A society akin to bubble wrap.
I first employed this metaphor, when I was reflecting upon and writing about my experience of living in New Zealand.
In New Zealand, it seemed to me at the time, there was a tendency to create homogeneous and mutually indifferent social groups. I thought it a consequence of New Zealand’s wealth and safety. Mutually indifferent homogeneous groups could peacefully coexist (more or less) because, in New Zealand, there are plenty of resources for everyone.
At the time, for autobiographical reasons (more on this in a future post), I thought this a uniquely Kiwi tendency. In recent years, I’ve come to think it may be a human tendency.
For the most part, it seems to me, most people prefer to associate with people very much like themselves and will only associate with dissimilar people if circumstance demands it and perhaps only when their well-being and survival requires it. In conditions of safety and wealth, humans tend to associate with — and look out for — only their own kind.
The seemingly inevitable outcome of this tendency is that indifference too quickly and too easily turns antagonistic and aristocratic. Once a homogeneous group starts to think that the stars on their bellies make them more special than everyone else, it’s all too easy for them to conclude that only they are entitled to the resources they control and, overall, they should have more resources than everyone else. All too quickly, it is us vs. them and the war of all against all looms.
For as long as there has been empire, priests, philosophers and politicians have conjectured that a shared religion, history, or set of values could provide the social glue to hold different communities together. I think there is sufficient empirical research to indicate this hypothesis is bollocks and I have argued as much in a peer reviewed publication. On my view, religion, ideals, values or history don’t hold people together, people hold people together, and we only create the necessary attachments when we interact with each other on a regular basis.
When I reflect on the present ails of Western society, I return again and again to this apparent tendency to create homogeneous social groups. It seems to me that our ails arise precisely because small homogeneous groups take control of some domain of society, exclude people not like them from it, and, eventually, loot the resources to their own advantage and to the harm of others.
Is this tendency towards homogeneity an unstoppable fact of human existence? Is it possible for a heterogeneous community to persist over time? Will a heterogeneous community always congeal into indifferent and then hostile homogeneous communities? Is a heterogeneous community, properly-speaking, even possible? Is heterogeneous association an accidental and ephemeral moment in the short transition from homogeneity to homogeneity?