Sunday, 5 July 2009

Some Like it Thick

By contrasting a ‘thick’ ethos, which is allegedly needed to glue society together, with the ‘thinness’ of what people actually have in common, a number of political theorists have over recent decades created a powerful impression that the solution to social fragmentation is increasing the number of customs and beliefs we share. On this view, Americans or Brits, for example, are engaging more and more in pursuit of their own interests instead of the good of their country, because they are not sufficiently bound together by a thick set of ‘values’ which would underpin their patriotic pride.

This is misconceived as an idea and most unhelpful as a guide to policy. First of all, people love their country for different reasons, and whether they collaborate with or oppose each other depends on the availability of opportunities for them to work for their mutual benefits in a fair manner. People with different outlooks, religious beliefs, or cultural traditions have nonetheless cooperated effectively when they can openly consider how they can be supportive to one another. It is when one side deceives or exploits some power advantage they possess to undermine the other that cooperation breaks down. And deceit and exploitation are practised by members of all faiths and races on their own kind as well as on others. If instead of developing people’s, especially children’s, capacity to understand and reason with each other as people deserving of equal respect, we focus on imposing a set of customs which do not in fact command universal following, we would only breed resentment, not cooperation.

Secondly, ‘thickness’ implies some inherent quantitative measure which by itself can determine what custom we should demand acceptance by all those to be given formal citizenship. It suggests that the more we put into this portfolio of national values, the better it would be – the more we insist on what people should wear or not to wear (e.g., the Burkha or hooded jacket), what they can joke about in relation to religions, what festivals they should celebrate, what symbols they must respect, the better we would function as a united society. But the worthiness of values or customs cannot be validated by the mere fact that they are held by a majority of people. The acceptability of the Burkha or hooded clothing should be judged on the practical implications of their wearer’s identity being concealed. The value of symbols and customs are best left to their beholders, while the proposal for the universal adoption or banning of any practice should be critically examined in the context of the effects they would have on people.

Finally, people’s relationships are enhanced by their differences as well as their similarities. Although members of a large group may have many things in common with some others in the group, what they all have in common may be few in total. But that does not matter so long as they can count on a shared approach or system which enables them to use reason and evidence through reflective deliberations to navigate their way through conflicting courses of action. Such an approach, often dismissed as ‘thin’, liberal, and procedurally-based, is actually what makes cooperation possible whether people have many values or customs in common, or they have serious differences requiring mediation and conflict-resolution in family, school, the workplace, community disputes or international tensions.

If we really want to stop society falling apart, we should rid ourselves of this ‘thick’ metaphor once and for all, and concentrate on the educational and institutional support for inclusive rational deliberations. And the biggest barrier to that is the prevalence of unequal power relations which are still all too often defended in the name of business or religious autonomy.