Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Death of Interchange: A conservative critique of Radical Gurus

Author's note

I wrote previously about the unaccredited year-long peer counseling program that I took part in called Interchange Counseling. The program was a major piece of the journey that I’m on to increase my social comfort, boldness, and emotional literacy. I greatly benefited from learning the basics of counseling and getting 40 hours of practice as a counselor.

But as so often happens with personal growth organizations, the outer shell of happy testimonials concealed rot in the core. At the time, I criticized the radical politics of Interchange. Influenced by those politics, Interchange developed an unsustainable ideology and community of sexual liberation. Only a few months before the end I told friends interested in the program “It’s great, but you should do it now before it blows up in a sex scandal”. That’s exactly what happened.

The following analysis I wrote and published to the Interchange Grads Facebook group after the founder Steve Bearman publicly admitted to sexual impropriety, but before the damning article detailing specific allegations had come out. The tone is calibrated to the information I had at the time.

I was worried that I would be attacked for publishing this conservative critique in a community that was radically progressive. In my letter, I criticize not only Interchange but the foundational belief of anti-oppression ideology itself. To my surprise, the response was largely positive except for a little PC griping about my choice of phrases, which speaks well of the moral and intellectual sophistication of the community.

This analysis serves as a demonstration of why progressive organizations should care about ideological diversity. Nobody else in my 150 person cohort was likely capable of writing or thinking from the conservative or “pro-civilization” perspective that I present.

What follows is my original letter to the Interchange community, very lightly edited.


0. Introduction

If you haven’t heard, the Interchange Counseling Institute has imploded in a slow motion version of the classic guru-sex scandal. Operations have ceased and the incoming class of 2017/2018 has been cancelled. This a common way that guru-dominated organizations come to an end. I suggest anyone involved in building an organization for personal development familiarize themselves with some of the historical examples.

For most students at Interchange, including myself, the Interchange experience was an intensely positive one. But flaws in the edifice were obvious. Many of us saw the end coming, though I was surprised by how quickly it came.

While there is plenty of individual blame to be placed, particularly on Steve the guru/founder, I claim that Interchange was *institutionally* flawed by design. It was not built to last. There are specific flaws in its moral outlook, its curriculum, and its organizational structure that made it particularly likely to end in a mess of sexual impropriety and emotional pain. I present three criticisms:

  1. By overthrowing social rules, revolutionary/progressive movements can devolve into monkey status competitions that benefit the powerful and harm the vulnerable
  2. Deconstruction is a dangerous technique prone to abuse, and wisdom must be used when teaching it
  3. The male guru-led organization is dangerous for reasons of evolutionary psychology

As a brief aside, the criticisms I present come from an evolutionary/conservative point of view, nearly the opposite viewpoint of Interchange and its founder. I believe a diversity of viewpoints in a group is vital for purposes of self-criticism, course correction, and group longevity. This point is widely under-appreciated and seldom acted upon.

1. By overthrowing social rules, revolutionary/progressive movements can devolve into monkey status competitions that benefit the powerful and harm the vulnerable

The Interchange organization wasn’t just offering a counseling training program. It also sought to build a community of radical praxis, liberated from the rules of society. This included social rules about sex.

A person with a revolutionary mind judges existing social rules to be oppressive. You might expect me to disagree with them, as I sometimes claim the “conservative” label for myself. But I actually think their criticisms are correct.

Social rules *are* oppressive. All social structures are an evolved, negotiated compromise developed over time between sets of conflicting interests. They prevent some people from getting what they want or getting what is best for them. In exchange, these limits on individual behavior hopefully enable a society to achieve some larger social good.

Wisdom lies in finding good trade-offs between individual oppression and social good. Existing social structures should be challenged. We are free, each generation, to renegotiate them to better serve us.

Though it is tempting for revolutionaries to move as close as possible to total sexual freedom, throwing out all the sexual rules is a foolish move to make. Without rules, human society devolves into monkey-status games where social power reigns.

This total freedom benefits the powerful, who still pursue their self-interest, but now without the the rules that might serve as a check on their behavior. The powerless often suffer under existing social rules, but they suffer more without the rules’ protection. In the new order, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Modern revolutionists are aware of abstract power differences between groups in society, but they are seldom hip to the concrete reality of individual power differences within their community.

Rules prevent abuse by the powerful. They are necessary for the long-term thriving of the community, especially rules governing sexual conduct. I’m not saying that a group needs to follow society's rules, though I encourage you to consider that they may contain more wisdom than you expect. Rather each group should develop their own. The rules can and should be renegotiated, but slowly and conservatively, and never on a case-by-case basis or in the heat of the moment.

The few rules that Interchange had about sex were wise, such as a ban on first-year students having sex with other students. But the rules weren’t taken very seriously. And ultimately it was the behavior of the leadership, not the students, which needed to be more carefully regulated.

2. Deconstruction is a dangerous technique prone to abuse, and wisdom must be used when teaching it

Interchange teaches deconstruction as a therapeutic technique. Some teaching is dangerous because it is wrong, but deconstruction is dangerous because it is true. Our social rules and concepts *are* arbitrary. And they could be different. But while deconstruction frees us from our limiting beliefs, it also frees us from our limiting morality, and that can be a problem.

Deconstruction is prone to abuse and manipulation. It brings our focus onto the present moment, where future consequences of our actions are discounted. After all, the future is an abstract idea that doesn’t really exist. This is a great formula for talking people into sex that they will later regret.

It’s also dangerous for people in existing relationships. The guru teaches you how to “end jealousy permanently”, then convinces you that relationships don’t really exist, and then he sleeps with your wife. Maybe in the midst of the spell of deconstruction everybody is on board and nobody feels guilty. But in the aftermath, hurt feelings and resentments grow, and resentment is the poison that will destroy a community.

Deconstruction is not just a potent tool for manipulating others. It can be a dangerous tool for manipulating ourselves. Once internalized, deconstruction can be used to excuse any bad behavior and keep a clear conscience. What’s “bad behavior” mean, anyway? If there existed a guidebook for training oneself into becoming a sociopath, deconstruction would be a prominent technique within it.

Deconstruction requires wisdom to wield properly, a wisdom that Steve lacked and so could not teach.

I’m currently reading a lot by David Chapman, Robert Kegan, and Jordan Peterson, all of whom talk about the danger and promise inherent in deconstruction, either from a Buddhist or postmodern perspective. Chapman, summarizing Kegan, is a particularly important read.

Kegan sees deconstruction as acid dissolving and undermining the social rules of modernity. If used poorly, we sink back into monkey status games. If used wisely, we use our newfound freedom to mold the rules to better suit us. Building good societies in the presence of the knowledge of deconstruction is an unsolved problem [1]. According to Kegan, it’s the most important challenge of our times.

My best guess at a rule for using deconstruction wisely is "keep an eye on the long game". You can live perfectly well with either the belief that relationships do or don't "really" exist. But where do those beliefs lead you in 5, 10, or 20 years?

In some Buddhist monasteries they also teach dangerous-but-useful mental techniques, some of which are very similar to deconstruction. But these techniques are taught to students who follow a strict moral code in order to minimize the danger of teaching them. The students also have a close relationship with a mentor, who might decide that they are not ready for a particular set of practices.

3. The male guru-led organization is dangerous for reasons of evolutionary psychology

I leave this part for last because I am least confident in it. I haven’t read much on evolutionary psychology, and I’m working on concepts I’ve picked up second-hand from bloggers and friends.

Guru-led organizations are especially dangerous when they’re headed by men. As men get turned on by youth, clear skin and feminine body proportions, women are more attracted to men at the top of a status hierarchy. A man at the center of attention will find that he has far more sex appeal than he is used to. This is similar to what happens to successful rock stars.

But a guru is not a rock star, in that the guru has a responsibility to the spiritual growth of his students and his community. A guru that uses his position to maximize his sexual conquests is demonstrating short-sighted, adolescent behavior and he will likely fail to fulfill the trust placed in him by his students. Within a small amount of time, sleeping with students and sleeping with women in committed relationships causes the growth of resentment that blows up the community.

There is a second, darker power that the guru gains on top of the status hierarchy. Women he comes on to may feel pressured to say yes to his advances for fear of causing conflict or risking their status within the community. The power differential between guru and student has a coercive flavor, and it increases the odds that the student will acquiesce to sex that she will later regret.

Sexual dynamics between leaders and followers are especially dangerous in spiritual/personal growth organizations where the guru will have access to students in an emotionally vulnerable state, sometimes literally out of their minds. The founders of the Christian church recognized this risk 2,000 years ago, which is why they instituted conservative sexual norms for leaders. In the Bible we find the Apostle Paul exhorting early Christian church leaders to be sober, monogamous married men. This safeguard hasn't always worked, but it shows that organizations have struggled with this problem for a long time.

Sexual liberation + male leadership is a dangerous mix everywhere, and not just in spirituality. It’s the formula at the root of the tech VC sexual harassment scandals that hit the news lately. Being a successful leader requires sacrifice of some sexual freedom for the good of the group.

Despite the widely publicized scandals, male gurus can and do run successful organizations. Tony Robbins [2], for example, leads a community orders of magnitude bigger than Interchange. He also happens to be in a monogamous marriage. He’s had an affair and a divorce or two, but he never used his organization as a vehicle for his sexual fulfillment, and so he never generated the size of scandal that could threaten what he built.

In addition to the dangers of male gurus and sex, the guru-led model is fragile because the health and reputation of the group depends on the personal morality of one imperfect individual. For any institution to outlive its founder, new leaders must be trained up and power must be shared with them. Sharing the limelight requires some humility and far-sightedness on the guru's part. Interchange did some of this, but it was still probably too guru-dominated to survive Steve's departure.

4. Conclusion 

I’ve said a lot of good things about Interchange over the years. I still mean them. Interchange permanently increased my EQ and lowered my anxiety around other people. And it made me a better counselor. These are powerful, life-altering results. I owe personal gratitude to everyone who built Interchange, especially Steve.

But I’ve also encouraged lots of people to join. I regret that I didn’t more loudly voice my discomfort with the program along with my praise of it. While I was confident in my own abilities to weather the shitty parts of Interchange, I should have recognized that as a man I was in much less danger than a woman would be.

I want to live in a world where people more deeply encounter each other, where we live with an awareness of our shared humanity, and where we let go of unnecessary fear. I want there to exist training programs where people can boost their social skills through practice. I want there to be safe spaces to learn how to navigate edgy, intense, and potentially dangerous emotions. Interchange was a unique example of this.

I hope the good parts of Interchange can be separated from the short-sightedness and immaturity that Steve brought to the program. The fact that rest of the leadership team was empowered and confident enough to speak up and put a stop to the program speaks well of them and of the training they received. I believe that Steve genuinely cared about empowering people and he was successful in doing so. In some other organizations suffering from sexual impropriety, the violations continued for decades.

As Steve was the student of earlier programs of study, I hope the students of Interchange bring the next evolution of human emotional development into the world.

[1] Kegan has a numbered system of 5 stages of identity formation where each is an improvement on the last. These can be applied to individuals or societies. In part, they go:

(3) unstructured -> (4) structured -> (5) flexibly structured

Deconstruction helps us get from (4) to (5). But if we haven't fully mastered stage 4, deconstruction can cause us to fall back to stage 3. It can be really hard to tell the difference between (3) and (5).

[2] Tony Robbins was apparently a bad example to use, as I am informed there are rumors that he has gotten into polyamory. My read is that the sexual abundance facing a successful guru is a powerful temptation. I'm still against polyamory or open relationships for men in positions of power, as it leaves open the possibility of sex with every women he interacts with. For a man who is openly monogamous, it is clear from the outset of an interaction with a new woman that sex is by default forbidden, so it probably does something to limit the temptation of unwise sexual interactions.