The main motivational energy of the post-modern era is what I call ‘leveling the playing field.’
Leveling the playing field means there is no privileged frame of reference. There is no given which determines who or what is better and no inherent hierarchy of authority and power; diversity is sanctified. Nobody or nothing is exceptional or superior within the greater picture of things. All are included.
One comes across leveling in every walk of life.
For example, in July I took part in a conference at Oxford University organized by Inter-Disciplinary.Net. Inter-Disciplinary celebrates the diversity of contexts, knowledge, experience, skills, and ideas in the world and works to create meeting places for people to engage together.
What characterizes inter-disciplinary spaces is the meeting of people in a spirit of equality, respect and trust, regardless of status, title, position. And indeed the conference took place very much in this spirit, what I would call, an example of the very best of Post-Modernism; equality and diversity were expressed within a very clear commonly-agreed upon structure in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
What happens when one puts leveling into practice in, for example, psychiatry, education and politics?
The psychiatrist Wilfred Bion, the educationalist Alexander Neill and the politician Barak Obama have one thing in common; each, in his field, is worthy of being called a leveler, a representative of the Post-Modern era. Bion and Neill lived before Post-Modernism become part of our day-to-day language, not so Obama. Obama has been called radical, liberal, left but few give him his real title: the first Post-Modern leader in the Western World.
During the Second World War Bion served as a psychiatrist in the British Army. He implemented a very radical experiment in the treatment of soldiers with PTS Disorder (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) at Northfield Hospital. He annulled the barriers between patients and staff, giving the soldiers freedom to do as they please within the therapeutic framework.
The experiment was disbanded after six weeks by the Army because of the chaotic atmosphere. But this experiment and those that followed led to the development of Therapeutic Communities; more democratic, participatory environments in which staff and clients share responsibility for the running of the community.
What happens when one levels in the classroom? Neill was headmaster at Summerhill School in England for nearly forty years. He introduced children’s government into schools, where the bosses were the children themselves. Carl Rogers, describing Neill’s experiment, said: “what he (Neill) believes is that children best become self-regulated individuals in an atmosphere of love, trust, understanding and responsible freedom. Consequently he has dropped from his school all such concepts as coercion, compulsion, authority, obedience, assignments, examinations, punishment, and discipline.” (Neill 1960)
But can one level in schools? Hannah Arendt said no and claimed that such progressive education was bankrupt. Freedom and individual autonomy have little place in the classroom because education by its very nature cannot forgo authority or tradition. “A child’s schooling should be a preparation for freedom not freedom itself.” (Peal 2014)
Progressive education, in the spirit of Summerhill, stresses the autonomy of the child not the authority of the adult. However some critics claim that leveling the classroom has led to the weakening of teacher (adult) authority, to failing disorderly schools, to too little guidance for children, dumbed down curriculums and aimless lessons. (Furedi 2009)
Is education getting progressively worse or better as a result of leveling?
But by far the most daring experiment in leveling is taking place now in the arena of international politics. Obama’s Iran deal is based on the relinquishment of exceptional American power – no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons; all cultures are equally worthy; Iran has a place amongst the family of nations; any world order that elevates one nation or group above another will fail.
The test in the international arena, as on the psychiatric ward and in the school is: does leveling the playing field lead to a higher, more beneficial order of things or does it lead to greater anarchy and chaos? Will the deal prepare Iran to become a more responsible member of the family of nations or unleash a very destructive player onto the playing field?
Leveling arouses very deep unconscious processes. What can be more threatening (and freeing) than the removal of authority and all that it symbolizes: traditions, limits, restraints, boundaries, rules, roles, order and stability?
The Bible story of Joseph and his brothers reminds us of the profound consequences of exceptionalism and leveling. Joseph is exceptional by virtue of the coat given to him by his father Jacob. Before the brothers throw Joseph in the pit they strip him of the coat. In a sense, the coat is Joseph. The coat, Rashi comments, his father had given him in excess of his brothers. They remove that which is additional, unique about Joseph. Indeed, the word for “excess” – hosafa – is another form of the root of Joseph’s name: they tear from him that superlative, individual quality that they most envy. (Zornberg 1995)
The brothers desire the absolute destruction of Joseph – of that excess (read exceptional) quality in Joseph. They desire a Joseph torn in pieces. That additional quality of Joseph (the coat) is flayed and dismembered, so that it need constitute no threat to them ever again. (Zornberg 1995)
This is leveling at its most primitive and destructive level.
Primitive and destructive processes can develop in families, groups and among nations as they come to terms with exceptionalism and leveling.
One thing I learnt at the Oxford conference was that exceptionalism and leveling can exist together; they do not necessarily contradict each other, in fact they complement each other. But exceptionalism and leveling can only exist on the same playing field if the rules of the game are agreed upon by all the players.
This is hardly the case in the field of international politics; and definitely not in the Middle East.
Furedi, F. (2009) Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating. Continuum: London
Neill, A.S. (1960) Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Hart Publishing Company: New York
Peal, R. (2014) Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools. Civitas: London.
Zornberg, A. (1995) The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Schocken: New York.