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The 1995 Boyer Lectures


By Eva Cox

Lecture 3:
(Broadcast: Tuesday, 21st November 1995, 8.30am (Rpt. 8.00pm) on Radio National.)


Diana Gribble:

Welcome to the 1995 Boyer Lectures series. I'm Diana Gribble.

On behalf of the ABC Board, it's my pleasure to introduce this year's Boyer lecturer, well known activist and social commentator, Eva Cox.

Today you'll hear the third in a series of six lectures, which Eva has titled A TRULY CIVIL SOCIETY, and in which she argues for a radical re-thinking of our concept of citizenship.

In the second lecture Eva discussed the concept of social capital, the social glue which binds us together as a society.

Today in her lecture titled 'The Dark Side of the Warm Inner Glow', Eva Cox looks at the tribalism that can break down social capital.

The dark side of the warm inner glow: family and communitarians

Eva Cox:

Last week I outlined why we needed to store social capital and needed opportunities to increase its production. Social capital is the sum of our social connections and the levels of trust we need to maintain a civil society. We hear a lot about financial, physical and human capital but until now little about the base of social capital on which economic growth depends. We need to draw on social capital for co-operative and mutually satisfying interactions. Even conservative commentators such as Francis Fukuyama agree that without this store of trust called social capital, wealth creation is a real problem.

So there's little debate about the need for social capital development from a wide range of political views, but considerable differences about how we achieve growth. The merchants of simple solutions are at it again. They claim if we want a truly civil society, rich in social capital, all we need to do is increase the morality in communities and the power of families, and Eureka! The problem is solved.

Social capital is often produced in voluntary associations, so their false conclusion is often that government and legislation destroy social capital. Conservative social commentators have therefore developed similar concerns to some radical ones. They too can see there are serious problems with a political framework built on the assumption that people are primarily self-interested.

Unlike the neo-liberals, conservatives do believe that order and control create civil societies and unfettered freedoms create chaos.

Some conservative writers are calling for a return to a mythical past of local community and family independence. They see the imposition of norms and values as the necessary social control over self-interested individuals, but these conservatives misread the origins of social capital.

The danger in promoting simple solutions is that people warm to the fuzzy words of community and family without acknowledging their darker side. So I want to look at how we can misuse belonging to groups and the many problems faced by the ever smaller and more vulnerable families.

I want to look at some of the contradictions involved in separating society into smaller units. How we can extend the problems of competing individual self-interest to group competition and conflict. Communities or families can operate to create isolation and outgroups if they are not part of a broader society.

There are widespread assumptions that communities and families automatically enrich society by providing models of 'good' relationships and civic virtues. So we should understand how such structures can either enhance or deplete social capital by incorporating certain types of civic cultures and norms.

The effects of changes in social structures over the last century and those we can already see coming, affect both what we can do now and what we can do in the future, as neither community nor family is a static institution.

Trust, mutuality and reciprocity are the basic components of a truly civil society. They are some of the nuts and bolts, or maybe in less masculine terms, the social threads which make and pattern the social fabric. Tearing the social fabric is a common metaphor used to express dark images of chaos and disorder.

Creating social cohesion has a bad and good side. The good side recognises the firm links of communality among people and extends a welcome to the new and the different. Participants in open and inclusive communities learn about their common attributes through positive contact. The bad side creates cohesion by evoking perceived threats from outsiders - that is, the Other. The good side produces a store of social trust rather than antipathy and distrust of outsiders.

There have always been debates about community, what it is and how we identify with it, but there are signs of a new communitarian movement in the USA and UK. The concept of community appeared briefly at a recent Queensland election. And we can expect it to surface at the national level. So, I want to clarify how community is used in political debates.

In the public policy sphere, there are problems created by the frequent assumption that identity is stable, that is, we belong to one community and identify ourselves with that sole identifier.

People are assumed to belong to various social movements and therefore have expectations thrust upon them. We acquire attributed views consonant with our presumed political affiliation, religion, ethnicity, green, feminist or locality based identity. This is a misreading of the way many of us shift identities.

We carry links of various depths and intensities with multiple communities. Some links may involve formal meetings and activities; others may be brief encounters, even phone contacts to organise car pools. My research on the use of telephones identified the threads of community links. Some are a single thread, some are intertwined like ropes.

These threads tie us to a multitude of other people and create the web that is society. Some are friendships and informal, others are very formal and minimise the personal. Some can be measured and identified and come to light as part of civil society, others remain part of the undergrowth. These multiple threads create rich sources of relationships and add to our sense of who we are and who we might be.

Our multiple links create, at best, robust societies where people can see themselves through the eyes of many others. We recognise our communalities in the diversity of humanity. Membership of multiple communities breeds civic confidence and civic virtue and provides a basis for trust of strangers, enabling us to work together to create social capital.

If groups make rejection of multiple identity a condition of membership, then the result can be closure or even intercommunal violence. Such groups can vary in size range from the millions that make up a nation to small sects or even the family unit.

People who fear the Other, the different, seek out those whom they can define as like themselves - 'people like us' who seem familiar and therefore safe. This familiarity may be based on shared race, class, religion or other clearly definable characteristics. It enables the frightened to join others to protect a 'way of life', to save beliefs from the threat of the unbeliever, or from the parvenu who does not really belong.

Family and intimate social relationships may limit our world view if they fail to offer us contact with strangers. Recognising that many other people are indeed familiar to us often eludes those who have only a few close relationships and no others. Focussing exclusively on intimate relationships denies us the benefits of broader less intense collaboration.

Robert Putnam, the American political scientist whose work has informed much of my thinking, claims the development of trust, translated into social capital, works best in relatively superficial relationships. This is because civic relationships are essentially formed in public view through task oriented, friendly, co-operative activities.

Putnam's work confirms my view that deep and intimate relationships, often experienced within families, may not equip us with adequate skills in sociability. We need early experiences of less visceral but more collegial contacts such as group activities with other children and adults to help us to learn to trust those outside our intimate circles.

Is the Family the smallest democracy, as was claimed in the International Year of the Family slogan? Is there something inherently needy in modern families? Families should be hooked into the broader community, or even multiple communities, to avoid the problems of power and abuse on the one hand, and loneliness and limitations on the other. There are obviously a squillion forms of family relationships and these range from the very good to the very bad. My comments on families will relate to public images and policy expectations only.

The family that once was, is no more! Instead we have the word and warm, fuzzy feelings. Yet there are inappropriate expectations that these small, fragile units can deliver a wide range of services through their limited personal resources.

Some families can provide good experiences.. Many offer love and nurture but others may damage us for life. Often it is in families that we learn about power and hierarchy, and, sometimes, violence and fear. The more private and disconnected families are, the more difficult it is to identify signs of abuse, or even inadequate levels of care.We need families to continue as the first level of custodianship of the child. But rearing children into socially competent adults requires more skills and resources than most families can offer. Parenthood is often seen as the rights of parents to choose what they want for their child, as if they owned them. This view is different from a concept of custodianship where parents or carers are presumed to be responsible to the broader community for the welfare of the child, as in Aboriginal customary law.If trust and mutuality are learned responses, we must have the opportunity to learn them. Few parents on their own have the capacity to train their children in sociability, particularly if they have not learned these skills themselves.

Experiencing other adults and children from a relatively early age in dependable and quality child care settings may need to be part of all normal child rearing. It is already possible that we are producing under-socialised children who are less likely to have the social skills needed for good trust relationships.

We should create a culture of child rearing which expects children to be aware of the needs of others, to be co-operative and able to work in groups. This form of child rearing does not mean children lose their ability to think and act as autonomous individuals.

The idea of universal child care services runs against the supposedly 'intuitive' sense that children are better off with their mothers. However this is a relatively recent 'tradition' with few mothers fifty years ago, ever being alone with one or two children.

Of course, there are mothers who want to experience child bearing and rearing as a continuous ecstatic experience. The question is whether this close 'bonding' creates a competent adult who can operate in a truly civil society. I suspect over bonding is more likely to create more self interested individuals in search of personal gratification.

So our experiences in families need to be linked to our experiences in the broader community. And these communities must open outwards and not restrict differing views and viewpoints. Isolation and limited social contact is a good recipe for the loss of social capital

Communities which reduce social capital share certain characteristics. They turn inwards, form cliques, resist change and exclude those who criticise. The structures of such groups are usually top down, though the power may be informally held. Too often, allocation of rewards is based on patronage - on favours exchanged, factions and block votes. This encourages compliance and distrust of anyone outside the in-group.

These communities may include organisations such as local groups, elite clubs, professional associations, political factions, and fundamentalist groups, religious or otherwise. They do not build social capital because they fail to allow members to develop voluntaristic, egalitarian relationships through which social trust and civic virtues can be acquired.

Yet it is interesting to note that these are just the types of organisations most often touted by conservatives as their model of community. They are authoritarian in structure, seeking to impose views, laws and sanctions. This is their way of creating a more moral community by enforcing so-called traditional family values and calling on the past to justify their present.

Here I want introduce the idea of an expanding social system, which I will be continue in the next lecture when I look at the roles of Government. Imagine a spiral in which each circle unfolds into wider circles. This is a metaphor for a society which expands into ever broader social circles so all can be part of the whole.

When I was a child we filled in book labels with our names and addresses which included the continent, the world and the universe. I grew up in a time when we talked about cosmopolitan futures, about forms of internationalism which we hoped would replace the nationalism we saw as causing the Second World War. Yet this approach is now lost in a welter of cries for self determination and Balkanisation.

This is the darker side of community: the way groups use the processes of belonging to create outgroups and conflict. Nationalism, tribalism and racism are used to invoke an Other who is a threat. These movements may be reactions to the uncertainties of globalised economies because unemployment, falling living standards and insecurities leave many people seeking familiar groups to belong to because they no longer feel part of the broader community.

For some communitarians, the loss of power of central governments is seen as a sign of a new beginning. Control can be returned to local people, and we can live face to face in some post-industrial feudal state. For others, with a techno bent, the advent of the Internet creates possibilities for virtual communities where face to face contact is not as necessary.

Communitarianism is likely to create more inequalities as the 'haves' seek to contain their resources rather than share them. There is also the problem of how to maintain an overall sense of belonging. Some groups will become increasingly isolated and others will defend their territory.

Communitarianism therefore may only be a shift from competition between individuals to competition between groups. Rather than living up to the rhetoric of inclusive communities, the new communitarians seem likely to practice selectivity.

Belonging is not always a plus, particularly when the gain of one is a loss for another. There are obvious costs when diversity is introduced to a homogeneous group. Therefore many communities, if they have the power, choose to select only those they see as fitting in. This always leaves some people outside as unwelcome remainders.

Robert Putnam comments on the dangers of sentimentalising the past and the village. He points out that there is more civil society and social capital in cities like Bologna than in the villages of Southern Italy. He notes that even today, in the USA, there is less overt racism, and more tolerance than in the so called heyday of flourishing civic societies, whose membership was limited to white Christians.

These days, there are many walled and gated communities built with the intention of excluding those who do not have the desirable characteristics. These affluent ghettos may well be self-supporting, but they contribute nothing towards those areas which have fewer resources. In the United States, where local taxes pay for many public services, the well off can fund their own schools and police, but they take no responsibility for others.

The new communitarian movements in the USA come from a long tradition of self reliance and individualism. At their best, they offer a place of safety for those deemed to be good citizens, who can pay their way with money, skills or labour. This is, however, the same social culture that breeds urban gangs and militias in the hills. These groups feel that they too are grabbing their share of the American dream and defend their right to do so.

The gangs and militias are uncivil societies. We need to remember this when the conservative right calls for less central government in favour of self managed communities. Look at what is happening in the USA and the UK where the philosophies of reduced Government take hold. The poor on the fringes of society, some with jobs but still homeless, can only inhabit the badlands where there is no power to exclude the unwanted.

What we can learn, we can unlearn, and that includes fear and distrust. One of the more irritating responses one hears about communal conflict is that it is either human nature, or so embedded in our history that there is nothing we can do about it. The philosopher, Alasdair McIntyre says, 'History is neither a prison, nor a museum, nor is it a set of materials for self congratulation'. (History of Ethics p4).

So, prejudice, bias and racism are all learned responses and we can unlearn them. Social learning is a constant process. We must assume that we need to continue to mix with others, and not only those within our existing networks. We need to maintain the ability to make and develop new links and trust relationships and build social capital.

Distrust, along with fear and suspicion of the motives of others, are evident in communities where there are few available or created opportunities for learning to work with others. Those unpracticed in collegiality, in friendships or in developing relationships of trust with strangers, may be anxious about those outside their inner circles.

Most academic and policy work on communities assumes a level of face to face interaction. Telephones have offered links over distance for many decades but with little recognition of their social function. As telephone technology is developed to allow for more varied communication, many more people will form and join electronic primary communities. Faxes, internet and other modes of communication, reduce our need for face to face contacts.

This shift to information based and service jobs and the network economy, means that the separation of work and living space is no longer physically necessary. The concept of community had its origins in pre industrial societies where communities were both production and consumption sites. The grand urbanisations that were a response to industry and commerce saw places of living and work necessarily separated during the era of factory production. But do we need to maintain the urbs or suburbs as the new electronic network economy emerges?

Work places are downsizing, services are outsourced and more people are working from home in full or in part. Hot desking, contracting out and other arrangements which reduce attendance in the workplace, will affect those who choose to go to work as a means of getting out of the house.

I want therefore to have a brief look at the somewhat intimidating electronic futures we are being offered. Without wanting to be a Luddite, there may be problems with the loss of inter-personal contacts: work from home, shop from home, talk to people on the world wide web, share information, become part of wired communities where town meetings are held from home. This opens up a world of possibilities but reduces the necessity for face to face relationships.

Drawing on my own personal experience, I can see the advantages of working at home. There are fewer interruptions, more time to concentrate, and more contact with others at your convenience and choice. It is surprising, however, to notice how self centred we can become. Leaving the house becomes a major exercise and the sharing of resources like copiers, bathrooms and even ideas becomes much more problematic.

We miss out on the informal affirmations of self: the salutations, the gossip, the small conversations and the ideas that slide out of brief chats. Even the Silicon Valley techies have indicated that their best work is collaborative and in person, despite their comfort with technology.

The more we work alone, the less practice we have in dealing with others, and accommodating differing demands. The less time we spend in organisations, the more we lose our management skills. If we fail to practice our social skills, will they remain or will contact become an anxiety producing ordeal? Are we breeding a society of agora-phobes?

If we extrapolate on the effects of isolation which may arise from more home based paid work, we may find that this could affect the store of social capital, as I have defined it. Increasing options for working at home, and therefore the ability to combine child rearing and family care with paid work, may well reduce our social networks as well as our work contacts.

Working from home means there may be less need for work-related child care. This begs the question of the social needs of children. And with fewer opportunities for shopping and other excursions, people may reduce some of their informal face-to-face networks. Are there ways in which we can use electronic networking to create social capital? There are, for instance, Telecottages and Telecafes where those working in distance mode can gather at a central point.

The question is also whether we will make the deliberate effort to meet with friends and colleagues, or will we just depend on accident or other-purpose meetings to provide us with social interractions? If such meetings fail to happen, will we gradually lose the skills of sociability? Will we then also lose the recognition of our commonalities and become more fearful of the stranger?

What we need to establish is whether we can connect these new ways of net-working and living with the possibilities of generating social capital, civil society and further involvement in public life.

So we need communities but not those which exclude. This raises the issue of how society fits the various elements together, spiralling upwards into ever widening circles.

So, next week I will look at the vexed issue of the roles of government in generating social capital.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1995