fragmented society

Putting the Pieces Back Together

How do we begin to overcome the great divisions within society? Amongst other things, by realising that I need the ‘other’ as much as they need me

In my last (and first) contribution, I spoke of the need to rethink. Several weeks later, I now realise that I had no idea what I was talking about. Phrases such as ‘post-COVID’ and ‘new normality’ now seem out of place and could not be farther from the truth. Furthermore – and more troubling – the initial solidarity and care that animated the initial months of lockdown seem to have given way to protectionist attitudes which seek to safeguard one’s own personal wellbeing – even at the expense of the wellbeing of others.

We see that each is concerned only with their own problems and of the group they identify with, be it ideological, political, racial or economic, and as a result, we fail to see how society’s (be it local, national, or global) pressing problems are inter-related. We look at society through a fragmented lens, precisely because we – as a society – are fragmented. On questions of whether we should leave businesses open in the face of a growing number of active COVID cases, whether we should accept irregular migrants arriving at our shores, whether abortion should be legalised, or whether to curtail construction in favour of the environment (to name but a few), we see a conflict-narrative develop that implies that an interested party can only survive with the annihilation of the other.

This is precisely the problem.

An element of this has already been addressed in a previous post which focused primarily on the political aspect of this fragmentation. Our elected representatives are also sometimes to blame for stoking conflict-narratives for their own gain in an attempt to divide and conquer. Today, asylum-seekers are the scapegoats, tomorrow, the EU.

What, therefore, is the solution? Pope Francis has commented on this vein and connects issues such as climate change, global inequality, and the polarisation of societies as all affecting ‘our common home.’ It seems that the first step in countering the deep ideological divisions growing in our local context is to recognise the ‘other’ as someone to be in communion with as opposed to in conflict. Yet the notion of communion requires the radical step of accepting that we need each other; that I am not self-sufficient and independent. I call this step radical because it goes against the very foundation of Western ideals of consumerism and neoliberalism.

Pope Francis finds – what some might term – an ‘unlikely’ ally, in Judith Butler. In The Force of Nonviolence, Butler articulates what she calls the notion of the ‘radical equality of lives.’ In an interview on her new book, she comments that,

“…the ideal of self-sufficiency is a bit destructive. We live in families and communities, and we’re also, as we know from climate change, interconnected across the entire globe… We need to come up with [a] notion of the global that would avow, affirm, and strengthen our interdependency, and also the fact that we’re equally dependent on the Earth. We should strive to be equally dependent upon one another.”

Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence

She continues,

“My life is not sustainable without others, and theirs is not sustainable without me. We’re attacking the social bond that holds us together when we attack each other. And I believe we need to cultivate that kind of ethos in order to support a broader global philosophy and politics that is committed to radical equality and affirms the equal grievability of lives—the equal value of lives.”

Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence

Pope Francis and Butler are getting at the same point; these two, radical individuals have inadvertently arrived at an equally radical notion – the first step to overcoming the fragmented nature of the world we inhabit is to overcome the fragmented state of our communities. I should clarify. This is not a call to blindly sweep our differences under the rug and pretend we are all happily sailing on a sea of positivity. On the contrary, to turn conflict into communion we must meet each other in our woundedness, and touch the ‘other’s’ fears and hopes, pains, and joys. I cannot come to the realisation that I need the ‘other’ without first coming to know the ‘other’ – and this dialogue is tiring and painful.

Yet as painful as this may be, our very existence depends on it.

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