Walking on air and other dangerous pursuits

Skype is pretty amazing. I called my sister and brother-in-law on the West Coast the other day and we had a long conversation—that lasted about three hours.

What kind of talk? Mostly the economy and politics, with some family thrown in for good measure. But we ended up talking about the importance of common belief.

We agreed that there seemed to be a widespread desire for more functioning community in our lives but there wasn’t a common foundation of belief in modern society—at least from a spiritual or moral perspective. Instead of community we’re connected to jobs and shopping and our individual pursuits—and long-distance relationships as a replacement for community, and perhaps at the expense of community.

So two things seem to be happening. First, more than ever we’ve become single units in a larger system. And second, the larger system is evermore complex and centralized as organizations merge and expand. Today we occupy more specialized positions in these complex structures than our parents did. Or we fall outside the system altogether.

And falling outside the system is what happens when complex systems break down or fail. Spain, for example, is deeply in debt and facing government austerity and belt-tightening to pay back its loans while it runs a staggering 50 percent unemployment rate for those under the age of 25. It’s no surprise, then, to see Spanish youth take to the streets in months long protests and ongoing clashes with police.

From a sociological point of view, it turns out that the idea of social structures and beliefs—the actual social “ground”—is fundamental to the success of societies. And this changes significantly from place to place. In one data set from a few decades ago we learned that countries with strongly integrated common beliefs had lower suicide rates: lower in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain, and higher in Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

Translating this to Canada, we might then begin to understand why our aboriginal communities, which have had their traditional beliefs stripped away, are suffering from severe epidemics of suicide.

Here on the East Coast there are long strands of history woven into our communities over the past 300 years. The Acadian and Loyalist traditions are tightly integrated and can be seen in the succession of family names over the generations. That firm social ground makes it relatively easy for Maritimers to identify their places in society and to act out their roles. Everyone knows his or her place. But it also traps many of us in those roles.

Outsiders arriving here, while free from those grounding rules, are at a distinct disadvantage in many ways, as they don’t understand the underlying nuances of the society such as who controls the power and which families are the classic victims. And these are roles we learn early.

Sociology points out is that social structures trump moral systems. The shoe deforms the foot. We see this pretty clearly in Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971. Professor Zimbardo collected a group of normal students and randomly separated them into guards and prisoners and set up a prison compound on campus. The 14-day experiment had to be called off after 6 days. The guards had simply become too abusive and the prisoners too victimized to continue on. It was an eerie premonition of Abu Ghraib.

The conclusion of social researchers is simply this. Ordinary human beings are capable of the most inhuman behaviour given a sufficiently enabling social structure. We can see this from Nazi death camps and Stalinist gulags all the way to the current suppression of the Palestinians.

Apart from our social structures that can go horribly awry, all we have to stand on is our common moral ground—which, for the most part, no longer exists. Only a common moral ground can give us the courage to resist social pressures of social structures gone wrong. Which was why the Catholic Church was so important to the overthrow of the totalitarian communist regime in Poland, for example.

This leads to a myriad of thoughts. One of which is the fact that power corrupts. Another is the simple fact that more of us are serving the bureaucratically-controlled power at the top rather than our customers or our peers, with whom we’re competing—because that’s just how our system works.

And since our communities have been replaced by corporate central command and individual long distance personal communication, we’ve lost our local common ground—and the ability to resist the forces of power that may heading in the wrong direction.

Harper’s new bill C-51 and the future of Internet freedom is a good example. This new bill will mandate Internet companies to keep track on all of our activity. Not only will this make it more costly for small Internet providers, allowing larger providers to thrive, it will stifle free speech as the government will have full access to our correspondence.

Since “we’ve” given the Conservatives a majority government, we might believe that we have no choice but to give in and let this travesty occur. But we do have choice. Do we become cowering victims in this brave new world? Or do we stand up and fight back?

It’s a choice between walking on air—or finding common moral ground.

(Feel free to e-mail Stephen Harper anytime at pm@pm.gc.ca)


  1. Interesting and timely column. Personally spent much time this weekend thinking about and being faced with the concepts of local common ground and community....

  2. Wonderfully well reasoned and stated.

    I recall from Sociology 101 the concept of anomie. I believe we suffer a combination of heightened, conflictual partisanship and anomie, and that the anomie came first. In the seventies, American workplaces had begun to substitute for physical communities. Then, with the Reagan era, corporations lost their sense of responsibility to employee well-being and the groundwork was laid for round after round of lay-offs, pitting the workplace community members against each other and stressing the remaining workers increasingly.

    Anomie, I believe, is a product of that philosophical shift in the workplace, among other breakdowns of social support systems. Conflictual partisanship, the squaring up into factions who do not honor common ground, is a next step. And, after that?

    The next Big Divide I see on the horizon is a generational one. As limited financial resources are stretched, they cannot cover both bloated retiree populations and a shrunken younger workforce. Not class warfare, but generational conflict. That would break my heart.

    Is any of this true or relevant? Heck, I dunno. I'm just thinking out loud.

  3. I like the translation of Durkheim's "anomie," which is: 'at loose ends.' So what happens when an entire society, or an entire global population is at loose ends?

    We can see that there are some who aren't. The Muslim concentration, which "we" are helping to coalesce in response to our resource-imperialist project is a good example.

    And I would agree, Nance, that if we're not careful we'll drive our youth into a hopeless corner and we'll all suffer the consequences. But I would think that it's more class war than generational war, at least for the moment in North America. In southern Europe, the generations may factor larger.

  4. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read your analysis. As I read, I thought of how these concepts apply to the United States and I am not feeling optimistic. I think that we have deluded ourselves into believing that we have a common moral ground, hence the rallying cry, "We are a Christian nation." Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than the lack of common moral ground is the creation of a pseudo morality to use as a tool to divide and oppress.

  5. Wow, "pseudo morality...to divide and oppress," now that is eerily accurate and dangerous. And points to an even more sinister erosion (call it 'planned destruction') of common moral ground. You've hit a nerve...the intentionality of it.


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