In my last post I recorded my pleasure at having one of my 2007 posts, Why I am not a conservative, listed as one of the best independent blog posts of 2007. In response AV, while also congratulating me, took issue with some of my comments on gay marriage.
You will find AV's post here. Do read the comments as well.
The section of the post that drew AV's ire follows:
Take a question that I have not discussed on this blog, my views on gay marriage. I support civil unions for gays. I support legal recognition of the joint rights of gay couples. I do not support gay marriage because the term “marriage” carries very specific connotations linked back to our Christian heritage, so that the application of the term “marriage” creates tensions and problems among much larger groups in society.
This may change. But for the present, my view is that we need to find a solution that gives gays the legal and indeed symbolic things that they need, while recognising the views of the larger group.
I have a profound love of and respect for our core institutions. Perhaps I can be classified as a conservative in this area, although the views I hold are very much minority views even among those classified as “conservative”.
Now AV read thus last paragraph as an extension of my previous argument, whereas it is in fact the start of a new point. However, AV's response provides an opportunity to revisit that earlier post. In doing so, I want to try to tease out some further elements that influence my thinking on social, moral and political issues.
Time is very short just at present, making it hard to allocate large blocks of time for thought pieces. For that reason, I am going to treat the post as a work in progress.
Setting the Scene
All societies face problems in accommodating different values and changes in values. We can see a little of this in a later exchange on the gay marriage issue.
On 25 October 2007 in Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriage - confusions about values in an an over-regulated society I returned in part to the gay marriage theme. This part of the post drew a strong response in comments and on other blog posts. Unfortunately I did not keep a full record, but you will get something of the flavour including some links from my own posts:
- 25 October 2007 Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriage - confusions about values in an over-regulated society
- 29 October 2007 Mr Rudd and Gay Marriage Revisited
- 30 October 2007 Let's Take the Law out of Marriage
This is not a post on gay marriage. I am giving these posts as an example of the complexities that can arise in discussions about values, especially when those values are connected in some way with legal structures.
Out of time. I will return to this post a little later.
University offers out last night. Clare got offered the course she wanted, ancient history at Macquarie, so that's good.
Continuing my musings, all human societies have to find ways of accommodating different and changing values and beliefs.
As a social observer, I am interested in the processes by which this happens. But then as a person, I am affected by it because my own values and beliefs are involved, may be challenged. Like anybody, I can get very angry when this happens. So just as society has to have a process for accommodating change, so do I at a personal level.
The Influence of Anthony Downs
Many years ago I read Anthony Downs' An Economic Theory of Democracy. At this distance I do not remember the whole book, but there was one idea that I drew from it that I found very interesting and which has since become a key part of my intellectual armoury.
Consider this example.
Public opinion polling may show that a particular thing, say alleviation of child poverty, is seen as important, yet little or nothing happens. At the same time, money is spent on a variety of other things that society as a whole would regard as less important. We can see a manifestation of this in the supermarket or shopping approach to political campaigns that I have complained about so much. Here, for example.
All this comes about because there are a range of views, of perceived needs, in society. Different weight is placed upon those needs by different groups. In broad terms, a strongly felt need from a group within society is more likely to be met than a broader but more shallowly felt need. This holds so long as the action to meet the need does not create greater countervailing forces.
Something similar seems to happen in the social value creation, value change process.
If you look at major changes, you often find a minority group with strongly held views that set out to persuade the broader community. At first, their efforts seem to bear limited fruit. However, with time and sometimes circumstance, they build a sufficient coalition to force change.
Examples that I can think of here include the campaign against slavery, gay rights and, more recently, whaling. I am sure that you can think of many other examples. However, there is a corollary here.
Change occurs because society moves to accommodate passion. But go too far, push too hard, and resistance may form. Then the very passion that gained the first success becomes a problem.
The growing schism in the Anglican Church is an example. Whaling may well be a second example.
More whales are hunted today than there were five years ago. While the current Australian public response is largely anti-whaling and even xenophobic, for the first time local voices have emerged prepared to argue in favour of whaling.
I suppose that one of the things that I have tried to do in some of my posts is simply to warn that this can happen.
How one responds to all this depends upon one's own position. Here there can be something very satisfying in preserving the absolute purity of one's views regardless of the results.
Impact of Demographic and Social Change
To say that societies change is an obvious truism. Yet it is also a truism that has real content.
The mass migration program after the Second World War fundamentally changed Australia. If Australians in 1949 had known the full extent of the change, then they could well have actively rejected the program. Something similar is happening today.
There have always been many societies in Australia, another of my regular themes. I think that this is even truer today.
In Teasing Neil - but with a serious point, I said in part:
If we generalise this to Australia, the things that hold us together are our shared institutions including our political system, our shared experiences and our common culture. This is where I see a risk of things breaking down. Increasingly, Australia is marked by divides, by divisions.
Now my argument here is based on in part on my own examination of changing demographic structures across Australia, the social landscape. This shows divergences along many dimensions on a scale never seen before in Australia.
I am not saying that this is necessarily a problem, although I think that it is an issue that we need to consider. But what I have argued in the current context is that none of us should make assumptions about future values in the face of major social change.
I see no reason to believe that changes over the next thirty years will be any less dramatic than in the past thirty years.
I am going to have to break again.
Groups, Hierarchies and Globalisation
I have always been something of an outsider. This is partially a matter of personality. However, it also reflects the things that I have done, the extent to which I have been aware of, and to some degree involved in, many very different groups.
The need to find some way to fit in, to belong, is a deeply felt human need. We tend to mix with people that in some way share our own experiences, values and beliefs. We can see this in the way that groups form, evolve, developing their own cultures.
Each group tends to believe that it is right, that it and its customs and beliefs are the natural order of things.
As an outsider straddling groups, I quickly became aware of difference, of the need to fit in some way with often very different customs and views. My personal response to these differences depended on what I wanted to achieve.
In some groups I was just a visitor, accepted maybe, but without any great desire to belong, no desire to adopt views that I might in fact disagree with. Here I simply relied on politeness, avoiding areas and actions likely to cause distress. In other cases I took conscious action to achieve a better fit.
This is not a post about me. I am using my experiences, as I so often do, to make a point. However, if you are interested, you can see what I mean from the following, fairly random, selection of posts:
- September 13, 2006 Migration Matters - a Personal Perspective: beginnings
- September 27, 2006 New England Australia - the siblings
- November 5, 2006 Patrick Desmond Fitzgerald Murray 1900-1967
- December 1, 2006 The New Zealand Belshaws - now a dispersed Pacific family
- April 8, 2007 A Far Country - Armidale Demonstration School 1955
- June 28, 2007 Why Australians - and Kiwis too - are rather wonderful
- July 13, 2007 Manners and Society in Modern Australia
- October 19, Australia's confusion with culture
- January 7, 2008 More UNE Passings - death of Jo Woolmington
This sensitivity to difference, to the way that groups differ in culture and approach, has been quite useful in my professional life because much of this has been, and indeed still is, involved in one way or another with change and change processes. However, it has also made me very sensitive to, and indeed concerned about, the way in which we handle differences in views.
We can think of any society as a hierarchy of over-lapping groups, with the number of groups increasing as society becomes more complex. Each society has to find a way of accommodating difference. Fail, and you get a Kenya, a Somalia or an Iraq.
One of the reasons I write so much about Australia's core culture, about us as a people (example), lies in my concern that if we do not articulate and refresh some of the things that make us Australian the divides are likely to grow.
I am not talking here about things that I actually regard as silly such as the citizenship test, nor about attempts by all Governments and at all levels to tell us what we should think. And fear, another theme of mine. Rather, a much broader process of discussion and indeed enjoyment across the community.
In this context, I think that we face a particular challenge just at present because of our own growing national diversity, combined with globalisation, a process that requires us to accommodate different views whether we like it or not.
Globalisation and the need for a little humility
The Anglican Chuch is now an international organisation. Further, the majority of its 77 million congregation, but not yet its cash, can now be found outside the original heartland areas.
The proximate cause lies in the decision within the US Episcopal Church (2.6 million) to appoint the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop in 2003. I say proximate cause because many factors were involved beyond this, including fundamental differences in belief and values.
The Anglican Chuch has always displayed a sometimes remarkable capacity to accomodate differences in views, dating back to the need at its formation to accommodate both puritans and those still loyal to the forms and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the decision to appoint Bishop Robinson simply out-ran the capacity of the Church to accept change across a globalised organisation.
Now here there was a trade-off. The choice faced by those in the US was to push a change that they felt was right or accept that, at least for the present, the majority view was against them. They pushed, and the Church started to split.
I am not arguing one side or another. I am concerned about results. As I see it, one highly likely outcome is the emergence of an Anglican communion stripped of its more liberal elements who will come to occupy peripheral positions on the side.
Before going on, do try an experiment for me.
Draw up a table with two columns. Write down in the left hand column all the values you hold most dear. Then in the right hand column estimate the percentage of the global population that shares your view on each item. Do not worry about precision. This is back of envelope stuff.
I think that you will find that a proportion of your views, perhaps all of them, are in fact very much minority views in global terms.
I am not arguing that we should change our views to fit with majority positions. I am arguing that we should all exercise a little humility in the way we assert and express our views.