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The Cult of Ken Wilber revisited

two blog posts by Michel Bauwens

Ken Wilber is losing it

Michel Bauwens,
12th June 2006

It has long been apparent that the movement around Ken Wilber, despite all the good people it is still attracting, is becoming a closed cultic environment. One of the key symptoms is a total inability to deal with criticism.

One of the sites where such critique is expressed, and it should be noted that most participants there are sympathetic to Wilber’s project, is external link the excellent site of Frank Visser, who has built a model site bringing various forms of critique, in a space which is open to dialogue.

Wilber has never accepted such criticism, and has said so on occasion. The only critique that he accepts, are the ones that are written in the particular form of the panegyric. They have to recognize the overriding importance and truth of his system, and then suggest some changes, which he then welcomes as a contribution to his own system of systems. Moreover, most of that type of criticism is unavailable for the public (and said to happen within the integral community), but you can get an idea of what it means by reading some Shambhala site reviews where some of his fans are dealing with his critics. Surely, the difficulty of dealing with critique is not particular to Wilber, it is a human frailty that is easily recognizable. Yet one must fight it, because if one wants to be recognized especially in the academic world, subjecting oneself to peer review is a must; and in the internet world, that is extended to the broader public at large. This means on occasion a willingness to deal even with criticism which one esteems to be qaulitatively lacking.

But sadly, Wilber has gone one step beyond, and has published a long raging rant against mostly anonymous critics, which you have to simple read to believe. There’s so much wrong with it, that it is hard to know where to begin: 1) his critics are mostly anonymous, so that he is ranting against adversaries whom we cannot identify and who cannot defend themselves; 2) when named, the attacks are systematically ad hominem and very condescending and harsh. For Wilber, critics are simply morons. There is not a single paragraph where an actual argument is taken into account and a counter-argument offered; 3) critics are systematically described as being cognitively deficient, ‘constitutionally unable’ to give a reasoned account of his work; 4) he absolutes forbids any critique that does not take into account the full 3,000 pages of his work, with the permanent claim that any critique has already been superseded by his subsequent work, but no detail is ever given, you have to take it on faith.

Then there is the style and tone. The Amazon com Boomeritis novel had already shown a strong, I don’t know if I should call it infantile or adolescent, streak in his style, which is simply full of sexual innuendo that we should not expect, and I think, accept, in a man of such purported stature. It sounds like the expression of a man desperately in need of confirmation by the young, attempting to be ‘cool’, but not quite knowing how to do it, and revealing his own immaturity in the process.

Let me add that I normally do not engage, and readers of my blog and newsletter will appreciate this, in ad hominem of personal attacks. However, I do believe that those who are still taken in, in a uncritical way, by the SDi movement, should imperative get to know what kind of man hides behind the rhetoric. Not to blame Wilber as a person, but to recognize that what is in the making, with increasing financial and institutional support, is a new type of neoconservative ‘Leninist’ movement, that seeks power for a purported cognitive elite, and disqualifies those that disagree, from the space of debate. In fact, that you disagree, is by itself the proof that you are not integral. This is the space that Wilber is attempting to create with his rant, and it should be resisted.

Frank Visser has written external link a spirited defense (but nevertheless with many good and well argued points and questions) against the personal attack against his site, and the many critical voices that he has offered refuge.

Some intellectual movements can be at one time progressive, and so was integral theory in the atmosphere of the seventies and eighties, as it argued against reductionism in science and spirituality, but at some point, they can change and turn into their opposite.

At one point in our lives, we may seek a system of systems that may put to rest of fears of paradoxes and contradictions, showing how different truth claims can nevertheless be all true at some higher level of integration. But at another point in your life, if you are not intellectually and spiritually lazy, you have to learn again to live with the uncertainty of knowledge, and then, frankly, any reliance of a total edifice a la Wilber becomes counterproductive. This is what the Wilber critics are showing, and they should be applauded for it. Judging from the past, I do not think that the institutional integral movement has any capacity to deal with such challenges, and any movement that cannot integrate honest criticism, will not only stagnate, but degenerate. It is this which we are witnessing at a more and more rapid scale now, and it is a sad spectacle.

On the logic of cultism at the Integral Institute

Michel Bauwens,
13th June 2006

blog postWilber's claim that his rant was written on purpose to "separate the 1st-Tier people from the 2nd Tier" is entirely consistent with the cultic process.

The basis of cultism is the abandonment of autonomy and critical thinking by adherents, which project ideal qualities on the leader of the group. This same process feeds the narcissism and sense of superiority of the leader. In other words: such a process is never static. Once it sets in, it becomes a self-reinforcing process, which evolves around key events. One typical event is the example setting of outrageous and ‘non-normal’ behaviour. Such an event will typically set apart those with doubts and critique, as being part of the outgroup; while those willing to justify the behaviour, will be considered to be part of the superior in-group. As an individual you then have two choices. Remain critical, and be considered a negative force by the in-group; you can then stay and adapt, or, if you’re steadfast, the process of separation will have begun. But facing a group requires a large amount of self-confidence, since the group makes you appear as the ‘abnormal’ one. Like Frank Visser, who started to feel uncomfortable that intellectual dialogue became an impossibility, your doubts will be evidence against you, that you are in fact aggressive, and don’t belong in the cozy in-group of confirmers.

If you adapt to the pressure of the majority, the confirmation that the event has given to the superiority of the leader, will only reinforce the narcissism, and the stage will be set for a further ‘event’ or process. This next event will generally test the waters of conformity and obedience even further. People should therefore not expect that the movement around Wilber will stay a moderate and positive force, because once the process has set in, based on authoritatian cognitive and spiritual premises, there can no longer be a counter-force. The narcissism demands to be fed, and like an addition, the doses have to be increased to be felt.

Let me offer a hypothesis of how it evolved in the case of the Integral Institute.

Wilber was at first a ‘normal’ flawed individual, like most of us, but with genial intellectual and integrative gifts, at one moment in tune with what our culture needed. He pretty much lived like a hermit, dedicated to his search, which would eventually resulted in a totalising intellectual edifice. At some point a craving for recognition sets in. At that precise moment, James Firmage, the creator of the USWeb/CKS and at some point a internet billionaire, promised a huge amount of money to Ken Wilber. The promise and availability of money then created peculiar dynamics. Many former critics of Wilber, became gradually his friends again, and it also attracted business consultants. In particular it attracted external link Don Beck, who uses the Spiral Dynamics system of external link Clare Graves as a system to rate people and create an in group/ vs. out group process. I’m pretty convinced that the whole stress on the mean green meme, which basically states that the main enemy of civilizational progress are a few postmodern academics (and not the biospere-destructing orange meme), came from within that camp. I’m also pretty much convinced that the personal dynamic between Beck and Wilber reinforced the narcissic processes. This gradually aligned the new Wilber/Beck grouping into the discourse of the neoconservatives (with Beck stating his support for Bush as a great leader), and their cultural wars against political correctness. It is also the moment where it became evident that any critique that you could have, by itself was a proof that you were regressive. The SDi forums and mailing lists are rife with attacks on Wilber critics, which are all termed green. In other words: it is no longer possible to have an open intellectual discussion, since your critique itself is a symptom of your disease.

Being integral is increasingly being defined as: ‘agreeing with Ken Wilber’. This is the only critique being accepted within the movement. And basically it takes the form of: yes you are a genius, but wouldn’t you consider that xxx. Such a form of self-denegating critique is the only one acceptable, and it can only serve to strengthen the edifice and the influence of the master.

In the words of Don Beck: Wilber’s critics are ankle-biters and bottom-dwellers. (and in the recent words of Wilber: they are all morons). In Amazon com One Taste, Wilber then started claiming that he was well on the way of being ‘Enlightened’ himself. The process of institutionalising a non-critical understanding of integralism then just continued, with the creation of the external link Integral University, not as a classic academy which will be based on peer-review, but as a means of self-reinforcement of an already agreed-upon consensus. It also became clear that Wilber/Beck were increasingly associated with the authoritarian cult of Andrew Cohen.

This is my intuition about how the movement got to where it is now, as a concrete historical process. Could it have been avoided without the Firmage/Beck connections? I’m actually doubtful, because the previous uncritical connection of Ken Wilber with the abusive practices of Da Free John, had already shown the same process at work, and it took years of incredible pressure to break the admiration of Wilber for Da Free John. In other words: the totalising edifice and the particular personality of Wilber would in all likelyhood have evolved in this way eventually.

Can there be any hope for such a movement? In my opinion: none whatsovever. The point of no-return has long passed. Integralism a la Wilber is not a democratic integrative movement. Of course it can attract good people, much like the fellow-travelers of Stalinism, who love the ideal and have a cognitive filter blocking out the lack of freedom in intellectual discourse. And these people may do good things. Also, some of the ideas put forward by Wilber, which are in many cases rewordings of insights of others, can of course have value. I would say, just pick and choose the good ideas, but disregard the totalising system in which they are embedded. (In blog posthis assessment of the whole incident Matthew Dallman, pretty much comes to the same conclusion)

So what can be done? Recognize that an integrative approach is still a valid one, yes. But also concluding that this is a general cultural movement that takes many forms, and that one particular form of it, the institutionalization of it as a ‘Leninist’ neoconservative movement, has become a travesty of it, and should be avoided.

How is my rant, based on personal experience, since I have been associated for 15 years with Wilberism myself, related to peer to peer theory? Obviously any form of spiritual and cognitive authoritarianism is incompatible with an open process of participative spirituality. If you are an advocate of peer to peer relational dynamics, any closed intellectual environment, based on the systematic abuse of critics, is not something that is acceptable.

See also: A Critique of Wilber and Beck's SD-Integral; The Cult of Ken Wilber

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From P2P Foundation blog; original urls: Ken Wilber is losing it (12th June 2006); On the logic of cultism at the Integral Institute (13th June 2006). content by Michel Bauwens; page compiled by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 17 June 2006