Happiness in Complacency, Research Time, 21/03/2014

Slowly reading through Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia as I prepare various parts of my apartment to be packed up and moved a block away to a bigger apartment, I only have a few brief starting reflections at the moment. Nonetheless, I think they’re meaningful. However, I have no idea yet whether Mannheim himself would have agreed with anything I’m about to say. 

Yesterday’s post discussed some points in Louis Wirth’s introduction, focussing on the problem of social instability. Writing in the 1930s, there was no question that the old social values that seemed so secure in their truth were being called into question and doubt. Doubt in these values created social instability, and this was a terrible thing. A lack of uniformity in our values resulted in the degradation of social cohesion, and without all people believing in the same values, the decline of civilization would inevitably ensue. I hear the same talk, for example, in the United States when I hear evangelical politicians decrying how their country is falling away from their Christian values. 

Of course, such uniformity never existed in the first place. Every society is a combination of different classes, whether those classes are defined by differences of economics (all the range from Mitt Romney to a homeless Dalit), race, ethnicity, religion, or even just social distinctions in caste that are more subtle, like the nuances of urban-rural divides or the peculiar social power of being descended from a certain family, even as that name accrues no material benefits anymore. 

If I can contrast what I’ve read so far of Mannheim himself with Wirth’s introduction, I can say that Wirth appears far more naive about the social fluctuation and development of values than Mannheim. Of course, that’s why I’m reading Mannheim’s book and not Wirth’s. Because Mannheim, in the first few pages, identifies precisely why social stability shakes. It isn’t that people used to have all the same beliefs and values, and now they’ve started to diverge. It looks like that to people who are in the position of, for example, being able to write fawning introductions to new works of social theory and philosophy. 

There are still people who believe that total
cultural uniformity is the only way to prevent
social conflict. Some of them, I hope not for
much longer,
run Canadian provinces.
But really, people have always had different beliefs and values. Social stability shakes when those different people actually start interacting with each other and taking each other seriously. In a stable society, when people with different values interact, they describe each other as repugnant, immoral fools and bastards. “How dare she think that wearing a scarf of that sort is acceptable in society!” says the Jonquière doctor who thinks nothing of hanging a giant wooden crucifix in in medical office. Or take an image of the 1930s I appropriated from Hannah Arendt, the crisply dressed banker who looks with disdain on the shtetl trash with their strings hanging from their coats. Yet they all ended up in the same place — except they didn’t, because the bankers bought their way into Switzerland, and the shtetl trash got stuck on cattle cars. An unstable society is one where a person takes note of all these differences among people, but instead of rejecting them as inferior, deluded, or otherwise smelly, instead comes to doubt the certainty of his own values. "Manvinder seems like a perfectly reasonable and kind person," says Kyle, "could I have been wrong to reject him as a deranged sinner just because he's Sikh and he dresses like one?" From the moment we ask that question, our imagined first-time thinker destabilizes his society, because he wonders whether his Christian values could learn something from someone else's Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, or atheist values. Mannheim understands the social instability that frightens Wirth as simply respectfully considering the already-existing differences between yourself and your neighbours.

It’s a common thought in society that we come to sympathize with each other when we can see what we have in common, what we share. Understanding ourselves as the same brings social stability and peace. But finding common ground leaves aside the question of our actual needs, which arise from those parts of ourselves that diverge from our common social context. We may be all kin, but what matters is our difference.

Reviving social stability through focus on commonalities may work, but it will only work for a while, because some new difference will always emerge. As for Mannheim, at this early point in the book, he understands that people are always different, but I’m not sure if he’ll eventually come to the conclusion I’ve already reached in my own thinking and learning. 

Differences persist because the process of living constantly creates new differences. An everlasting social stability would come from a mind that was constantly curious, fascinated, and embraced new differences whenever he saw them. People are always different from each other, and when we come into contact, we can either regard them with disdain or befriend them for their singularity. 

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