Fortnight – Day8: Social Self
Today, consider please, the presumed dichotomy between the personal and the social, the individual and community. For too long our politics, religion, economics and charity have been misshapen by this fraudulent binary. At a fundamental level, there is a web of mutuality between one’s self and others. Americans tend to live with a heavy focus on individualism and “individual rights.” This is a good thing — however, if this is the sum total of what is valued or the singular basis for action– it will lead to trouble.
Social Psychologists George Herbert Meade and George Cooley posited decades ago the understanding that every human being is a Social Self. From the beginning, we learn who we are by interacting with others, as if in a looking glass. The language we learn, the games we play, our habits and our pains are fundamentally shaped in social contexts. It was from these insights that H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the ethics classic, “The Responsible Self.” Niebuhr suggested that the reflexive self could act as the responsible self.
In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi gave his grandson a slip of paper listing “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence.” These were:
- Politics without principles.
- Wealth without work.
- Pleasure without conscience.
- Knowledge without character.
- Commerce without morality.
- Science without humanity.
- Worship without sacrifice.
(see Donella Meadows, Gandhi’s Seven Blunders — And Then Some, Sustainability Institute, August, 18, 1994)
In the United States this week (10/25/20), a young man, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, stood on the White House lawn in an interview on “Fox and Friends.” He dismissively suggested that in response to the George Floyd “situation,” individuals “in the Black community” were unwilling “to break out of the problems they were complaining about.” He expressed doubt that African Americans “want to be successful.” Upon hearing the interview with Jared Kushner, I thought of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins.
As abhorrent as Mr. Kushner’s words are, I recognize their ideological fountainhead. It is the reductive belief that only “personal responsibility” is required for the thriving of a community or nation. Individual liberty is the supreme goal and good and personal responsibility is the tool. Fix individuals and everything else will fall in line.
At this juncture, I have sat beside too many persons who worked hard, risked much, withstood adversity and still were crushed by immoral constructs in the social order. A wise front-porch, neighborhood philosopher, named Doris Danner once taught me, “You can build a crocked wall with perfectly straight blocks.” In a pandemic, is “personal responsibility” sufficient? Shouldn’t there be a societal expectation, even a mandate, that everyone wear a mask? Sadly, we are seeing, living with, and many dying from, the results of a mistaken notion of individual freedom as the ultimate and exclusive good.
I recognize Mr. Kushner’s perspective. You see, as an adolescent, my religious understandings were focused on personal salvation. I had to want to have a personal relationship with Jesus and that would fix everything else. Personal salvation was separate from justice. Yes, I was taught that if I was saved, I should be compassionate toward others. It was however, always with the motive that I could see that they were a saved individual, just like me. Whether I would admit it or not, racial segregation, economic or educational discrimination, or poor health care were best overcome if persons were saved and then “wanted to be successful.”
In my individualistic understandings, my paternalistic role was to see that others were “fixed” like me. There was little awareness that others, who saw things differently, might have something to teach me; nor was there the sense that God was at work for the the common good, for the realm of God.
While I prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” in those years; I failed to hear that it was a communal prayer. It was a prayer filed with the corporate words, “our,” “us” and “we;” a prayer about our neighbor and our world.
Years after receiving the note with the Seven Blunders listed, Arun added an eighth: Rights without responsibilities.
Dr. Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist and early writer on sustainability who added to the list of social sins. A professor at MIT and McArthur award winner, sadly, she died too young, in 2001. Still her words fall in line with the call of H. Richard Neibuhr that we are to act as a Social Self — a Responsible Self!
“Somehow our public discussion has become dominated by either-or simplicities... This simplistic thinking seems incapable of embracing the idea of BALANCE, which was Gandhi’s central point. He wasn’t calling for work without wealth or humanity without science, he was calling for work AND wealth. Science AND humanity. Commerce AND morality. Pleasure AND conscience.
Life is full of unsolvable problems. Pretending to have solved them by choosing just one or another of profound opposites can generate even more blunders than the ones Gandhi listed. Justice without mercy. Order without freedom. Talking without listening. Individuality without community. Stability without change. Private interest without public interest. Liberty without equality. Or, in every case, vice versa. Listen to our public debates about health care, crime, taxation, regulation. You will hear the Gandhian blunders, the frantic search for a permanent simplicity, the passive violence that leads to active violence. There’s no point in taking sides in these debates. There’s only an opportunity to point out that balance, discovered through love, is what we should be seeking — and what we will always have to be seeking. (Donella Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1994)