Tag Archives: civilization

Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.

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Social contracts

Social contracts underpin our lives, but we don’t talk about them much. To participate in civilization and to benefit from it, we have to agree to contribute what we can or at the very least, not go round ruining things for other people. We benefit from all manner of things that belong to, or are funded by everyone – as do private companies, who often use the idea of their private-ness to suggest they shouldn’t have to contribute as much. They use the road networks, the police, the fire services, the education of their employees and so forth.

At the moment, our social contract obliges us to pay for participation with health – when the work demanded of us makes us ill, when the cities we live in have such bad air pollution that it kills people. Participation comes at a high price. I think government and industries alike are failing to hold up their side of the contract, because profit is put before health – especially where air pollution is concerned.

Any practice that allows a few to profit from the natural resources of the world while damaging the environment for everyone else, breaks the unwritten contract. There is no mutual good or benefit here. Why are some people allowed to profit to an obscene degree while others are exploited? Why are some people allowed to accumulate vast wealth at the cost of making others ill? The greater the distance between the richest and the poorest in society, the more strain there is on that unwritten contract that in theory binds us all together.

Poor, vulnerable and under-privileged people who seem to have broken the social contract, are punished for it. Having the resources you need to survive taken from you, being a case in point. That we have food banks feeding people who would otherwise go hungry and even starve, is itself a manifestation of the social contract, upheld by people who believe that we all have a duty to contribute to society and to help those who have less than us. There are a great many individual people trying to hold our social contracts in place despite the way those in power are ripping to shreds that which was never put on paper.

Humans have always depended on co-operation to survive. We all depend on each other. We depend on the people around us to respect us and not assault us. We depend on each other for food, for amenities, for shared resources. And yet all too often we are persuaded to think of ourselves as isolated individuals who can act alone with no consequences. If we don’t see the threads binding us together, we can do massive damage to everything we depend on. If we don’t see the importance of working for the common good, what we get is exploitation, and benefit for the few at a high cost to the many.

When we see society in terms of winners and losers, we make ourselves poorer. Most of us lose. When we see society in terms of co-operation and mutual support, more people are able to win. What would happen if we aspired to make sure that everyone was winning at life? What would happen if we started to see piles of wealth as weird, and offering assistance where needed, as normal? Why not aspire to a world in which everyone has enough and lives peacefully, rather than heading towards a world where a few powerful individuals get to be kings and queens of their own infertile piles of plastic rubbish?


Tidiness, nature, and civilization

The human urge to tidy things up has us cutting hedges into smooth edges, trimming verges so as to take out all the wildflowers and generally destroying habitats. What is this urge to be tidy and how do we get rid of it so that we stop needlessly killing wildlife?

Neatness, order, straight lines, square corners – these are not things we generally find in nature but that humans create and impose. You will likely decide at a glance whether a place is natural or human-made, and the straight lines, tidy edges and whether there are obviously dead things will inform that decision. We like to tidy away the dead things, even trees when they fall down in woods. A dead tree is an amazing source of life and habitat for many other species. We do massive damage when we remove them. But, decay, and death are considered unsightly, so aren’t civilized or tidy.

When we force a straight line, or cut back a verge, we’re asserting a human presence into the landscape. Bringing order to the chaos of nature is a project that goes with owning the land, controlling what’s around us and valuing some things more than others. We use ‘straight’ as a word both to indicate honesty, and heterosexuality and I don’t think this is a coincidence. We call things wild in a human context often to judge them. Tidiness is something we treat as a virtue and seek to install in our children.

We’ve had hundreds of years, if not longer, of telling ourselves that being tidy is an expression of being civilized. The uncut lawn doesn’t say ‘home for insects’ to us. It says ‘lazy and uncivilised and a mess’. And so we cut things back that aren’t causing us any real problems. We strim and trim, and take away the dead heads.

Unfortunately, as human influence dominates and wildness becomes ever more threatened, our urge to tidy is simply an urge to destroy. It’s not the tiny, puny humans versus the wilderness any more. We tame and train our landscapes and in the process, we kill so much that should be in them. What we make when we do this is often ugly, sterile and joyless. The cityscapes that we make as ultimate expressions of tidy civilization lack soul, and are not good habitats for humans. We need softness too. We need living green growth, and at least some element of unpredictability.

We need to stop complaining about things that look untidy, and start celebrating the beauty of nature. Nature isn’t tidy. But when you think about the mathematical elegance of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s also clear that nature has a good deal more to offer than the banality of our straight lines and tightly clipped lawns.