Hallmarks of Civil Society
Time to review?
Friends have enquired why I voted YES in the Australian plebiscite (October-November 2017) that supported legal recognition of “Same Sex Marriage” (SSM) in Australia. Worldwide there are many such socially divisive issues, depending on the stage of development of the societies where they arise.
In most of the social media and public discussion of this and other difficult topics, commentators have largely appealed “emotionally” to ideological positions – such as their views on traditions (including various religious and cultural traditions), ideologies of fairness and inclusion, social order etc. – often citing anecdotal support and hypothetical argument for their particular opinions (while too often dismissing contrary views with little care). The validity of their philosophies should not be doubted where they reflect their genuinely held views. At the extremes of arguing any “controversial” issues, there are always those who go beyond the bounds of civility; resorting to pejorative language, muffling expression of differing opinions and respectful debate, citing fake “facts”, demonising others (even with intimidation and violence) who hold contrary views.
From my own perspective (in the study of “complexity” and application of “complex adaptive systems thinking”), I view history (beyond recitation of events and circumstances) as being in a grand “evolutionary continuum” (there are many models that others use and I am not here claiming proof for my particular understanding or of its ultimate truth). The continuum can be viewed as commencing with formation of the universe(s) from “nothing”; establishment of life and organisms with their need and capacity for adaptation; species evolution and genetic adaptation; development of ecologies of competing, autonomous “agents”; emergence of social systems, familial and tribal relationships, human endeavour and organisation, social philosophies and institutions - all stages of which have been and are dependent for success, dynamically (a) at a global level on “massive” scale and diversity, and (b) at a local or agent level on single-minded passion and perseverance to succeed.
This perspective reflects an ongoing societal development that is at best faltering - more like a “fabric” being torn and patched, than a unidimensional, unbroken “chain” of progress. Within the continuum are a diverse assortment of “psycho-social constructs” - social fictions, institutions, discoveries, and philosophies – that variously build on, preserve or negate, former customs, superstitions, myths and legends, social wisdoms, enlightenment and reason, science and technology, and ideologies generally.
All such constructs are never “settled”; they begin, adapt, fragment, die and are generally transformed over time and with changing circumstances. This includes, in practice, religions and other frameworks (such as the English common law) that adherents have variously claimed are unchanging (whether in their practices, principles or the behaviours they encourage). However, changes in institutions can and do emerge to the benefit of their followers and in order to survive and thrive; equally, destructive change may be initiated by “leaders” prosecuting private agendas for other purposes. Changes usually take place with some difficulty, given the conflicting objectives of those involved.
Religion can be viewed as such a “psycho-social” construct that has offered explanatory frameworks for understanding the perplexities of life and being, preserving social wisdom and maintaining social cohesion and a sense of hope and meaning (albeit that it may be “primitive” [depending how it is viewed, or ancient depending when it emerged, or contextual depending on the prevailing circumstances]. Religious language is necessarily “metaphorical”, even poetic, with its “mysteries”, myths, legends, and superstitions often mingled with some supporting “foundational” history). Of course, many ideologies and philosophies considered to be “outside” the accepted sphere of religion blur the distinction; they bear to a greater or lesser extent similar characteristics.
With these views of Society and all its supporting constructs, I have attempted to derive – and offer in conclusion for reader comment - four irreducible, essential properties or hallmarks of a society that is to advance sustainably (albeit falteringly). Like the legs of a table, they need to be evenly matched to the (changing) surface or prevailing conditions, if the table is to remain firm. The hallmarks are:
1.Individual freedom - nothing unnecessarily constrained or enforced
2.Informed engagement – understanding the realities of the world (as they are and as they are seen by others - both lessons in history and implications for the future) – nothing beyond questioning or debate
3.Responsibility to others - care for people of present and future generations and their lives
4.Reverence for what is “good” – especially intangibles such has beauty, love, arts, treasured traditions and institutions.
The hallmarks are “cultural” in that they cannot be fully defined, formed and well-cultivated in a few stand-alone, monolithic, institutional frameworks (such as pure capitalism, democracy etc.). Indeed, they require a multi-dimensional social framework in which conflicting perspectives, ideas and views can compete on their merits, where human endeavour can flourish, where critical thinking is prized, trumping dogma and indoctrination, where civil expression and dialogue is not censored, where social cohesion is promoted, and where all have opportunity free of threat or intimidation.
The hallmarks are also essential. History abounds with lessons of where freedom of endeavour and expression are unnecessarily constrained, citizens may be involved but unable to discern the impacts of their decisions, other groups are unfairly suppressed, and the heritage and customs that raise people’s spirits and sense of well-being are discouraged.
Returning to the issue at hand, legal recognition of same sex marriage. Through human history small, procreating, stable family and extended community and tribal groupings have had demonstrable advantages for survival and societal development. Preservation of advantage has typically been a priority, involving punishment of those seen, rightly or wrongly, to be outside the accepted norms. However, circumstances, certainly in developed economies with their modern (to some “secular and post-religious”) societies and technology, have been in continuous change. The norms needed historically to support social survival and development have changed. Specifically, rigidity in traditional family structures are proving to be less compelling today. It has therefore been timely (if not overdue) to review legal constraints and to question if they are needed. With this perspective I considered the main arguments put for-and-against, have generally endorsed in discussion legal recognition of SSM, and then voted YES in support. I believe it is feasible to allow greater freedom than before, and to relax this particular constraint on family structures. That is not to say all is perfect, but the people have spoken. In my view the decision is both "right in the head, and right in the heart".
Other controversial issues are emerging and will continue to do so. Examples include the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, welfare, censorship and discrimination, policies on refugees and immigration, and priorities for education, health, defence, property, commerce, public utilities and the environment, and rights and obligations generally.
Certainly, there will be flow-on implications and controversies. The manner of making and implementing decisions will reflect the maturity of the society. Rather than wait for all matters to be resolved before any progress can be made, I trust that the society I want to be part of will endeavour to move forward - hopefully trying to keep in balance the four hallmarks I am proposing; individual freedom, informed engagement, responsibility to others and reverence for what is accepted as “good”.