‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique

Introduction

‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.

Conclusion

The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.

 

Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

The rise of populism considered from the perspective of evolutionary constraints on our moral choices

May you live in interesting times (Confucian curse)

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites (Edmund Burke)

A scholar of impeccable academic credentials once suggested to me that revolutions are spaced about the average lifespan of a human apart, about 70 years. I was sceptical, as this sounded like numerology, but I did some digging and there are indeed some interesting patterns: the French Revolution (1789) to the European uprisings of 1848 is admittedly only 60years, but if the American Revolution (1776) is counted in, that is about 70; from there to the communist revolution in 1917 is roughly 70 years; and from the revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) is about 70 years. Of course these events are selective, and I am not suggesting there is a grand plan. However, they may point to an underlying truth: that real social change occurs in a highly disruptive manner, not as a result of gradual progress, and that this change is generational, as it takes the space of about two generations for the contradictions implicit in any system to become apparent and momentum for a new direction to grow to a critical point.

The historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn loaned the term ‘paradigm’ from the obscurity of the social sciences and controversially applied it to revolutionary changes in scientific outlook, in the process reinvigorating the concept, redefining and enlarging it and, admittedly, setting it on course to become the de rigeur cliché for any and all sorts of change; it is surely, though, something that corresponds closely to a paradigm shift that we are living through. We are now, in the West, standing about 70 years on from the end of the second world war, from a time when a transnational consensus was established around such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, the beginnings of the EU, the welfare state in Britain, the founding of modern Israel in the Middle East, the demilitarisation of Germany and Japan, the growth of the military-industrial complex in the USA, a period of US economic and political hegemony in general. Within this span many changes have occurred outside the western democratic sphere: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China as a communist nation and then as an economic superpower, the resurgence of Islam as a powerful political idea in the Middle East and beyond, the stirring of real political and economic progress in parts of Africa and in India. In the West itself cracks are beginning to show in many of the post-war settlements and institutions, while there is a pervasive sense of economic stagnation and the loss of international leadership, manifest in the seeming inability to deal with the crisis of migration and endemic war in the Middle East. It is against such a background that we are seeing the arrival of a new kind of politics, anti-establishment and populist in its appeal.

The spectre of populism seems to alight on its most prominent figures, such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders, focussing on their oddity, unsavoury characteristics or questionable beliefs. Although in the main it seems to be a manifestation of right wing politics, there are also populists on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece, as well as Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party. It is interesting to note that a significant number of voters in America switched from Bernie Sanders, an anti-establishment left-winger, to Trump, rather than Clinton, an embodiment of the liberal elite. Populism has perhaps less to do with the particular political flavour than its anti-establishment stance and the identification, even if to some extent a fabrication, of grievance and loss within a significant proportion of the national population, a loss – whether of identity, jobs or prestige – caused by the policies of the liberal establishment, an establishment, moreover, that has profited by and large from these same policies. However, I want to propose a hypothesis that even underlying these more obvious political triggers, there is an actuality – not a perception – of moral decline that should be worrying us far more than it actually is.

Since such a hypothesis is going to enrage some people even before it is explained, let me first set out what I am not saying. I am not saying that people now are worse than they were in the past; human nature does not change much over time; however, the general belief is that we are much better, and this is an illusion. We may kill people less, at least in the developed world, but this is because of advances in wealth, technology, political structure, religious belief and law. We may believe we are more generous, and cite increasing donations to various causes, but altruism is a natural human trait which is found across all cultures and has no correlation with money (although self-congratulation may). In this context, it is worth noting the rise in xenophobic attacks with the EU referendum vote and with Trump’s election, which demonstrates how shallow the shackles of self-restraint are. Or the pervasive maliciousness of the online world which exists outside conventional social restraints

The roots of moral life from an evolutionary perspective lie in our sociality, and the natural institutions that both create and emerge out of that sociality. By this I mean those social bonds that are rooted in our biology: physical survival, protection, reproduction, genetic inheritance and genetic closeness. These are the underlying infrastructure – if one can call it that in want of a better term – of our sociality and the institutions of family and community, such as marriage, parenthood, kinship, friendship and economic occupation (which includes any activity to support the family and have standing in the community, whether that be hunting, farming or banking). There is no human society in which these things have not been fundamental, despite whatever other advances or changes have occurred. Societies have always flourished at a time when these institutions have been strong; and no society historically has flourished when these have been weak, neglected or under attack.

Moreover, in evolutionary terms, beyond our mere physicality we have an ‘excess’ in our neurological constitution (which we variously refer to as mind, soul or spirit) in which we entertain beliefs about the world of our experience. Interpretations of what this means for our self-understanding vary enormously – my own view is that in the primal state this is a survival mechanism – but whatever the ontological reality of our beliefs, they must not fatally undermine our natural sociality; if they do they will be eliminated by natural selection (on this point I am closer to Richard Dawkins than to Julian Huxley, Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, who believed that we have transcended natural selection). This selective process eventually manifests through the political process, particularly in times of upheaval.

The crux of my argument is that the liberal establishment has allowed and even facilitated the erosion of this evolutionary infrastructure of sociality, and that this has had a disproportionate effect on the less well-educated, less mobile and less wealthy sections of society, who in any society constitute the majority. Liberalism has not simply allowed the export of blue collar jobs abroad where labour is cheaper (to be often replaced by jobs that pay insufficiently for a person to buy a home, marry and raise a family), but, more seriously, has persistently undermined the foundations of family and community which enable the emergence of social solidarity. Economic hardship alone, while an important contributing factor, is not sufficient to accomplish this. For the past 50 years the liberal establishment, consisting primarily of academics, the media, and the entertainment industry, has moved forward an agenda of undercutting the foundations of social solidarity: marriage as the unique core of family life, the historical narrative of national identity, and also religion as one of the core facilitators of communal life. This agenda has gradually been institutionalised in education, law and politics. Whatever one’s political views, when teaching children gender fluidity becomes a greater priority than ensuring a sound basic education for all, when celebrating diversity becomes more important than celebrating full employment, we are entitled to wonder whether liberalism has reached its hubristic apotheosis.

As much as I am an advocate of maximising human freedom, freedom comes with its own built in constraints, an internal logic that freedom cannot undermine itself, that is, allow actions that result in its own destruction. These constraints are those determined by our evolutionary heritage and the institutional structures that emerge from them that constitute our social being, referred to above. That people choose not to marry or become parents, or choose not to marry but have children, or choose to divorce, or choose an alternative lifestyle, these are individual choices and rights in liberal democracies. Nevertheless, they have social consequences, and if these tendencies become prevalent they have demographic consequences. The influx of immigrants into Europe, for example, is agued by some as a necessity given the population shortfall created by a low native birth rate. This, of course, is not what people want to hear. We have become used to thinking about our sociality in purely individualistic terms, in terms of our freedoms and rights and of the social reality in which we want to live; but just as for all our cleverness and ingenuity we cannot ignore fundamental forces such as gravity, so for all our social experimentation we cannot ignore the evolutionary parameters of our being without consequences.

It is at the interface between individual choice and social necessity that the most interesting political choices are made and the most virulent arguments take place. It is likely that this argument will never be finally settled, as this dynamic of competing views is at the heart of democratic culture and ensures its adaptability to changing circumstances. Excessive liberality is bad for societies, just as excessive authority is, and when pushed to one extreme a counter-force inevitably appears. Populism, therefore, can be seen as a collective, unconscious reaction to the ills that plague modern liberal democracies. If it had not been Trump, Farage or Le Pen, other figures would have arisen with similar grievances and similar policies.

Therefore, to categorically assert that populists represent the doom of democracy is to be entirely enclosed within a dying paradigm and to misunderstand the underlying dynamic of the paradigm shift that they represent. To accuse them of being by definition anti-democratic is to have forgotten that democracy was, in the ancient world, and has been in modernity, a revolutionary force, representing more closely the wishes of the mass of people than any other system of governance that has existed. It is also to be wilfully blind to this system having been gradually hijacked by self-perpetuating elites who have empowered and enriched themselves. As long as people generally felt that they were making progress they were willing to acquiesce to the elites in Washington or in Brussels, but since the financial crisis in particular, and the increasingly widening gap between rich and the poor, or those simply struggling to stay afloat, there has been a growing anger on which populism has capitalised.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of uncertainty and potential for danger in these developments. In a recent article, the author Robert Harris argued that the political situation today resembles that of the 1930s more closely than any time since. I do not think we are even close yet, but the signs should serve as a warning. Berlin in the 1930’s was not only a time of great social unrest, economic turmoil and political agitation, but a byword for moral turpitude. Lest people think that these factors are unconnected, the National Socialists made great play of their intention to clean up Germany morally, which was one factor in their gaining popular support. The present populists are hardly moral paragons and tend to be morally liberal on the whole, but they advance authoritarian policies which could be a step in allowing more extreme policies to follow.

Karl Marx expected the communist revolution to take place in Britain, the most industrially developed country in the nineteenth century; that it did not may be due in part to great reforms in the Victorian era, in particular on the spiritual, educational and economic conditions of the working classes. The populist platform today could be derailed by centrist parties having the courage to undertake reforms of similar magnitude. Having said this, I have no expectation that people today will willingly change their behaviour, as it is human nature to resist difficult choices, moral or otherwise, unless circumstances force our hand. My hope is that our existing institutions are strong enough to withstand the uncertain times into which we are moving and that we may be able in hindsight to view this period in history as a time of readjustment in the balance of freedom and moral obligation within democratic society rather than the beginning of a civilisational holocaust from which we must build anew.

 

What is the point of the Left? A dispassionate assessment of its virtues and vices

communist-poster

After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s there was a brief window in which it was predicted that the forces of democracy and the free market had triumphed and leftist and socialist parties would thereafter only wither away. The view from the present is of a very different political landscape, with a resurgence of interest in leftist politics, socialist parties coming to power in Europe and South America, and even a candidate of the left (by American standards) a strong contender in the Democratic primaries. Yet the aetiology of the left seems to be well understood and to flow along only three routes: ideological purity and marginalisation; ‘selling out’ to conservative forces; or – worst case scenario – taking power and creating a totalitarian failed state. This raises the question, most interestingly from an evolutionary perspective, of what the left is for. This is not a rhetorical question, for something so persistent in modernity cannot simply be dismissed.

The socialist parties across Europe are generally conflicted internally between the first two routes. In the UK the political left seems to be in disarray, with the Labour party seemingly in a death struggle between the moderate left and the hard left, with the majority of its MPs out of step with their leader. President Hollande of France came to power on a platform of radical socialist policies, which have been abandoned in the interests of financial realism. Syriza in Greece swept into power with a popular anti-austerity message, only to cave in to the EU’s conditions for a financial rescue package, which has naturally caused a backlash against the government. Only Tony Blair seemed to manage for a few years the intricate balancing trick of allying socialist ideals with financial acumen; however, he managed both to betray the left over Iraq and empty the coffers of government. Even the Scandinavian social democratic model, widely admired but rarely achieved outside the particular cultural and demographic conditions to be found there, has withered in the new economic reality.

China is the case par excellence of a revolutionary party that abandoned socialism for market economics, and accepted some measure of social liberalism, although has shown no sign until now of allowing political freedom. Cuba, though more tentatively, appears to be treading the same path. Interestingly, these countries do not generally seem to have attracted the opprobrium of the left for having abandoned the path of pure socialism. Perhaps having been the emblems of radical chic and poverty tourism for so long before their transition, they had become unspoken embarrassments to the ideologically pure. It raises the question though of whether a country like China even belongs to the ‘left’ anymore, despite being run by a communist party. Russia is also an interesting case study. The communist utopia of radical intellectual leftists throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, only some of whom were deflected from their idolatry when the reality of Stalin’s purges became evident, it sank slowly into being a corrupt, inegalitarian, illiberal, though basically functioning state kept afloat by territorial expansion and proxy wars, until Afghanistan. Then after a few brief years of social, economic and political liberalisation it resumed its centuries-old characteristic of being under authoritarian rule. Given the resurgence of nostalgia there for the Soviet era, it is interesting to speculate at which point it ceased to be the darling of the left and instead began to be be name-checked by the far right.

Meanwhile, socialism continues to exert its hypnotic fascination upon a good part of the globe, with the fatal attraction to its ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, segueing unerringly into economic dysfunction, subversion of democratic checks and balances and resistance to reform when in power, compounded by the intellectual impermeability of its acolytes and apologists to reasoned criticism. We need look no further than Zimbabwe and Venezuela to see all these criteria in play. Zimbabwe, under the aegis of the nonagenarian national liberation hero Robert Mugabe, has played out the theatre of socialist national decline since independence, only briefly interrupted when genuine democrats managed to loosen his arthritic grip on the tiller, due to a brief, incautious dalliance with relatively free and fair elections. In Venezuela things have, if possible, moved more deeply and more quickly, from reasonable stability and sufficiency (though one should not overstate the case here; poverty was endemic in the rural areas and among the indigenous Indian population) to economic catastrophe. It does not help that their real head of state, Hugo Chavez, is actually dead, and his anointed successor’s only demonstrable qualities stubborn adhesion to power and ideological rigidity. But even these sorry cases are still only at the midway point on the road to the holocausts of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

Given the evidence of history and the present of failure of epic proportions at every level, it is remarkable that socialism continues to exert such a powerful pull on the imagination of so many, and is a phenomenon which begs an explanation. Let me start with the cynical view, propounded by the conservatively-minded, which is that socialism tends to attract those who are politically naïve, the evidence being that it is disproportionately attractive to the young and people like celebrities. There is certainly a superficial plausibility to this; a reasonable parallel would be with those who are attracted to radical Islam, who tend to be young, religiously naïve or non-practicing Muslims. However, if the argument is turned around, it is not obvious that the politically sophisticated are to be found crowding the political right, and the same charge, of naivety, could be levelled at those who are drawn into right wing politics, particularly of the far right nationalist variety.

A more objective, scientifically-rooted perspective is that our political affiliations, like much else about us, is determined genetically. This seems more plausible, after all personality and temperament, which do have a strong genetic component, play a significant part in the type of worldview we develop. This view also correlates with data from the research of Jonathan Haidt that indicates there are five or six fundamental values in a ‘moral matrix’ which are shared across all cultures, but that liberals typically emphasise a smaller range of fundamental social values than conservatives, being disproportionately committed to care and fairness, but less so to other values such as freedom, loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity, an effect that is more marked the more liberal a person considers themselves to be. The lack of balance in values may help to understand the epic failures of socialism in power, and perhaps also why conservative parties tend to be electorally more successful over the long term.

Haidt’s view is that whatever our political inclinations, it cannot be a bad thing to be more self-aware and that as a society we need to engage more in dialogue, although current trends suggest we are becoming more entrenched in our views, aided by the self-selecting and bias-reinforcing tendencies of the internet. I suspect that the desirability of dialogue is itself something of a liberal predilection. Moreover, dialogue almost never changes minds. Rather, familiarity with different perspectives fosters a degree of empathy and tolerance for the other, in other words contributes to shared meta-values. From this lofty perspective it is possible to discern that the left does indeed contribute to human social evolution:

  • First, socialism can be considered the modern political manifestation of the age old and timeless human sense that the focus on money is not only immoral but fundamentally damaging to the cohesion of society. In a recent article Marian Tupy has argued that there is a pedigree of thought, stretching from homer and Plato through medieval Catholic theology to Martin Luther and Thomas More, which argues that mercantilism is fundamentally inimical to human life. This tradition is, therefore, embedded in western thought and the history of major institutions. It underlies the contemporary critique of corporate greed that has been adopted across the political spectrum.
  • Secondly, it manifests and embodies the more caring and compassionate side of human nature in continuity with the Christian tradition exemplified by Jesus’ forgiveness of sinners and care for the poor and marginalised, sometimes explicitly religious, but more commonly now through humanistic ideals. To grace this idea with a few examples: the changed attitudes towards and improved social circumstances of children, animals, the disabled, and homosexuals.
  • Thirdly, liberals are more open to new ideas, particularly social ideas and trends, than conservatives. Conservatives by their very nature, tend to be content with the status quo, not necessarily because they are beneficiaries of the existing conditions, but because they are averse to change. From the perspective of human social evolution it makes sense to have adaptability as well as stability, and liberal attitudes allow for a greater degree of social experimentation. Although many of these ideas turn out to be culs-de-sac, some are adopted into the social mainstream, such as many of the changes to education.
  • Fourthly, the militancy and obstreperous nature of much of the left means that ideas that might have simply been passing trends remain in the collective consciousness long enough to be adopted more widely, which contrasts with the generally more complacent attitudes of the right. Environmental concern has largely been driven by the left, as has concern with racism, both unfinished campaigns.

Capitalism portrays the world in functional, impersonal and ruthless terms, but has proved to be the only viable economic system for developed societies. But people are not automatons and citizens not functioning units in the economic machine of society, although even our education systems sometimes treats us as if we are. As well as crackpot theories the left embodies virtues that when woven into the narrative of our societies, and accepted by many on the right as on the left, not only make society fairer and more humane, but probably more efficient if they result in just social policy. While socialism as a political and economic system has been tested to destruction in the social experiments of the last 100 years, the fundamental values that it embodies will always re-emerge, as they are not the preserve of leftist revolutionaries or a liberal intellectual elite, but fundamental to all decent human life.

 

Institutional Structure and Culture in the Transmission of Social Values, Part 3: A Theory of Institutional Value Transmission

Introduction

Part 1 of this essay (posted March 23, 2016) reviewed some of the significant literature and theories emerging from the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology in regard to cultural transmission and intergenerational transmission of values. Part 2 (posted April 30, 2016) explored the sociological literature for theories or partial theories of institutional transmission. Much of the literature of part 2 related to education, as formal education is the primary institutional context (outside of the family) in which values transmission takes place. Part 3 outlines a theory of institutional value transmission based on empirical field research in education and discusses that in relation to the above-mentioned literature. It begins, though, by outlining the basic theory underlying this research, a deductive hypothesis of the nature, function and transmission of values.

In a previous essay (posted August 22 and September 12, 2015) a philosophical analysis of the concept of value from first principles was undertaken, in light of perceived problems both within axiology and the usage of the term within the social sciences. The analysis concluded that, contrary to the mainstream of academic philosophy, values were real and their nature and properties describable. It found that values are semiotically related to symbols in having a structural duality and phenomenologically related to treasured personal items in being an experience of emotional attachment. Outwardly, values are linguistic signs denoting abstract concepts, while inwardly they relate to strong feelings. As part of normal language, value concepts pepper our everyday discourse and communication, either in their primary nominalised form or in lexical variations (verbs, adjectives, etc.) and are able to permeate society through the normal linguistic pathways of communication. Experientially, however, like symbols, a particular value is only truly meaningful within a (theoretically) closed social group for whom the value attains utmost significance, for example faith within a religious group, justice for a campaigning group, safety for a military reconnaissance unit or accuracy for a scientific project team. This idea has resonance with, but is not derived from, Tajfel’s (1974) concept of ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ as categories of identity through inclusion and exclusion. From either aspect values are inherently social, and this lead to one of the more surprising conclusions: that there are no private values. Values are just words on one level, but at the experiential level they are social and communal, that is they denote a shared experience, not a private experience. I can create a word for an intensely personal experience, but it could only become a value by being shared and finding an appropriate social context in which it can function. The idea of values as shared experience is not the same as, it is the exact opposite of, the idea of intersubjectivity, as that was conceived of by Habermas (1984). For Habermas individual subjectivity emerged from a collective recognition of signs; shared experience presupposes individual subjectivity as the basis for empathetic recognition of others’ interior worlds.

The function of values was not addressed at length in the original theory, which focused on the ontological question of the nature of values; however, the main line of an answer is fairly clear. If values acquire their significance in a communal setting, then a primary focus is to bind social groups together. The primary institution for human lives is the family, and though the family must be considered the cradle for our basic values, it is also an institution which is bound together by common values. Society is a multiplicity of social groupings – familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, professional, vocational, economic, political, leisure and interest – and all of them can be understood as defined by shared values. It is this aspect of values which in some respect renders them problematic. Values not only define the core of the group, they also define the boundary of the group, where the group becomes the non-group because of non-adherence to the particular values of the group (Tajfel, 1974). Values, therefore, are not only a cohesive force in society; many, possibly all, conflicts in society can be understood in terms of competing values. In complex modern societies the quest for common values, embodied in social institutions, is paramount. A second function of values is to embody the essential attributes and goals of the group. Values are not the same as attributes or goals, but they are clearly related. For example, values underlie goals; goals are more specific to a particular event or situation, but values transcend the particular event or situation to give continuity to the group beyond the immediate attainment of goals (Rokeach, 1973). A third function of values is to structure and give purpose to individual lives (Mandler, 1993; Barth, 1993). In modern societies in particular it is common to be multi-valued as a result of multiple belonging, the overlapping of different interests, commitments and loyalties. It is paradoxically both a condition and an outcome of open societies that such multiple belonging occurs; it is one of the guarantees that society does not fracture along narrow monocultural lines, defined by religion or ethnicity (Huntington, 1993, 1996).

The transmission of values is based on the twin concepts of invocation and evocation as a way of understanding the mode of existence and propagation of values in a community and of the genesis and maintenance of the community. Invocation, based on the idea of value as a symbolic type of entity, is the ritualistic utterance of the value sacred to the group, with the purpose of reinforcing their commitment to both. While this may seem too overtly couched in religious terminology, the contention is that values actually take on aspects of the sacred (Eliade, 1957), which is most explicitly demonstrated in religion, but is actually part of all aspects of human life and experienced by everyone. Evocation can be thought of as the effect that invocation has on the listener, that of opening up a realm of experience associated with the value, referred to as the moral universe of the value, but that moral universe most readily conflated with the immanent community and its obligations; for this reason ‘evocation of the moral universe of the value’ and ‘evocation of the moral community’ are essentially identical. Participation in the moral universe of the value is a grounded existential certainty and sense of belonging that Eliade (1957, p.21) refers to as the experience of the sacred, as ‘a fixed point, a centre…equivalent to the creation of the world’.

The theory outlined here is a deductive argument derived from a consideration of the meaning of value as that has been analysed in terms of phenomenological and semiotic categories. Its extension into a consideration of the function of values, and particularly the transmission of values, is only partly developed. In the following section this theoretical picture is filled out and refined by empirical data derived from field research in actual schools, as mentioned above, developing an understanding, in particular, of how values are transmitted in real-world institutional contexts. The deductive theory plays a role in this process: the concept of value informs in particular the analytic methods used, functioning as what Blumer (1954) referred to as a sensitising concept.

Empirical research-based theory of institutional value transmission

The field research was carried out in three secondary schools, with contrasting forms of governance: a faith school, an independent school and a community school (total number of participants 150). A two-tier qualitative approach, having both an inductive, theory-generating phase of data capture and analysis, and a deductive, hypothesis-led evaluative phase, was used. The inductive phase used a multiple case study format and cross-case analysis, providing data for analysis and for testing the hypotheses in the deductive phase. The case studies were each modelled on three structural aspects: an authority hierarchy; an interiority/exteriority duality in the institutional lived-experience; and a system hierarchy. Multiple data collection and analytic methods were employed in each case study, in order to build up a complex snapshot of the transmission of values in each school. Only the findings of the research are reported here. The source for details of the research is given in the references (Trubshaw, 2014).

In any consideration of values transmission in schools the central relationship has to be between teacher and pupil, which is the institutional nexus between the generations in terms of behavioural modelling, socialisation and enculturation, as well as the more mundane and well-understood conduit of information transmission (Parsons, 1961). (The two aspects are not different at one level, as values are, as explained above, in some respects just another form of information). As this theory deals with institutional transmission, rather just interpersonal transmission, though, on one side it must deal with the power relationships within the school, and even beyond the school in the influence of national policy-making and local authority implementation, whereby the values agenda – if, indeed, there is such a coherent entity – is set, and on the other the moral agency and developing moral cognition of the individual pupil subject to any attempts at values education.

The model for institutional value transmission arrived at through this research consists of four conceptual categories – institutional value permeation, institutional authority, resistance to institutional authority and transformative experience – which is best thought of as the interaction between two partial models: a permeation-authority model of institutional inculcation and a resistance-transformation model of moral autonomy. Each of the conceptual categories will be explained over a number of sub-sections, drawing on theoretical concepts derived from the data, illustrative examples from the field, the hypothetical model and the academic literature of values education and social transmission.

The institutional permeation of values

Permeation as the name implies is the extent to which a particular value has been identified throughout an institution, specifically at all identified levels and each demographic sector. In the field research these were identified as the three main levels of each school: the official, the pedagogical and the learner as represented by data from documents and interview (Head), classroom observation and field notes (teacher report/feedback sessions), and pupil survey and focus group, respectively. Permeation, it should be pointed out, is not the same as transmission. First, it would be impossible to establish causality of any sort without a longitudinal study far beyond the scope of the research undertaken. Secondly, institutions like schools are highly permeable to multiple influences and the espousal of a value is not necessarily indicative of its acquisition within its confines. What the analysis attempted to discover is the degree of commonality of experience within the lived world of the institution, the recognition of common semiotic structures which carry the value meanings, and the link between these semiotic structures and the strategies for values education (Downey and Kelly, 1978; Plunkett, 1990) that exist at the official level, however informally those are formulated. Through the cross-case analysis, a core of values that seemed to permeate the institutions investigated had been established. This was only indicative of a snapshot view of the schools, though it was verified in principle in report/feedback meetings. The point is not to argue for absolute veracity, but for theoretical plausibility on the basis of methodological reliability.

In a consideration of the hegemony of ideology in society and schooling in particular, Apple (1979, p.22) makes use of the term ‘permeate’ (in a somewhat pleonastic manner) to describe a state of ‘saturation’. The concept of permeation has been taken up to describe the extent of transmission flow though the institute, the extent to which values are transmitted through the institutional structure and recognised by the erstwhile recipients of values education. That such a flow occurs seems to be taken for granted by the schools: ‘In our mission statement we talk about everyone being treated with dignity and respect…that everyone should be treated as of equal worth…Saying it and doing it at times is difficult…But I think it does permeate through’. It should be pointed out that the use of the term ‘permeate’ in this quotation, which includes the idea of acceptance, does not quite correspond with its use here, where it means solely ubiquity.

Permeation can then be thought of as a conceptual field in which, however tenuously, there is common awareness of the preferred values of the institution transmitted either directly through verbal indication or indirectly though suggestion. As outlined in part 1 this communication of value concepts is not the transmission of values in the sense of acquisition but only the possibility for  conceptual grasp, that is, the ‘awareness stage’ of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Schönpflug’s (2001b) two-stage process of ‘awareness’ and ‘acceptance’. The analysed research data gave a snapshot of the state of permeation and established that common values are found at all levels of the schools. Moreover the surveys established that there are significant levels of pupil awareness of the schools’ attempts to teach certain values and attitudes.

In this context, it is necessary to evaluate the two-stage process of ‘awareness’ and ‘acceptance’. First, these have to be considered stages in transmission and not a mechanism for transmission, certainly not in the sense of ‘mechanism’, understood as a causal explanation. Secondly, Schönpflug’s (ibid) two stages are of limited utility for grasping institutional transmission; they are appropriate in interpersonal transmission, but within an institution even if acceptance of a certain value can be shown, unless it can also be shown that inculcation, awareness and acceptance form a causal line within the institution, to speak of institutional transmission is not permissible. Establishing permeation is easier: indications of student awareness of being taught and of staff awareness of the ethos, both of which were evidenced in the data, are enough. Permeation means simply that there is a value discourse occurring in every sector of the institute, in this case at every one of the three levels of the schools. But while there might be institutional awareness, it requires something more to create the conditions for acceptance, or ‘acquisition’, the preferred term here.

Transmission and the institutional structure of authority

Permeation, as just noted, takes place as easily as people communicate, either informally through casual interaction, or formally as in the teacher-pupil interaction or in official documents and publications circulated through the school. Values are embedded in such modes of communication either consciously or unconsciously and therefore reach to every part of the school. However, to move to the stage of acquisition requires a very different process. This process involves the authority structure of the school.

To understand why this is so, it is necessary to go back to the basic theory outlined above, in which value has a dual structure. One is its external aspect of simply being a conceptual word, easily communicated and assimilated. However, this is not the whole or the essential nature of a value, which lies in its internal aspect of being a shared experience of the moral force of the value. For this aspect of the value to be acquired three things must happen: a communal context must exist; the value must be explained or modelled in some way; and the intended recipient as a moral agent in their own right must move to acceptance. The first two imply the existence of a source of authority. Each of these will be dealt with separately; this section will deal with the first two, under four sub-sections: a) invocation and evocation, the processes by which the community of the moral force of the institutional values (or ‘moral community’) is established; b) power and control, as aspects of authority; c) institutional authority structures, at the administrative and pedagogical level; and d) the value cycle, the self-sustaining interface between permeation and authority in the institutional ethos.

a. Invocation and evocation

The concept of invocation, explained above, is the clear link between the permeation of the institutional structure with value concepts and the beginnings of the process of the institutional inculcation of the values of the institution’s ethos. In invocation, though, the function of the value term switches from conceptual to symbolic and the particular institutional values deemed significant assume a sacred dimension and collective binding force in the institutional discourse and pedagogy. Within the classroom that is going to be supplied by the teacher’s use of a value-term in a meaningful context (Hawkes, 2010), perhaps supplying examples, in this way, more than just by definitional precision or extension, deepening the understanding of the term, and hopefully by being an example of that value and modelling that value in the behaviour they demonstrate to the pupils in the class and others. There was evidence of this type of discourse in each of the schools studied in the field research; sometimes it did in an explicit way relate to the religious tradition of the school in question, but values were implicit in secular concerns, activities and policies as well, such as the concern for inclusion, and after Eliade (1957) I have interpreted the sacred broadly as that which is existentially foundational.

According to the theory, as shared experience values have a communal aspect, the creation or maintenance of which is referred to as the ‘evocation of the moral community’. ‘The moral community’ is an abbreviation of – or better thought of as – ‘the community of the moral force of the value’, as values are definitionally a form of the good and operate as such within a value-oriented grouping. In the research two types of distinct evocation were witnessed, referred to as intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic evocation identifies the moral community with the community defined by the addressed group itself; they become, as it were, the experimental laboratory for the practice of the value. Extrinsic evocation is more an exercise in remote empathy, where the group experience vicariously, communally, the circumstances of others in a value-laden narrative.

Logically, evocation must follow invocation, but the precursor for both within an institution is that the actual physical group must exist in which inculcation of the value can occur. Evocation requires the group to be transformed into the moral community, but it is not yet the moral community. In a similar manner, invocation requires the as-if modelling of invocation, even though the value has not yet been acquired by the group. Where there is clearly some gap between the theory and the reality, both evocation and invocation can be thought of as principles for action, or activation principles, rather than as straightforward descriptions of what happens. In both the cases of evocation and invocation the issue of authority arises: the authority of the school to organise young people into classes for the purpose of learning and specifically for the transmission of values; and the authority of the teacher to stand in front of a class of morally autonomous individuals and hold the attention of the class and undertake pedagogy in order that they can acquire a particular value or values. In other words the authority of the school over the moral autonomy of the individual must be brought into play, and such institutional authority needs to be thoroughly examined.

b. Power and control

In part 2 of this essay, I considered three models of institutional transmission, that of Talcott Parsons’ view of the school class as a social system (Parsons, 1959), Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction through pedagogy (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977) and Basil Bernstein’s synthesis of linguistics and politics in a theory of educational transmission (Bernstein, 1975). Of the three, Bernstein has probably most shaped my views on institutional authority, power and control. While the definitions that I arrived at through analysing the data from the schools differed ultimately from those Bernstein employed, his use of ‘classification’ for a spatial boundary between curriculum subjects and ‘framework’ for the temporal rhythm of the syllabus, shaped my thinking on how control is realistically exercised in an institutional setting.

Power has a number of manifestations, but in this model of value transmission, only two functions which are of importance: one is to create roles that function to distribute power; the other is to licence control. It is in the first of these functions of the role that power reveals its capacity to give rise to a self-replicating hierarchy, though one of vertically diminishing power. All power is symbolic and the appointment of someone to a role is a secular anointing accompanied by the symbolic trappings, such as the certificate, the office and the desk, for example. In developed economies appointments to important or professional posts – such as a teacher – are made on the basis of having met certain formal requirements that demonstrate sufficient skill to carry out the role. Once conferred, a role then gives the appointee the right in turn to confer power. A role, though, does more than just confer power; it also limits it through regulation (legal, organisational and ethical). Power takes two forms, that of empowerment and disempowerment. The role both empowers and disempowers (although, it can be seen in context that the role only disempowers by empowering in the first place; therefore, empowerment and disempowerment are relative) and by empowerment confers the power to empower and disempower in turn, though the nature of the conferred empowerment and disempowerment may be curtailed by the limitations of the role. Whether and to what extent limited, however, the power to employ empowering and disempowering methods, known collectively as ‘power distribution’, to alter the dynamics of a system such as a classroom, is fundamental to a role and one of the four areas of control conceded to a role in an institution. It seems that this power – the power to distribute power – is reproduced throughout the hierarchy, and is not a form of control which is a feature of personal charisma. Power distribution is not a creative shaping force as control is; it is essentially a reproduction of the forms of power being transmitted through the hierarchy, embodied in the assigned role. As discussed above, the role empowers through a certain space for action – a space in which charismatic control can be exercised – but also disempowers by placing limits on that space and curtailing the freedom to act by imposing mandatory requirements and responsibilities, prohibitions and taboos. Although the exercise of power distribution may appear to be undertaken spontaneously at each level, in reality the freedoms and limits, say, employed by a teacher in a classroom, are determined higher up the hierarchy and manifest in the legal and bureaucratic burdens that accompany the role.

The exact relationship between power and control is complex, because control also involves the use of coercive force, if not physical force in these times at least some form of ‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977; Foucault, 1979). Happily, such considerations lie outside the scope of this theory; in regards to the transmission of values, coercive force would be entirely unproductive. The forms of control that are of interest lie in a form of authority that transcends the role, which could be referred to as ‘character’, ‘personal magnetism’ or ‘charisma’, and for which the role is either unnecessary or necessary but not sufficient. (The latter seems intrinsically more realistic; even if an individual has personal magnetism, unless they have the authority to stand in a role they cannot exercise this control in a formal setting.) Power creates the context in which control can be exercised and, in that sense, unleashes it, but it is not the origin. Unlike power, which is conferred and hierarchical, control is either innate or learned and is unique to the individual.

c. The institutional expression of authority structures

At the whole school level there is an axis of authority (the authority for the school to exist, authorisation to administer education and recruit teachers, and mandatory requirement for the running of a modern school including the contents of education and pedagogies) which acts as the basis for three areas of local control relevant to values transmission: the internal structuring of the school, both in terms of its architecture and its management structures, and the limits of the school’s writ, which collectively are referred to as the bounding of space; the organisation of the syllabus into a timetabled curriculum, and the other aspects of school life into a set of routines, called collectively the periodisation of time; and overseeing a system for the permeation of values throughout the school, including strategic planning, signing, signposting and signage (semiotic marking), broadcasting and the cultivation of the school ethos, collectively known as the symbolisation of value concepts.

At the classroom level the axis of authority is manifested in the role of the teacher, which reproduces the mandated power distribution of the higher authority. So, for example, the teacher has the authority to empower and disempower students but only within the parameters mandated by the school board (or increasingly by the government). The role is the basis of the teacher’s control that they are able to exercise in the class, but only in the sense that it legitimises their position; it does not constitute it, however. Control is a manifestation of the personal charisma of the teacher, which can be either innate or learned. While this charisma (as the name suggests) may in some sense be an ineffable quality, it has tangible dimensions through which control is exerted: as the shaping and structuring of space (physical, social and behavioural) through creating boundaries; as the rhythmic structuring of time (through rhetorical devices, lesson planning and the continuity of contact with the student body) referred to as periodicity; and as the shaping and manipulation of images through the spoken and written word and through performative acts, known as symbolisation. The relationships between these concepts are summarised in the table below.

Untitled

At the level of abstraction given above, the structural similarities between the two levels (whole school and classroom) and their point for point correspondence become clear. Evidence was gathered in the case studies that these attributes of power and control are ubiquitous throughout the institutional hierarchy; power distribution, though, is reproduced directly and hierarchically, whereas the other aspects of control – boundary, periodicity and symbolism – emerge spontaneously. The nexus between the two levels of transmission occurs (potentially) at several points: a direct link, as mentioned, in terms of authoritative axis and role, although this plays no decisive part in transmission but rather ensures the stability and continuity of the institutional structure; the critical nexus occurs in the area of pedagogical control, as teachers participate in and build on the institutional strategy for their own classroom strategy, appropriate the institutional semiosis, suitably adapted for their own classroom pedagogy, and both draw upon and contribute to the school ethos.

d. The value cycle

Up to this point permeation and control have been discussed in isolation, as if these processes or states were unrelated to each other. On the route to value acquisition, though, in the process of initiating and maintaining institutional value awareness, they are intimately related. As discussed above, control manifests itself through the persuasive manipulation of language, patterning time (periodicity), space (boundary) and image (symbolisation), in effect to create a controlled environment and conscious state in which individuals can be empowered or disempowered.

In the cross-case analysis of observational data from the field a causal relationship was identified that could be simplified to four categories: authority (power and control), strategy, sign, and participation. This represents the interface between the structure of institutional permeation and the structure of institutional authority. Teacher classroom strategy in the transmission of values, as previously mentioned, draws upon the institutional repository of the ethos and other sources of values and projects the message through a semiotic display in the classroom combining signs for control and embedded signs for a value, this pathway from strategy to sign being the process of invocation. The signs now permeate the consciousness of the pupils empowered and tasked to participate in the moral universe of the value. This pathway from sign to participation is the process of evocation. Participation in the moral universe of the value is also, for reasons already discussed at length, participation in the moral community, where the ‘sense of community’ is experienced. This leads naturally to an intensification of participation through value-based strategic action and semiosis at every level of the institution. The completion of the cycle from participation back to strategy equates to acquisition. At each stage of this cycle charismatic control is exercised; through the distribution of power pupils can exercise a measure of control over themselves and one another in maintaining a stable, value centred community. This process is shown in the following figure, where P = power, R = role, CC = charismatic control, St = strategy, in = invocation, Si = sign, ev = evocation, Pa = participation and ac = acquisition.

value cycle

The value cycle

 

Resistance, moral autonomy and transformation

The explanation outlined up to this point offers a hegemonistic and deterministic view of value transmission, in terms of permeation and authority. It describes the mechanism of value transmission from the inculcatory perspective of the institution and the teacher, but has not considered from the acquisitive perspective the recipient, the pupils, as autonomous moral agents (Grusec and Goodnow, 1994; Barni et al., 2011). To the extent that it has considered them, they have been viewed as blank canvases and as output, albeit the output from a rather more sophisticated process than that considered in many theories of values education. What has not been explained is the trigger to value acquisition; for inculcation or the attempt to inculcate is often met by resistance and for those cases something must ameliorate that resistance. This final part of the outline of a model of institutional values transmission will look at the nature of resistance and the transformation that needs to take place for values to be acquired within an institutional setting.

Resistance takes on different forms varying in intensity, from questioning to outright rebellion. Cases of the latter were only encountered in the literature (e.g. Willis, 1977); the cases from the research field were limited to a range between questioning and robust criticism. It would be wrong to think, though, that resistance is either limited to students or necessarily an expression of antisocial tendencies. The data exhibits examples of resistance across the institutional structure and towards varying targets: criticism of government policies by head teachers, criticism of teachers and head teachers by pupils, some criticism of teachers by other teachers, implied conflicts over policies, criticism of local authorities, other schools and other agencies by head teachers, and criticisms of sixth formers by younger pupils.

When individuals encounter the boundaries established by rules and regulations and limitations on their freedom they usually resist to some degree, either actively or passively (Brehm, 1966). In this state of resistance it is impossible to acquire the values promulgated by the institution, which raises a dilemma for the institution: it cannot relinquish the principles that bound the form of life (Pring, 1986) that the institution embodies, for in this case the institution would lose its identity and its raison d’être; neither can it simply reaffirm its principles, nor affirm them more vociferously, for this is only likely to strengthen the resistance. In order to seek the resolution of this dilemma it is first necessary to understand the nature of resistance in greater depth.

What is common to the examples of resistance given above is the reaction of moral agency to the perception that authority is encroaching on the space in which it exercises moral autonomy, something explicitly voiced in the research data. What can overcome that resistance is the calculation that a benefit is to be had by trading a degree of moral autonomy for something that authority has to offer; that is the moral community, evidence for which was encountered in the field. Therefore, resistance should not be viewed as something pathological, but as an intrinsic psychic mechanism for the protection of moral integrity, which is, nevertheless, at the same time, negotiable. From the perspective of authority the process of transmitter inculcation/recipient acquisition can only be completed through overcoming this resistance; from the individual acquirer’s perspective resistance is an asset which creates the possibility of testing the integrity of the moral community before acquiescing to the merging of their moral identity with the collective. In our complex and relatively open social world individuals rarely become identified with a single form of life, but enjoy multiple identification and belonging. But for each belonging there is a concession of moral autonomy. Objectively, from a neutral perspective, we can speak of the necessity for a transformative experience. Many things can trigger that transformative experience, but to be meaningful to the idea of institutional transmission they should be institutionally contextualised, i.e. things that occur or are witnessed within the school.

In the deductive theory the nature of value was analysed and exposed as a conceptualised shared experience. It seems logical, therefore, that a transformative experience within an institutional context must underlie the transformation from resistance to the acquisition of a value or values. The evidence from schools and the data collected in this research is circumstantial but suggestive of a typology: the acquisition of values is always accompanied by a turning inward. Indeed the conceptual aspect of values logically requires that acquisition should be accompanied by a more reflective attitude. I have already suggested above that this inward turn is accomplished through a process of negotiation between moral autonomy and belonging to the moral community. It is ultimately to find in the community something sufficiently compelling and attractive that the boundary, the encroachment of authority on moral autonomy, becomes invisible or irrelevant. It could be something explicitly inward, such as spirituality, but also a pride in the school or the tradition of the school, or learning to take responsibility for others, and again there were examples of all these in the data.

These things describe the nature of acquisitive transformation, but not ultimately why it occurs, what triggers the transformation that allows the acquisition of values within an institution. The reasons may ultimately be ineffable and idiosyncratic, yet a common phenomenon appears in two anecdotes from the field. It is difficult to put one’s finger on it exactly, but I have decided to refer to it as ‘the slipping of the mask’. The pupils in one of my focus groups told me, almost in hushed tones, of their admiration for the former Head, who had spent an entire break time with one of them, ‘sharing a bag of crisps and talking about TV and stuff’ and on another occasion had participated in a snowball fight. What is not significant here are the actions themselves, which are mundane, but the dissonance between the mask of authority and the humanity beneath. A similar dissonance, on an institutional as well as a personal level, occurred between the hierarchical, tradition-bound structures of an independent boarding school and the glimpses of warm communal life. During an interview, the Chaplain related his amazement at the care shown by a housemaster to his charges, deeply grounded in intimate and detailed knowledge of their likes, dislikes and background, something that will probably have as lasting an impression on those pupils as it obviously has had on the Chaplain. As Heidegger (1962, p.243), quoting an ancient Roman fable, reminds us, ‘Care’ is ‘that to which human [Being] belongs ‘for its lifetime’’.

There is one final aspect of transformation that needs to be explored, which is replication. The essence of values is in a shared experience. Therefore, to acquire a value is to acquire the desire to share the value, both as a way to reinforce the negotiated decision involved in transformation and to extend the moral community. The basis of this concept is deductive reasoning from the nature of value and the symmetry of the model of permeation-authority, outlined in the previous section, and illustrated in the diagram of the value cycle, which entails a new cycle of strategy, sign and participation. Nevertheless, evidence from the data – though limited at this point in time – supports this contention; in one case study pupils spontaneously affirmed values of inclusion permeating through the institution structure from the official levels to classroom pedagogy, and there is circumstantial support for this phenomenon in other cases. Replication links the phenomena of resistance and transformation to those of permeation and authority, by completing the link between participation and strategy. Participation is the end result of the process of transmission, but also stands at the head of a new cycle of transmission. In real contexts this recursive structure is likely to be curtailed by the limited nature of the institution and the downward diffusion of power.

Conclusion

Comparison with models of values education and models of value transmission

Because the model I have presented takes a holistic and integrative view of values transmission, it bears some similarities to other holistic views in the literature. For example, Downey and Kelly (1978) and Plunkett (1990, pp.128-9) put forward similar ideas of values education being approached from one of four possible avenues: through a specialised curriculum, through a broadening of the existing curriculum, through pastoral care or through the school community. Hawkes (2010) has effectively taken all those approaches and combined them in pedagogy of values education. Hawkes, even more explicitly recommends the creation of a vocabulary of value terms to structure pedagogy, an approach essentially undertaken on a national level in Australia which has a list of desired values (Toomey, 2010), around which participating schools can design their curricular and pedagogic approaches. Seeing values education less from a curricular and more from a psychological perspective, Darom (2000) discerns four distinct aspects of education, the cognitive, affective, values and behaviour, which he believes should be integrated for education to have ‘a chance of truly touching young people’ (ibid, p.20). The model of values transmission touches on all those points but explores their theoretical connections, not only as interconnected parts of institutional structure but as aspects of a coherent mechanism.

That mechanism, which I have presented here, I would argue, builds upon, incorporates and goes beyond the mechanism put forward by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Schönpflug (2001a), a two-stage process of awareness and acceptance. Looking at transmission from an institutional perspective, it has had to take into account issues of authority and control which are constitutive of the deontology of institutions, aspects not made explicit in their theories (even if assumed), which make formal education possible and, as I have described, have a central role to play at the stage of awareness. Between awareness and acceptance there is also a hiatus, which they have not clearly addressed, that of resistance and transformation. This theory has provided a theoretical framework that bridges that gap. In some sense the theory of transmission explained here could also be said to extend Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman’s viral transmission model by incorporating the idea of the dual conceptual and symbolic functions of values, allowing them to switch from ‘diffusion’ mode to ‘infection’ mode.

The centrality of the human relationship to transmission

If there is any consensus over the frequently disputed area of values and values education it is the centrality of the human relationship and the quality of that relationship in the transmission of values. As Schönpflug reminds us (2001b, p.132), the contents of transmission are ‘particularly sensitive to the channel’ of transmission, which I interpret to mean that for the recipient of any form of information, and particularly with the case of values, which also need to be activated in the recipient, who the transmitter is, in terms of the perception of the transmitter by the recipient, is vitally important. From a negative perspective, in cases from the schools studied where teachers were not held in high regard, this had a negative impact on academic performance; and in all these cases the cause of the complaint was not their competence as teachers, which in all but a small minority would be taken as given, but their lack of warmth, remoteness or unpredictability. Research invariably backs this observation up. There is a broad area of agreement with various psychological and philosophical views that the quality of relationships is central to the idea of transmission. For Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) the relationship between the teacher (transmitter) and the taught (recipient) is a key condition of transmission. Although the focus of studies on values transmission has been on the parent child relationship, shifted into an institutional context, all of that which has been predicated of relationships in intergenerational transmission is equally true of the teacher-pupil relationship. For Schönpflug it is (2001a) that is ‘an empathetic style’; for Euler et al. (2001) it is ‘emotional closeness between the generations’; for Barni et al. (2011) it is the ‘relationship’ among the parents and the ‘consistency’ of the value message that is received, as well as the ‘closeness’ of the relationship. These all fit into a pattern of successful parenting, which most now agree is authoritative (Steinberg, et al., 1989), rather than authoritarian or permissive. This also seems a fitting description of the relationship that ought to exist between teachers and their pupils in the context of education in general, but specifically in the context of transmitting values. An ‘authoritative style’ seems a fitting description of the combination of authority and humanity of key figures that I discovered in the data from the schools and characterised as ‘the slipping of the mask’, which I concluded was fundamental to a contextual transformative experience en route to the acceptance of institutional values.

References

Apple, M. W. (1979). Ideology and curriculum. London: Routledge.

Barni, D., Ranieri, S., Scabini, E. and Rosnati, R. (2011). Value transmission in the family: Do adolescents accept the values their parents want to transmit? Journal of Moral Education, vol. 40, no. 1, pp.105-121.

Barth, F. (1993). Are values real? The enigma of naturalism. In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 31-46.

Bernstein, B. (1975). Class, codes and control, volume 3: Towards a theory of educational transmissions. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.

Blumer, H. (1954). What is wrong with social theory? American Sociological Review, vol. 19, pp. 3-10.

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.-C. (1977). Reproduction in education, society and culture. (Trans. R. Nice). London: Sage Publications.

Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. (s. l.): Academic Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. and M. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Darom, D. (2000). Humanistic values education: Personal, interpersonal, social and political dimensions. In M. Leicester, C. Modgil and S. Modgil (Eds.), Education, culture and values, volume vi: Politics, education and citizenship. London: Falmer Press, pp. 24-40.

Downey, M. and Kelly, A. V. (1978). Moral education: Theory and practice. London: Harper and Row.

Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Foucault (1979). Discipline and punishment. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Grusec, J. E. and Goodnow, J. J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology, vol. 30, pp. 4-19.

Habermas, J. (1984). Theory of communicative action, volume one: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Hawkes, N. (2010). Values education and the National Curriculum in England. In Lovat, T. et al. (Eds.), International research handbook on values education and student wellbeing. London: Springer, pp. 225-238.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (Trans. by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Huntington, S. P. (1993). The clash of civilizations. Foreign Affairs, vol 72, no 3.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mandler, G. (1993). Approaches to a psychology of values. In M. Hechter et al. (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 229-258.

Parsons, T. (1959). The school class as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 297-318.

Plunkett, D. (1990). Secular and spiritual values: Grounds for hope in education. London and New York: Routledge.

Pring, R. (1986). Aims, problems and curriculum contexts. In Tomlinson and Quinton (Eds.), Values across the curriculum. London: Falmer, pp. 181-194.

Schönpflug, U. (2001a). Intergenerational transmission of values: The role of transmission belts. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 174–185.

Schönpflug, U. (2001b). Introduction. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 131-134.

Steinberg, L., Elmen, J. D. and Mounts, N. S. (1989). Authoritative parenting, psychosocial maturity and academic success among adolescents.Child Development, vol. 60, no. 6

Toomey, R. (2010). Values education instructional scaffolding and student wellbeing. In Lovat, T. et al (Eds.), International research handbook on values education and student wellbeing. London: Springer, pp. 19-36.

Trubshaw, D. (2014). Modelling institutional values transmission though a comparative case study of three schools (doctoral thesis). University of Derby. Available at: http://derby.openrepository.com/derby/handle/10545/337247; http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.633680

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labour. Farnborough, UK: Saxon House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Banality of Madness

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad                                                              (Longfellow, The Masque of Pandora)

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce                                                              (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

 

For the modern world that does not believe in evil, but only in blame and victimhood, the currents of the present must augur an existential crisis; for we lack the language and even the thought to encompass the monstrous nature of events such as that which took place in Nice on Thursday evening. Families out enjoying a celebration are now the targets in an asymmetric war in which the mundane becomes the source of terror and mayhem, and in which fellow citizens become a proxy army infected as by some alien virus.

Without mitigating in any sense the awfulness for those involved, there are reassurances in all of this. It becomes clear that this has little to do with Islam, a religion with a long and noble spiritual history, so, perhaps after a period of doubt, we can embrace our Muslim neighbours and compatriots as fellow sufferers and accept their condemnation at face value and not as merely self-serving platitudes. For finally, the heart of IS is revealed not as piety but as pure evil, the offspring of madness and criminality. As their so-called caliphate is losing ground in Syria and Iraq, their remaining currency is only death, indiscriminate death to as many people as possible. For in their logic everyone is an infidel; whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist or of no religion, if living in the lands outside the caliphate or if not at war with their own country.

As the shock of repeated tragedies wears down our vocabulary of outrage and horror until they become clichéd, we risk not indifference or terror, but levity. The spectacular insanity of Nice, in betraying our expectations of reason, humanity, compassion and mercy, cannot be encompassed by the rational mind, but only by something like absurdist theatre. Cartoonists understand this well and frequently tread the fine line between humour and offense. There is, of course, an antidote to this: as the ghost of Marley reminds Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, mankind is our business and the common welfare.

The indiscriminate nature of such acts means we are all potential targets, but there is something comforting at the same time in knowing that this madness has taken on the whole world as its enemy and is unlikely to irrupt in our vicinity, or only as likely as anywhere else. We expect our government to take the necessary steps to protect the population, just as we would be wise to be more vigilant. We are going to have to live with this as the new reality for the foreseeable future, and factor in this risk as we do others in going about our daily lives. Otherwise, we should offer an empathetic Gallic shrug and get on with our business.

The Intransigence of the Absurd: the Discourses of Racial and Sexual Identity in ‘Identity Politics’

There has long been popular and scientific fascination with feral children, reared and cared for by animals and with no contact with human society, that behave like the species that they live among and, we assume, identify themselves as. Such behaviour is not limited to humans; there are many examples, particularly of domesticated animals, that are adopted by another species that come to assume some of the characteristics of that species. This suggests that what we call identity is a universal of higher intelligence and that it is fairly plastic.

Humans, though, as is often the case, test this theory to destruction. An American woman, Rachel Dolezal, was recently denounced for identifying herself as black and living as a black woman, when her parents were both white, yet men who declare themselves to be women, dress as women and even undergo gender reassignment surgery are increasingly celebrated and accepted on their own terms, such as the much-publicised Caitlyn Jenner. Those who do not react viscerally to this conjunction and implied equivalence may be as puzzled as I am; but even those who do should reflect why these two cases should be considered so different.

Something I read a few years ago struck me then – as it still does – as so outrageous that I struggle to convince myself that it was not an imagined memory rather than an actual one. It was a brief article in some sort of educational magazine, a serious article, not a spoof to the best of my knowledge. It stated, as proof of commitment to the principle of inclusivity, that a particular school was being kept open at night because one of the students, a girl – let us call her Samantha – was a vampire, and could only work at night. Putting to one side the issues of the veracity of memory, journalistic objectivity and the wisdom of local education authorities (their respective dysfunctions are legendary), the central issue is not whether Samantha was a vampire, because clearly she was not, but why some assertions have assumed the power of fact, when the only fact is the fact of assertion.

Throughout history people have always sought to establish and assert their identity, but this process is complex and its focus has shifted over historical time among the kaleidoscope of possible markers such as region, religion, wealth and education. However, the fundamentals of identity are always the same: a playing out of our twin desires for individual freedom, particularly that of expressing our individual difference, and belonging, in which we find and sustain our similarity with others. This process can occur at several levels, as part of our individuality derives from belonging to a hierarchy of in-groups, such as our specific family, neighbourhood, city, region and country, in distinction to a series of out-groups characterised by otherness. Importantly, the precise definition of the other – as outcast, rebel, stranger, outlaw, scapegoat or victim – has a role in our self-definition as not-other.

On the other hand, sometimes our individuality is itself a form of self-imposed otherness, where we alienate ourselves from the mass to which we implicitly belong, in an act of self-exclusion that arouses, at the best, a sneaking reflexive admiration for the outsider saviour – oneself – or, at the worst, self-pity for the identification of oneself as victim. Paradoxically, this self identification can become the basis for delusional group identity, in which there is a curious but toxic admixture of feelings of inferiority and superiority.

On one level it is strange that race is such a sensitive issue. After all, the boundaries of race are rather fluid, and science has never managed to establish a consistent or agreed definition. There are genetically homogenous groups such as Icelanders, Ashkenazi Jews and Japanese, but this is due to geographic and cultural isolation, and these pools do not correspond to what we normally call race, but the more limited concept of ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are actually complex cultural artefacts, and this is no more so than when we talk about the labels ‘black’ and ‘white’. From an evolutionary perspective the terms are nonsense; the only people who perhaps have the right to a generic and widespread genetic distinction are aboriginal Africans, but not because they are black in colour – the !Kung bushmen of Namibia, for example, have a reddish skin – but because they do not have the 1-4% of Neanderthal genes that the rest of mankind has inherited from prehistoric interbreeding between the two  human species. Mixing of peoples in the West, particularly in the Americas, means that genetic makeup and skin colour is on a spectrum of continuous variation; a surprising number of white Americans have some black ancestry.

Nonetheless, we can discern that the problematic nature of race does not reside in biology but in history, and that what we call black culture is really a shared history, a history that includes slavery, prejudice, apartheid, persecution, ridicule, drudgery and social deprivation, but also the enormous personal, communal and political forces that have forged great social and cultural gains from such a disadvantageous position. What we see, in fact, is a historically subjugated part of a heterogeneous population seeking common cause to overturn past injustices, rather than a distinct and homogenous entity. But in identity politics the narrative has assumed the status of a categorical assertion, wherein being ‘black’ is recognised as a necessary and sufficient condition for identifying oneself as part of a wronged community, which has become, perversely if understandably, a badge of honour. In its most radical form it assumes that dangerous polarisation of simultaneous inferiority and superiority referred to above, in which the mantle of the suffering victim and outsider can symbolically be asserted, not on the basis of experience necessarily (although many young black men can testify to being the subject of police harassment, known as ‘arrested for being black’), but simply on the basis of the colour of one’s skin. This was Rachel Dolezal’s perceived moral transgression: she assumed a badge of honour to which she was not entitled.

Interestingly, the older generation of radical feminists, such as Germaine Greer, apply much the same criterion of exception to transsexual women, as pretend women who have no right to assume the innate moral superiority of real women achieved through resistance to male domination. Now they find themselves sidelined and – in a recent neologism – ‘no-platformed’ by the younger generation of activists. This disparity in the reception of the trans-racial and the transsexual is hard to explain on the surface. It may be partly due to the great strides that have been made in women’s equality in the last generation, which have defanged the political radicalism of the earlier feminism, whereas racial equality lags behind, but I do not find this a persuasive answer.

I believe that underlying  this phenomenon is something that we could call the intransigence of the absurd, that is the assertion of something for which there is no scientific evidence, but which must be uncompromisingly defended by rhetoric and the layering of myth, most forcefully, naturally, by those who seek political leverage. A prototypical example of this is the assumed historical destiny and moral superiority of nationhood by nationalists of all stripes. The notion of race is one such absurdity, including that of being ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Asian’, which must be vociferously perpetuated by all those seeking to take advantage of individuals who need to ground their tenuous sense of self by ascribing identity or otherness to individuals who bear a passing similarity or difference to themselves, a notion, moreover that must then be imposed on those who wish to make no such distinctions.

The reception of transsexuals into the community of women is based on a different narrative logic. The status of male and female sexual identity is so firmly established in biological reality, that a man believing himself to be a woman (or vice-versa) and acting the part is a patent absurdity recognised as such by everyone. Therefore, the deception has a theatricality that is acknowledged on all sides, as it has been throughout history in many different cultures. There is a twist to this, however. There is no political leverage in mere acceptance of this theatre; therefore, human sexual differentiation has been mythologised in the notion of gender, a radicalised state of indifferance and a socio-political chimera that fuses two notions of moral transgression: that of non-acceptance of the myth; and that of the traditional boundaries of the sexes, which must be preserved in order to be wilfully flouted.

The exact sociological function of race and gender finally diverge. Race is about belonging and exclusion, while gender has become about inclusion and freedom, specifically the freedom to define one’s sexual identity. Both notions are part of the narrative of how we establish social identity in a complex world, and should be tolerated on that understanding. However, we should never lose sight of their fundamental absurdity in inverting reality. That absurdity correlates strongly with an intransigent defence of the absurd; having abandoned evidence, it is not too great a step to abandon reason, openness and a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints.

Asserting identity should be – as the word implies – about seeking universality above all, as a basis for accepting diversity. Identity politics does precisely the opposite. By repeatedly invoking historical injustices and incubating the fragmentation of human experience to create new forms of victimhood, it promotes belligerence as the essence of the shared social space, inclusion as a tool of exclusion, and the eternal past as the future.

(Note: the term ‘indifferance’, a play on Derrida’s concept of ‘differance’, denotes the prescribed ignoring of difference, distinction or differentiation, leading to moral indifference, rather than toleration, which recognises both difference and moral boundaries.)

 

Institutional Structure and Culture in the Transmission of Social Values

In the social sciences values have been considered largely a black box issue, at best subject to large-scale quantitative research (such as the American Values Survey). There have been few attempts to locate the function of values within social structures in social theory, and even fewer to have linked this function to the nature of values. In two earlier articles (posted 2015) I argued, based on phenomenological and semiotic analyses, that values have a dual modality, of interiority as shared experience and exteriority as linguistic marker, and also a dual functionality as symbol and information, these functionalities operative in ‘closed’ and ‘open’ social groupings, respectively, social forms that are largely interpenetrative in liberal societies. I also suggested that these functionalities are both operative in social transmission of values, embedding value discourse in everyday language disseminated through normal communicative channels, which is then ‘activated’ when values assume a more symbolic function in relatively closed contexts, such as political parties, businesses, government bodies, schools and religions.

In this article I want to extent this idea from the philosophy of value to social theory, by way of considering the ideas of a number of social researchers that can be broadly described as transmission theories. Its aim is to lead to a theory of institutional value transmission, in which values, institutional praxis and institutional structure are largely interdefinable. This article will be divided into three parts. In the first part I will look at the contribution to the idea of cultural transmission by a number of researchers and theorists in the field of evolutionary psychology and, in particular, those looking at inter-generational value transmission. In part two I will be considering sociological theories dealing with social transmission or aspects of, with a focus on education as one of the principal ways in which as societies we attempts to transmit values. The third part will be taken up with modelling a plausible mechanism for institutional value transmission, based on empirical research.

Part 1: Cultural and Inter-Generational Value Transmission

Although the concept of transmission is discussed in information theory, it is its biological dimensions that are of interest here. This is because although social theory has developed as an autonomous branch of knowledge, there is a growing understanding that the rationalistic view of social factors as entirely divorced from biologically-rooted motives is incorrect, and issues such as social transmission have to be understood primarily as modelled on and built upon genetics and kinship. Much of the recent research in this area, as a result, has been exploring evolutionary models of transmission and focussing on inter-generational relationships. I have divided the main part of the discussion of transmission into two parts, looking at some ideas about the evolutionary basis of transmission, and then the parameters and conditions of transmission. Parameters are the basic components and structures of transmission; conditions are various other factors associated with transmission, particularly the requirements for transmission to take place successfully. The parameters were laid down fairly early on in the 1980s and there has been little significant development since then. The subsequent research in the field has focused strongly on conditions.

The evolutionary basis of value transmission

As the areas that concern values, such as our own survival, social being, sexuality, culture and creativity, and spirituality are rooted in – though not necessarily defined by – our evolutionary past, it is to expected that any consideration of value transmission must also be rooted in our biology and our psychology. The relatively new fields of evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology attempt to understand human nature and behaviour in a holistic manner underpinned by Darwinian evolutionary theory (Buss, 2015), and one of the main areas they are concerned with is the origins of our moral sense and to what extent this is inherited through our genes and to what extent passed through a separate cultural inheritance.

Beginning in the 1970s a considerable body of work has amassed on the evolutionary basis of cultural transmission. One of the most prominent hypotheses is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, which claims that human nature and behaviour can best be understood as an amalgamation of genetic inheritance and cultural transmission (McElreath and Henrich, 2007). The main contributors to the field have been Lumsden and Wilson (1981), Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) who all developed mathematical models of how genetic and cultural factors can reinforce each other. I will look at the theory of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman in some detail as it has features of interest in seeking to understand institutional transmission. Slightly predating these, and far better known, Dawkins (1976) theory of memetic evolution (cultural transmission though ‘memes’, a cultural analogue of genes) is of less interest. Dawkins’ focus is on the logic of the meme as universal replicator, which implies that cultural reproduction is sui generis; there is little in the way of the social context necessary for understanding institutional transmission.

In more recent theories there has been a drift away from the dual inheritance orthodoxy towards a more monistic view that human moral behaviours arise through survival strategies determined in close kinship groups in the earlier stages of our biological and social evolution as a distinct species. One notable contribution to this trend is Haidt’s (2012) Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes that as humans we have visceral responses to a number of deep-seated ‘foundations’ or value-disvalue oppositions, six at present (although the final number is undetermined): care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. These are supposedly invariant across cultures, although some are emphasised more in some cultures than others, and there are individual and group preferences even within cultures.

Although theories like Haidt’s help us to understand the evolutionary foundations of our moral perceptions in groupish behaviour and the social values that have evolved in modern societies, they penetrate little to the core question considered in this article of the actual mechanism by which transmission takes place. That discussion has taken place in the research on cultural transmission and inter-generational value transmission. The rooting of social transmission firmly in evolutionary biology is, to the best of my knowledge, research still to be done.

Parameters and conditions of transmission

Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) developed a theory of cultural transmission based on an epidemiological model of viral diffusion. That model draws on four evolutionary factors (ibid, pp. 65-67) as the driving forces of evolutionary change, the two classical Darwinian notions of variation and selection and the later neo-Darwinian concepts of drift and migration. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman utilise the first two to create a basic typology of cultural change through the reproducibility of cultural knowledge, akin to genetic variation. As in epidemic spread, they identify three transmission routes (ibid, p. 54): vertical, from parent to offspring; horizontal, from peer to peer (non-related individuals of the same generation); and oblique, between non-related or distantly-related individuals of different generations, though Cavalli-Sforza (1993, p.312) later refined this concept of transmission routes adding ‘one to many’, typical of institutional structures such as schools, and ‘many to one’, referred to as ‘social group pressure’.

Schönpflug (2001b, p.132), clearly indebted to Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, but adapting and developing the ideas into the social-psychological arena, identifies four significant parameters of cultural transmission: the carriers of transmission, or transmitters – the people involved in the process of transmission; the contents of transmission, that which is transmitted, which are particularly sensitive to the channel; the mechanism of transmission, which is thought to include two stages – awareness and acceptance (cf. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981, p.62); and developmental windows, which can be genetically-based (e.g. language acquisition) or socially-based (e.g. compulsory schooling).

Within their model Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (ibid, pp.61-62) reckon there are four structural variables, ‘factors in transmission rules’: the relationship of teacher (transmitter) and taught (recipient); the age difference between transmitter and recipient (generation gap); the numerical relationship (ratio) of teacher to taught; and the degree of complexity of the society in which the transmission takes place. Schönpflug (2001a, p.174) considers the conditions, which he terms ‘transmission belts’, which favour cultural transmission taking place in a particular socio-economic and cultural context. They are primarily the age and educational level of the transmitter and receiver (‘personal characteristics’) and the marital relationship of the parents and the parenting style of the parents (‘family interaction variables’). Altogether ten conditions have been identified: degree of acceptance, quality of relationships, developmental windows, personal characteristics, perceptions, biases, common values, generation of values, numerical ratio, and social complexity. There is a degree of overlap, but they will be dealt with separately.

Degree of acceptance:  According to Cavalli-Sforza (1993) vertical transmission is more likely to result in variation in terms of the intergenerational value systems, whereas other routes, particularly the institutional route of ‘one to many’, are more likely to result in homogeneity of values. Barni et al. (2011) argue that there is a moderate degree of willingness among adolescents to accept their parents’ values. Also, after a period in which adolescents’ values diverge from their parents’, as they are asserting their identity, there is a tendency for the two generations’ values to become more similar (ibid).

Quality of relationships: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) state that the relationship of teacher (transmitter) and taught (recipient) is a key condition of transmission, while Schoenpflug (2001a) specifies the marital relationship of the parents and the parenting style of the parents. More effective cultural transmission takes place when there is a harmonious and constructive relationship between the parents (ibid), and less effective transmission in a dysfunctional relationship. Schönpflug’s research also suggests that empathetic parents are the most effective transmitters (ibid). Euler et al. (2001) add that two important related aspects of cultural transmission between generations are investment in the younger generation and emotional closeness between the generations. Barni et al. (2011) assert that acceptance is assisted when the parents themselves share the same values, and that there is a reciprocal relationship between closeness and acceptance of parental values; that is, this is not a relationship of simple causality, but a bi-directional relationship.

Developmental stage: According to Schönpflug (2001a, p.185) acquisition of values is differentiated according to age of the receiver/acquirer. Early adolescents are more open to collective values, but are less receptive as they reach later adolescence; however, in later adolescence they are more open (and more cognitively developed to receive) individualistic values, those that contribute to a ‘stimulating life’, a point that Barni et al. (2011) confirm.

Personal characteristics: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, and Schönpflug both assert the importance of personal characteristics; the former emphasise the age difference between transmitter and recipient (generation gap) and the latter adds the educational level of the transmitter and receiver.

Perceptions: In general, the values the parents wish to transmit are perceived by the younger generation to be more conservative, whereas the young are more open to new ideas (Barni et al., 2011).

Biases: Whitbeck and Gecas (1988) recognise that females have a slightly higher acceptance of parents values than males and that the mother-daughter bond in this respect is particularly strong, what they refer to as the ‘female lineage’ of value transmission.

Common values: According to Barni et al. (2011), some values seem to be almost universally shared between the generations, such as benevolence and independence of thought and action.

Generation of values: According to Grusec and Goodnow (1994) acquisition of values takes place through the assertion of moral autonomy; acceptance comes on the basis of self-generation. Barni et al. (2011) contest this view; they prefer the notion of self-other generation: the values we acquire are the result of our free choice, but this choice is not made in a vacuum; we tend to choose the values of those close to us in a familial setting.

The final two points are of particular relevance outside of the immediate family setting, in the broader social and institutional context:

Numerical ratio: The numerical relationship (ratio) of teacher to taught can also be a factor in how effective value transmission can be (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981). It is unclear here what conclusion they might have reached about this. The assumption is that they consider a smaller teacher-pupil ratio to be more effective; however, this might contradict the idea that ‘one to many’ transmission reproduces a more homogeneous set of values, referred to above.

Social complexity: The degree of complexity of the society in which the transmission takes place is considered to be a factor in value transmission(Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Whitbeck and Gecas, 1988); there is a recognition that multiple factors are at play in value socialisation, not only the parents, important as that influence is. Hashimzade and Della Giusta (2011) have modelled the relationship between the intergenerational values of immigrant families and the values of their schools, in order to determine the optimal outcomes. They have concluded that in a society of heterogeneous communities, better social outcomes are created when schools focus on inclusivity in order to avoid alienation. Attempts by schools to create homogeneity of values increases alienation and worsens social outcomes. If there is a gradual convergence of values between the immigrant community and the host society, there is a measured improvement in social and economic outcomes, initiated in part by higher educational outcomes.

Conclusion

I would expect that much of what has been studied in terms of intergenerational transmission of values would be of some relevance to transmission in institutions such as schools, particularly in terms of the key relationship between teacher and pupil, which while not commonly as close as that of parent and child, has some of the features of that relationship (Riley, 2010; Pianta, 1994; Bowlby, 1969), but also of some, though diminishing, relevance to other social organisations in which there are social bonds of authority and dependence. Clearly, though, on the basis of the research, transmission of values within institutions is going to be dependent upon a number of variables such as age and gender, personal relationship and the quality the institutional culture, education (both in terms of level achieved and receptivity to new ideas), cultural background, and even – apparently – which values are being transmitted.

There do seem to be two noticeable omissions. Although Schönpflug mentions the mechanism of transmission, which he (after Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman) states has two stages – awareness and acceptance – there is no attempt to describe or model this mechanism. The other is that values are not assigned any role in this process. My intuition is that these omissions are connected. As long as values are seen as a black box problem there is a limit to the extent that the transmission of values can be modelled.

Although the theories emerging from evolutionary psychology do provide relatively simple models of transmission, they are predominantly focused upon the interaction between transmitter and receiver and, therefore, in the larger social context they will be considered as part of the mechanism, i.e. an aspect of transmission rather than as a complete model. In the second part of this article I will turn to several other theories which address aspects of transmission and consider some theoretical models of social transmission.

References

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