Sunday, February 23, 2014


rying to improve society seems a surefire way to incur an Atlas syndrome. We must be mad or holy to try it, and maybe the difference is immaterial. Even for Hercules, the Superman of the past, holding up the world was not a permanent job. If we are neither mad nor holy, neither Superman nor Supergirl, and are not about to become any of those, we have to limit ourselves.
There are two ways to do this: choice of means and choice of ends. As means are usually the more limited of the two, it is wise to start with them. This chapter is about the different ways to improve society. The chapters that follow will deal with the different ends. Naturally, the choice of means and choice of ends are related.
How many ways are there to improve society? Aristotle identified two, and it is difficult to be more economic than that. One way to improve society is to engage in politics, and the other is to engage in education. This choice remains the basic one, although overlaps and gray areas exist between them.
The first chapter mentioned the paradox that lies in attempts to improve society through politics. To gain political influence we have to enter politics as it exists now. There is no way to improve the rules of the game without winning the game under its present rules. This fact is the means-end paradox of every social revolution. Even if we do not go that far, we are apt to be changed by the system we want to change. In stark words, to fight corruption effectively we may need to become an insider within the corrupt system.
Entry into the political arena with noble aspirations is possibly more common than cynics may expect, but retaining those aspirations without becoming quixotic is difficult. Most people who enter politics are much more down-to-earth. For many citizens, the cynical and easily corruptible gamesman is the prototypical politician. In the words of a song of Magna Carta:

‘I told a clean-cut political man:
We can change the world, we can.
O no, said he,
I let the world change me.’

The choice to improve society through education may seem less impure. Just educate the next, not-yet-corrupted generation by instilling new values and attitudes, or return to the neglected values and attitudes from previous better days. Yet, education is very much on view, and so it lies in the political domain. Usually education is heavily influenced by the state, and often by churches. Educational reformers see the need for political reform, just as political reformers see the need for educational reform.
We seem to have a chicken and egg problem here. So, here comes the rooster. The solution, although like most solutions probably a partial one, seems to lie in the overlap between the two domains. What also exists is something akin to political education, or adult education. I mean here all articulation of social and political ideas by writers, journalists, commentators, media directors, playwrights and novelists.
The core idea here is that of the influential thinker. Aristotle himself belongs to that category, as do Confucius, Thomas More, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to list a few names cited before. Their work touches both education and politics.
In our times examples of a second category of overlap, that of ‘educating politicians’, have included people such as Henry Kissinger and Helmut Schmidt. These leaders tried to influence political thinking as elderly statesmen, which made them both more and less credible than others. They were more credible in that they knew from inside experience what they were talking about, yet they were less credible because they still had an ax to grind while their return to power remained possible.
The influential-thinker position is attractive because one who fills such a role does not need to engage in power politics, party politics, or election machinery. This separation from politics carries a price: a considerable chance of not becoming influential. The dilemma that will be felt by one who attempts to change politics is still present here, though abated. We can take only so many steps from existing opinions and attitudes without condemning ourselves to being discovered, even if only by a future generation. I agree with Arthur Balfour that this is not a very relevant position:

‘I have often thought that when, on looking back over the history of human speculation, we find some individual who has anticipated the discoveries of a later age, but has neither himself been able to develop those discoveries nor yet to interest his contemporaries in them, we are very apt to bestow on him an undue honor. ‘Here,’ we say, ‘was a man before his time. Here was a man of whom his age was not worthy.’ Yet such men do very little indeed for the progress of the world of which at first sight they would appear to be among the most distinguished citizens. There is no use in being before your age after such a fashion as this. If neither you nor those to whom you speak can make use of the message that you thus prematurely deliver, so far as the development of the world is concerned, you might as well have not lived at all. When, therefore, we are asked to put our hands in our pockets and subscribe towards the erection of memorials to half forgotten worthies like these, by all means let us do it. It is natural and even praiseworthy. But do not let us suppose that those whom we thus honour really stand out among the benefactors of our species. They are interesting; but hardly useful.’

Let us explore which approaches are available for upgrading society toward more humanity and civilization, which social and political topics are both urgent and important, and in which possible roles individuals may contribute. The roles of influential thinker, politician and educator will be on that list. It will be interesting to see which roles suit which topics, and what individual capabilities we have to consider in choosing a role. This chapter involves approaches, the next chapters include topics, and the last chapter identifies roles.
I will distinguish three general strategies, and of each strategy three types. The first strategy improves society by upgrading role patterns and role expectations. The second strategy improves society by education. The third strategy improves society by solving its most nagging problems.
The first strategy we could call the moral approach. The word ‘moral’ is associated with moral indignation. This indignation is a human feeling, but reveals a barbaric habit beneath civilized gloss. Morality is infected with blaming others and scapegoating, or blaming ourselves and feeling guilty. But if these associations of blame were absent we could call the first approach moral, as it is about upgrading, ennobling the customs, the mores of society.

Humanization and Dehumanization Rituals
Society is people living together. Culture is how people live together. Civilization is how humanely people live together. Society is the sum total of all social acts of people. Social acts are influenced by individual traits, by particular circumstances and by role expectations. Role patterns cluster into institutions, and the network of institutions makes up a society.
Civilizational or moral strategies try to upgrade roles and institutions. The most straightforward approach to this effort is to refine or replace ingrained customs that bear directly on human relations and human dignity. Such customs are technically known as rituals. Rituals do not belong only to primitive tribes or exotic people. Our society is full of rituals, though our behavior is less prescribed than it would be in more traditional societies.
Humanization rituals make people more decent, taking one another more into consideration, into account. Historically, an important influence into ‘better manners’ has been court life.
A famous or rather infamous present-day example of the reverse of humanization would be the kinds of rituals in what Ervin Goffman called total institutions: hospitals, asylums, prisons. Many rituals practiced in these institutions are defacement rituals that are intended to strip people of their personality. The strongest examples of such defacement rituals are found in concentration camps, where all personal distinctions are removed and people are treated as animals or things. Inmates are regarded as useless or rejectable, as objects of contempt, derision or experiment. The essence of many camp rituals lay in declaring inmates to be nonpeople, nonhumans, reducing them to naked, frightened, trembling rabbits. As Goffman clearly showed, benevolent institutions such as hospitals and mental wards also employ defacement rituals. Think of the rituals practiced upon one’s entry into such a place, rituals such as checking the cleanliness of intimate parts of the body, and disinfecting. Think of the professor showing an interesting case to his students in the hospital.
By contrast, rituals that stress people’s humanity and personal dignity serve to enhance self-respect and self-confidence. All rituals that stress acceptance and inclusion of the participants and recipients in the habitable, civilized world are humanization rituals. Rituals that treat people as nonhumans, barbarians, animals, robots or things, or just not there, are dehumanization rituals, apart from any intention or awareness of the people who engage in such rituals. Let me give some examples from daily life.
If it is the custom that a company manager makes a personal call to an employee who is seriously ill, this is a humanization ritual. This ritual has nothing to do with the personal intentions, worth, or goodwill of the company manager, nor with the immediate consequences of such a personal call. The employee may view this company manager as a creep, a hypocrite, a sentimental quack, a fellow nature-lover or even a true Christian. These attitudes do not matter from the point of view that we are taking here. If such visits are the custom, then the ritual of visiting encourages the view that employees are human.
Likewise, if managers occasionally visit employees at home, then such managers will find it easier to see their employees as humans. Some managers and employees are philatelists, and others may have a girl of the same age or a son mad about personal computers. They may share an unexpected taste for a particular kind of music, a particular drink or a particular program. They complain about their mortgage, discuss a local politician, or are experts in fishing.
This interaction is important because boss-subordinate relationships in a factory are prone to dehumanization. Such relationships are always under pressure. Production schedules have to be met. Breakdowns occur, waste problems and quality problems arise, as does friction between groups and within groups. Competition, irritation, jealousy, distrust, and disappointment are present in the work environment. Rituals may reinforce such problems, contain them or counteract them. Work rituals define the culture of a company. The most successful companies have the strongest corporate culture.
Also important are break rituals, the way people behave when they have a break. According to commercials, the essential ingredient in fraternization breaks is the right cigarette or the right drink. More important, however, is how those cigarettes or drinks are offered and how they are enjoyed.
By contrast, dehumanization rituals are also common between organizations and their clients, especially when an organization does not depend directly on its clients for the organization’s survival, as is true with public agencies. The treatment given to clients at many counters is almost the prototypical defacement ritual.
We all know examples of people who feel that they are treated as numbers. We all know the bureaucratic crucifixion of people who happen to have a request or suffer circumstances that do not fit standard operating procedures. Such cases threaten the convenience of bureaucrats. Keeping people waiting is a common way to declare people as less important, quantités negligables, petty things. It is so easy to acquire Kafkaesque feelings that it is amazing that psychiatry lacks an established label for impotence in the face of bureaucratic machinery. Maybe such an affliction is too close for comfort, as many psychiatrists resemble bureaucrats.
It strikes deep nerves and deep fears in us to be reduced to impotence, to be unable to communicate with the apparently human, but anonymous interface of big systems. Only someone who is mentally disturbed can stay meek when faced with such insensitivity. The anonymous sphinx of modern bureaucracies is indeed a dehumanizing monster. It may console us to learn that firms that define their business as service are the most successful.
Just as horses respond favorably to a treatment geared to horses, and car engines respond favorably to maintenance schemes that are geared to car engines, so also people respond favorably to treatment geared to people (though we also have a great capacity to deprive ourselves under an inhuman regime and an inhuman culture).
Both working together and living together provide a wealth of opportunities for negative emotions and barbarism. Barbarism seems to me to be a state of social entropy. If we are not careful, we degrade into this kind of inert uniformity. If so, then interestingly enough the most natural condition of man is not the condition most congenial to his nature. It seems part of our human nature that we have to exert ourselves to reach a social and psychological state in which we can be ourselves. We are like an overcultivated crop that would degenerate in the wild and needs much care if it is to blossom and bear fruit properly. Yet, this strange crop called human beings carries the talent and the urge to create its own conditions.
For the individual, the precondition for creation of its own conditions is some degree of civilized society. The precondition for a civilized society is the presence of enough individuals who are civilized, despite their barbaric surroundings. Our earthly civilization is based on that quintessential human skill shown so exemplarily by the famous baron, Von Münchhausen, who pulled himself out of the swamp by his own bootstraps. Or as Friedrich Nietzsche puts it: ‘Educate educators! But they first have to educate themselves.’ Arnold Toynbee suggested, as a real baron would never do, that this education of educators is an excruciatingly painful process.
As the point here is development of civilization, not creation of it, we are, in Toynbee’s words, engaged in a Promethean, not a Faustian enterprise. The first step that we may take in developing civilization is to fight dehumanizing rituals and foster humanizing rituals. Giving thanks to someone for a service rendered is a humanizing ritual, as is the custom of replying promptly to requests. Barring someone from expressing an opinion in a meeting is dehumanizing, as is withholding of information about the purpose of our work.
Much of what goes under the name of alienation is actually a response to dehumanization. For example, we are treated as if we were merely a production asset, without awareness, without judgment, without motives, without intentions, without needs. These characteristics, however, are part and parcel of being human, so they come out anyway, usually with vengeance, in a perverted form.
Morality is about treating people as human beings. This definition is just as objective as saying that the right fuel for a diesel engine is diesel and not gasoline. Of course we can put gasoline in the tank of a diesel engine, but why should we? Some weirdo could try to convince us that such action is really an advanced, eye-opening art, or that it is part of a religious cult that offers spiritual relief by placing cars out of order and then meditates on the profound meaning of standstill, about the triumph of the spiritual mind over shallow pragmatism and unthinking common sense. Unless we want to be weird, there is a case to be made for using diesel fuel in diesel cars and gasoline in gasoline cars. The same applies to us as human beings, though we humans are much more complicated and have a much more complex evolutionary background.
I am not suggesting that people are just like machines. I suggest that a simple rule that already applies to machines also forms the basis of human morality. If we treat any system in a way that spoils it, wrecks it, damages it or unduly wears it down, we are manhandling it. Humanization rituals are the preventive maintenance of society.
The most sensitive areas in society with respect to human and inhuman rituals are total institutions; the least sensitive areas are market institutions. In total institutions, the weaker parties have to submit to whatever is being done to them. By contrast, in market institutions - no matter what happens - people can always go somewhere else.
Employment functions more as a total institution when unemployment and job stability are high and geographical flexibility is low. Employment functions more as a market institution when employment, job flexibility and geographical flexibility are high. Some institutions have made efforts to make themselves less total and more market-like, for example hospitals. Others have made efforts to humanize their rituals.
The first defenses against the arrogance of powerful institutions are more degrees of freedom and more humane procedures: liberalization and humanization respectively. Under liberal market conditions, those institutions do best that care about customers and employees. This is obvious. Amazingly, it needed rediscovery by management writers. Under liberal conditions, humane policies pay off, when applied with a fair dose of intelligence and a sprinkle of patience. Humane policies pay off handsomely indeed, not just in money, but in other currencies that matter, such as motivation and development and enjoyment.
To weed out dehumanization rituals, we have to begin in sectors where inequalities are strong and market characteristics are weak. Apart from examples already given, I point to the entire field of formal and informal education. Much earlier dehumanization has already been changed. Hosts of rituals of neglect and terror, of belittling and scaring children, have already been banished, though the education system still remains far from perfect.
Another field on the move is that of public and private sex. Many people appear to get more kicks from rituals of dominance and submission than from the physical and psychological pleasures of mating. One welcome change includes customs that discourage manipulation of people as things. Many people are disgusted by plastic life-size dolls (usually female) that are used as substitutes in copulation. However, using another person as if she or he were a plastic doll may be less disgusting, but is even more degrading.
A third field, both waxing and waning, is religion. Chapter 1 already pointed to the difference between the malevolent, hellfire-and-damnation variety of religion and the benevolent, gentlemanly variety. Not much barbarism now remains in the established churches, but many sects appear to make up for this lack.
Religious rituals that view conversion less as an inner purge and more as an outer purge are draconian, often barbaric, especially when, in biblical terms, it is done on the street corner instead of in an inner room. Also suspect are all rituals that mortify believers and blacken unbelievers. The checklist used to distinguish civilized from barbaric politics applies equally well in distinguishing civilized from barbaric religions. These distinctions can be less easily applied, however, to the mystic core of religion.
Thus we have education, sex, religion, total institutions, companies, and bureaucracies, six examples of worlds with rituals that may either be humanizing or dehumanizing.

 From Chapter 2 in Humanity, Civilization and Politics - e-book at

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