Essay #5 on SOCIAL ORDER
During the week of September 20 to 27, 2019 worldwide protests mobilized 4 to 5 million participants in a Strike for the Climate. The figurehead and early instigator of this historic week of activism was 16 year-old Greta Thurnberg of Sweden who began Friday “School Strikes for the Climate” in front of the Swedish Parliament. Within a year the movement has expanded and has now generated a counter-movement determined to establish doubt about Greta personally in order to undermine the effort to stop carbon emissions and global warming. No matter which side is right (and I do think the answer is beyond doubt), everybody agrees we live because the environment supports life as we have it.
This is a striking, current example of how social order exists in a context.
Obviously, there would be no social order if humankind becomes extinct. Social groups, evolutionary theory states, came into existence when the natural environment made it possible for human beings to emerge and survive. Groups clung together for mutual support, and possibly because DNA prescribed social order for our species.
Put another way, more generally, physical existence with all its necessities and conditions is one of the contexts for our having life. An accommodating set of physical circumstances and abilities is a precondition for anything more complicated, such as a social group.
Religion is another context.
It is one of the persistent efforts of religion to describe how optimum social order must also exist in a religious context. Creation stories for all major religions provide metaphors and narrative images that tell how society was conjured up within a state of pre-existing divinity. Usually those stories describe how people were created in the world of the gods and then consigned to a realm sandwiched between divine order and utter chaos. Most of the narratives admit that the divinities were orderly in ways beyond the scrutiny of mortals, and behaved in ways that combined conflicts as much as harmony. But the idea was that something like a heavenly kingdom was the context for the best human life.
Reformation of religious talk about this typically includes objecting to the idea that some sort of divine order existed before human beings thought it up. Buddhism, for example, dispenses with the need to propose a creation narrative with gods being the creative agents, and instructs us that there is a far better way to optimize our human condition than to rely on gods to do it. Even Christianity, which centralizes the role of God, proposes that social order depends on correct social action, in which divine intervention is to provide inspired motivation, unobstructed by such limitations as sin and evil, those having been dealt with by Jesus Christ.
Religion, however it is conceptualized, is one of the contexts for social order.
In fact, every aspect of social order is contextual. Some of our context is from birth: genetic heritage, cultural heritage, civic heritage. Some is subject to change by moving into a new social context or life condition: examples are how we adapt to the way we are seen by others (as when we move from being one of a dominant ethnic group to being a minority), how we change based on new experiences, how our social context changes when we develop a terminal illness. Some of our contexts can change through effort or intervention, as when a person transitions from being male to female, or how we can become urbanized after having been born on a farm. Some of our social boundaries have everything to do with morality, as when a person is imprisoned for a crime; but other limitations of our situation in society may have nothing to do with morality, as with persons on the autism spectrum.
Most of this is so obvious that the question arises, “Why is it important to recognize that social context is a controlling factor in the social order of which we are a part?”
Obvious as it may be when we are thinking about it, when we are not thinking squarely about contextual influences on our social order context fades from view.
Take moral authority for example. I define moral authority as the discursive power that comes from consistently advocating a moral position to the point that the positive results of such a position are obvious and compelling. If a person or a social entity loses their moral authority through some action(s) of their own or through a change in their society, the loss can be devastating. But when we are not considering acquired moral authority as a factor of value, the full consequences of a course of action may not be accurately assessed.
Throughout several decades of the twentieth century the USA acquired moral authority in behalf of democracy. As a result, the USA was able to convince several national governments to make choices for democratic policies, both by its moral example and by offering persuasion or incentives to overcome obstacles those nations faced in the path to democratization. Primary among the democratic principles is that the authority to choose resides with the people, and it is important that all minority voices be heard. The Cold War began with both sides (led by the USA on one side and the Soviet Union on the other) espousing high moral principles, but the moral authority was heavier on the side of the USA because of the subjection that Maoist-Stalinists imposed on free expression and dissent. But in the conduct of the Cold War, which became hot in many spots (Korea, Vietnam, Latin America in particular), moral authority was traded for strategic authority, the power to obscure facts and ignore moral principles in order to gain strategic advantages thought to be necessary in order to attain a greater objective. Assassinations, targeting civilian populations in order to get at guerilla military and terrorist groups, disrupting or corrupting humanitarian activities, and many other actions previously thought to be immoral were justified and then normalized. That erosion of moral authority is now nearly complete in that the USA is no longer considered a shining example and advocate of democracy. It is actually hard to find any nation that looks up to the USA in this regard.
During World War I, as a result of unrestrained barbarity, Europe lost its authority to be the world’s moral leader. The very idea that Europe could show the world how to be civilized was reduced to ridicule. In retrospect the end was a long time coming, considering how Europe dealt with its colonies and subjugated whole people groups to extermination and enslavement.
It is becoming clear that Israel has also lost its moral authority. It was moral authority alone that mandated the creation of the State of Israel by a vote of the United Nations in 1948. The people of the Holocaust needed a home of their own to live free and achieve a future for their children secure from pogroms and genocide. The rights of all people in the region were to be guaranteed, Jews, Christians and Muslims; Semites, Europeans, Palestinians and Bedouins, Africans and sojourners. Israel was to be a secular state with a national religion. Borders with other states were defined. After 5 decades of intermittent war, and the immigration of masses of Jews liberated from the Soviet Union, Israel’s character has changed. It is almost finished subjugating minority populations and appropriating the entire land for Jewish settlement.
People, too, lose moral authority. Clergy come to mind. It is mainly a pastor’s moral authority that validates the pastor as leader of a group. But that can be lost.
I read, today, of a pastor who reported, "I do not currently have a congregation because I was deemed to be ‘dangerous’ to couples during and after my divorce.” And another clergyman was suddenly without his position in a mega-church the very day he admitted he was gay. Stories are piling up about priests whose moral authority and their ability to function in their pastorates has been undone by their moral turpitude, and bishops have been exposed as co-conspirators, sending the entire church into thundering decline.
But moral authority which is social power in one context can be unlike powerful moral authority in another. I lost my moral authority to serve as a religious leader in the Christian Church in Thailand when I was open about my relationship with my spouse (not, I contend, because the relationship was immoral but because the church consensus was against it, and so my social context prevented its being openly acknowledged), but I slowly gained a new kind of moral authority through insightful and consistent dealing with subordinates and officials in university circles.
That concludes this series of essays on SOCIAL ORDER.
Our status in society is determined by several factors. My right to be in a group depends on how the group conceives of itself and what it requires of members. It also depends on how rigidly the group enforces those requirements and whether there is room for adjustment and change. Membership in a family is widely considered a matter of birth or adoption, but many homeless gay and lesbian young people know the family can be capricious. Love and hate coincide and rotate. Immigrants are loved at one time and despised at another.
The right to be in a group resides with the social contract the group has adopted. Some societies opt for authoritarianism and others against it. But there are consequences and those can be hard to predict. On the whole, authoritarianism breaks down, but giving ultimate authority to all the people is hard to manage and sustain. Authority tends to gravitate toward the top and must constantly be shaken down again, or society begins to disintegrate.
Communication is essential to society. When conversation becomes devious with hidden agendas or other willful disregard for dialogue, what remains is some form of self-reflexive expression on both sides. Once we have agreed to expression rather than conversation the outcome is division rather than consensus. Society cannot be sustained without honorable dialogue.
That brings me to little Pen.
Pen is 5½ years old. She was born with a rare congenital condition that prevents her muscles from developing. She lacks muscles to move around, to grasp anything, or even to chew. She barely has muscles to breathe and must rely on continuous oxygen enhancement equipment. She is fed through a tube. She can whimper and whisper a few words. She watches TV cartoons and sleeps. She is, in short, totally and completely dependent on others. Fortunately, she has a family that has dedicated itself to whatever support she needs. They have assistance from the medical authorities, which includes experts in this rare syndrome who have access to equipment which is donated to Pen’s family. There is no aspect of little Pen’s place in society that is “normal”. She is utterly unique. She is a little girl without most of the attributes of other girls. She is Thai with only the bare minimum of cultural accomplishments. She is a member of the family unlike any other member. She is a member of the community and wider society without prospect of contributing to it, or of benefitting from it in more than the most elementary ways.
Pen is utterly marginal to the social order. But she is a test. As long as the social order takes care of Pen adequately, however it does so, the social order is legitimized. The very moment society turns against Pen and decides she is extraneous, society is doomed.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.