Thursday, February 20, 2020

communities and individualism

You don’t have to spend long on any right-wing online forum before somebody starts talking about how wonderful it was in the past when everybody lived in tight-knit high-trust communities. You could go out and leave your front door open. You could leave the keys in your car and no-one would steal it. Your kids could play in the local park.

This is all true. Sort of. Up to a point.

We have gone way too far in the direction of hyper-individualism. Modern life is too atomised and too alienating. And too materialistic. This leads to despair and nihilism, and it leads to hedonism and consumerism. That’s all fairly obviously true.

However that doesn’t necessarily mean that people actually want to return to traditional tight-knit community life. People don’t want absolute freedom. In fact they don’t want very much freedom at all. But they do want some. The problem with traditional tight-knit communities is that they tend to enforce social rules and social conformity quite rigidly. Usually not with legal sanctions but with social sanctions (which can be more a lot more oppressive than laws). Life in traditional tight-knit communities can be stifling and demoralising. Maybe everybody looks out for one another but this also means that everybody wants to take a hand in telling others how to live.

If the people who wax lyrical about the joys of living in tight-knit high-trust communities had to live in one for a while most of them would change their tune.

That’s not to say that atomised modern societies are better than close-knit traditional societies. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. We should not romanticise traditional communities too much. It might be nice to be able to leave your car unlocked but it’s not quite so great when you realise that the reason you can do so is that everybody is minding everybody else’s business. It can be more stifling than living in the modern surveillance state where the state might be watching you but the state doesn’t really care very much what you’re doing most of the time as long as you’re not plotting to overthrow the government or planning to kill people. Most of the time you’re under the surveillance of bored government employees. In close-knit traditional societies other people care very much what you’re doing and they regard any deviation from the accepted social norms with suspicion or even hostility.

Obviously what is needed is some kind of balance between freedom and a sense of community. It worries me a little that there are quite a few people on the Right who are inclined to push things to extremes. Moderation is seen as boring or cowardly. But there is much to be said for moderation.

There’s also the complication that men and women do not see freedom in quite the same way. Women, for sound biological reasons, value security more than freedom. In close-knit traditional societies women are often the most zealous enforcers of the social norms, and they are often particularly severe in policing other women.

As to how we can get back to a sensible balance, I must admit that I have no idea. It would require goodwill and that’s in short supply these days.

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