The Social Cohesion Calamity

Discussion in 'Politics Discussion' started by Consider This, Oct 10, 2017.

  1. Consider This

    Consider This Member

    Mar 2016
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    The central ailment of our body politic is a failure of social cohesion. This virulent and increasingly publicized malady deserves careful diagnosis. The current essay is an effort in that direction.

    It is best to begin with some perspective. Concern with cohesion has a long history in political philosophy, and no one summarized the dilemma better than Bertrand Russel. He suggested every culture is subject to “two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition”, but also dissolution “through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.”

    We must have social connections, we’re built for them. We must also have independence; we’re built for that as well. The question is, how far can we move away from cooperation with others and still maintain society? Borrowing a metaphor from our cell phones, where do we set the social cohesion slider?

    Approaches to the answer differ considerably by political orientation. These orientations differ both in the divisive forces they support and in the cohesive forces they promote.

    First, the divisive forces. In the U.S. both Leftists and Libertarians emphasize what might be called existential independence. That is, liberty for persons to choose or maintain their own beliefs, values, and lifestyles. As choices become increasingly non-traditional, of course, there is strain on the social fabric.

    But economic policy can also decrease cohesion. Both Conservatives and Libertarians, for example, support a push toward the independence pole of such policy, recommending reductions in business regulations, taxes, and spending on social programs.

    As for cohesive forces, Leftists hope to balance existential independence with the bonds of an economic safety net. Conservatives seek to balance economic independence with the bonds of tradition, primarily religion.

    And Libertarians? In their case there is not much balancing of the slider. They set it as far as feasible to the independence pole, both existentially and economically. This has led some, including myself, to conclude they flirt with social dissolution.

    At present there is considerable weakening of social cohesion in the U.S. There has been a deterioration in so-called “social capital”, a measurably large increase in levels of distrust. Research suggests such distrust tends to be linked with rising levels of economic inequality. We certainly have that in abundance, and so it seems a probable contributor.

    But the current waters boil with an additional leviathan: digital talk. Anonymous, instantaneous, mostly uncensored, ubiquitous. The confluence of these features is tailor made to promote electronic shouting and vindictive hostility. It also generates steady streams of falsehoods, multiplying prolifically, snowballing, and straining the social fabric.

    Now add to all of this the notorious American penchants for both magical and conspiratorial thinking, and the perfect storm appears. A breaking up into irreconcilable camps. Distrust of all thoughts from outside. Any accusation: true. All facts: contested.

    Certainly here (as almost everywhere) there are no easy answers. We can’t simply delete the internet or quickly change national character. With enough political will we could decrease inequality, but that might not be enough.

    It behooves us, personally and culturally, to give more attention to broadening and strengthening social cohesion. It is easy to describe this in the abstract, but what it might mean exactly at the grass roots level is more difficult to say. It will undoubtedly differ somewhat by persons and situations.

    But giving the matter more systematic thought is something we all must do.

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