Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Good eggs and bad eggs

Last night I was privileged enough to attend a lecture at the University of Sydney by academic Frank Furedi, sociologist and author of a range of fascinating books, including Politics of Fear and Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone.

He didn't speak about his core argument of recent times - that as a society we're overly focused on fear and mitigating risk - instead he spoke about the broader question of how humanity views itself.

This is a fascinating topic, and one that I think is going to get some more attention in coming years.

Furedi's message was that we're descending into a widely pessimistic view of our fellow humans, and that is compromising many of our liberal values. When we think everyone around us is a fool or morally corrupt, then concepts like free speech lose much of their vigour.

I think this has special applicability to the way politics are evolving in the Western world at the moment.

With the fall of socialism, communitarianism has lost much of its appeal, especially to the Left. This means the Left needs to find new ways to define what it is in the 21st Century in a way that captures the sprit of the Left but also explains the appeal of communitarianism.

I think that is in our inherent views of human nature.

Instead of viewing the Left and Right as being at the far ends of an axis representing communitarianism at one end and individualism at the other, I think it's useful to look at the ends as being optimism or pessimism about human nature in general.

This in some ways entirely changes the definition of Left and Right, but most of the salient features of each ideology still remain.

Concepts like rehabilitation, free speech, freedom of the press, harm minimisation and welfare all have varying degrees of optimism about humanity.

Zero tolerance, censorship, 'tough on drugs' and the move to reduce welfare seem to have at their root a more pessimistic view.

For example, a zero tolerance approach to crime seems to imply that if an individual commits one criminal act, they're a bad egg.

Rehabilitation, on the other hand, seems to express the opposite view. It seems to hold an implicit belief in the possibility of redemption.

Welfare is another example. A pessimistic (and arguably strongly individualistic) view would look upon a long term unemployed individual with scepticism. If they were committed enough and not lazy, they'd have a job. At a certain point the pessimist simply deems them unworthy of further coddling and calls for the welfare payments to be taken away.

On the other end of the spectrum, the optimist (and arguably the communitarian) suggests there might be other mitigating factors in the individual's long term unemployment, and seeks to support them in the hope they will get a job, and in the process shrug off any possible latent laziness they might have as a result of their time on welfare.

These are obviously broad and sweeping examples with many unexplored nuances, but I think the general principle is clear.

It should also be obvious that I see a link between optimism and communitarianism, and pessimism with individualism - but this link is not 1:1. It's more like a two axis plane where the axes are not perpendicular, but are rather at a 45 degree angle, if that makes sense.

Further to this theory, it might be worth exploring whether the Left might benefit from a redefinition in terms of optimism about human nature. With the next step being a nice solid empirical analysis of whether that optimism is justified.

I'm sure the optimism is. Much of it is also a matter of perspective. While there are some strong cases for pessimism, such as repeat offenders returning to jail or long term unemployed explicitly basing their lifestyles around welfare, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic too.

As Furedi stated in his lecture, the 20th Century will be remembered as the century of the Holocaust, massive world wars, genocide, nuclear weapons etc, it should equally be remembered for its triumphs for humanism, the United Nations, reductions in racism, the increased spread of democracy and equal rights for women etc.

"If all that's what a bad century can achieve, imagine what a good century could do," he said.

If this theory has some merit, it could also go some way to explaining why the Right is so powerful in politics today. When fear is spread amongst a population, our optimism towards our fellow humans is eroded. This can lead to a more cynical approach to the world, with more mistrust and suspicion. And this serves the Right handily.

This means if this theory holds some truth, then it's just as important to reinforce the positive aspects of human nature as is it to actually do good.

After all, optimism is a perception, and perceptions can be influenced - for good or for ill.

I'm sure Professor Furedi would heartily agree.


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