TERRORISM: AN ADULT DEVELOPMENT PERSPECTIVE (Letter to the Society for Research on Adult Development)
December 19, 2001
Michael Commons asked me to draft, quickly, a brief statement of
my ideas about human development and political psychology, terrorism, government building, cultural change,
stages of government, etc. He is, in short, asking me to relate the science of individual change to the science
of collective change. I think perhaps the best way to attack these subjects is to suggest a model of social
change paralleling the stages of individual change identified by Piaget.
SRAD deals primarily with the stages of consciousness
through which individuals advance along the path charted by Piaget, and sometimes beyond. Fairly recently, in
historical time, say in the last two centuries, an increasing proportion of people in Western societies have
attained levels of consciousness inaccessible to ordinary people in earlier civilizations.
This general advance has been possible for two reasons:
the existence of an increasing amount of freedom in both political and economic areas; and improving
technology. Freedom is required to prevent the repression of individual thought and experimentation. Technology
is important because it allows societies to achieve a higher standard of living than previously, and enables
broader individual growth.
Living standards are important because, as Maslow said,
people need a certain level of comfort and security before they are likely to dwell on the more complex and
abstract issues that comprise higher consciousness. Technology is also important because it provides the
environment in which people exist, both at work and at play. Technology can create an environment challenging
to the individual and conducive to changes of consciousness.
Providing and protecting freedoms is the work of
governments. We have been fortunate in that our constitution has allowed the gradual extension of suffrage and
liberties to more and more of our people through the two centuries it has served us. It has allowed us to
expand our capacities and raise our levels of consciousness as we wish and prove able to do so.
Technological change, however, occurs in the context of
organizations. There is a hierarchy of organizational forms and management styles that parallels the stages of
individual development. Ideally, the stages of organization and management are in harmony with the stages of
individual development of the members of the organization, and with the technology which the organization
employs. (See Fisher and Torgard, Human and Organizational Development). Improved communications
technologies, from the telephone to the modem, have been a large factor in both individual and organizational
So, ideally we have a process going on in which individual
human development, organizational development and technology advance through subsequent iterations to higher
levels of human consciousness and higher levels of productivity. That is progress.
A somewhat different cut at describing this process of
change is taken by Michael Barnes in Stages of Thought: the Co-evolution of Religious Thought and Science.
He suggests that cultures exhibit stages of complexity that are analogous to the stages of human development
identified by Piaget. As cultures advance, they evolve new and more complex styles of thinking and expression
that affect religious beliefs, scientific and other realms of thought. (Click
here to see my review of this important book.)
So, if this general pattern of human, organizational, and
technological development is valid, why aren't we all progressing merrily on the way towards higher complexity
in ourselves and our surroundings?
I think the main problem is the differences, within
populations and between them, of mean levels of development. In a real sense, we live in different worlds from
those below, or above, us. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, called his hierarchy of people alphas,
betas and gammas. The alphas despised the lower orders. The betas were glad they weren't alphas, because of the
work and responsibilities involved, and despised the gammas; and the gammas thought both higher orders were
divorced from the basic values of nature. We have something of the same divisions, domestically and
The gammas are alienated from our society. How else could
one understand Americans who would blow up the Federal Building, with preschool children inside, or who would
kill physicians who perform abortions as a measure of conserving human life?
Internationally, in developing countries, the development process is relatively embryonic, so the
proportion of fundamentalists, believers in the literal words of holy books, is higher than here. They are
terrified of modernity. We, and the modern people in their own societies, represent an abandonment of
traditional values. We are the enemies of all that is holy.
Terrorism is a response to a sense of helplessness. Just as
war is a pursuit of politics by other means, terrorism is the pursuit of war by other means. When people have
no chance of prevailing in open combat, they may, if sufficiently motivated, resort to terrorism. They may, as
seems to be the case for Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh, simply lash out at the forces of modernity which
they abhor. Such people are stuck at the fundamentalist level of human development. Others may, quite
rationally -- as in the case of Menachem Begin and the Irgun, or Hamas and Hezbollah -- resort to terrorism as
their only chance for achieving their goals in the face of overwhelming force. We need to distinguish between
terrorism to gain political objectives in the face of overwhelming force (in which case we need to try to
understand the perceived injustices that lead to so violent a response), and terrorism in the service of
fundamentalism, i.e. resistance to becoming modern. In the latter case adult development theory suggests an
understanding and adult development research may offer a constructive approach to this frightening but human
The prospect for developing countries is brightened by this
perspective. Singapore is a shining example of a country that achieved a very high standard of living and
extraordinary educational success, in the short span of two generations. Lee Kwan Yew, the philosopher king who
has guided the process, is often criticized for being authoritarian, but freedoms often take root best when
evolved gradually, not thrust upon those unable to understand or use them. Democracy, like other complex forms
of human, organizational and technological development, needs to be grown into. At this point, however, there
is no justification whatsoever for continued authoritarian policies in that country. President Lee (like
Suharto of Indonesia) has outlived his usefulness.
President Lee was not thinking of human development in
psychological terms. His policies were aimed at ratcheting up the minimum wage and training his labor force to
be able to perform more complex tasks. Human development, which must be for you as it is for me the supreme
goal, was a byproduct. The notion is not even mentioned in his autobiography. His small country, with mainly
Chinese traditional values of hard work and hard study, was perhaps ideally suited to rapid development in
human, organizational and technological terms.
In other countries, more diverse geographically and
culturally, the development process could be much more successful than it typically is if policy makers were
aware of the importance of human development, not just human capital development. The technology chosen for
industrial projects, for example, could be designed in such a way as to offer challenges to the labor force,
but not be so advanced as to require elite workers. Management styles could be adapted to the needs of the
workforce and the technology employed. If human development and not just profit were a recognized development
goal, many projects would be designed differently from the way they are now.
I hope these hurried remarks
make the case for SRAD members to reach out to other disciplines so that their insights into human development
stages, and their implications for organizational and technological development, can become more widely
appreciated by society. Collaborative research seems to me the way to broaden and deepen the valuable insights
of SRAD members.