Hating Democracy IV: End Your Traditions, Research Time, 24/10/2016

I haven’t gotten my hands on the first episode of Class by Sunday night, so the first post in that series will come on Tuesday. That’ll be my discussion of the first episode “For Tonight We Might Die.” The post on the second episode, “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” will likely go up Friday – But Patreon backers will get to see it a day earlier.

Posts on Class will probably appear each Tuesday after that. This will probably be how the Doctor Who posts end up going as well.
• • •
Continued from last post . . . You can say democracy is a lot of things. It’s not exactly a simple concept. But here’s what democracy is on today’s post. 

Democracy leaves ever aspect of a community’s social order up for grabs in every moment. It’s the fundamental opposition to social conservatism at all times. 

The unity of a culture is built from the ground up, from such ordinary
things as brief television commercials about noteworthy moments in
your country's history. Like when Drake took those baskets back to save
the Raptors from the Halifax Explosion at the conference to choose the
design of the new Canadian flag. At least that's how I remember it.
This is another part of Jacques Rancière’s account of the democratic attitude, democratic life. If I can name it a little more poetically, it’s the fundamental human yearning for freedom.

I sometimes feel as though a lot of popular political discourse in the West has lost this more profound conception of freedom. Too many of us think freedom is a matter of “money talks.” The kind of freedom that means we shouldn’t care how much a company pollutes if people still love their products because the market will guide our reason. 

The kind of freedom that means I can say whatever I want, even if it’s horrible and racist, because my fundamental freedom is freedom to be a jackass. That freedom is nothing more than the absence of coercion. Or sometimes even the absence of resistance.

In many ways, that kind of very individualist libertarianism doesn’t go far enough. It sticks with the perspective of an individual’s freedom as an isolated unit. But it doesn’t consider how deeply integrated each of us as individuals are with so many others. 

This doesn’t make individuality disappear into some amorphous blob of a society. For one thing, actual societies are way more complicated than that. Nations and communities aren’t homogeneous unities, no matter how many ancient* sociological theories treated them that way. 

* And undeniably fucked up . . . 

Societies don't really have any essence – no identity like an individual. They’re collections of many different individuals. These individuals all affect each other in complex networks. Think of how many different people you interact with half-frequently in a week. Or a month.

Co-workers, neighbours, friends, family members, casual acquaintances, occasional clients, people you see often enough at the grocery store that you remember their faces, that street musician with the steel drums and the cool hat. Now think about all the networks each of those people have. And all the networks that flow out from each person in those networks.

These networks aren't evenly distributed all over the world. They don’t have boundaries, per se, but there are hubs, as well as general tendencies to link in some ways and not in others. 

Though I'd like to meet some people from Kyrgyzstan. It seems like a
really cool place.
I don’t know personally anyone in Kyrgyzstan, for example. Because it’s far away, I’ve never been there, I don’t know any Kyrgyz myself in the city where I live, and I don’t even speak Kyrgyz, Russian, or Uzbek, the country’s most common languages. Physical, social, and institutional obstacles prevent me from direct connections to the networks of people in Kyrgyzstan.

But you could find a path through the networks of my networks (and all their networks) that would eventually lead to Kyrgyzstan. Because I live in immigrant-heavy Toronto, it probably wouldn’t take as long either. 

This is the reality of society. We’re not cells in some kind of big, giant person called Canada. We’re networks of individuals. But all these people affect each other – some a little, some a lot, and some in very subtle ways. Ideas, beliefs, and ways of acting all drift through these networks. 

So the individual people in those networks might share some tendencies, across the population when you survey it. Many of them may share tastes in food, or a peculiar rudeness in the behaviour of a city’s bad drivers. That’s where cultures come from: the integration of networks of individuals.

We’re not made by some omnipowerful essence called our nation. We’re individuals who all affect each other – and have some mild power over each other, in tension with each other. Most of the time, the people who are networked together benefit each other. 

We all do our jobs, keep our city’s infrastructure and businesses running, are generally nice to each other in the streets. But each of us, living our lives in pleasant, productive, peaceful ways, exercises their little bit of power to build and rebuild society every day.

Societies are not giant people who behave according to sarcastic
national stereotypes. But it would be funny if they were.
And that’s why you have no obligations to uphold your traditions if they stop working for you. If the world has changed so that something that you’ve always done before starts causing destructive effects, you can stop it. 

There’s no moral obligation to do something when it starts to hurt you instead of help you as it had for years or decades. Humans work best when we all strive to live so that we make each other’s lives better, or at least keep each other on the right track. The world is largely beyond our individual control, but we can adapt to a changing world.

Democracy is a politics that recognizes that fundamental human power over each other and over the world. It says to everyone who’s networked together and holds that little bit of power over everyone they’re fairly densely connected with: You have that power over each other, and an obligation to use it wisely for all our sakes. 

Democracy says: Each of us has a duty to help each other figure out the best way to survive and prosper. If that means overthrowing an old social habit or institution? If it looks like that’s the best route, heave ho.

Social conservatism in the face of destruction isn’t just foolhardy. It’s rude.

No comments:

Post a Comment