The Cultural Creatives: We Are Everywhere

The “InnerView” with Paul Ray

By Peter Moore

Alternatives Magazine, Summer 2001  Issue 18    http://www.alternativesmagazine.com/18/ray.html

What’s the connection between meditation, ecological sustainability, social justice, self actualization, and the protesters at the WTO Convention in Seattle? What were the 60’s all about and what’s the socio-cultural link to now?

Paul Ray’s book “The Cultural Creatives” is a sort of unified field theory that explores and explains these linkages. The book, which has received a lot of attention since its publication at the end of last year, is the culmination of 14 years of sociological research about the emergence of a new culture, not just in America, but worldwide. It is an effort that combines the best of social sciences and hope for the future. I interviewed Paul Ray in March of this year.

—Peter Moore, Editor

Peter Moore: For the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, how would you characterize “Cultural Creatives”?

Paul Ray: The Cultural Creatives are over 50 million Americans who care deeply about ecology and saving the planet, about relationships, peace and social justice, but also about authenticity, self-actualization, spirituality and self-expression. So surprisingly, they are both inner directed and socially concerned. In fact they’re the activists, the contributors to good causes, much more than most other Americans.

PM: Why do you say “surprisingly”?

PR: There’s a conventional media stereotype that anybody who is doing the work on their inner life is caught up in narcissism and ignoring the social problems of society. In fact, the data shows just exactly the opposite. The more people care about their inner life, the more they’re concerned about the condition of the planet and human rights. There is a very strong positive correlation between doing the inner work and caring about ecological sustainability and social justice.

PM: I’m wondering if there might be another kind of a correlation too. Back in the 70’s I spent some months in a Tibetan monastary in Nepal. In the course of the educational process they really pushed what they called the Boddhisatva vows—work on your inner life and work for the benefit of all others. From the spiritual perspective of that ancient wisdom culture, they were teaching something very similar to what you’re describing here, inner work and then outer work too. Do you see any correlation with Buddhism coming to the West and influencing us in these ways?

PR: The influence goes both ways. Traditionally, Buddhism helps cultivate a deeper inner life to correspond to whatever cultural conditions it finds itself in. And historically, Buddhism has been conditioned in the traditional societies of the East to stay clear of politics.

But I think we have to say that the West is not the same as the East. Westerners, as they have learned various wisdom traditions, are in the process of changing them. So as Buddhism comes into the United States, it’s being changed in fundamental ways by its becoming embedded in American culture. Consequently, Buddhism in the United States, in my opinion, is going through a fundamental transformation around gender relationships, issues of equality, and an engaged approach to the conditions of the planet. If I look at the work of wonderful activists like Joanna Macy and Thich Nat Han, what I see is a real commitment to making Buddhism very much a part of the engaged social activism of our time. In a way, that really, really deepens it. And I think that’s highly appropriate.

PM: So whether it is influencing Cultural Creatives in our society, or being influenced by cultural creativity, it’s certainly a “fit”.

PR: It’s a spiral of mutual transformation. In fact, you’d have to say that’s precisely the way the Cultural Creatives appeared and have evolved. We’ve had a gigantic social learning process in the United States over the last 40 years. That social learning process has brought people into a deeper connection with what’s real, and social movements have been born as a result. These social movements have led to vast numbers of people re-interpreting how they see the world. In the process people have been led from one movement into successive movements, into a deeper confrontation.

Cultural Creatives are a product of all the new social and consciousness movements, from the 60’s right up to the WTO demonstrations in Seattle. At the same time, they have been creating the movements as well. Cultural Creatives are both the key activists of the various movements and the big constituencies within them. Cultural Creatives typically care about, are engaged in, read everything, send money, participate in the big constituencies of a half a dozen social movements. The rest of the country tend to have no interest in the various movements, or care about, in a very specialized way, only one or two.

Cultural Creatives are at the overlap of all the consciousness movements and the social movements of our society. They’re the people who have learned the most, applied it the most, and fed back more influence into those movements. What we see is a gigantic convergence of all the different concerns: consciousness and alternative healthcare and spirituality. And psychology. And women’s movement. And environmental movement. And civil rights. And social justice. And gay lib. And, and, and, and, and . . .

PM: Do you think that Cultural Creatives are a function of the relatively affluent “post-war” period in the U.S. and Western Europe?

PR: I would put it differently. First, I see cultural creativity growing less out of having more income and more out of having more education in the world. That’s an important distinction. Worldwide, people have vastly more information and vastly more ability to think about new topics. It’s not just in the U.S., or Western Europe, it’s around the world. In addition, we have a worldwide communication net. It really is becoming one world for the very first time.

Everywhere, people are becoming aware of the problems that the planet is having. Everywhere, people are becoming aware that social injustice is not to be tolerated. Just as in the 19th century we got rid of slavery, and slavery not only became immoral but illegal in practically every country in the world—to the point that we’re shocked to know that slavery is still going on in Sudan today. Well, in a similar way, war is becoming immoral and illegal today. We’re watching the peace movement’s success over the last 50 to 100 years. It was really started by the Quakers 300 years ago, but after the Quakers, a lot of the rest of us finally picked up on it. And the peace movement is succeeding, it’s making war less and less legitimate.

Similarly, the social movements are making violence against women and children a worldwide concern. Women’s issues are social justice issues. A fundamental mind change is happening everywhere in the world. We are raising our moral standards as we raise our collective awareness. This is happening around the planet really, where the big problems are—and we’re saying what was once acceptable is no longer acceptable.

All of this runs exactly contrary to the propaganda of the religious right, which claims we’re steeped in a sewer of immorality. Quite the contrary, we’ve added 20 or 30 new additional kinds of morality in the last 40 years. And this is not just true in the U.S. or Western Europe, it’s being pumped out by the mass media and by the Internet everywhere around the planet.

A big part of cultural creativity then is a response to better information about the whole world, and to much more clearly defined problems. Since World War II, a lot of scientific exploration has been showing what’s true around the planet and giving us a more accurate picture of the peoples of our world. And communications technologies have actually allowed us to view these truths and peoples on TV and correspond with them now over the Internet. That better communication and better education are a big part of it.

Additionally, I think there is a psychological factor which is that we live in a less damaged time. The reality is that Western Europeans, who have not experienced a major war for two generations now, and Americans, who have not had a war in their homeland for more than a century, are much more intolerant of violence and subjugation and exploitation than, say, people in areas of Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia which have perpetual violence erupting. It’s important to note that healthier, more educated people also have higher standards and put up with less garbage.

PM: I assume you’re not speaking about class or race, but about human potential realized?

PR: That’s right. It’s a crucial piece of people being willing to get up on their hind legs and join in civil society, protest, demonstrate, demand new legislation and so on.

The current best example of that is the Philippines. They have tossed out authoritarian governments twice now and citizen non-violent power is being demonstrated in the clearest of ways there.

This example of the Philippines is very instructive. One of the things we learn from it is that a social movement in one area of the world, say the non-violent resistance of Gandhi in India, can spread to other social movements elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t take that long. Such examples show how, collectively, we’re being re-educated by the movements and that then feeds back into new movements for change throughout civil society.

We’re finally coming to a realization that this is another Golden Age of civil society. Not the bourgeois society of small shopkeepers 200 years ago, but a real resurgence of voluntary organizations and social movements and spiritual concerns and educational concerns that together go a new chapter beyond Tocqueville’s description of civil society of 1830 in the United States. And it’s everywhere in the world now.

PM: What was Toqueville’s take on our civil society?

PR: Tocqueville described the U.S. as unique in having such an active civil society. There was nothing like it in the Europe of 1830 when Tocqueville wrote. Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” pointed out that there were really three parts of American society. The business/economic world, the political world, and then the world of all these associations. Tocqueville said, “Every time Americans see a problem, they create a new association.”

PM: That’s true (laughter).

PR: And we’re good at it, let’s face it. But everybody else in the world has learned how to do that too at this point. If you look at the Solidarity Movement in Poland, or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, what you see is, even in the presence of vicious police state totalitarianism, you had people forming up civil society organizations and forcing a new society to come into existence. The same thing is true today in Argentina and Chile. Civil society is coming back. All of that is part of the cultural creativity of our time.

PM: You view all of this as a worldwide fruition of an enhanced morality.

PR: I really do! The U.S. may be the forcing function that puts the information out there in terms of better mass communications and Internet communications, but we’re not even taking the lead on this. There’s more Cultural Creatives, proportionately and absolutely, in Europe than there are here. There’s probably 80 to 90 million Cultural Creatives in Europe, around 30 to 35% of every Western European country. In addition, preliminary indications are that, in a number of Asian countries, they’re making their own version of cultural creativity.

PM: What’s happening in Asia?

PR: Since the book was published, I’ve spoken with any number of people from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, India, and the Philippines who tell me that maybe a third of their population is doing something really fascinating and unique. They’re reaching way back, to old myths and symbols from prior to western contact, for a profound spiritual base. At the same time they’re taking up the planetary concerns, the social justice and women’s concerns that they are hearing from the West, and they’re putting those together in a new synthesis. They think of our Cultural Creatives as a little bit shallow historically, but nevertheless, they are in complete sympathy and resonance with what they see with Cultural Creatives in the U.S. and Western Europe. A woman from Japan said to me that westerners don’t perceive it, for the most part. She said, ‘When your generals and your businessmen and politicians come over, we don’t talk about this aspect of Japanese society because we’re concerned that this is very close to our hearts and we don’t want you to pour scorn on it’. And of course, she’s right. The kind of people who are “Moderns”, who belong to the world of getting and spending and materialism, wouldn’t understand, and don’t understand, and don’t want it to be true.

PM: And they would belittle it.

PR: Exactly. So it’s important to know that the modern corporate media is giving a very distorted picture of cultural creativity everywhere, and so are the big institutions of society. This is a fundamental change that is going on just beneath the surface of events in American life, ready to break through in a new level of awareness and concern. We think that, though the Cultural Creatives have been growing at maybe a half of a percent a year for the last 40 years, that it will grow much faster as people become aware of how many there are out there. Cultural Creatives could easily be half of the American population in five to ten years.

PM: Do you see a silver lining in that dark cloud around media and political stonewalling? Is it possible that, without the attempts to co-opt it by the media or corporations or politicians, cultural creativity has evolved in a more organic way? Has that been a positive?

PR: You might be right there. It seems to me that it is true that cultural creativity, in some ways, has been left alone by the politicians and the big corporations. But there’s two aspects of it that are problematic. One, we describe in the book in great detail how alone Cultural Creatives feel because they never see their own face in the media. The ugly truth is that the media serve as the gate-keepers of the official modernist culture of society, and tries to keep out and belittle anything that doesn’t fit their view of reality. That’s a real problem. It’s also the case that the whole process of cultural creativity has grown more slowly because people are not aware of all the social inventions taking place. Everybody is shocked to find out how much is being created all across this country, Western Europe, the Philippines—all these really marvelous social inventions—and none of it is news. The news media choose not to cover it at all. It’s just not exciting to them, it doesn’t have any controversy, it doesn’t have any political implications that they can point to. It’s not good for business and advertising. Consequently, they are actually misrepresenting what’s going on all around us all the time.

PM: “Social inventions?”

PR: We found, during our research and book tour, that there’s a massive amount of wonderful social inventions being dreamed up and manifested, but most people are never aware of this. That means that there’s a lot of people who could create new possibilities, but because there appears to be no interest or market for it, they’re stuffing things into desk drawers and leaving some of their favorite manuscripts unpublished. If Cultural Creatives knew that there were so many other Cultural Creatives around, they would pull that thing out of the desk drawer and get that manuscript into publication. They would start new businesses appealing to Cultural Creatives, or they’d start new political parties that represent more effectively their values. But they don’t know. This corporate media blackout of information, not only about the people but what they’re creating, has been slowing down the process and making more pessimism in our society than is warranted.

We actually have a lot of opportunities to invent a better future. It’s not true that we’re just condemned to a future of ecological decline and more and more conflict. One of the reasons we wrote the book, in fact, was to let people know how many possibilities there are and how much company they’ve got in doing this.

PM: You began your research on American lifestyles in 1986 and I’m sure it was easy to identify the two large groupings of American culture, the “Traditionals” and the “Moderns”. When did you realize you were looking at a whole new group, the “Cultural Creatives”?

PR: By 1992 I realized that I was looking at an actual subculture with its own distinct way of life— just as real as say the population of Quebec in the middle of Canada, just as distinctive in that kind of sense. But BIG, the size of the population, not of Quebec, but of France. It’s big numbers. And everything about them in their lifestyle was different. Their worldview was different, they talked differently in focus groups, their values were different. Well, if you’ve got choice of language, worldview, what’s in their houses, values and behaviors all different, you do, by God, really have a subculture. The one thing that was missing was that they didn’t recognize themselves.

We would have a focus group and say to the people, “You’re all here in the room because you share the following values.” And somebody would pipe up and say “Hey, wait a minute, I know it’s just me and a couple of my friends. How did you get so many others with similar values in the same room together?” You know, there’s 50 million of them out there but they’ve got this gigantic collective illusion that they’re all individually alone.

PM: Well I share that. Since I was a teenager protesting the Viet Nam war, I have felt marginalized in my own society. I do not resonate with the values that scream at me from most media, entertainment, corporations or mainstream politics. Alternatives Magazine was started to express a different voice in society, to see who else is out there and network with them. Our advertisers are as much the news as the editorial content, because these are people who are starting small businesses based on their own creative social inventions, as you call it. They are being the change they want to see in the world, through their economic practices, their social activism, their associations, and all that.

PR: Like other Cultural Creatives, you and your advertisers and writers are putting together your own big picture, your own synthesis. That’s the cognitive style of Cultural Creatives and it’s an important part of the story.

There is a culturally approved cognitive style for the “Moderns” too, which is a kind of tunnel vision. Theirs is, “Don’t distract me, I’m dressed for success, I’m focused tightly on my goals, I’m looking after me and mine, and devil take the hindmost.” That tunnel vision stance is a dominant specialist’s way of looking at things. The weakness of course is that it leads to ignorance of things outside your specialty. And for the “Traditionals”, the dominant stance is one of fending off; “Don’t let that bad stuff next to me and mine. I want simple black and white categories.”

Well, the Cultural Creatives also have an approved cognitive style, and it is a way you can know that they’re a subculture. Their cognitive style is, “I’m piecing together my own big picture. I don’t like what I’m seeing around me, I don’t resonate with the fragmented factoids of the corporate media, I really have a large number of values concerns that are being sneered at in the media”. And that stance is one that is not so much embattled as alone. From that aloneness you put together your own view. It has a very definite pattern to it.

PM: Even if you feel alone, you still have to make a living. What about the intersection of these differing cognitive styles at work and in business?

PR: All of us are children of modernism. We all learned how to do things in the “This is how business is done” modernist way. But the problem is, frequently, “how business is done” is not the way we want to do it. It’s part of our unconscious, unexamined repertoire of stuff. For example, you bring in an expert or consultant who says, “you want to reach a lot of people, here’s what you have to do”. But frequently, that way of doing things is poisoning the well. You know it because it goes against your values, even if it is “expedient”.

There’s a lot that has to be done at every level of society to re-think what we do in big organizations, or small ones for that matter. We need to re-examine every last piece of everyday practice—about business, about politics, about voluntary organizations, social movement organizations, whatever—and say “Does this really satisfy our hearts? Is this really right relationship, as well as right livelihood?” That’s where I’m headed.

PM: Me too. What I am seeing is that more Cultural Creatives are going into business and employing their own values and principles in the practice of it. And they are competing well in the “marketplace”. That is having the effect of normalizing ideas that were once considered radical or New Age, or coming from “the Left”.

PR: I think it’s important to grasp that “Left” versus “Right” as categories really belong to the 500 year old age of modernism. The reality is that the Cultural Creatives are not left or right. They’re out in front.