental reinterpretations comes out of the new social movements.

Sarah: Since I discovered your work some years ago, Paul, I’ve had a chance to talk to a number of people about the concept of the culture shift and the Cultural Creative label. Some are pleased to discover that they are not alone and encouraged to learn that this research indicates real possibilities for change. Some are annoyed at the thought of being pigeonholed. Others, perhaps, are afraid that they’re not one of the Cultural Creatives and are excluded from some kind of elite group. Are you finding that there are people who feel either left out or put down by this kind of grouping?

Paul: This term for an emerging subculture is not a stick-on label that goes on somebody’s forehead, or a new campaign button that says, “I’m a Cultural Creative. Are You?” We’ve seen a lot of attempts to create stick-on labels, like Yuppies and Generation-X, that are fictions invented by ad agencies. There are no clearcut boundaries for the phenomenon of Cultural Creatives.

Here’s how I see it: There is a core group of Cultural Creatives who are active in living their values and are socially engaged. Simultaneously, members of this group are concerned about consciousness issues and personal growth, and they are very strong on ecology issues and very strong on women’s issues. That group is two-to-one women, about 12 percent of the population, roughly 25 million adults.

That group shades imperceptibly into a circle you might call the Greens, who don’t have as many personal growth concerns. And around the outer periphery is a set of people who are showing signs of being ready to move toward being a Cultural Creative, if only they thought it would be rewarded socially, or if only it were safe.

I would guess that if we included all of these people, we would have perhaps 40 percent of the American population who are Cultural Creatives or potential Cultural Creatives.
One of the key things that makes a fuzzy boundary is this: It seems to take about a decade for people to bring their values and beliefs into alignment with the way they live. So there’s a huge number of people who are in some kind of life transition, and it’s not clear where they’re going to wind up in these statistical estimates.

Sarah: If there are so many Cultural Creatives, and if they are having such a big impact, why is that such a well-kept secret? Why aren’t they having more of an impact as a political force?

Paul: Oh, because right now they’re saying politics is bought. In focus groups we did for the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999, Cultural Creatives were saying, “We’re activists at the local community level. We’re engaged. We’re volunteering. But national politics has been bought. We don’t feel that it is worth it. It’s dirty. To hell with it, I’m going to make some real differences where I can have some say.”

When we talk to audiences of Cultural Creatives, invariably some bright person will say, “Oh my God, 50 million. There’s more of us than voted for Clinton. We could win.” It’s a new thought to the people in the room, because they’re convinced that at least when it comes to national politics, they’re going to lose.

Sherry: How is it possible that 50 million people who share the same values and the same worldview, imagine that they’re almost alone? The answer is that we don’t have mirrors in the media that have been able to show us our own face and our own promise, and so we imagine that we’re almost alone. And that’s why magazines like YES! are so important to Cultural Creatives. We have to have places where we can have discussions, do this kind of exploring, see what we value, put it all on the table, and see what’s possible.

Sarah: Given the protests at the WTO in Seattle, and in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Prague, do you feel Cultural Creatives now have a greater sense of themselves as a political force? The media keeps talking about the many different causes represented at these protests. They dismiss it as sort of a circus — pick a cause and any malcontent will show up.

Paul: How else are you going to explain away what you’re seeing in front of your face? You try to find a derogatory term that doesn’t look at the implications or connections. The media lives on fragmentation, when in fact all these causes are coming out of the same worldview. Few reporters will acknowledge that somebody else has a different set of eyeglasses than theirs. They’ve got a sense that they know the truth.
When you talk to the Asians and Europeans, they instantly get the idea of different cultures and different worldviews. But Americans and the British kind of scratch their heads and have trouble taking it in.

Sarah: Because their worldview is the dominant world view, perhaps?

Paul: Yes, and because part of the defense of one’s own worldview is to say: “We see things exactly as they are through a clear pane of glass. No eyeglasses here.”

Sarah: What do you think are the implications of all that we’ve been discussing for our possibilities as a human species?

Sherry: The word that comes up for me is “muting.” The Cultural Creative’s voices have been muted because they believe that few others want to hear what they have to say or would be willing to act on their ideas.

So the promise that I see is that the mute will be removed and those in this new, creative subculture will find ways to express what’s really important to them. The effects will spread out into literature, theater, music, art — into new ways of meeting together, into an insistence on the right to question the assumptions of the dominant culture. It means people will inspire each other to speak out and, like the women’s movement said, “We will hear each other into speech.” We will bring the deeper possibilities of our humanity into the social sphere and begin to find ways to bring that shift about.

Paul: What would happen if Cultural Creatives knew that they had lots of company? What if they were aware of themselves? What if they asked themselves what kind of future we want to live in?”

The way we’ll invent the future is with each other, in conversations about what’s possible and what kind of world we want. And we won’t just hear each other into speech. We will actually learn to see through the eyes of the other person. We won’t get there any other way than by having huge numbers of people engage with each other in creative possibilities.
The hallmark of this profound culture shift is going to be reinventing practically every institution of society from the ground up. And that is not only possible, it is rather likely.


Paul H. Ray, PhD, and Sherry Ruth Anderson, PhD, are authors of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, published this year by Harmony Books. http://www.culturalcreatives.org

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