Should I Tell You What I Really Think?: My Insignificance Is My Liberation.

[Disclaimer: What I write here is really too simple and consists of a lot of shorthand. Truthfully, I’m finding it difficult to translate 45 years of study and research into a few lines in a blog post. If you think it’s not working please let me know. Let me know too how I could better communicate and translate my decades of experience.

Analogy. This post consists of an analogy. It’s not perfect by any means, but it may help put our obsession with individuality into perspective. It seems to be clear that every human is a separate material entity. As Otto Rank puts it in The Trauma of Birth, we are objects to other people and in fact, the process of objectification starts when an infant realizes that it is separate from its mother. My view deviates from Rank’s and follows one proposed by Norbert Elias from his books, The Civilizing Process, What is Sociology? and others. [Elias is the subject of a future blog post] Elias’ view is that we are best considered as processes rather than as things. That said, I want to offer here my own strange take on human life using an analogy that should be fairly easy to understand.

So, for me, a human individual is akin to one cell in a human body. The human body, in this case, is analogous to the sum total of all humans on the planet. Like I said, the analogy, like all analogies, falls short of qualifying as a perfect equivalency yet at its core there is a simple truth to be had, I think.

We each have trillions of individual cells in our bodies. I read somewhere that every cell in our body is replaced every seven years or so. That’s not entirely true, but mot of our cells regularly die and some percentage are replaced on a regular basis. Eventually, of course, the cellular organization we call ourselves is no longer viable and we call that death. Death, however, is a slow process that begins the day we are conceived and goes on some time after the doctor declares us dead (and until cremation). How is this analogous to the species as a whole? Well, millions of people died in wars in the 20th Century but that didn’t prevent the species from carrying on. An individual human death is about as significant to the species as one cell dying in our bodies. That may seem harsh, but it’s real. People come and go. Millions of people die every year while millions are born. The species hardly notices. We do care as individual people. There is no doubt about that. When we have someone close to us die, that affects us, but the billions of other people on this planet take no notice at all.

Our cells work together to keep us alive and functioning, but the loss of any individual cell has little effect on the whole body. I can slap my wrist and kill a few hundred or thousand skin cells, but my body doesn’t really mind too much. It carries on like nothing happened. If I cut off my arm, I can still live. We can lose a lot of cells and still survive.

When I was teaching I used to torment my students with a standard lecture at the beginning of each term. This lecture emphasized the importance of society and the inherent interconnections we have to other people and to social organization. In a society that glorifies the individual, it can be humbling to consider just how dependent we are on others, most of whom we have never met.

In my lecture, I’d start off by saying that an individual human being doesn’t exist, cannot exist. We only exist in relation to others. We are the product of a most basic social act, the sex act. After that, we require the assistance of others to stay alive. We need to be fed, clothed, washed and looked after for many years. I argue in fact that the dependencies never stop. We are social animals in every sense of the term. We depend on others for everything. The language(s) we speak, the values we have, our ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ are a consequence of our social relations. One cannot be successful in a vacuum. Not only that, but in our world, with some exceptions of course, we depend on others to make our clothes, grow our food, provide us with electricity, build our homes, make sure our poop goes away when we flush the toilet and fresh water gets pumped to our faucets.  We also depend on people for companionship, for hugs, for approbation. The evidence is strong that if we don’t get hugs and the company of others as babies a quarter of us die before the age of four. Our interdependencies ARE us. We don’t exist as things, but as processes interwoven with many other processes we call organizations be they families, neighbourhoods, restaurants, churches, mosques, synagogues, provinces, countries and workplaces among many others. That’s why we volunteer to die for these organizations, we sacrifice our lives to them, we bow down to them, we feel undying affinity with them.

Of course, very few people think about these things. We are encouraged from a very early age to be independent, self-contained, and capable of making our own decisions. But, unfortunately, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Individuality is an illusion, just as a single human cell does not and cannot live by itself; it only exists in relationship to other cells and to the whole body.

As humans we tend to consider ourselves special. In fact, some people believe that we are created in the image of a god or other. We aspire to live forever and create elaborate stories to convince ourselves of the veracity of our beliefs in immortality. Sadly, we are truly insignificant as individuals for the survival of the species, as insignificant as an individual cell in my body is to my life. That said, for me, there is a sense of release and comfort that goes along with that realization. My insignificance is my liberation.

More later.

 

YOU TRUST EVERYONE

YOU TRUST EVERYONE

Driving in downtown Vancouver over the past few days reminded me of something I used to ask my students in a lecture I did about sociality and social integration. I used to ask them whom they trusted. They would invariably point to family or friends or jokingly say they trusted no one. But, of course, we trust all kinds of people implicitly and regularly all the time. Our trust is not restricted to our intimates. It’s tough though because although we consciously and unconsciously think of other people and their effects on us, we deny that they have any control over us. Most of us truly believe that we and we alone are responsible for our lives and actions.

Truth is, we’re so conditioned by the ideology of individualism that we hardly think in social terms at all, about other people and their profound effects on our lives. There was even the spectacle a few years ago of a British prime minister suggesting that there is no such thing as society at all, only individuals and individual action.

Well, we are connected in ways we hardly understand and virtually never attend to and one way we deny that is by labeling other people. We often label people pejoratively in a myriad of ways. We denigrate others and don’t have any sense of connection with them, in fact we are often repulsed by them. Yet every time we get into our cars and drive down a busy street or highway we trust all of them, even the repulsive ones, like they were family.

Just think of the number of people driving anywhere downtown on any given day and there is bound to be a wide variety of people you could think of. There may be commuters, delivery truck and taxi drivers, moms and dads driving their kids to school, police cars and ambulances, service vehicles of all kinds but there could also be murderers, rapists, criminals of all kinds, violent domestic offenders and of course there will be a motley collection of more or less unsavory characters like conservative politicians, bond traders, media hypers, regular bullies and just plain obnoxious people most of whom you would never choose to associate with in any way in any other circumstance. Not all these categories of people are mutually exclusive either. A mom driving her kids to school could be beating the crap out of her kids when they get home in the afternoon and the service van driver could very well be a rapist. We just don’t know. We still trust them.

We trust that if they’re coming at us in the oncoming lane at 60, 80 or 120 k/hour they will not wander into our lane and kill us. Even if we’re going in the same direction as they are, we trust that they won’t wander into our lane and force us onto the side of the road, maybe into an abutment or barrier. Either way we may very well die. Of course there are accidents, but they are unintentional or are supposed to be. We don’t usually ascribe accidents to malevolence. To ignorance and stupidity, yes, but not malevolence.

You may argue that you really don’t trust them. Well, of course you do. You may not like it, but you do. If you drive, you trust. You trust every other driver on the road. I know that’s a scary thought, but that’s the way it is. You trust murderers with your life.

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 2)

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 2)

 

So, I asked in the first part of this discussion two posts ago: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?  A number of you commented.  You mentioned things like civility, or the lack of it and the discrepancy between training and getting work related to that training, something especially important for recent graduates of training programs.  One of you noted that this is a very complex question!  Indeed it is.   Sociologists have seen this question as one of the most important in sociology.    To even ask whether your society is ok or not implies a number of basic questions and assumptions.  The first regards the definition of society itself.  First point to consider here is that society, the word, represents what many sociologists consider to be a system of interrelated and interdependent institutions and structures with a particular culture whose job it is to keep the whole thing running smoothly.  ‘Society’ does not equate with ‘country.’  The concept of ‘Canada’ is a political one.  Harold Innis argues that if we use Canada as a basic unit of analysis, we allow politicians to lead us about by the nose and that’s not terribly pleasant or effective as the point of departure in an analysis of society.  Society does not stop or start at borders.  I’ve argued elsewhere that Canada is not a very useful unit of analysis for a number of reasons.  (https://rogerjgalbert.com/2012/07/27/is-canada-a-capitalist-country/)

 

There may be many ways of deciding whether a society is OK or not.  Much depends on how we conceive of a healthy society.  Functionalists like Emile Durkheim were very clear in their sense that a ‘healthy’ society is one where there is a balance between individualism and collectivism, that is between the needs of the individual to stand out, especially in a competitive situation, and the needs of the group for solidarity.  Too much individualism and the glue that holds people together in society fails and the whole thing comes crashing down.  Too much collectivism and individuals fail to thrive and innovation falls flat and as a result society itself stagnates and fails.  So, according to Durkheim and his colleagues, a balance between individualism and collectivism indicates a healthy society. But what practical tool or way can we measure this?  Durkheim came up with suicide, or more accurately, the suicide rate.  Suicide itself is imponderable.  It’s impossible to ask a suicide why he or she did it.  Even leaving a suicide note may not tell the whole story.  So it’s not suicide per se that interested Durkheim.

 

But what about the suicide rate?  The suicide rate is measured by dividing the number of suicides in a population by 100,000 people in the population. It varies according to some very predictable social conditions.  Canada’s suicide rate is about 11 per 100,000 and men commit suicide at a rate 3 or 4 times the rate of women and that means that women have a rate of close to 5 and men more like 17. Single people commit suicide at higher rates than married people.  People from different regions commit suicide at different rates. In Nunavut, the rate is 71.  Now that’s way over the Canadian average.  Durkheim asked himself what accounted for this variation.  After conducting extensive research, the first ‘real’ sociological research of its kind, he dismissed imitation and ‘insanity’ as causes of suicide.  Read his book Suicide for the details.  Suffice it to say that Durkheim concluded that suicide rates varied with the amount of integration and individuation evident in a society.  He identified 3 major types of suicide, anomic, egoistic and altruistic.  He also identified fatalistic suicide as a way of keeping his theory in balance.  (See this Wikipedia entry for a bit of an ok discussion of Durkheim’s views on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_(book)) His whole idea is that too much integration or too much individuation is ‘bad’ for society.  By this argument, if Canada’s historical suicide rate is 11 per 100,000, but in Nunavut it’s 71, Durkheim would say that it’s because there is not enough social integration in the north.  Colonialism has marginalized a formerly very stable society and now people have no social glue to hold them together.  They’ve lost their traditional means of doing so and they have no new ones because they’ve been systematically excluded from them at every turn.  So, their suicide rate goes ballistic.

 

On the other side of the ledger, if Canada’s suicide rate suddenly fell to 2 or 3 per 100,000, that would be equally bad because the historical balance that existed in Canada to keep its rate at 11 was no longer extant.  So, if fewer people commit suicide, that’s also an indication that there is something wrong in society, in this case, namely that the glue that hold people together in society is too strong and prevents people from expressing themselves individually, even if that means to commit suicide. Now this is where my students’ heads began to explode.  How could it be that fewer people committing suicide is a bad thing?  Well, Durkheim’s analysis is not about individual wellbeing, it’s about social wellbeing.  Durkheim’s theory is based on the premise that society is like an organism itself with a life of its own.  My body is composed of billions of individual cells, but my life is not the sum of those individual cells.  My life is more than the sum of the cells that make up my body.  If at some time I suffer a major trauma and lose millions of cells (as in an arm or leg) my body can survive that.  The survival of my body is what’s important, not the survival of individual cells, maybe not even millions of them.  Makes sense even though it’s counter-intuitive.

 

So, from this perspective, balance is what’s crucial to a society’s health.  Throw off that balance and suffer the consequences.  Durkheim’s view also has as a basic premise that like all organisms, including societies, are composed of parts (organs) that have to work well on their own as well as work together for the good of the whole organism.  If certain parts no longer function properly, the whole organism is in jeopardy.  That goes for individual human organisms as well as for societies.  If education isn’t doing its job, the whole rest of society suffers.  If families aren’t socializing children properly, the whole society is stressed.  If the economy or the polity fail, the whole social structure is in danger.  Thus, for Durkheim, sociology is social pathology, how societies go wrong. So now, looking at your society, do you think everything is in balance?  If it is give examples of how.  If you think it isn’t also give examples of how.

 

I’m not suggesting for a minute that I wholeheartedly agree with Durkheim’s views, but he has a point.  See if you can use his theory to make some sense of your own society.  In my next post I’ll outline another theory about how society can be OK or not.

 

 

 

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1)

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1) OR: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?

 

One of the most popular perspectives in sociology from the 1930s until the late 60s was structural-functionalism.  Some people are still functionalists but they’re usually pretty quiet about it these days.  Functionalism has a long history in Western thought but structural-functionalism is of more recent American vintage.  Functionalism was an early European anthropological perspective that was adopted enthusiastically by the American sociologists Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton.  Functionalism or structural-functionalism are often uses interchangeably but it’s not my aim here to discuss the distinction or the similarity between these terms.  I have ulterior motives.

 

I start this with a reference to sociology and functionalism and that’s because I’m a sociologist, at least according to the document hanging on my wall in my office.  But functionalism has counterparts in all scientific disciplines.  Some disciplines seem to still embrace the concepts at least at an elementary level and use the perspective in teaching.  As far as I know in human biology classes there is still talk of anatomy and physiology, that is, of the structure of human organs, cells, systems, etc., and their functions.  I know that in anthropology there is still reference to the various aspects or institutions of cultures and their function or role in the lives of those cultures.  In fact, in sociology, that is also true.  Most introductory texts break up society into parts, education, religion, family, economy, polity, art, etc., and the role they play together to keep a society functioning properly or in equilibrium, which is the ideal social state according to sociological functionalists and other scientists too for that matter.

 

There is some validity to the structural-functionalist perspective, but it’s limited.  The perspective has been overwhelmed by much more relativistic perspectives such as the so-called interactionist perspectives but I’ll explore that some other day.  It’s certainly true that human bodies have organs and they function more or less well.  Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917) actually referred to sociology as social pathology or the study of what goes wrong with societies or how they get out of kilter.  He also referred to sociology as the study of morality but I’ll also leave that for another day.  The point here is that in sociology a major perspective sees society as being composed of parts, which serve a function more or less effectively.   The family is supposed to serve the function of socializing children and providing a warm, emotionally supportive environment in which children grow up.  Religion is supposed to look after our spiritual needs.  Education has the task of preparing each generation of people to undertake their adult roles.  The economy is supposed to take care of our biological needs for food and other material things we need to live in a particular society at a particular time.  If all the parts of society are doing their job, everything is cool and society is working as it should.  Of course, I wrote earlier that this perspective has limitations and it does.  One of the main limitations is that it treats society as an organism that stands by itself and is, in a sense, sui generis (self generated).  I’m being somewhat unfair to functionalism, but not essentially.  But that’s not the only problem with functionalism.  It wants society to be balanced, but it often isn’t and some institutions or parts of society don’t always do what they’re supposed to do in the way that they’re supposed to.  Robert K. Merton understood that and came up with the idea that some things like families are sometimes dysfunctional and the task of the sociologist is to show how things can be put right again.  Well, today I want to look at dysfunction in ‘the economy.’

 

First, I want to be clear that I’m not a functionalist in the least but that doesn’t prevent me from writing about ‘society’ from that perspective.  It’s a simplistic perspective because it’s basically ahistorical, but for the moment just pretend that you’ve gone into your doctor’s office and she’s trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with you.  Pretend that you’re a doctor of society trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with your society.  What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?  This is not a rhetorical question.  I’m interested in your answer.  Write a comment.

The collectivity that is ‘I’

After reading Norbert Elias’ What is Sociology and having taught the subject for 36 years myself, I’m struck by what it takes to make a person(ality) and reminded of the complexity of the task.  As the symbolic interactionists among us are quick to point out, we, as individuals, are a product of our interactions with ‘others.’  Charles Horton Cooley even refers to the ‘looking glass’ self in emphasizing the notion that our person(alities) are socially created.  Thinking about it for even a moment makes that fact clear.  What language would you speak if you weren’t ‘created’ socially?  What kinds of things would you believe?  So, given that we have a certain bio-genetic reality which is  itself socially created (what is the sexual act if it’s not a social one?), we are ‘constructed’ in our interactions with others.  ‘Others’ here must be taken quite broadly to include not just people close to us, but also people (and I would also include other species of animal and even ‘things’ very broadly determined) far removed from us in time (grandparents, relatives, etc.) and space (neighbours, local people, etc.).  In fact, ‘others are no less socially created than we are, of course. Our person(alities) are virtually collective realities that wouldn’t exist outside of the collectivity or collectivities.  So, we probably shouldn’t refer to ourselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we.’ Of course the Queen does that when she refers to herself using the royal ‘we.’  She does it because she represents the state and so she includes all citizens of the Commonwealth when she refers to herself in the third person.  If I were to use ‘we’ to refer to myself, I would include all the people, including myself, in all of our interactions and interweavings, who had a hand in ‘raising’ me and making me what I am.  Which would mean that if I were diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any of the other thousands of ‘disorders’ that are found in the DSM-5, the psychiatric bible of disorders, I would have to say that ‘we’ have bipolar disorder.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But what other conclusion can I reach?  This is the conclusion R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz (both psychiatrists) came to with regards to schizophenia and they were soundly criticized for it and symbolically beaten up by their ‘colleagues’ for even suggesting such a heresy.

And heresy it is.  The reason that this is such a heretical idea is that we have clung to the idea for a long time now that we, as individuals, are the agents of our own destiny.  We have individual ‘free will,’ not collective free will.  [I’ll switch to I now for emphasis.]  I am responsible for my own actions.  That way if I work hard and get rich, I can say it was all my doing, and if I fail, I must feel the shame of it all by myself.  Others can do the same when they think about me.  They can judge me as a success or failure and they can (without a doubt) attribute that to my own actions.  If I commit a crime, it’s my responsibility and not a collective one.  After all we don’t send families to jail for the crimes of one family member, we send just that one person to jail.  This is an ideology, a way that we justify and explain ourselves to ourselves and to others, based in the early days of the capitalist mode of production when the ‘individual’ was created, a crucial state of being for entering into contractual agreements.  Fernand Braudel argues this in his awesome three volume tome on early capitalism as does George Duby in his introduction to A History of Private Life, a book he edited that was published in 1988.  Others too have taken up the challenge of putting our individuality fetish into a social, historical and political context.  C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, published in 1962, traces our love affair with individualism to Locke and Hobbes (I would throw in Descartes too) but anchors his views in a clearly dialectical framework, with material life still leading ideas in the end.

I could go on for a long time on this topic.  In fact, I want to turn this discussion to Durkheim and Collins in my next post.  They argue (along with many others) that God is a symbol for society.  So, when we say that we are created by God, we are really saying that we are created by society.  Let’s see where that takes us.

Countries are about to lose their reason for being (Part 1).

Some of us, many of us, really have the sense that our country is one of the most important things that give us our identity as individuals and as cultures. But what is the origins of this thing we call ‘country’ or ‘nation-state?’ Does it ‘deserve’ our undying loyalty, love and respect?  I wrote a script for The Knowledge Network many years ago (1992 to be precise) in which I address these questions and other related ones with regard to Canada.  If I were to write it today, I wouldn’t change much, but I will update this commentary in a new post soon.  Now, read on and comment if you like.

Is Canada a Capitalist Society?  Interesting question and not as simple to answer as it seems, I think.  Generally, when this question comes up, people immediately think about Capitalism and Socialism or Communism.  Canada isn’t communist, that’s clear…but is it socialist?  Well, what does socialism mean?  Many people think of socialism as government ownership and control.  For some, socialism means no more free enterprise, no more freedom of choice and no more good life!   For others it means Medicare, EI,  Canada Pension and Social Services.  If socialism means government takeover of private business, then the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit rabidly free enterprise government of  B.C. was one of the first socialist governments in Canada.  It took over B.C. Electric and made it into B.C. Hydro, took over responsibility for ferries in the province and monopolized the sale of alcohol.  Well, most people would never think of the Social Credit Party as socialist, but there you have it.  Just kidding of course…but it still leaves us with the problem of coming up with a way of deciding whether or not Canada is a capitalist society.  Is it mostly capitalist with some socialist policies?  Can we talk of shades of pink, or is it one or the other?  Well, maybe there’s another way of approaching the whole question.

 

Let’s stand way back and check out the view from there.  We are very accustomed in this part of the world to seeing things from the perspective of our countries.  I’m not saying that we’re nationalists, necessarily, but that our frame of reference is our country.  We think of “Canadian” society, the Canadian educational system, the Canadian political system, the Canadian legal system, the Canadian transportation system, etc.  We view Canada as an entity, a thing in itself.  We use Canada as “containing” our society.

 

There is another way of thinking about these things.  It is very difficult, though, because we take our conventional view of things completely for granted.  We have difficulty even conceiving of another way of seeing things.   It requires a real perceptual shift.  But let’s try this on.  Think of the concept of Capitalism as a basic reference point rather than the idea of Canada. In this conceptual scheme capitalism has time and space dimensions but I want you to think about it more as a set of institutions or way of doing things, organizing ourselves and thinking.  The primary institutions of modern capitalism are private property, business enterprise, the machine-process, the class system, wages, the division of labor, the market and the price system.   Taken together, these institutions, along with others, make up what we might call the economic basis of capitalist society.  I’m not talking about people here, but about the ways that have evolved by which we relate to each other in society.  The primary institutions are those concerned with how we organize ourselves to make a living…that being the basis for the rest of social organization.  We have to make a living as societies before we can do anything else.   In order to survive…and this is an evolutionary perspective…capitalism generates a whole range of other institutions, or it appropriates them, borrows, begs or steals them historically from previous societies.  These institutions  we usually define as being political, social, legal, educational, etc… And they evolve  themselves and together…like all the organs of your body evolve together.

 

From this perspective, the way we organize official learning, in classrooms with the teacher as authority and children conceived of as empty vessels to be filled with standardized knowledge is a basic educational institution of modern capitalism.  Whole organizations, plants and facilities we call  schools, colleges and universities are created to service this institution which itself serves to ensure the survival of capitalism.  What kids learn in school is more important than just math and social studies.  In the way the school is organized, in the way they are regimented and disciplined, kids learn their eventual place as workers within a capitalist society. It could hardly be otherwise.  An educational institution that would contradict the basic way that we organize ourselves to make a living wouldn’t last long.

 

Countries as we know them are political institutions that arose in conjunction with the rise of capitalism in Europe.  They are the products of the growth of capitalism:  they exist to regulate the flow of capital and labour; to provide infrastructures such as roads for the movement of capital and labor (not always successfully); to defend capitalism, or sometimes the interests of a group of capitalists in competition with another group; to provide a context for law and order and the right “climate” for investment, etc… Once in existence along with the institution of citizenship, countries tend to legitimize the notion that citizenship is a status more important than that of worker.    Citizenship, with all of its caveats and rights,  is the political/legal expression of your right to sell your labour on a market.

 

Canada, then, is by definition a capitalist institution.  It “fits” into a now global system of political institutions that exist to perpetuate capitalism…and make no mistake about it, capitalism is the more fundamental institution here.  It makes little sense to speak of “Canadian” capitalism or even of “Canadian” society, for that matter.  Canada, the political institution, is part of a global capitalist society.  It makes much more sense to speak of the role of the Canadian state in the perpetuation and  survival of the growing capitalist global system.  If the government takes over the operations of a losing propositions such as B.C. Electric, then it does so to ensure that capitalism can still grow and prosper.  Capitalism needs cheap power.  There’s no money in it, but it is nonetheless necessary.  Why not get workers, as citizens and taxpayers, to subsidize it?    If the government sets up systems to train potential workers (i.e., the school system), to support unemployed workers, to nurse them back to health, to provide them with pensions upon retirement, it relieves the pressure from the capitalist to do so, a pressure that the slave master or the lord of the manor had in totality with regard to the well-being of his slaves or serfs.  So, in a big way, the governments in our country help to manage the working class.  And through the tax system arrange to have the working class cover the expenses for its own management and even cover the costs of capitalist risk-taking itself, again through the tax system.

 

This may sound cynical and negative, but I don’t think it is.  Nor do I think that the system stinks and that all capitalists and politicians are lying, good for nothing exploiters of the working class.  I’d rather be a worker with only half of my waking life in the service of someone else than a slave with my whole being and life in the service of someone else.  Besides, capitalists and politicians are harnessed to the needs of capitalism as we all are…much as all the cells in a human body are harnessed for the survival of the body as a whole…and the whole thing will live just as long as it has not exhausted all the resources it has to keep it alive.  Countries are one of those resources that serve the ends of capitalist survival.  Canada is one of those resources.