The Baby and the Bathwater: Saving Liberalism

Ken Wilber Cognitive, Editor's Picks, Ethical, How should we relate to the social justice movement?, Life Conditions, Perspectives, Politics, The Ken Show, Values, Video, World Affairs, Worldviews 12 Comments

In this episode of The Ken Show we explore five themes near and dear to the liberal heart — tolerance, nonviolence, power, privilege, and gender — celebrating the healthy aspects of each that we want to include in a more integral embrace, while weeding out the unhealthy regressive narratives that most of these have devolved into.

Topics include:
Issue #1: The Paradox of Tolerance
Issue #2: The Spiral of Violence
Issue #3: The Power Lens
Issue #4: Privilege vs. Predisposition
Issue #5: Sex and Gender

Corey: “For everyone listening, I hope you really experience this [as] a love letter to liberalism. We’re often a little bit harder on the left than we are the right, because they should know better — but I think in this conversation we’ve done a really good job of identifying the healthy sort of contributions of the green attitude and leftism in general, while also kind of tracking how they got so corrupted and toxified.”

Ken: That’s important, precisely because green is the leading edge right now. We’re not going to get to second tier except going through green, and if green is going to take every person that’s evolving and moving to these even greater, more comprehensive stages, and it’s going to be broken and twist them that way, that’s not good. That’s why I’m much more concerned with what’s going wrong there than I am with all the idiocies of the lower [stages], even though that is absolutely catastrophic and can be much more vicious in its own way. But that’s not the real cultural concern right now. The cultural concern is how the leading edge is badly tilted. We’ve got to address that, and they’ve got to start to have that understanding so that more people can continue onward.

Issue #1: The Paradox of Tolerance

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Liberals like to think of themselves as the party of tolerance and inclusion, with a massive index of various intersectional identities that it likes to parade around as evidence of its radical inclusivity. And yet, most liberals seem to find themselves either stuck either in what Karl Popper called the “paradox of tolerance”, or else regressed toward an exclusionary and condescending “us vs. them” mentality that, while using the familiar slogans and soundbites of tolerance, have become every bit as ethnocentric and discriminatory as the most conservative groups they criticize. What is a more integral approach to tolerance, inclusion, and diversity? Watch to hear Ken’s thoughts.

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Issue #2: The Spiral of Violence

Martin Luther King Jr. famously described the “descending spiral” of violence, a sentiment that is frequently shared by many on the political left. And yet, liberals often have a somewhat naive relationship with violence and nonviolence, either shying away from violence in all its forms, or less commonly, using violence to impose their views and values on others. What is the most appropriate use of violence and/or nonviolence in today’s world? Is there any place at all for violence when it comes to political dissent within our own nation? And is there such a thing as an “ascending spiral” of violence that can actually be aligned with Eros, or is violence always the shortest path to Thanatos?

Issue #3: The Power Lens

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When we live in a world as dominated by plutocratic forces as ours is today, it is essential that we learn how to more skillfully relate to these power dynamics. And yet, because Green liberalism is typically so allergic to all forms of power, it is often the case that the “power lens” only lens they use to make sense of the world, through which very person or group of people is seen as either victim or oppressor. Regressive versions of liberalism, meanwhile, try to surreptitiously exert their own power over others by controlling speech and virtue signaling. Does the integral lens reveal anything particularly important about how to better navigate the genuinely oppressive systems and structures of power in the world?

Issue #4: Privilege vs. Predisposition

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Like most liberal values, the notion of “privilege” originally came from a legitimately good and healthy place, and represents an important but fairly nuanced cultural injunction for all of us — to simply reflect on how much of our lives have benefitted from unseen advantages that come from being born into a particular race or gender or economic class, and to also reflect on how there are others people in our society have not benefitted from those same hidden privileges. However, like most liberal values, it is a notion that very quickly became abused and misused by regressive leftists and conservatives alike, both of whom use the term “privilege” as a bumper-sticker euphemism for “I hate white people”. Is there a way to enact the idea of privilege that remains useful at the integral stage?

Issue #5: Sex and Gender

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One of the legitimate triumphs of the postmodern stage was the fact that it successfully differentiated the concept of “sex” from that of “gender”, offering a far more sophisticated and nuanced view of our sexuality than the “there are only two genders” attitude of previous altitudes. On the other hand, this conversation tends to very quickly slide from one form of quadrant absolutism (only biology is real) to another form of quadrant absolutism (only culture is real). And when that happens, gender itself gets deconstructed into oblivion. While it is perfectly fine to bring some more granularity to the various categories of sexual attraction, sexual identity, and sexual behavior, the minute we begin to deny or downplay any of the other fundamental dimensions of our sexuality, we only compound the confusion and create more division between us. What is a more integral approach here?

Toxic Masculinity and Toxic Femininity

The idea of “toxicity” is another concept that seems to be almost entirely misunderstood by culture at large, which needlessly fuels the culture wars. For many, terms like “toxic masculinity” are interpreted as an attack against all men, as if masculinity was itself inherently toxic. For others, it’s clear that only certain expressions of masculinity and femininity can be seen as truly toxic, and this is not an effort to write off an entire sex or gender or polarity. This conversation often devolves into dangerous platitudes like “believe all women” — which, in an attempt to combat toxic masculinity, only ends up enabling toxic femininity. Can an evolutionary or developmental approach help us make more sense of these sorts of typological dysfunctions?


Learn more about the major and minor scales of the integral political model in Ken’s eBook, Integral Politics: Its Essential Ingredients, available to download for free.

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Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996. Corey is also a professional woodworker, and many of his artworks can be found in his VisionLogix art gallery.

Notable Replies

  1. Thanks for the feedback Kensho. Titles are always tricky. You really need to thread a lot of needles — they need to be descriptive (adequately conveying what the piece is about), lyrical (aesthetically pleasing and rolls off the tongue), provocative (competes for your attention), and novel (differentiates itself from the hundreds of other pieces of content on the site). It also needs to appeal to an audience that is already familiar with integral metatheory, as well as to an audience that is completely new to this work. That’s a lot to pack into such a short phrase, again and again, piece after piece, week after week!

    For this one, I knew that the main title had to be “The Baby and the Bathwater”, because that is exactly what we were trying to do here — include the healthy versions and negate the unhealthy versions. As for the “Saving Liberalism” part, that was a bit tougher. As Ken mentions in the talk, the language can be a bit challenging here. For example, people often collapse “liberals”, “progressives”, and even “democrats” when talking about either the people, the ideas, or the values coming from the political left. (You added yet another wrinkle in your response: liberalism as an evolutionary drive.)

    And as Ken also mentions, in many cases “the left” is actually behaving in anti-liberal ways, even while signaling liberal virtues and using liberal-sounding language, which in turn damages the legitimacy of “liberalism” as a political philosophy, and thereby mutes it as an evolutionary force.

    So in that sense, liberalism is the baby that we are trying to save here. And we’re trying to save it by calling out its unhealthy and un-liberal red/amber versions, identifying its healthy orange/green versions, and also pointing the way to a far more integral version.

    Put differently, we are trying to create tools to help people on the left “clean up” their politics, wherever they may be developmentally, while also encouraging them “grow up” into a more integral enactment of their politics.

    Which is why I think your title suggestion, “From Postmodern to Integral”, while certainly being the undercurrent of our discussion (hell, that describes 90% of the stuff on this site!) I also think may be just a little bit too narrow. We certainly want a more integral politics, that much is clear. But having a more integral politics also means that we are trying to help people be as healthy as they can be, exactly as they are, no matter what stage they are currently standing upon. We don’t want to eliminate green expressions of liberalism, we want to make green liberalism healthy again, while also building a bridge to a more integral future.

    So yeah, those were some the needles I was trying to thread here. I hope it helps relieve whatever dissonance you may have felt with the title. Thanks again for the feedback Kensho. :slight_smile:

  2. Avatar for adam adam says:

    The language I like to use for holding the Left to greater accountability is “if the dalai lama and a 15 year old steal a car together and then go joyriding and wreck it, who is more responsible?”

    If the question in each debate is “who is right” we get binary answers, but if the question is “who is more evolved?” then no matter what they answer, you can say “well then that’s who is at greater fault and has greater responsibility.” And I’ve used it the other way, too: if someone says the libs suck, I say “of course they do they are the grownups in this whole situation so it’s absolutely all their fault.” It’s wordplay, but it can shift ppl into three-dimensional models of thinking, and linking responsibility to greater capacities is something people at every level of development can grasp.

  3. Avatar for Mbohu Mbohu says:

    This is just a point about a very small detail, but I’m interested: At 28:40 on Part 1, Ken mentions again his point about free speech and the fact that some factions of green are actually not so fond of that, while it’s the conservatives who now defend it. It’s an interesting point and one he repeats often.
    As someone who has lived half his life in central Europe and half in the US, I am somewhat struck though, by how the implication always seems to be that–naturally–“free speech” (as usually understood in the way that it is understood in the US) is something that is an overriding good that should not be challenged.

    Well, as you probably know, most Western European countries do not have this overriding concern for free speech and do put some limitations on it. For example:

    Nazi propaganda is outlawed in Germany
    There are laws against character assassination and libel (which put more of the burden of proof on the person making the alleged libelous statement)
    Advertisers are not free to make up any kind of lie in order to manipulate people
    Contributions to political parties and causes are much more regulated and bribery does not need such a stringent/impossible proof of tit for tat (if it looks and quacks like a duck…)

    I think one can argue about limitations to “free speech” without being unreasonable and a priori an illiberal person. I think it exists on a spectrum, just like the other political dualities, so masterfully pointed out by Ken an Corey in their last video series. (In the US “free speech” seems to be a bit of a “sacred cow”)

    Wondering what others think, and especially Corey and Ken.

  4. I share some of your questioning about the “sacred cow” of free speech in the U.S., Mbohu. This would be a good topic for a Ken Show, or a portion thereof, reviewing some of Wilber’s post-truth material, but more specifically focusing on freedom of speech. While I understand how green relativism opened the door to the post-truth era we’re living in, I’m more interested in how the 1st Amendment’s “government shall not abridge freedom of speech” in the U.S. might be contributing to so much lying.

    Public bald-faced lying particularly by the current president is but one example of how the right to free speech in the U.S. is exploited and abused. While public lying by political leaders is mainly, I think, a character/moral issue (on the part of the leader and anyone who doesn’t protest it to some degree), and perhaps also a mental health issue, it to me seems enabled by that nearly all-inclusive right to free speech.

    On the other hand, I do appreciate how ‘politically correct’ speech is an unnecessary constraint, an ‘evil’ in itself, so to speak. But there is something in-between strait-jackets and sprawling mean and false blubbering, and perhaps Western Europe has found some of it,

    The U.S.'s identity seems intertwined with raucous character and “pushing the limits” and while there are benefits to that, there are tiresome troubles too. More troubles these days perhaps, than benefits.

  5. With free speech, I think there needs to be distinction (which the right tends not to make), and that is the consequences that come from speaking freely in a way that is detrimental to society at large (ie, the Nazi Propaganda example).

    Where the ethnocentric right (Blue/Amber) falls down is they can’t do the nuance; they believe speech should be free no matter what, because their authority (the Constitution) says so. However, were you to ask the framers, I’m pretty sure they would say “Yes, speech should be free, but not without consequence.” Remember, they were building a guiding document based on their experience as a colony of England, where dissenting speech was strictly forbidden.

    And this is actually true today in the United States. Ever go to a new therapist? If they’re doing their job, they will tell you that if you make a threat against the President, they have to report you to law enforcement. So, that’s an instance where, while your speech is “free,” the consequences of using that speech are not.

    I typically liken the libertarian viewpoints on this to a musician who wants to play jazz without learning music theory. The reason jazz is so beautiful is expressly because of the limits placed upon it. Music can’t be music without rules, and that translates to society as a whole. My general sense is that libertarianism is a direct result of the flatlanding that happened with Orange and Green, where because “everything is true,” they now think they should be able to do whatever they want, because that makes them more free. The contrary is the case, just like in jazz; if a musician were able to play anything they wanted in a jazz ensemble, not following the rules set out in music theory, it wouldn’t be jazz. It would be chaos. And so within the framework of jazz, one is actually more free, from a bird’s eye view, than they are if they don’t adhere to the limits placed upon them, even though at the personal I view, they may be annoyed that they have to stay in the key of F.

    I think that’s where the Integral path can be of value, as we should be able to see and rationally explain the value in limitations and rules where Orange and Green cannot.

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