We live in a world where, increasingly, we expect perfection. Perhaps we don’t always admit that to ourselves, but it is evident in our behaviour when things go wrong. The smartphone that breaks, the train that is delayed, our child’s poor test scores, the outbreak of a virus. When these things happen, the predominant tendency is to cast around to find the person responsible, then complain, protest or sue to obtain an apology, compensation and – most of all – a promise that it will never happen again. New regulations, better technology, improved education, more effort, more money. If we only apply enough of these, then nothing need ever go wrong again. When improvements fail to materialise, we look elsewhere for perfection. Switch suppliers, move to another country, find a new partner. This constant quest for perfection is so ingrained in our society that we rarely even notice it, let alone challenge it. This series of posts will look at the effect of our desire for perfection on various aspects of our lives. This post: the perfect society
Growing up in the 80s, I was a big fan of Star Trek – The Next Generation. The Enterprise and its crew came from the Federation, an apparent utopia of people living together in harmony and sending emissaries through the universe to contact lesser civilisations and bring them into their perfect union. While I didn’t rate the society I lived in as highly as the Federation, it did feel like we had made great strides forwards, with better rights for women, bans on capital and corporal punishment, the legalisation of single-sex unions, and improved opportunities for people from minorities and poorer backgrounds. As the 80s turned to the 90s, it seemed like the whole world had finally seen the light and was moving in the same direction. The Berlin Wall fell, East European countries emerged from behind the iron curtain, Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid ended, and even arch-enemies America and Russia signed treaties to ban nuclear weapons, allowing my fear of nuclear war to retreat into infrequent recurring nightmares. There might be stumbles along the way, but it seemed that society as a whole was inching steadily along the long path towards perfection.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 By Lear 21
The final destination on that path was clear to me. Perfection was peace, democracy, freedom (especially of speech), tolerance, equality for all, the end of discrimination. A society in which each individual received the support they needed from the state – education, healthcare and social security – and was further free to follow their heart and achieve their full potential. Where decisions were made based on knowledge and facts, logically and objectively, with equal consideration for everyone’s needs.
Thirty years on, my feeling of optimism has ebbed away and been replaced by growing pessimism. Things now seem to be steadily getting worse. News of poisonings of political opponents of Russia and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula raise the spectre of the Cold War. Ex-East bloc countries suppress press freedom and promote conservative views about gender, while newly Chinese Hong Kong is being subjected to an increasingly repressive regime. South Africa may be free of apartheid but it struggles with crime and inequality.
In the supposedly enlightened western world, things are no better. The drive for equality is being countered by a strong backlash against race and gender equality that is growing in violence. People are turning away from expertise and evidence to trusting tweets and memes. At the same time as anyone may say anything on social media and be believed, those who utter statements not in line with the prevailing opinion can expect to be subjected to abuse as a matter of course. Nationalist groups are on the rise in many countries. In the UK, a narrow majority who voted for Brexit after a campaign filled with lies is pulling their country out of the EU, a cooperation of nations specifically developed to counter nationalism and encourage countries to work together. The EU itself is struggling with internal divisions, unable to check the behaviour of member states and still reeling from recent economic and immigration crises. The UN, the body that in concept appears to most embody the ideal of global justice and unity, has failed spectacularly when called in to police conflicts and mediate between nations, in particular during the Yugoslav Wars and the intervention in Somalia. And I don’t even want to get started on the state of the U.S., where the concept of truth itself is under attack.
The last thirty years have left me bitterly disappointed at our sudden slide down an enormous python in the game of snakes and ladders, when our ideals seemed just a few throws of the dice away. But more importantly, my broader experience of the world in that period has made me understand why my perfect society is nothing more than a dream. It’s not because I’ve realized it’s impossible to achieve. It’s because I have discovered that my ideal of a perfect society is just that – my ideal. And those who don’t share it are not – or not always – unenlightened selfish idiots in need of education and conversion, but intelligent, caring people with a different outlook on life.
Driving around Montana, along miles of empty roads, far away from towns and cities and with the choice of two radio stations – rock or God rock – I could understand why someone living there would not be so keen to pay taxes for civic facilities they do not use, would trust more to a rifle in the house than the police force several hours’ drive away, and would have little interest in treaties with countries whose inhabitants they would never meet. Similarly, a documentary about a community of travellers in the Netherlands gave a flash of insight into why such groups are notorious for refusing to cooperate with the police – the same police force that, during the second world war, handed their family members over to the Nazis for extermination.
Attending an Indian wedding, I was surrounded by happy family members thoroughly enjoying a series of traditional rituals that involved no explanation, no ushers showing them which way to go, no awkward contretemps when someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I couldn’t help contrasting the relaxed scene with the continual negotiations, misunderstandings and interpretations required when my various multi-cultural branches of family come together. Suddenly, I could see the point of those parents who prefer their children to marry into their own community.
Continuing on the theme of weddings, I was astonished to learn that a colleague’s wife had promised to obey him. This was a man with whom I worked together on a completely equal footing, with mutual respect for each other’s abilities, and never a hint that he regarded himself as above me due to his being male. Then the explanation followed: he did not believe himself to be above his wife, but saw himself as being the one who was responsible for the welfare of the family. It was therefore his job to make the decisions, a burden he was shouldering as part of his equal share of their marriage duties, not a privilege he took away from her. It was not the basis I would choose for a relationship, but it did make me stop and think that some of those we casually brand as backward, selfish sexists may in fact be motivated by feelings of responsibility, generosity and love.
Learning more about the history of the world, I was shocked at how the UK had supplied opium to China, and even gone to war when China took action to save their citizens from the addictive drug, all to obtain a more favourable trading position. That knowledge put the question of Hong Kong and the suspicion with which China regarded foreign interference in a new light, and I could comprehend the irony they saw in the US condemning the storming of the Capitol while cheering the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. As always, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. And the apparent success of harsher regimes in fighting the corona virus and the pivotal role of a dictator in winning the Second World War underline the disadvantages of a free democracy. Which is more important to the ideal society, freedom to do as we please, or protection from illness and invaders?
I’ve grown to respect and understand many different viewpoints. Yet they haven’t convinced me to change my mind about my own principles. How, then, can I ever expect to convince others in my turn? The perfect society is therefore impossible, as we can never agree on what it is.
However, as we all live together, somehow we have to translate those differing individual views into communal decisions. Democracy attempts this by allowing each citizen a vote so that they can influence their government. In reality, translating all these votes into a choice of leadership is very hard. In majority rule the wishes of all those who voted for the losing parties are ignored, in coalition governments those wishes are compromised on during negotiations between parties. Communism in its ideals attempts to care for all – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. But again, the devil is in the details: who decides your ability, who determines your needs? Despite the noble ideal, communism is often accused of repressing the individual and failing in a fair division of resources.
At the end of the day, no system is better than the people in it. Checks and balances attempt to ensure those in power behave correctly, but with enough ingenuity and friends in high places, all rules can be bent. The temptation to offer preferential treatment to friends or to those groups you have an affinity with is strong, and democracy even formalizes the latter by allowing interest groups to lobby politicians, giving those with a successful lobby more chance of getting what they want. This has been apparent in the Netherlands during corona.
It’s easy to denigrate governments. But, in all honesty, a government that sincerely attempted to serve all its citizens would face a mammoth undertaking. Simply consulting all the groups and finding out their needs is a colossal and time-consuming task, and that is even before you begin to consider how to balance out all those needs, to decide whose wishes will be granted and whose will be sacrificed ‘for the greater good’ – once you have succeeded in defining ‘the greater good’. Even Solomon himself would probably have thrown his hands up in defeat.
After all that work, it is inevitable that some groups would still be disappointed. In fact, a truly fair government should disappoint everyone to approximately the same degree. This wouldn’t tend to make them very popular. Living in a society that genuinely cares for everyone means regularly sacrificing our individual desires. Losing our job in the oil sector because environmental concerns mean that we need to switch to renewable energy. Paying taxes for hospitals when we can afford private health care, so that everyone can receive treatment. Listening to an opinion we find offensive because we accept that everyone has a right to free speech. It’s not something that many of us would vote for. Much more appealing is a government that promises to do what you want, and delivers on it quickly. That’s what Trump’s supporters got, and while it was a disaster for everyone else, they were delighted that he stuck to his guns and delivered – in their eyes – what he had promised.
Coming up with a system of government that truly represents its citizens, that looks out for their interests, that ensures that those in power deserve the trust of those citizens, is way beyond me. But perhaps it is beyond anyone at this stage in our evolution. We are still hardwired for tribes, to take care of our friends and family, to feel more sympathy for someone we know or have at least met. When faced with the “burning building” moral dilemma between rescuing our loved ones from a fire, or rescuing a professor whose research could save millions of lives, most of us would choose for our own family. Caring equally for all and making decisions based solely on cold logic is an ideal that it is impossible to practice. And suppose, for a moment, that we could do it. What would be the repercussions for the rest of our society? What would happen to family, to friends – to love – if our emotions and loyalties were so easily put to one side?
The positive developments in the 80s/90s all had one thing in common – reaching out across a divide to try and peacefully work together with others, despite our differences. The recent negative developments are united by a different set of common factors – a retreat to our own familiar group, a lack of tolerance of others, and a desire to impose our own order. Yet I suspect that the one led to the other. That after enthusiastically embracing other cultures we discovered that they weren’t, after all, basically the same as us, albeit with some colourful customs. That those differences didn’t just disappear over time, and that dealing with them remained complicated and frustrating. That there is no perfect system that can unite diverse groups without confusion, friction, misunderstandings, compromise and a whole lot of talking. It’s no surprise that many of us gave up.
There is a well-known theory of how groups develop that refers to four stages, forming, storming, norming and performing. The second stage – storming – is so named because it often involves conflict while people learn about each other, work out their disagreements and ultimately gain each other’s trust. It’s tempting to avoid it by sticking to the groups we already have. But as long as we stay in our safe bubbles, we will stay stuck in the same cycle of winning while our own group is in power, losing when it is not. All the while, misconceptions, suspicion and resentment build up, driving our groups further and further apart.
Ultimately, ducking conflict in the short term only stores it up for a major conflict in the future. A society where we listen to other’s views and try to understand them, even when they infuriate or shock us, where we face our conflicts head on and struggle gamely through the labyrinthine intricacies of the negotiation process, where we are willing to sometimes compromise on our ideals to accommodate others, is far from perfect. But I think it is ultimately a better society – for all of us.